These 9 Words Don't Mean What You Think They Mean

04/10/2014 07:08 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2014
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The following is an excerpt from The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead [Crown Business, $17.95], in which author Charles Murray discusses words with meanings that have changed -- and not always for the better.

Disinterested used to mean uninterested.
The meaning of disinterested is “free of bias and self-interest.” It is essential that a judge be disinterested, for example. Disinterested does NOT, repeat NOT, mean “lack of interest” or “uninterested.” I put this so emphatically because we’re not talking just about proper usage. Disinterest used in its correct sense is on its last legs—I’ve been appalled to see it misused in articles in the Washington Post and other major publications. English does not have another word that conveys the meaning of disinterested as economically. If we lose the distinctive meaning of the word, we have measurably degraded our ability to express ourselves in English.

Literally used to mean figuratively.
The percentage of times that literally is used correctly verges on zero. Ninety-nine percent of the time (I’m estimating), it is misused to mean figuratively. In almost all of the other one percent, literally is used as a sloppy intensifier. The only correct use of literally that comes to mind is the sign-off of George Burns and Gracie Allen, former vaudevillians who had a television sitcom in the 1950s. She played the role of a ditz. At the end of the show, George would say, “Say good night, Gracie,” and she would say, “Good night, Gracie.” She took George’s instruction literally. Such opportunities to use literally correctly don’t come up often.

Fortuitous used to mean fortunate or serendipitous.
Fortuitous means happening by accident or chance. It has no good (or bad) connotations. Serendipitous means the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident. So Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin because he mistakenly left a petri dish open overnight was both fortuitous and serendipitous.

Dilemma used to mean difficult decision.
Not all difficult decisions are dilemmas. A dilemma (from the Greek word meaning “double proposition”) refers to a situation in which a choice must be made between two undesirable alternatives.

Masterful used to mean masterly.
When people use masterful, they almost always really mean masterly: performing in an extremely skillful and accomplished way. As in the case of disinterested, we are in danger of losing a useful word for which we have no ready alternative. If you want to describe someone who exhibits the quali¬ties of a person who is confidently and effectively in authority, with connotations of power and dominance, masterful is the perfect word. Use masterly when you want to compliment someone for exhibiting a high level of skill.

Problematic used to mean “I have a problem with this.”
Something is problematic if it is difficult to resolve or if it presents an objective problem that needs to be resolved. It doesn’t mean that you personally have an objection to something. For example, it is appropriate to say that a proposed voter ID bill is problematic because it risks disenfranchising more eligible voters than it prevents fraudulent votes, but not to say that it is problematic because it is racist and offensive. That may be your sincere opinion, but people on the other side can be just as sincerely convinced that it is not racist and offensive and neither side can prove the other wrong. I should add that I’ve been guilty of this misuse of problematic. It’s a seductively attractive way to introduce a personal opinion without having to take responsibility for it.

Begs the question used to mean raises the question, evades the question, or makes you wonder.
To beg the question means to assume as true the thing that you are trying to prove—to make an unsupported claim with circular reasoning. The tip-off is that a person who has begged the question has in effect repeated himself. A classic example used to illustrate begging the question is “Opium induces sleep because it has a soporific quality.” Like literally, beg the question is almost never used correctly. It usually would be more accurate to say that someone has raised the question, evaded the question, or made you wonder about something.

Notorious used to mean famous.
Notorious means famous in a bad way. Never use notorious to describe someone who is famous for acceptable reasons. Lance Armstrong was a famous bicyclist who became notorious for his lies about doping. While I’m on the subject: Notorious is not as evil or horrible as infamous. Armstrong is notorious. Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were infamous.

Decimate used to mean destroy or inflict great damage.
You don’t need to worry about this one unless you’re dealing with someone who is not only a curmudgeon but even more pedantic than I am. The primary meaning of decimate is now indeed destroy or inflict great damage. But it originated in Roman times and referred to a punishment in which a tenth of the members of an army unit were executed. Once you’re aware of that, it’s hard to read someone’s use of decimate to mean destroy without remembering that it really means destruction of only a tenth of the whole.