13 Words that Don’t Mean What People Think They Mean


1. Olympics—You might think this word means, “event in which athletes from around the world compete in thrilling displays of flexibility, strength, acrobatics, and skill, with the overarching goal of promoting harmony and goodwill among the nations.” But you would be wrong. It really means, “addictive televised athletic event that will keep you up until midnight every night—eating doughnuts or some other junk food which will assure that you yourself will never qualify for the Olympics or look like the gods and goddesses competing on TV—and make you exhausted, unproductive, and basically useless for three weeks.”

2. “athalete”—I don’t know why, but many English speakers feel that the word athlete lacks a vowel between the H and the L, and so they add an A. This mysterious affliction has been known even to affect journalists at the Olympic Games.

3. “triathalon”/”triathalete”—See #2. People give in to the same temptation with the words triathlon and triathlete, pronouncing them “triathalon” and “triathalete.”

4. sick—If someone says, “When Gabby Douglas does her bar routine, she is just sick,” you might think that poor Gabby—so adorable she’s almost edible—is vomiting all over the uneven bars . . . but you would, according to modern slang, be mistaken. It means that Gabby Douglas flies like—well, some would say a squirrel, though I’d pick a more majestic animal—over the uneven bars, taking the world’s breath away.

5. albatross—I’ll give myself a hard time with this one.
Word-for-word conversation that happened in my house a few years ago:
My husband, aka Mr. Tall Dark & Handsome, exclaimed: “Wow! Tiger Woods just hit an albatross!”
Me, gasping in horror, picturing a gruesome Death By Golf Ball for an innocent bird: “Oh no!”
Mr. TDH: Hysterical laughter at my expense.

You might think, if you are a girl who doesn’t watch golf unless forced—and it appears that we will all be forced to watch it in the 2016 Olympic Games—that albatross is simply the name of a bird. But you would be wrong. Embarrassingly wrong. (In my defense, I was picturing that legendary moment in 1980s baseball when the pitcher hit a bird with a fastball, and the poor bird exploded in a feathery mess, right there in the air above home plate. It was horrifying.) Albatross, in a golfing context, means a score of three under par.

6. ironic—This is one of those words that is misused all of the time. We say things are ironic, when really they are inconvenient, or unfortunate, or just a serious disappointment. For example, we might say, “Isn’t it ironic that McKayla Maroney, aka The Best Vaulter of All Time, fell on her second vault and had to settle for a silver medal?” That’s not ironic, just heartbreaking. To give a non-Olympic example, remember the Alanis Morrissette song from the 1990s, “Isn’t It Ironic?” My English teacher had a cow over the misuse of ironic in that song. Really, that song should have been called, “Isn’t It a Bummer?” Rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic, just a supreme bummer, especially if you’ve got an outdoor wedding with no backup plan. (My favorite correct usage of ironic, by the way, is in You’ve Got Mail—the scene where Tom Hanks is on the boat with his dad, discussing his dad’s marital history. Pitch-perfect.)

7. apart—People often write “apart” when what they really mean is “a part.” The difference in meaning is—well, they are opposites. So if you say, “I am apart of the Missy Franklin and Other Tall Swimmers Fan Club,” you have actually just announced that you are not a member of this club. You are not a fan of Missy Franklin, aka the Smiling-est Swimmer of All Time (you heartless soul, you), nor do you root for other tall swimmers. But if you say, “I am a part of the Missy Franklin and Other Tall Swimmers Fan Club,” then you are a card-carrying member of this noble organization, and a defender of tall swimmers everywhere.

8. nauseous—Technically, nauseous means “inducing a feeling of nausea.” So when we say, “I’m nauseous when I watch synchronized swimming,” what we’re really saying is, “When I watch synchronized swimming, the expression on my face makes everyone around me want to vomit.” Which could be true, I suppose, but even if it were—is it wise to go around telling that to people? You’ll doom yourself to solitary Olympics-watching and junk-food-eating for the rest of the Games. The word we’re looking for is nauseated, as in, “Watching synchronized swimming makes me nauseated.”

