Are you sure you know what that word means?

25 Feb2015
by Deborah Brody, posted in Communication, Writing   |  3 Comments

By now you will have heard about the Cleveland local news anchor Kristi Capel and how she used a racial slur to describe Lady Gaga’s performance at the Academy Awards. According to this report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Capel apologized and said she did not know what the word meant (I am not using the word here because it is racist).

Think about that for a moment: A news anchor, while broadcasting live, used a word that she did not understand.

In Capel’s case, I don’t think there was any racial motivation behind this incident, but there was something much more common: ignorance.  She was called out (and rightfully so) because what she said was racist. But every single day, people are guilty of using words they don’t understand, mangling their meaning.

If you watch enough TV or read enough stuff online or in print, you will see many instances of misused words. To quote Inigo Montoya  in The Princess Bride:

“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

Lifehack says that travesty, ironic and bemused are among the 10 Most Commonly Misused Words.  Just look up the phrase “misused words” in your favorite search engine and you will get loads of examples (there are many more than 10).

Here’s one I see all the time

One word that  I have seen misused over and over is “misnomer.” Merriam-Webster defines misnomer as:

:  the misnaming of a person in a legal instrument
  : a use of a wrong or inappropriate name  :  a wrong name or inappropriate designation

Basically, a misnomer is using the wrong name for something . The example used by Merriam-Webster is the international airport that only serves domestic flights.  Seems straightforward enough. Yet, many times I hear journalists using the word misnomer when what they really mean is misunderstanding. They’ll say something like: “It’s a misnomer to say that the senator is going to vote for the bill.”

You know that word doesn’t exist, right?

There are some people who make up words or mispronounce words. Huffington Post lists “11 Commonly Used Made-Up Words That Drive Us Insane” to include: “expresso,” “supposably,” and the famous “irregardless.” (Buzzfeed has a similar list: 17 Misused and Made-Up Words That Make You Rage.)

Using words that don’t mean what you think they do only makes you sound ignorant to those who do understand the meaning. In cases like Capel’s, not only will you sound ignorant but you may also offend. So here are some warnings:

  • If you are not sure of what a word means precisely, don’t use it.
  • If you think a word is right, but you aren’t absolutely sure, don’t use it.
  • If you think you will sound like you know what you are talking about because you are using a long word, definitely don’t use it.
  • And finally, use a dictionary. Look that pesky word up.

What words do you often notice as being misused?

About Deborah Brody

Deborah Brody writes and edits anything related to marketing communications. Most blog posts are written under the influence of caffeine.

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3 Responses to Are you sure you know what that word means?

  1. John Franklin

    You mention a word used by a broadcaster that was “racist”. Not all your readers would have seen this word used so, you could put it into your story under the context of education. Maybe some of us would like to ensure we do know the true meaning of this mysterious word. Allowing PC to put a crimp on ones writing only allows the continuation of ignorance and racism. I would not call you racist if you used the word to educate me, unlike some who use the word to demean a race.

    • Deborah Brody

      John,
      Please click on the link for the story in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. You can also search Google for the name of anchor. You can then see for yourself what the word was. I choose not to include it because there I don’t want to offend and it is not necessary for the rest of my post to make sense.
      Thanks for reading.

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