Who would like to help Dr. Boli compile the reference book (or Web site) he has often wished he had but has never quite found? (Or who would like to point out the thing to him if it exists?)

What Dr. Boli wants is a glossary of universally misused words.

Some examples:

In the days when the essential furniture of every home included a piano (up to about thirty years ago), everyone knew what an “upright” piano was: one of those tall old pianos that lived in the basement. A piano technician would define an “upright” as any vertical piano more than 48 inches tall. After the Second World War, Americans bought almost exclusively those little spinet and console pianos whose bass strings were too short to make any sound other than indistinguishable rumbling noises, and they never called them “upright” pianos.

Now that no one except professional musicians actually wants a piano, the terminology has passed out of ordinary use. Non-musical Americans know that there was some sort of thing called an “upright piano,” but they assume that it means any vertical piano. If you search Craigslist (which has become Dr. Boli’s favorite linguistic research tool) for “upright piano,” you will find that a majority of the “upright” pianos are spinets and consoles. A piano technician will still make the distinction between uprights and smaller verticals, but in the real world the term “upright piano” has changed its meaning.

Photography has changed radically since digital cameras appeared (which was really only a decade ago for most people), and the names for the parts of a camera are changing, too. For example, the word for “lens” is now “zoom.” Dr. Boli first realized that as he puzzled over an advertisement for an antique folding camera that kept mentioning the “zoom.” For the minority who still talk about the “lens,” the word is plural; a single lens is a “len.”

Likewise, the word “shutter” used to mean the thing that opens momentarily to allow light to hit the film, but now it means the flap that automatically closes over the lens—or, rather, the zoom—to protect it when the camera is not in use.

There are many other examples. “Flaunt” almost universally means “flout.” “Penultimate” means “ultimate,” or perhaps “really ultimate.” No one can agree on what the past tense of “lie” is, but it is definitely not “lay.”

Dr. Boli is not as young as he used to be a century and a half ago, and the rapidly changing language sometimes leaves him baffled. It is as though everyone around him has suddenly begun to talk in West Frisian: the language is clearly very close to English, but not quite close enough for him to understand it accurately.

Thus the need for a glossary. Which words in modern American English are almost universally misused, and what do they mean when ordinary people misuse them? Together we can not only come up with an entertaining list, but in the process we may well be compiling something that has never been compiled before: a dictionary of the English of the future.


  1. Greybeard says:

    My pet peeve is the loose grammatical construction that changes “Needs to be fixed” or “Needs fixing” into “Needs fixed.”

  2. Jeff says:

    Their really need to be such a reference.

  3. Jeff says:

    Correction to my last:

    Their really *needs* to be such a reference.


  4. Dies Irae says:

    For some reason, modern writers, especially of pulp or fan fiction, love the word ‘Decimate.’ After all, who wouldn’t want to invoke the charming practice perfected by the Romans of bringing terror to a people group by being forced to watch the merciless, systematic slaughter of a tenth of their number by no logic other than blind random selection? Except that in its modern usage, it ceases to have any reference to invocation of fear or making an example for the survivors to learn from, and instead is used to just mean “total destruction.” While it may be understandable and forgivable to unmoor the term from its historic meaning and use the term figuratively to mean “significant loss” of perhaps 33% instead of a strict 10%, using ‘Decimate’ to mean a 100% loss rate is baffling. Especially confusing is the increasing use of the phrase “completely decimated” – if you are going to figuratively use a term (here, to mean “a lot of destruction”), you waive your right to quantify it or set it in absolute terms. Unless you want to make it clear your heroes did not in fact go out for your lunch break and forget they were in the middle of decimating a population.

  5. Dies Irae says:

    *”their lunch break,” not “your lunch break.”

  6. Is the word “stout” misused in contemporary English?

    Growing up in the Ozarks during the late fifties to early seventies, I used “stout” to mean “strong.” A wiry fellow could be stout, Mr. Willie Wirehand, for example.

    When and why did “stout” come to be a euphemism for “fat”? And does this qualify for your “glossary of universally misused words”?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  7. John M says:

    How about “reigned in” (versus “reined in”) for when somebody acting in an unrestrained manner has constraints placed upon their action. Derived from the use of “reins” to control a horse, one often sees the word “reign” used instead.

    Example: During King John’s reign as King of England, his powers were reined in when he signed the Magna Carta.

  8. C. Simon says:

    “Literally” as a Craigslist search term turns up what you’d expect.

  9. Martin the Mess says:

    Don’t forget “for all intensive purposes” as a replacement for “for all intents and purposes”. This reference also needs a functional punctuation subsection, to cover the evolving consensus that the greengrocer’s apostrophe is here to stay as a pluralization tool.

  10. Jason says:

    “Comprise” is now universally a synonym of “compose” instead of “is composed of.”
    Correct: “The Solar System comprises the Sun and objects in its gravitational influence.”
    Incorrect: “The Sun and objects in its gravitational influence comprise the Solar System.”

  11. Captain DaFt says:

    Well, a couple that’ve changed meaning during the good Doctor’s lifetime:

    Goon: Formerly a member of the Amazonian humanoid race that were enslaved by the Sea Hag in the old Thimble Theatre comics.
    Now used as a synonym for ‘Thug’.

    Bimbo: Formerly a hanger-on or side-kick, named after Betty Boop’s canine companion.
    Now, a dim witted female of voluptuous proportions.

    A couple that’re older even than the good Doctor:

    Thing: Formerly a village meeting to discuss village politics and actions.
    Now, an object that is neither a person or place.

    Weird: Formerly a synonym for fate.
    Now, anything that is odd or strange.

