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If You Don’t Know What ‘Ironic’ Means, Stop Saying It (or Read This Post)

I understand that not everyone is a huge language nerd like me. There’s no reason the average yahoo needs to know words like “defenestrate” and “prelapsarian” (although those are my favorite words, and if you want to impress me, you’ll toss them into conversation).

However, there are some things the average person SHOULD know like what a noun is.

The problem I have with the commonly misused words in this post is that there is no real need to use them. It’s not a to/two/too or a your/you’re or even a they’re/their/there. Those are unavoidable.

The words below are often tossed into business writing and conversation to make the speaker sound smart. However, when there’s an educated listener around, these words have the opposite effect.*

Save yourself the humiliation and stop using these words (or start using them correctly).

What Not To Wear

UTILIZE

What you think it means: “Use” but all fancy and smart-sounding like

What it actually means: To make or render useful, as in for an unintended purpose

You’re using it wrong: We utilized the password to gain access to the security system.

Why you’re wrong: Passwords are designed specifically to get someone past a security measure. This is exactly what its intended use is. However, you could utilize a dismantled taser gun to get past the security measure, as this is not the taser’s intended purpose.

What works just fine: We used the password to gain access to the security system.

Jagged Little Moron

IRONIC

What you think it means: funny, coincidental, weird, interesting

What it actually means: Describing the outcome of events that is the opposite of what is expected, not one effing thing in the Alanis Morissette song (seriously)

You’re using it wrong: I hit a deer on this road a year ago, and I hit another one twenty minutes ago. Isn’t that ironic?

Why you’re wrong: Unless you have received intensive driver’s education training, deer have been removed from the area, and you were going 5 miles an hour in broad daylight, hitting a deer for a second time in the same location is NOT the least expected event. In fact, it’s likelier that an area known for deer wandering across the roadway would be a more likely place for a repeat incident.

What works just fine: I hit a deer on this road a year ago, and I hit another one twenty minutes ago. Should I be driving?

When anger meets adorable

LITERALLY

What you think it means: Extremely, very, like whoa

What it actually means: Exactly what you are describing has actually happened

You’re using it wrong: I was so blown away by Jana’s powerful prose that my brain literally exploded.

Why you’re wrong: As moving as my writing is, it is highly unlikely that a) the human brain would explode outward in response to such inspired words and b) you could discuss it afterward.

What works just fine: I was so blown away by Jana’s powerful prose that I immediately mailed her a large check.

LeVar Burton Approved

NONPLUSSED

What you think it means: The opposite of “plussed” which is, like, upset or something, so… calm? Does it mean calm?

What it actually means: To be so confused that you don’t know what to do

You’re using it wrong: He was surprisingly nonplussed when his girlfriend turned into a werewolf.

Why you’re wrong: The word just plain doesn’t mean what you think it does. You kind of guessed based on what the word looked like or read someone else using it wrong and just went with it.

What works just fine: He was surprisingly calm after his girlfriend turned into a werewolf, because he’d been looking for a reason to break up with her anyway.

Polysemous words rock.

RIFLE (as a verb)

What you think it means: To go through someone’s stuff

What it actually means: To go through someone’s stuff with the intention of stealing something

You’re using it wrong: I rifled through her closet and showed her the pink belt.

Why you’re wrong: “Rifling” is often used interchangeably with “snooping” or “trashing.” Both of these may be associated with the word “rifling,” but neither include the intention to steal the desired item if found.

What works just fine: I searched through her closet and showed her the pink belt. She’d better not accuse me of taking her stuff again.

Do you misuse any of these words? What words you hear other people misusing? At what point does the rampant misuse of the word change the very definition itself? Sound off in the comments below!

Until next time, keep expanding your brand!

Jana

*OH, LOOK, HOW IRONIC.

RIFLE Image Credit
Alanis Morissette Image Credit


Jana Quinn

An old ‘G’ that’s been working for QLP since it was in Bret’s basement – Jana has been writing since she made up a story about a Jana-Tiger that liked rocky road ice cream and got straight A’s. She enjoys writing about marketing and pop culture, posting a ‘Die Hard’ article as often as she’s allowed. She is inspired by the articles at Cracked and frequently wears a Snuggie in the office. You can also connect with Jana on Google+.

Comments

  1. College Dropout Grammar Police

    Wow…

    Why do I have the feeling that someone got a horribly written email today and took her frustration out on the blog?

