Misunderstood Words

Some words go through their lives feeling misunderstood. Here are some I notice, standing in dark corners at parties. They always look around awkwardly when people use them incorrectly.

The first word is nonplussed. Years ago it was pointed out to me by the witty and wise editor Lonnie Hull DuPont that nonplussed means a strong reaction to something, while most folks use it to indicate the opposite. It looks rather bored with that "non" in front. On the contrary, it's not bored at all - only puzzled, perplexed, and unsure how to respond.
Ohmygosh! It's snowing in August! Everyone's nonplussed about this weather!
The second word is prose. "That's beautiful," someone commented about a piece of writing. "It's almost . . . prose." He meant that it was almost poetry. Prose is "ordinary" writing, as opposed to poetry. It may refer to things that are dull. It has a lovely, posey sound, though - maybe that's why the misunderstanding. And prosaic rhymes with mosaic - but it really shouldn't; it's about being artless not artful.

Another of my favorite misunderstood words is tenterhooks. You'll hear people say, "She's really on tenderhooks, waiting to hear back from the agent." Which makes sense in a mondegreen sort of way. We're feeling tender and tense when on tenterhooks. It all makes sense when you learn what a tenter is, and the word's origins.

There are many more misunderstood words. Watch for them.In the meantime, try my favorite strategy. When in doubt about a word, make up an entirely new one.

All right, little words. You can come out of your corners now.

Do you have a handle on a word widely misused?

1 comment:

  1. I'm confuzzled. My daughter made that up.

    I love the personification - words are alive!


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