Word meanings: When they aren’t what you think they are

English is a hard nut to crack. There are so many phrases, idioms, word uses that throw you off track. But even native speakers adopt words they think they know the meaning of, but don’t. Here, Transcriber William W, shares a couple of those false friends. 

Its ironic, isn’t it?

The language we use often strays pretty far from official grammar rules. Have you ever heard someone say they’re ‘nonplussed’ when something irritating happens? That means they’re confused, not annoyed. Saying you’re ‘disinterested’ in reality TV doesn’t mean you don’t care about who’s hooking up on Big Brother, but rather that you’re neutral or even open-minded about it. One of the most common is ‘ironic’. Saying it’s ironic that your mate Ben Cobbler makes a living mending shoes is actually the opposite of ironic. Mr Cobbler was born to do that job, good for Ben.

correct use of ironic
Ben Cobbler is a size 8.

Parlez- vous Francais?

Even hardcore grammar nerds rarely use the singulars of words like ‘data’ (datum) or ‘criteria’ (criterion) properly. Using them might make your English professor beam with approval, but won’t give you much street cred with your classmates. There are also little words and phrases which, for the sake of politeness, we use but understand to not be taken literally. Impatiently tapping your wrist just after someone says, ‘I’ll be back in two seconds’ would probably be seen as a touch impatient. Another frustrating example of words not meaning what you think will be familiar to anyone who’s studied a foreign language. When my A-level French classmate said she had a job in a maison publique, our teacher raised an eyebrow and said, “I’m sure you mean you work in a pub, not a brothel?”

word meanings bad french translation

Not even MPs speak the truth these days…

Also, listen to any teenager long enough and you’ll probably hear them use the word ‘literally’ a lot. “This homework is literally killing me.” Wow, teachers sure are cruel these days. But even Nick Clegg was guilty of this when he described rich people who pay extraordinarily low rates of tax as “literally in a different galaxy”. Apparently even interstellar travel isn’t beyond the means of the super rich these days.

nick clegg use of literally

Is it because I am English?

Some of this possibly stems from a combination of the British desire to be eternally polite and our tendency to exaggerate for the sake of making what we say more interesting. Saying a joke ‘literally killed you’ is unlikely to actually cause confusion. Also, saying you’ll be back ‘in ten minutes’ rather than ‘in two seconds’ may have the effect of stressing the person who’s waiting with the reality of a bit of a long wait. Misunderstandings and exaggerations are part of the flavour of language, and are often so accepted that no one thinks twice when they’re used.