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Matinee Blog

The English language is being abused… Literally

I am sure most of you are well aware of the commonly misused word in the title of this blog.

Literally is one of the most widely abused words, (figuratively speaking of course), frequently used to describe something that is not actually happening i.e. “He literally had steam coming out of his ears!”.  Where this phrase is intended to mean someone is really angry.  The word “literally” implies he really does have steam escaping from his ears!

As we have covered in our previous blog posts, the English language has developed over time from a number of different sources, but many words seem to have developed a completely different meaning due to their frequent misuse.


Not many people would describe being chased by a pack of zombies as “terrific” but it would probably be quite an accurate description under its original definition “to cause terror”.  Many of us would use the word “terrific” to describe something “fantastic” or  “awesome”.   Awesome is another misused word.  It’s original meaning to describe the awesome power of God, and incomparable to anything on Earth.  Wow, awesome!

George W Bush

Former U.S. President George W. Bush often misused words in his speeches.  After becoming elected, he said he “couldn’t believe the enormity of the situation”, literally meaning “the extreme evil of the situation”.  The difference in meaning here was fairly “enormous”.   The word “enormity” is often mixed up with the word ”enormous” (meaning extremely large).

“Instant” noodles, aren’t really instant since this defines a specific moment in time.  As in the case of “Instant noodles” most people use it to describe the speed at which something is done e.g.“Her reactions were instant” –  but it doesn’t mean “extremely fast”.  It’s a total misuse!

The word “ultimate” stems from the Latin meaning the last in a list of items.  While I was on Google I typed in “ultimate phone” to find over 300,000 listings.  Most of these listings show the word “ultimate” to describe something as “the best” at something.  We hear people talk about an “ultimate” workout in terms of it being very physically straining and challenging, when actually it means it would be your last ever workout!

Roman soldier

We hear the word “decimate” commonly being used to describe something that has been destroyed or devastated, however its true meaning is actually quite different.  “Decimate” was a punishment associated with the Roman Army around 2-3000 years ago where 1 in 10 men were killed in Legions that failed in their missions.  So when something is described as “decimated”, it implies that 10% of it has been destroyed!  So in reality it would very rarely be able to be applied to a situation in comparison to the word “devastated” which implies something is actually completely destroyed.

“Ironic” has to take 1st place as the most commonly misused word though.  “Isn’t it ironic that it rains on our wedding day?”… Well it certainly is unfortunate, but not ironic since “irony” is when there is an incongruity between what is expected to happen and what actually happens.  So, it is ironic that Alanis Morissette wrote a song called “ironic” full of examples, none of which were actually ironic.  The irony is in the fact that we would expect these examples to be correct due to the sole purpose of the song being to talk about ironic situations!

As we discussed in previous blogs the English language has developed from many different sources and evolved over time into what it is today.  Perhaps the misuse of words has always been a part of human nature and has therefore contributed to many of the words that we use today.  Either that or abusing the English language is only something we have begun to do in recent times.  In any case, we should probably all take a moment to consider our choice of words!