That Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Means by Kathryn Petras and Ross Petras- Misused Words and Their Tangled History – A Post a Day in May

Are you fond of words and their etymology, their meaning, their use? Do you chuckle when someone misuses a word and the sense of the sentence is totally not what the speaker/writer intended? I’m one of those people. Endlessly fascinated by words and their meaning. Easily amused by their misuse.

If you’re like me, then That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means is the perfect book for you. The authors have compiled 150 entries in which, starting from a quote in which a word is misused, they explain the history, the various changes in the meaning of certain words and their correct use. Some words are on their own like scarify or refute, others paired with a word that either sounds similar or has a similar meaning like ingenious/ingenuous, hurdle/hurtle. There are also expressions like begs the question. The entries are in alphabetical order starting with a priori and ending with wet your appetite/whet your appetite.

Many of the quotes made me chuckle, but so did the entries. They are not only informative but often very funny.

Here’s the beginning of the entry for preternatural

“Whole Foods . . . is the largest supermarket in Manhattan. Milling about its preternaturally clean aisles and sculptured displays of produce, shoppers move pastorally slowly by New York standards.” – From Greening the red, white, and blue: The bomb, big business, and consumer resistance in post-war America

Unless you think finding grass-fed beef steaks for 6.99$ a pound is a paranormal event, going to Whole Food isn’t a supernatural experience. It seems kind of ordinary to us.

The authors then go on to explain the Latin source of the word, compare it to the word supernatural, which is close, mention where it’s been used and how and then end with the definition.

I was surprised that I don’t mix up many of these words, even though English isn’t my native language, but that is certainly because many of the words are Latin or Greek based and can also be found in French and German. Plus I had eight years of Latin at school.

But there were word pairings like nauseous and nauseated that I also misuse. I didn’t know that you shouldn’t say you feel nauseous about something but nauseated. The thing that makes you feel nauseated is nauseous.

Even though I was familiar with many of the words, I didn’t always know where exactly they came from or how they were used formerly. Nauseous, for example, really did once mean nauseated in the US.

Here are a few more of the pairings that are often misused or mixed up:

all together/altogether, loath/loathe, tortuous/torturous, economic/economical.

Nobody is likely to misuse the words of this entry any day soon:


“In 2016, the board clashed with directors of the film Udta Punjab, a film depicting the drug pandemic in the west Indian state of Punjab, when it asked for multiple cuts.” CNN

They obviously mixed up pandemic and epidemic.

I bought this book when it came out in 2018 and since then it has become a favourite to which I return again and again. I always discover something, always learn something. How to really use some words or about the original and former use. It’s a book that would appeal as much to those who love grammar as to those who are interested in the origin of words.


10 thoughts on “That Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Means by Kathryn Petras and Ross Petras- Misused Words and Their Tangled History – A Post a Day in May

  1. I think I’d enjoy this! I like language and looking at how it’s used. Something I’ve noticed in recent years is how often people say something is surreal, when what they mean is unreal. Once I noticed it, I seem to hear it all the time!

    • I think you would. Surreal, yes, true. I’ve noticed that. Sometimes something is said wrong so often it becomes the new meaning. For example in German one used to say “Wie die Faust aufs Auge” – literally “like a fist on the eye” meaning something does absolutely not go with something else. Then some started to say this meaning – made for each other, being perfect together. And now nobody knows how wrong that really is.

  2. This sounds wonderful. And I see a local store has a copy on hand that I could order “to go.” As an editor I often get into debates with writers about words that don’t mean what they think they do!

    • I’m so glad to hear you like it and hope it will be very useful. I can imagine the debates. People can get very attached to the assumed meaning of a word.

  3. It’s always good to use language with precision – especially when writing formally. But most of our language use is spoken, spontaneous, and therefore often imprecise or, technically, wrong. Linguists nowadays tend to avoid being too prescriptive about such lapses – we’re all likely to mistake similar-sounding words, and through a process of semantic shifting words tend to change their meaning over time. If enough people think ‘surreal’ is a more emphatic way of saying ‘strange’, then that’s the meaning that will emerge. Always fun though to examine these processes. We just need to be aware that precision isn’t necessarily a fixed thing, and that context is important. We all have pet hates (some hate the addiction among the young to inserting ‘like’ into the most, well, unlikely places in, like, sentences. Personally I find it, like, endearing. Especially the use of ‘like’ as a quotative verb – a synonym for ‘say’).

    • That’s a very interesting comment, Simon. I suppose I’m more of a purist than you but that’s also because of my linguistic background. French used to change so much less than other languages. German and English seem more adaptive.
      The book does really have written English in mind. It’s ideal for editors and writers.
      “Like” has grown on me. I hated it at first.

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