    That’s the beauty and aggravation of language, it continues to change and evolve.

  12. Who let the nerds out? Who? Who?

    Erm, I meant “whom”.

  13. Candide says:

    “Anxious” and “eager” are not synonyms. “After a tough day at work, I was anxious to get home and have a drink.” No. You were EAGER to get home and have that drink, unless you were worried that something bad was going to happen when you got home. I even hear teachers say this kind of thing.

  14. Candide says:

    And when did “awesome” become the preferred word to characterize anything as good?

    “What did you think of the Grand Canyon?”

    “It was awesome.”

    “How was your ham sandwich?”

    “It was awesome.”

    If something doesn’t leave you stumbling inarticulately for words when you want to describe something that left you in wonder at how spectacular it was, then it wasn’t awesome.

  15. Joe Sansonese says:

    “With a grain of salt” is nearly universally misunderstood, such as when one reads or hears the recommendation “that should be taken with a large grain of salt” as intending to caution against credulousness with regards to whatever “that” may be.

    The plain meaning of taking something cum grano salis, “with a grain of salt” is that “whatever the “something” may be, likened to a meal, it is such meagre fare that it might be seasoned with a single grain of salt.

    To imagine that one can reinforce the sense of of the simile ironically, as it were, by inserting before the word “grain” some variation on the word “large,” for instance “enormous” or “huge” or the like, is a gross misunderstanding that actually runs counter to its sense. One should rather say with a “small” or “very small” or “tiny” grain of salt. In my experience, that is simply never the case.

    Another peeve: to use the word “beg” as to mean “pose” in the irritatingly common expression “beg the question.” The phrase originates in logic where the word “beg” meant “plead” and “question” meant “assertion,” in other words, simply to repeat, as if that were an argument, the very claim that needs to be demonstrated. One can also “beg” the refutation of the “question.”

    Nowadays the word “beg” seems to be used 99% of the time to mean “pose” or “ask” some literal question.

  16. Piper says:

    How about the word “momentarily”, now almost universally used to mean “in a moment” rather than “for a moment”? So often, while waiting for service, I am told that “someone will be with you momentarily.” I usually respond (at least mentally, sometimes aloud) that I certainly hope not; I need more time than that with the person who is coming to help me.

  17. DennisM says:

    How about “literally”, which now often means “figuratively” (i.e., “not literally”) and is acceptable usage according to the dictionaries and Google and other authorities?

  18. Dr. Boli says:

    Dr. Boli’s evil inner voice suggests that the reply to “Someone will be with you momentarily” ought to be (speaking with grave professorial authority) “You mean momentously, of course.”

  19. Martin the Mess says:

    In reply to Joe Sansonese, I thought the original meaning of “take that with a grain of salt” went back to Roman times, when one of the Plinies (I forget which) reported that a certain paranoid King once tried to immunize himself against every possible poison, by taking them in small but increasing amounts until he had built up an immunity. Which of course makes one wonder if one of the poisons in question was Iocaine powder, of if the lack of Australia on ancient maps meant they had no source of that particular poison. But I digress. That King was said to take some of the poisons with a grain of salt, either to absorb the poison or make it more palatable, I forget which.

    But the story got misremembered in later generations, to the point that people thought the grain of salt itself was the antidote to poison, and thus to take something with a grain of salt was to say one did not trust that something to be poison-free, and thus to take a grain of salt as a protective precaution.

    Metaphorically, today, to take something with a large grain of salt is to say that this something is completely untrustworthy, and that one should thus hedge one’s bets before relying on its veracity. An ordinary grain of salt won’t do, one needs a grain of salt the size of the Rock of Gibraltar to take seriously something such as Mormon historiography or Scientologist theology.

  20. Joe Sansonese says:

    I thank Martin for his comments. Still, more must be said.

    1) I have searched Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History” for a source for interpretation you suggest, which was probably with regard to the habits of either Mithridates of Pontus or Pompey the Great, both of whom died in the first century BC. So far I have been unable to locate it, but I shall continue trying.

    2) Even if, ultimately, the origin is what you suggest it is, that sense is far too remote in time, in my opinion. Whether the adage, as we have it, resulted from a confusion between “salt” as a palliative to an antidote or “salt” as the antidote itself is a context that was completely lost centuries ago. I would maintain that the sense in which most people understand the term, namely, that it, what the grain of salt is being taken with, is thought of as being “insubstantial” as much as it is “untrustworthy.”

    3) The interpretation you put forward is puzzling for another reason. The formulary for an ancient mithridate (antidotes) always required it to be suffused in honey to make it palatable, leaving one to wonder what role salt would play?

  21. Martin the Mess says:

    Wikipedia seems to agree with me, although that’s probably because I likely stumbled across this article recently and thus it’s where I heard the story in the first place. But with or without the Pliny attribution, I never thought of the grain of salt as flavoring an insubstantial meal until your post, always as implying skepticism rather than a lack of substance.


    Now that I think about it, I think I heard a third explanation way back when I was studying Latin in Junior High. Salt was almost equivalent to money in ancient times, so taking a statement with a grain of salt was equivalent to saying, “Make sure you get paid first”, or “don’t extend credit to this guy, either in terms of money or terms of belief of his statement”. Thus, a large grain of salt would be a larger amount of money you’d have to pay me to trust what you’re saying.

  22. Dr. Boli says:

    There ought to be some quick and punchy idiomatic expression to express the skepticism with which one ought to view most traditional explanations of idiomatic expressions. Perhaps someone will come up with something.

  23. Joe Sansonese says:

    Dr. Boli:

    How about Lore-o’-lies.

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