Commonly Misunderstood/Misused Words or Phrases

It occured to me that I should put together a list of commonly misused or misunderstood words or phrases to hand out to my class. What prompted this were the ones I seem always to be running across:

Immaculate Conception – Does not refer to the pregnancy of Mary. It refers to her having been born free of original sin in seminaliter. As in the old joke in which Jesus preaches, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” A stone comes sailing out of the crowd. Jesus says, “Come on, Ma, I’m working here.”

Negative Reinforcement – Not the same as punishment. It involves taking away an undesired stimulus to reinforce a behavior.

I thought perhaps other people had words and phrases they’d like college freshmen to be straightened out on. So, please, I welcome your suggestions.

“Begging the question” does not mean “raises a different, but related, question.” It means the original question stands and still needs to be addressed, more or less.

1.) “Manger” does not mean a stable or a place to keep the livestock. It’s an animal-feeding trough, made of wood or stone. Jesus was “away in a manger” because Mary and Joseph used the feeding trough as a crib. Mary and Joseph were not in a manger – they wouldn’t have fit.

2.) “Livid” does not mean “red”. It comes from a word meaning “leaden” (as in the metal), and implies that something is the color of lead. “His face was livid” means “He was purple with rage”, not “He was red with rage”. I’ve seen a guy who’d stopped breathing, and the weird, unnatural purple color his face took on is clearly what this phrase implies. That’s damned mad.

  1. Unique does not mean “rare”. It means one of a kind. Therefore, nothing can be more or less unique than something else.

  2. Literally is not an emphatic. You did not “literally hit the roof” unless you climbed up a rope and banged on the roof with your hand.

Business jargon that drives me nuts:

“Escalate” does not mean “tell your boss”–except, perhaps, as verbal shorthand for “I’m going to escalate the level of concern about this by informing my boss.” “Escalating the problem” would mean “intensifying the problem.”

“Fulsome” does not mean “fuller.” It means “overly effusive, cloyingly insincere.”

“Hone in on” is a mistake for “home in on” —although you can “hone (sharpen) an argument,” metaphorically speaking.

Thanks to Weird Earl’s for the Business Jargon “Bull***t Bingo” Cards link the other day! I laughed MAO.

I hate, hate hate when people say “I could care less”.

It’s I COULDN’T care less! If you could care less, then you have not reached the lowest depth of caring, and stating so is useless!

“The exception that proves the rule” doesn’t mean that an example of something that goes against a rule proves the rule is correct. It means that an example of something that goes against the rule throws the rule into doubt.

Painstaking doesn’t really mean “pain-staking”, ie: someone has staked pain on doing something. It means “pains-taking,” ie: they’ve taken pains to do something.

Although this is already an Eggcorn.

Taber wrote:

What it means is that the explicit mention of an exception proves that there is a rule to begin with – otherwise it wouldn’t be an exception. This is covered in one of Cecil’s columns. After a bit of a back-and-forth on the subject, one helpful reader points out the relevant passage from A Dictionary of Words and Phrases in Current English:

Could you give an example? I always thought “positive reinforcement” meant rewarding desirable behavior to encourage it, and “negative reinforcement” meant punishing undesirable behavior to discourage it.

Please have them learn the difference between:



OK. Let’s see who’s got it wrong so far.

Beadlin – partly correct. “Begging the question” does not yet mean “bringing up the question” (though it it moving in that direction). It means that the point assumes it’s own truth, or what we’d call “circular reasoning.” E.g., “The bible is true because it’s God’s word, and God’s word is always true.”

While true, I’ve never heard the word used except to mean “angry” or to descrive a “livid” bruise; since the OED gives the definition “a. Of a bluish leaden colour; discoloured as by a bruise; black and blue,” that is correct.

For now. But the OED recognizes that this is becoming a legitimate usage. I’d say they were slow – no one confuses the two. See this for a reasonable discussion of the issue.

No, it’s a legitimate idiom. It’s also sarcasm. The fact that it’s illogical is irrelevant: everyone knows what the meaning is. See this.

Actually, the rate of error is pretty good so far in the thread. Usually everyone is wrong about what words they think are used incorrectly.

Positive reinforcement – A rat in a cage presses a bar and receives a treat as a reward. His behavior is strengthened by the reward.

Negative reinforcement – A rat in a cage receives a shock through the floor of the cage. He presses a bar and the shock stops. He stops pressing the bar and the shock returns. He presses it again and the shock stops. His behavior is strengthened by the removal of the shock.

Negative here isn’t a judgment of the reinforcement. It just means that something has been taken away.

scr4 wrote:

It’s easy to get it jumbled, despite the efforts of Psychology 101 professors.

The positive/negative refers to the presence of a stimulus, not to the desirability of that stimulus.

The reinforcement/punishment distinction refers to whether a behavior is being encouraged or discouraged.

So, positive reinforcement means adding a positive stimulus in order to encourage behavior. E.g., if the dog sits, you tell him he’s a good boy.

Negative reinforcement is an attempt to encourage behavior by removing an undesired stimulus. E.g., the piercing noise will stop when the subject stops slouching.

Positive punishment is the use of an undesired stimulus to discourage undesired behavior. E.g., a barking dog is told he is a ‘bad boy.’

Negative punishment is the removal of a desired stimulus to discourage undesired behavior. E.g., a child gets no allowance because he was caught smoking.

Heh. One of our priests always says, “Let us pray for a fulsome faith”. I haven’t had the chance to talk to him about this yet.

Julia Roberts aside, a person who is toothsome is attractive.

The true meaning of “oxymoron” is much more subtle and refined than “contradition in terms”. It refers to the deliberate apposition of contrasting or words; the classic example is “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Unfortunately, the new, dumbed-down meaning is overwhelming the original, and the value of this once-interesting word is rapidly disappearing (if indeed it isn’t already gone).

It is “champing at the bit” not chomping

See this discussion about that.


A very commonplace one is the use of the word “literally” to mean “figuratively.” This has become remarkably widespread; “I missed lunch! I was so hungry! I was literally starving to death!” You were? You were actually suffering from malnutrition to the point that your body’s internal organs were shutting down, because you missed lunch? Don’t think so.

I read somewhere - it might have been Bill Bryson’s book on the origins of English - that this happens sometimes, where a word starts to be used to indicate the exact opposite of what it used to mean.

“Enormity” does not mean just really, really large. It means immoderate, monstrous or outrageous. A typical correct use would be to discuss the enormity of a serial killer’s crimes, for example. I’ve heard newscasters speak of the “enormity” of some neutral but huge object like a mountain or a building, which is silly.