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10 Words Misused by Lawyers (and What They Really Mean)

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

When someone is "livid," has he turned red with anger, white with anger, or purple with anger? As lawyers, words are our currency, and there are many other lawyers and judges out there who will know if you use a word to mean something that it doesn't mean.

The 10 words we've listed below aren't being used in a new, accepted way (like "decimate" being used to mean "decrease" instead of "decrease by 10 percent"); rather, they're words that are routinely used contrary to their definitions. Instead of a usage change, many of these words are what Henry Fowler would call a "slipshod extension" -- an expression of degree that's been taken beyond its original limit.

Check out this list of commonly misused words:

1. Ironic.

What you think it means: Something whimsically unfortunate or coincidental; e.g., "rain on your wedding day." (Thanks, Alanis.)

What it really means: The opposite of what you expect to happen. (There are, however, some disagreements on whether the events in Alanis Morisette's song fit a definition of "ironic.")

2. Disinterested.

What you think it means: Actively not interested in something; dislike.

What it really means: Having no opinion about something either way; impartial.

3. Hoi polloi.

What you think it means: The upper crust of society.

What it really means: The common people. (It's Greek for "the many.")

4. Bourgeois.

What you think it means: Upper class.

What it really means: Middle class. The bourgeoisie are the social group that emerged during the 17th century. They worked for a living, unlike the nobility, but could actually improve their lot in life, unlike the serfs. "Bourgeois values" like hard work and thrift apply to the middle class because the nobility don't need to work hard or save money.

5. Technocracy.

What you think it means: Rule through technology.

What it really means: Rule by scientific experts (technicians). Technocracy emerged in the mid-20th century as a supposedly more objective, logical, data-driven way to govern a country.

6. Foundering.

What you think it means: Flailing, struggling to keep afloat.

What it really means: Utterly failing. If a boat is "foundering," it's not trying to stay afloat; it's already sunk.

7. Nauseous.

What you think it means: Feeling physically ill.

What it really means: Inducing physical illness. If a person is feeling sick, he's nauseated. If a person is making others sick, he's nauseous.

8. Peruse.

What you think it means: To skim or read quickly.

What it really means: Examine carefully or at length. (While it's often used to mean "skim" today, most dictionaries don't recognize that definition.)

9. Nonplussed.

What you think it means: Not surprised.

What it really means: Surprised to the point of confusion. "Nonplussed," used more in the UK than here, confuses Americans because we never knew what "plussed" was in the first place. Like "canny," it's a word rarely used in its positive form.

10. Bemused.

What you think it means: Amused.

What it really means: Confused. You can't be bemused by a New Yorker cartoon, unless you're also confused (which happens sometimes).

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