  2. Jenna

    Excellent post, Jana! Defenestrate is one of my favorite words, too! :D I knew most of the things in this post, but I actually did not know that “rifling” meant that there was an intention to steal. Now I do!

    Another one that really bothers me is “legitimately” — or “legit,” as all of the cool kids say — and even more so when said cool kids say, “legitly.” Ugh.

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks! “Legitimately” is a great word, but it does NOT mean “really” or “very” or “in a great quantity or intensity.” I’m glad to see that you share my pain. :-)

  3. Doc

    Jana, THANK YOU SO MUCH for writing this article. I am also easily offended by people who misuse words and have horrendous grammar. That Alanis Morissette song is one of the most frustrating songs to listen to and I turn it off whenever it’s on the radio.

    I am also easily unnerved when people in the business world write emails in stream of consciousness without any punctuation. It is nearly impossible to follow what the email is saying.

    Great Article!!!

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks! I have retreated from my usual strategy of ranting at offenders and have adopted two new strategies:

      1) Modeling correct grammar and spelling.
      2) Responding to what they SAID, not what (I think) they meant. They communicated poorly; they need others to stop rewarding them by making the leap to fill in the blanks. If lazy communicators are forced to deal with the natural consequences of not putting their thoughts together in a coherent way, maybe the effort to use professional skills will seem worth it.

      My overall annoyance with poor spelling/grammar is not that I think that people are not as smart as me and I have to waste my time with their little pea brains.

      The bone I’m picking is that that people know (or have been taught and not used and therefore forgotten) the rules but do not put in the effort to apply them, assuming that the communication partner will make up the difference. With as much instant access as we have to reference materials, there is simply no excuse for professionals who use writing in their jobs to have poor skills.

      • surferdude

        I hate to be picky, but shouldn’t you have written “people are not as smart as I am” as opposed to “people are not as smart as me?” Your usage of “me” left me nonplussed. :D

        • Murnahan

          I hate to be picky, too, surferdude, but your proposed solution ends with a preposition. Perhaps people are as smart as you. ;-)

          • fred

            He didn’t end with a preposition! The ending of the sentence was “nonplussed and the last time i checked it is in fact an adjective

  4. amy

    Super post Jana! ‘Utilize’ and ‘nonplussed’ were the two that shocked me. After reading I know I’ve misused them before and will now make a conscience effort to only use them correctly :)

    • Amanda

      I had never even heard the word “nonplussed” until this post. The definition of it intrigues me though–I may start using it.

      Thanks for the pointers Jana! =)

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks! “Utilized” sounds so fancy that people use it to spice up a sentence or to sound smarter. With descriptivist language, the word soon WILL include that meaning because it’s so widely understood in that way. Unfortunately, this meaning will have emerged from mass misunderstanding rather than language’s natural development with continued social and technological innovation.

      Are you teasing me with the “conscience” effort? ;-)

  5. Jill Tooley

    Amen! That dumb song annoyed me when it first hit the airwaves. It’s extra frustrating, too, because people assume that everything in the song is ironic and then abuse their “knowledge” of that word by falsely claiming that non-ironic things are ironic. This is kind of unrelated, but I’ve also seen people spell ludicrous like the rapper’s name (Ludacris) instead of using the correct spelling, because they think it’s correct. Ugh…

    Thanks for the chuckle and the refresher course!

    –Your fellow word geek

    • Amanda

      Alanis’ Jagged Little Pill was another one of my first cds. I will forever love that entire album–including the song Ironic, even if it used incorrectly. Oh well. I’d be interested to know if Alanis realizes the lyrics to that song are not ironic, or if what Darren said below is true, and it’s the fact that the song isn’t ironic, that makes it ironic. Interesting concept. ;-)

  6. Mandy Kilinskis

    I had no idea I was using (not utilizing) rifling wrong. Yikes! :/

    Thank you again for all of these grammar/word usage posts. It’s nice to have a reminder!

  7. LK

    Although incorrect grammar usage bothers me, I tend to make up my own words all the time and don’t really care if they are grammatically correct or not. To/Too/Two, and others like it bother me, but I think when I make up words it doesn’t bother me as much because they are obviously made up and incorrect.

    Anyway, I’d like to apologize in advance, if you ever hear me adding -ly, -ness, -age, -ish, and many other endings to words that they should not be added to, please let it slide. :/

    • Amanda

      I’m with ya LK. While I don’t usually make up my own words, I am known for swapping out words that I can’t spell or use correctly in a sentence. I’d have no problem just saying “I’m really confused”–rather than figuring out the work “nonplussed”. Just sayin’.

