Inconceivable! And Other Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean

If you understood the reference made in the title of this post (hint: if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, stop reading right now and go watch it), then you probably know what I’ll be discussing in this post.

In a living language like English, words sometimes change their meaning over time. For example, we use the word “prosaic” to mean dull or unimaginative; but originally, it simply meant “prose,” as in literature that wasn’t poetry.

So yes, words change, and even the most contentious literary lover might misuse a word or will encounter a new word they didn’t know before. But some words in recent years seem to have become problematic for many people. Here are a few of my pet peeves:

Literally. This means “exactly, without inaccuracy.” Nowadays, though, most people use it as nothing more than a modifier to add emphasis to a statement, like beginning a sentence of moderate importance with the word “dude.” There’s nothing wrong with “literally” moving into slang usage in this way, but where I take issue is when people forget what it actually means. Saying “Dude, my head literally exploded” in everyday conversation is one thing; but if you’re trying to sound professional in either your speaking or the written word, just remember that you wouldn’t still be here if your head had literally (i.e. actually, truly) exploded.

Alright. I’ve blogged about this word before. There’s not much to say here, because “alright” isn’t a word at all. What you’re trying to say is “all right.”

Welp or whelp. First of all, welp is not a real word. I see welp or whelp used in slang and conversation as an alternate way of saying “well” at the beginning of a sentence. For example, a Facebook update might say “Welp, there goes my great idea for my school project. :-(” Again, I’m fine with slang usage for words, but please don’t forget what the actual definition is. While “welp” doesn’t mean anything, a “whelp” is the pup or cub of a dog, a bear, or other animal, or can be used to as a somewhat derogatory term for an obnoxious child.

I’m sure there are other words that could be added to this list of “words that don’t mean what you think they mean.” These three are a good start, I think, mostly because I see them used (or misused) so frequently. What misused words would you add to the list?

What International Travel has taught me about English

English is my native language, and I’m very grateful that my mother tongue is basically the Latin of the 21st century – the language of universal commerce. I say grateful because I always want to keep an attitude of humility when it comes to the global dominance of my language. I never want to be one of those travelers who, upon arriving on a foreign shore, arrogantly expects the locals to speak English and is offended when they don’t. I appreciate every person in another country who does speak English to me, and I usually try to learn at least a greeting or a thank you in the local language.

I’m far from being a seasoned traveler, but my experiences both overseas and with foreigners in America has taught me a few things about my beloved English.

Normal conversational speech is way too fast. And I’m from the American South where we taaaalk….reeaall…sloooow. If you’re in a non-English-speaking nation, or talking to a local at home who is still learning English, slow it down. Whatever you think is absurdly slow is probably still a little fast, especially if the other person’s English is very poor. And be sure to annunciate each word. We all tend to mumble and blend our words in the comfort of our mother tongue. A side note: resist the urge to shout. The other person knows English as a second, third, or fourth language – their hearing is probably fine. I tend to be soft spoken, so I’m not usually a shouter, but if I have to repeat myself several times, I do remind myself to speak slower and clearer, not necessarily louder.

Don’t judge or correct. If someone says something to me that makes grammatical sense but not contextual sense, I ask for clarification about the word that I think they might have misused. Asking for clarification or explanation is a more polite way of letting the non-English speaking person know that they goofed. Nobody likes to embarrassed, even if they made a legitimate mistake. By using this technique, I’ve often had the other person admit they probably used the wrong word and ask me for help. It’s much nicer to be asked to help someone with their English than to be the language police making corrections all the time. Also, whenever I’m tempted to judge someone’s English or get impatient, I ask myself how well I would do at talking to them in their language. Since I know far less Norwegian/Chinese/Farsi/etc. than they know English, I choose to be grateful that they’re trying to communicate with me at all.

English is hard. Grammar and spelling rules, exceptions to those rules, different pronunciations for the same letter combinations… Even us native speakers – and yes, even us grammar nerds – have trouble remembering all the rules and conventions of English. Yes, every language has its quirks and inconsistencies, but most everyone agrees that English is near the top of the list of difficult to learn. I’m always appreciative when someone has taken the time and mental effort to learn English, even just a little bit. Again, if I ever catch myself growing impatient with a non-native speaker’s improper use of sentence structure – like saying “You is” or something – I remind myself that I likely couldn’t do half that well in their language. And again, I keep an attitude of gratitude. I’m thankful and humbled that I was born into an English speaking culture. Not because English is better than other languages, but because I’m blessed that one of the complex languages of the world today comes naturally to me.

Borrowed Words, part 2

I wrote a post some time back that featured so-called “borrowed words” – words that have become common in English, yet still retain their original spelling/meaning/pronunciation (some words more so than others). Every language has borrowed words, not just English, especially in today’s global village life. For example, how many languages use terms like “computer” and “tee shirt” as they are instead of translating the actual meaning?

So here are a few more words that you’ve probably heard and used in your speaking or writing of English – but they’re not actually English words at all.

Smorgasbord – a large spread of a variety of foods. This term often is used in a more metaphorical sense to describe an array of anything that features great diversity or variety – like, say, a smorgasbord of entertainment available at a county fair. The word is spelled Smörgåsbord in its native Sweden, and specifically describes a buffet-like arrangement of cold foods.

Cuisine – another foodie word here, which basically means “the art of cooking.” It’s a French word (like so many food words are, actually – buffet, gourmet). Cuisine usually refers to the specific types of food and preparation styles associated with a regional area or culture.

Tsunami – a big ocean wave, of the sort that causes devastation on land. Sometimes it’s called a tidal wave, but most people use the Japanese word tsunami.

Tundra – an arctic landscape of rolling hills and treeless vegetation. Alpine tundra refers to a similarly cold and harsh landscape high the mountains where it’s too cold for trees to grow. The word comes from the Sami languages of northern Scandinavia and north-western Russia, and it means “uplands” or “treeless plain.”

Boondocks – in American English it means a remote place, like your uncle’s farm out in the middle of nowhere. American soldiers in the Philippines brought this Tagalog word into English. Bundok means “mountain” in Tagalog.

Opossum – a small marsupial common to the Americas, especially the North American east coast region. If you’re from a country that doesn’t have opossums, consider yourself lucky. Personally, I find them to be creepy creatures – they look like giant rats, and are notoriously slow to get out of the road. The name of this animal comes from the Virginia Algonquian language of the Powhatan Native Americans.

So there you have it – more English words that aren’t English at all. What are some other borrowed words?