9. literally—Literally means “in actual fact; this is really and truly what happened.” But we like to use this word just for dramatic emphasis, and in so doing we end up betraying the meaning of the word and robbing it of its power. For example, a doughnut-eating Olympics-watcher might turn to a fellow doughnut-eater and say, “I literally had a heart attack and died when the US women’s soccer team scored the winning goal over Canada in the final seconds of overtime.” To which Doughnut-Eater Number Two might respond, “Oh my goodness! Are you a god? You have risen from the dead—where is your house of worship?”

10. inflammable—In one of those weird English language quirks designed to torment non-native speakers, inflammable is not the opposite of flammable, as you would think. Believe it or not, the Olympic torch is both flammable and inflammable at the same time. Somehow—and you’ll have to take this up with the dictionary people if you have issues with it—inflammable actually just means flammable (capable of being set on fire). Go figure.

11. “laxadaisical”—I hear people say this all the time, and I’m sorry to tell you that it’s not a word. For example, they might say, “In the 2008 Olympics, Usain Bolt finished the one-hundred meter dash in a laxadaisical way, and irritated the stew out of every other sprinter in the whole world, plus not a few doughnut-eaters.” Lackadaisical is the word you’re looking for . . . and it is indeed a fantastic one, so definitely use it, minus the nonexistent X.

12. awesome—A fantastic word that has been rendered anemic by overuse. This word means “expressing or inspiring awe.” So what does awe mean? “An emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” Sacred and sublime—now those are Big Deal Concepts (think God, the powers of the universe—really big powers like that). I confess, I have occasionally been guilty of using awesome to describe such mundane things as dougnuts or Justin Beiber’s hair (okay, I’m kidding on the hair thing, but I do love a good chocolate-covered doughnut . . . anyway, you get the idea). I’m sorry, but contrary to popular prepubescent opinion, Justin Beiber’s hair is not a divine object worthy of worship. Henceforth, I plan to reserve this word only for things related to actual deity. Won’t you join me? I have to say . . . it might almost be okay to call Michael Phelps’s Olympic career awesome. If his career isn’t borderline sublime . . . well it’s close.

13. “on behalf of my team and myself”—Okay, so this is a phrase, not a word, but it’s a phrase you hear every coach of every team say at every thank you speech. They love to say, “I’d like to thank you all on behalf of my team and myself . . .” Beloved coaches of the world, there’s no need for complex pronoun gymnastics here. Just say, “My team and I want to thank you.” I won’t bore you with a technical explanation of how to use reflexive pronouns correctly, but . . . well, when in doubt, don’t use them. And now, on behalf of my blog and myself, I’d like to thank you for reading—oh, wait . . . you get the idea. Thanks for reading.

Author: Elizabeth Laing Thompson VIEW ALL AUTHORS POSTS

Elizabeth works from home as a writer, editor, diaper changer, baby snuggler, laundry slayer, not-so-gourmet chef, kid chauffeur, floor mopper, dog groomer, and tantrum tamer. She is always tired, but it's mostly the good kind.


  • Taliabrie August 7, 2012 at 1:33 am

    Ha ha… I am guilty of misusing half of these in the manner you describe, and the other half I’ve judged others for misusing. Excellent post. I’m going to buy you a doughnut next time I see you… in about 3 days!

    • Anonymous August 7, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      I’ve misused many of them myself . . . and I’ll take that doughnut!

  • Jeanie_shaw August 7, 2012 at 1:46 am

    Love this!!  It is awesome…Literally, I’m laughing so hard that I’m nauseous. I really feel apart of your life now. 
    🙂  This is why you are such a good editor.  I have a book I’m going to give you.  You’ll enjoy it. It’s called “The Great Typo Hunt.” See you soon.  

    • Anonymous August 7, 2012 at 9:52 pm

      Haha Jeanie, I love this! 🙂

  • Jlm72260 August 7, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Love love love this blog!

  • Katie Sawhill August 7, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    This post is ‘awesome,’ elizabeth! 😉 I’m with you on #5- My first thought was what on earth does golf have to do with the ancient mariner?? Thank you for bringing laughter to my morning! 

  • Sally September 25, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    love it. I love the olympic section. Recently read a gymnastic book that was pretty good.

  • Jonathan L November 6, 2013 at 5:51 am

    I can’t stand it when people say ‘literally’ when they mean ‘figuratively.’ And I have been using the word nauseous incorrectly my entire life.

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