      The wrong usage of to/two/too and there/their/they’re still bothers me too. But I’ve realized that in today’s fast past environment, sometimes we all get typing so fast we don’t even notice we chose the wrong word or spelled something wrong. Unfortunately, that just seems to be how the world is going….

      • Amanda

        **word, not work. Sorry! See–told ya it happens. =)

        • Amanda

          Wow—ok, I did it again. **paced, not past.

          Isn’t it ironic?? hahaha =)

    • Jana Quinn

      Making up new words (like verbing a noun) doesn’t bother me nearly as much as using an established word correctly. After all, language is alive, and technology and social advances are constantly going to require expanding vocabulary. Word forms have evolved over the years because someone wanted to make a noun into an adjective or a verb into an adverb and applied the “rules” to the root word.

      The only time it gets to me (a little) is when there is already a well-known word with the same meaning as the one you are inventing. :)

  8. College Dropout Grammar Police

    Also, “nonplussed” should be struck from every dictionary in the world. If we now know how to NOT use words like “literally” and “rifle” (as a verb), I think it’s ironic that we aren’t given examples of how to properly use them.

    ;)

    • Dalton

      I’ve never even heart that word. However, to me, it just sounds like something straight from Newspeak in 1984…

  9. Darren

    I think you’re missing the point of Alanis’s song.

    It’s ironic as you are expecting a song about irony but the lyrics are clearly not ironic. At least that’s how I read it – the events in the song are not intended to be ironic, but the entire song is an irony of the term itself.

    Make sense?

    Although you make a valid point in the definition of the word being skewed due to the popularity of the song itself (and the inherent lack of ability in the general masses to grasp the concept).

    • Amanda

      Interesting way to look at it, Darren. I never thought of it that way.

    • Jana Quinn

      I would LOVE to believe you. I really would. However, nothing about Alanis Morissette has convinced me that to believe she is that clever.

      In other news, this is delightful:

      http://www.collegehumor.com/article/229130/lines-from-alanis-morissettes-ironic-modified-to-actually-make-them-ironic

      • Amanda

        I agree Jana. I think that Alanis, along with the writers/producers of the song, thought that song is super ironic! It’s funny really. I just can’t help but still love that song.

    • John

      Yes, the fact that a song named “Ironic” that is filled with a bunch of things that are not actually ironic, *is* ironic in and of itself. But I part company with you when you suggest that this is intentional. I think it’s pretty clearly unintentional. Still ironic, but don’t give Morissette credit for that.

  10. College Dropout Grammar Police

    -10 cool points for defending a Canadian.

  11. Wim @ Sales Sells

    Ah Jana, if only we still lived in peace with the almighty God of Vocabulary, Spelling and Punctuation in our prelapsarian Eden…

    :)

  12. mary

    I’m so happy to see you have found an outlet for your rantings!

  13. Joseph Giorgi

    Excellent and hilarious points! I completely forgot that “rifle” could be used as a verb. Now I’m half-tempted to find a way to use it. Don’t worry though—I’ll be sure to use it properly. I promise. :)

    • Jana Quinn

      Don’t be half-tempted. Be all the way tempted! Go for it! Use a new word every day!

      GO FORTH AND CONJUGATE, MY FRIEND!

    • Amanda

      Agreed. This post is excellent and hilarious! Well done Jana. =)

  14. surferdude

    Jana, one of my favorites is the way some folks use the word don’t instead of doesn’t. They often go even further by including at least one more negative word in the same sentence. Of course it would completely ruin country music lyrics if those words had to be used correctly.

    BTW, being an old retired refrigeration and air conditioning engineer, fenestration is a commonly used term in the trade when computing building heat loads but defenestration seems to imply something violently different. :D

  15. surferdude

    It’s ironic that your attempt at eschewing obfuscation has erupted into a plethora of claptrap. I’ve waited for years to use that phrase. :D

  16. Laura

    I thought the whole point of the song IRONIC was that none of it was irony… making the song itself… Ironic!

    • Jana Quinn

      I honestly wish I could give her that much credit. I really do.

  17. Adam

    It’s ironic that someone who writes an article blasting people for the incorrect use of words would have a mistake in her first sentence. It should read “like I” or “like I am.” Nonetheless, good article.

