Watch Out for “Word Weirdness” in Your Writing


I was reading a book the other day (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and came across the word nonplussed. But it didn’t make sense in the context it was used.

At least, I didn’t think it made sense. It’s not a word I normally use in everyday life or in writing, and I’m certainly no word purist, but I always thought I understood its definition.

I was wrong.

The English language after all, is a crazy, messed up thing. Sometimes I wonder how we’re able to use it for communication purposes at all.

Especially words and their meanings. Many words have evolved into a usage that means nearly the opposite of their true or original definition.

Nonplussed for example.

word weirdness writing blogging obi-wan
Obi-Wan is visibly nonplussed.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word nonplussed has been around since the 16th century, and has always been synonymous with “perplexed.”

Until relatively recently, that is. In the early 20th century, people — especially those in the U.S. — inexplicably began using it as almost an opposite of its true definition, that is, unimpressed or unconcerned.

While the definition of nonplussed as a state of being unconcerned remains incorrect, that hasn’t prevented some well-respected publications from using it that way.

word weirdness writing blogging alls write with the world


With language being as fluid as it is, perhaps this context will eventually become “correct.” Who knows?

Disinterested vs. Uninterested 

Another bewildering set of words is Disinterested and Uninterested. It appears the history of these two words is as baffling as the words themselves, with their respective definitions swapping back and forth.
word weirdness writing blogging ron swanson
Is Ron Swanson disinterested or uninterested?

Traditionally, uninterested has meant “not interested,” while disinterested has been synonymous with “impartial.” The confusion appears to have materialized due to the two meanings of the word interested: “having the attention engaged,” and the less common “having a stake in a given matter.”

Uninterested refers to the former, while disinterested refers to the latter, as in an impartial (disinterested) mediator, who has no bias in the outcome of an arbitration.

As with many other words, disinterested’s original definition is slowly changing to another one that is commonly used and accepted.

Flammable or Inflammable?

If those examples don’t make you nauseated (as opposed to nauseous, which, unless you enjoy making others ill, you probably want to refrain from), check out flammable and inflammable.

Flammable means easily ignited.

Here’s the messed up part: Inflammable also means easily ignited. This word was invented first, and is a derivative of the verb “inflame” (to catch fire). The confusion, of course, comes from the misinterpretation of “in” as the well-known negative or opposite prefix.

Word weirdness writing blogging

So inflammable literally means the opposite of what common grammar rules would dictate.

Speaking of literally

This word is so often used incorrectly that its meaning is also evolving into “figuratively” or as an emphasis. (“It is literally a thousand degrees in here.”)

The internet is packed with lists of commonly misused words. Adding the most difficult ones — along with their proper, or evolving definitions — to your Word Hoard may be helpful.

If all this incorrect word manipulation leaves you feeling a bit bemused (which is synonymous with confusion or bewilderment, and NOT with amusement), check out contronyms.

Contronyms, also called auto-antonyms (among others), are words that have two opposite (and correct) meanings. Obviously, the context in which the word is used provides the meaning the author intends.

Examples include: dust (removing dust from furniture, or applying powdered sugar to a cake); screen (to show a movie, or hide from view); and fast (moving rapidly, or fixed and unmoving).

My favorite is left, which can mean “departed” or “remaining.” (Before my dad left, he ate all of the pretzels in snack mix. The peanuts are the only thing left.) Then you have its other definitions, like the opposite of “right.”

I am so nonplussed by English vocabulary.

What words have tripped you up? Please share in the comments!

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