You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means: Part Two.

18 Mar

Last night, I played a game of Quelf with my best friends and my fifteen year old brother.  Quelf is a long, crazy game full of crazy questions and rules that test the limits of propriety.  In this way it is similar to the Republican Primary Debates, minus all the sweater vests and power ties.

One category of cards you might draw in Quelf is labeled “confidential,” and those cards instruct the person who has drawn the card to do something (usually strange or embarrassing) for a certain amount of time without explaining it.

My brother–who, it should be noted, was a great sport for playing Quelf in the middle of the night with a bunch of 25-year-old girls drinking wine out of a bottle with a straw–drew one of these cards.  He read the card, laughed, turned a little red, and then shrugged and stood up and did one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen him do: he pulled up his shirt, closed his eyes, and started jumping and doing alternating high-kicks while rubbing and slapping his belly.  After about thirty seconds, he finally stopped, and, wiping away tears of laughter, we asked him what his card had said.

He replied, “It said to belly dance.”  Then a pause: “I didn’t really know what that was.”

Sometimes people do not know what words mean.

So welcome to the next installment of our esteemed series When You Use These Words and Phrases Incorrectly, A Bunny Gets Strangled by a Rainbow: Part II.

1. Enormity

Enormity is often used to mean “hugeness.”  However, enormity is actually (primarily) defined as outrageous or evil character, or something especially heinous or atrocious.  If you want to talk about something hugeness, the word you’re looking for is “enormousness.”

2. Penultimate

Penultimate is sometimes used interchangeably with the word ultimate, meaning the last or the greatest.  However, penultimate actually means next to last: you know, like that lie you tell yourself about the status of the current potato chip you’re eating.  However, since the meaning of ultimate has changed (it technically means the last or final installment of something, but we’ve changed it to mean the greatest or top example of something), I’d argue that penultimate’s definition has shifted with it.  If ultimate’s meaning has changed from meaning “last” to meaning “first,” then it would be logical to say that penultimate’s meaning has changed from meaning “second to last” to “second best.”  Or you could use it like I do, which is as a fond nickname for my favorite fine-tipped, black ink Bics.

3. Discreet vs. discrete

Discreet means exercising self-restraint in character, word, or action.  Discrete means separate or distinct.

A version of the word was also used by street-wise tour guides in in Greece.  You know, as in, “Yo.  Dis Crete.”

4. Flammable vs. inflammable.

Surprise: they both mean the SAME THING!  Flammable and inflammable both mean easily ignited or burned.  Some people think that inflammable means the opposite of flammable, as in “not easily ignited or burned.”  But the word you’re looking for there is “water.”

5. Compliment vs. complement

Compliment means an expression of praise or gratitude, or the act of praising someone. Complement means to make something whole, to balance it out or to complete it.

If a compliment is a kind word, then, and a complement balances out something, then I would say that a compliment is the complement to what I have to assume is the perpetual theme at Clint Eastwood’s house: angry silence.  Also, belts made of chin gristle.

6.  Belly dancing.

A lot of people assume that this is a traditional Middle Eastern dance involving shimmying of the hips and general body undulations.  But actually, this is a mistaken Western understanding of an ancient art wherein pubescent boys rubbed their stomachs while doing high-kicks in an ancient move called “Santa Meets the Rockettes.”

Editor’s Note: The actual meeting between Santa and the Rockettes went nothing like this.  They actually did not have much to talk about, and after about an hour of awkward small talk, the Rockettes suddenly remembered that they had a job interview they had forgotten about, and they really wanted to get there early so they could … wait for it … get a leg up in the industry.


4 Responses to “You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means: Part Two.”

  1. Mando Commando March 21, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

    Duh! If I was given a dollar every time I threw out “penultimate” to describe HP7-1, I’d have like 7 dollars. No bunnies strangled by a rainbow on my account!

    No need for complements. Wait…

  2. steve June 12, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    : an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act
    : the quality or state of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous; especially : great wickedness
    : the quality or state of being huge : immensity
    : a quality of momentous importance or impact

    • rianeisgrammarsaurusrex June 13, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

      Keep in mind that dictionaries (especially in this, the era of the Internet) often begrudgingly adjust to include inappropriate definitions because they are in vogue with the American public; other dictionaries often will refuse to do so, and more importantly, style guides (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.) will not consider those definitions correct. Language constantly evolves, and sometimes it is silly to resist it: I myself am somewhere in the middle when it comes to prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar. But when a word is supposed to mean something and stops just because we THINK it sounds like it should mean something else … that’s just silly.


  1. The art of Belly Dancing | - March 19, 2012

    […] You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means: Part Two. ( […]

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