    • Jana Quinn

      Nope. Nope nope nope.

      While – based on my research – the experts are divided on exactly which version is correct, the fact remains that the use of the accusative/object pronoun (“like me”) is (a href=”http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/3447/i-can-run-faster-than-1-him-2-he/3483#3483″>far more popular.

      Frame it this way: which of the following makes sense?

      I understand that not everyone is a huge language nerd like he.
      I understand that not everyone is a huge language nerd like him.

      If you were to add a verb to the end (as you say with “like I am”), that would be grammatically correct, but it’s not the only grammatically correct choice here. Your version with “like I am” is absolutely correct, but so is “like me.” :)

  18. Hockey Player

    Add infer to your list.

    • Jana Quinn

      Ooh, infer/imply is a nice pair to put in a future article. Thanks for the tip!

  19. GnoMAD

    Loved this post so much! It LITERALLY blew my mind. HAHAHA Kidding. I did forward it to a few repeatedly offending co-workers who like to think of themselves as particularly loquacious. However surely you would rather us mail you a large cheque?

    *edit* My apologies, check is acceptable in American-English, and I am in Ozzyland. Specifically; “In American English, check is the standard spelling of the noun referring to a written order for a bank to pay a specified amount from deposited funds. Outside the U.S., the word is spelled cheque. But cheque is confined to this very narrow banking-related sense. All varieties of English use check for the many non-banking-related senses of the word—including (1) a restraint, (2) a pattern of small squares, (3) to halt, and (3) to inspect for accuracy or correctness.”

  20. Tobias

    I love the way you say, “You’re using it wrong” rather than “wrongly”. Or were you being ironic?

  21. Ardeshir Mehta

    “[...] there are some things the average person SHOULD know like what a noun is.” – JANA QUINN

    … And there are some things a person who claims to be “a huge language nerd” should know, like where in a sentence there ought to be a punctuation mark.

    (Brings to my mind Theseus’ statement in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in response to Quince’s prologue: “This fellow doth not stand upon points” – 5.1.118.)

  22. Ardeshir Mehta

    “RIFLE (as a verb)
    “What you think it means: To go through someone’s stuff
    “What it actually means: To go through someone’s stuff with the intention of stealing something” – JANA QUINN

    Not NECESSARILY.

    From the Oxford English Dictionary:

    QUOTE

    rifle, v.1
    1 e. intr. To make a vigorous search /through/.
    1966 D. F. GALOUYE Lost Perception xiv. 147 He turned to see Weldon Radcliff sitting at a polished desk and rifling through a file holder.
    1977 Woman & Home Nov. 154/2 Grace started to rifle through the contents of her bag.
    1978 Vogue Feb. 88/2 Visitors from all over the world rifle through the tweeds and tartans.

    END QUOTE

    Not even a HINT of any intent to steal.

  23. Dalton

    As a high school student isolated in a generation which seems to ignore English grammar altogether, I can relate to this post. Between hearing “well” interchangeably with “good,” the word “ironic” as if it were synonymous to “coincidental,” the abuse of words such as “like” and “literally” (the latter having been mentioned in your post), the ignorance of “your” versus “you’re,” and mutatis mutandis with the word “their,” I just have to be quiet and resist the urge to correct people, lest they feel I’m unleashing a grammatical contumely upon them. Don’t even get me started on how people talk on the internet. I absolutely detest the ignorance of pronoun/antecedent agreement. For instance: “[Referring to a single person] What are they doing?” It’s supposed to refer to one person, therefore it’s “he” by default. (Unless you know the gender of the person or thing to which you’re referring, of course.) In addition, I hate the ignorance of adverbs, the ignorance of parts of speech in general, which is just horrifying; and, speak of the devil, the complete lack of knowledge on the semicolon. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here.
    On a different note, did you know that “defenestrate” comes directly from the Latin words “de,” in this case meaning “away from the window” or “down from the window,” and “finestra,” meaning “window”? Being a student of Latin, it’s very fun to see the connections between Latin and English.
    Anyways, it was nice reading your post! It’s always great to hear a sane voice every once and a while.

  24. darcy

    Language nerd like I, not me…

  25. David Bernazani

    One of my peeves is when companies misuse the word “quality”. As in, “We offer only quality products and service”. It’s done so much nowadays that it doesn’t even sound wrong any more.
    But what if they also said, “Come in in and buy some for quantity money”? I bet people would notice that.

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