What you think it means: Something that is funny.
What it really means: Contrary to what you are expecting.
This is a famous one because so many people get this wrong so often. It’s also kind of hard to explain, so we’ll use an example. The Titanic was boasted about as being 100% unsinkable and then in 1912 it was sunk anyway. That is what is called cosmic irony. When a starving vegetarian eats a pepperoni pizza, that is what is called situational irony.
There are other kinds too, such as dramatic irony and Socratic irony. Believe it or not, sarcasm is actually irony. When you say something sarcastically, your tone and your words mean two opposite things. That is ironic. Irony can be funny but not everything funny is irony.
What you think it means: A tragedy or something unfortunate.
What it really means: A mockery or parody.
This is another one that people have wrong fairly frequently. You’ve heard people call 9/11 a travesty. Truth be told 9/11 was a tragedy. A travesty is actually a mockery or a parody. One might say that a Weird Al Yankovic album is a travesty. With how often this word is associated with tragedy, we wouldn’t be shocked if that definition were eventually added as an acceptable meaning. Until then, it doesn’t mean anything bad happened.
What you think it means: The one, the only. The best.
What it really means: The last item of a list.
Some people do actually use this one properly. You may see someone list off a bunch of things and hear them say, “Okay, at the store we need eggs, milk, juice, and ultimately, butter.” That is actually the proper use of ultimate. There is no other context or added context. It simply means the last one.
What you think it means: To have a conversation.
What it really means: Nothing.
Conversate actually doesn’t exist and I’ll prove it to you. Go into a program that underlines words with red if they’re spelled wrong. Now type out conversate. Did you see the red line? Conversate was meant to be a mixture of conversation and converse and be used as a verb. However, converse is a verb and there really isn’t a need for a second verb to describe the same action.
What you think it means: To skim or browse.
What it really means: To observe in depth.
When you peruse something, you are actually taking a very close look at it. When you’re at a record store and you’re just running through a stack of records, you are just browsing. If you pick up a record and look at the artist, track list, and additional information on the back, then your are perusing.
What you think it means: Amused.
What it really means: Confused.
This is one of the many words on this list that will make you strongly dislike the English language. Despite looking all but identical to the word amused, bemused doesn’t even come close to meaning the same thing. If you are bemused then you are actually confused.
What you think it means: To do something voluntarily by choice.
What it really means: To be forced or obligated to doing something.
This is one that people get wrong and it’s rather understandable. The real definition is very close to the definition people generally use. The difference is the motivation. When people say compelled, they think the person wants to perform the action. In fact, they are forced to do it regardless of their personal feelings. Here’s an example. When you’re in court, you are compelled to give honest testimony. You may not want to, but it doesn’t matter because you have to.
What you think it means: To feel ill.
What it really means: To cause feelings of illness.
This is another understandable mishap that a lot of people make. If you actually feel sick then you are nauseated. The object that made you feel ill is nauseous. Here’s how this works. If you’re at an amusement park and you’re sitting next to a full trash can, the fumes from the trash may make you feel ill. That means the fumes from the trash can are nauseous because they are making you feel nauseated.
What you think it means: Repetitive.
What it really means: Unnecessarily excessive.
This one is tough because you can use it wrong but unintentionally use it right. When you repeat something a bunch of times, it can become redundant, but redundant expands far beyond just repeating things over and over. A popular thing companies are doing now is firing people but instead of calling it “getting fired,” they call it “eliminating redundancies.” The premise being that the employee they’re firing is unnecessary and excessive and they are thus eliminating them. In pretty much any scenario where there is simply too much of something, it is redundant.
What you think it means: Huge, enormous.
What it really means: Profoundly immoral or evil.
Don’t beat yourself up over this one because no one knows this one off the top of their head. Enormity sounds like enormous and as with many of our other examples, here we expect words that sound alike to have similar meanings. Enormity simply means really evil. An example of how to use it is the following: “The enormity of the crimes committed by the Nazis in World War II.” It doesn’t mean the enormous crimes, it means the heinous crimes.