11 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Do

Want to make sure you’re someone who uses words exactly as they’re intended? Or maybe you’re the kind of person who secretly quite likes flexing your language knowledge and correcting people on their use of words?!

We’re not here to judge! But we can point out 11 of the most commonly misunderstood words and what they actually mean.


We all know what an ambulance is, right? In fact, if you’re ever injured in an accident, you’ll be hoping one turns up quickly. The thing is; ambulances never used to be that quick – because the original ambulances were people carrying medical equipment on foot!

This explains where the term comes from. Ambulant means “able to walk” and is often used to describe patients in hospitals. Fortunately, the meaning of the term has shifted over the years and has now adapted to its new form – describing faster-moving life-saving vehicles.


Ever “bartered” over the cost of a new car? Chances are, you probably haven’t – and that’s not because you don’t want a good deal. When you negotiate a price, you’re actually “haggling“ – making a low offer which is then countered. 

If you “barter“, you’re offering to exchange services for the product you want. So, unless you’re a craftsperson or service provider and you’re willing to exchange your products or services for the car you like, you’re almost certainly haggling!


If you’re unsure about a choice with multiple outcomes, chances are you’re facing a “problem“ or a “quandary“ rather than a dilemma. Why? Well, “di-“ means two, so, strictly speaking, a dilemma is a problem to which there are two possible outcomes.

For instance, if you’re choosing between going to Harvard or Yale, you’re facing a dilemma. If you’re choosing from all possible colleges, you’re facing a quandary. This goes further too – if you’re choosing between Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, you’ve got three choices, so you’re facing a “trilemma“! 


Hopefully you’ve never had an electric shock – but if you have, it wouldn’t be accurate to say you were “electrocuted“ by the toaster. 

Electrocute is a type of word called a “portmanteau“ – a word that takes fragments of two words to make a new word. The first part of “electrocute“ is obviously from “electric“ – but not many people realise that the “-cute“ part comes from the word “execution“. 

As such, “electrocute“ means “execute someone with an electric current“ – whereas getting a shock from the toaster is simply an “electric shock“. 


We’ve come to understand that a “factoid“ is just a short fact and background information written down – but the truth is a little more murky than this. 

The word was first used in 1973 to mean a previously non-existent “fact” that is created by the media which is designed to manipulate the emotions of the reader. By putting it in print, it becomes a “factoid“ – but today it would be more accurately described as “fake news”.


You may believe that a Grizzy Bear is so named because the people who first spotted the huge beasts used the word “horrible” to describe its size and temperament. This idea has really caught on – with the word “grizzly“ now commonly believed to mean “horrible”.

In fact, the word “grizzly” actually means that something is greying. Grizzy bears’ hair is “grizzled“ – meaning greying or silver-tipped.

Either way, it’s probably best not to describe any elderly family member as “grizzly”.


The word “hone“ tends to be misused because of an error with pronunciation. Hone actually means “to sharpen“ – so you may very well hone a weapon, such as an axe. More commonly, you might “hone your senses“ or your wits by carefully concentrating on something.

Hone is often used in place of “home“ when you “home in“ on something. The similarity in meaning adds to the pronunciation confusion!


Ever heard someone described as “nonplussed” about the idea of a party, holiday, or new job? Although you probably understand this to mean “not bothered“ or “not interested“, it doesn’t actually mean this at all.

The word has its origin with the Latin “non plus“ which means “no more“. In this context, the word literally means that you can take “no more“ information about a subject – as otherwise you would be confused or overwhelmed. 

Therefore, if you are “nonplussed“ – you may be interested but you cannot say or do anything else about a subject.


If someone says they’re going to “peruse“ a menu, it generally means they’re going to take a glance over it, perhaps quite casually. 

Despite this casual use of the word, “peruse“ means quite the opposite. If you were to “peruse” some legal documents or terms and conditions, you’d be reading them in depth and taking in all the detail. 

The actual meaning comes from the prefix “per-“ – which actually means “thoroughly” or “completely”. With this in mind, you might have quite a wait on your hands if a fellow restaurant goes explains they want to “peruse the menu”.


Think you can “refute” someone’s claim? If you’re in a legal setting you should be careful how you use this word – because it doesn’t mean simply that you reject it or deny that it’s true. 

Instead, “refute” means that you can prove something is false. So, refute a claim in a court of law and you’ll need to have some solid evidence to back you up!


If you do something frequently, you might think this qualifies as regularly. For example, if you go to yoga on Monday evening, some time on a Wednesday, and the occasional Saturday lunchtime, you might say you’re “regularly” at yoga.

However, if you subscribe to the strict meaning of the word, you wouldn’t be a regular yoga attendee. 

Regular actually means that you do something in a uniform or predictable way. So, if you go to yoga every other day at 7pm, then you’re a “regular“ yoga attendee. Got a less structured yoga regimen? Then you’re a “frequent” yoga-goer!