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Darling, you look positively pulchritudinous. OW! No, that's a GOOD thing!
November 3, 2007 2:15 AM   Subscribe

What words do you know which have a strong dissonance between their form and meaning?

I only just discovered that "pulchritudinous" means "beautiful", and not, as I had assumed from its very unlovely sound, some horrible portmanteau of, possibly "sepulchural", "putrescent" and "platitudinous". It just seems like it couldn't possibly be regarded as a compliment by anyone, regardless of what the dictionary says.

Are there words you're aware of you intuitively assumed had a meaning or association very different from their true meaning?
posted by Jon Mitchell to Writing & Language (88 answers total) 102 users marked this as a favorite
 
Darling, you are the pinnacle of muliebrity! Clearly from the distaff side of the family.
posted by alexei at 2:26 AM on November 3, 2007


nonplussed
posted by null terminated at 2:35 AM on November 3, 2007


Crepuscule.
posted by tepidmonkey at 2:39 AM on November 3, 2007


I don’t think I’m the only one to have at first assumed that coruscating meant something like scathing or corrosive rather than sparkly.
posted by misteraitch at 2:47 AM on November 3, 2007


inflammable (a synonym, not an antonym, for flammable)
hoi polloi
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:18 AM on November 3, 2007


apiary
lapidary
Liebfraumilch
puissance
riparian
uxorious
venial
posted by rob511 at 3:22 AM on November 3, 2007


Noisome means smelly, not loud.
posted by goo at 3:26 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Callow. I somehow associated it originally with "callous." It took me many years to realize my mistake because for some reason, context never really provided me with much to disabuse me of the idea. I often have seen "callow youth" as sort of a stand-alone phrase that the author assumes I am not too dumb to understand. Yeah, I'd think. Those damn youths don't care about nothin'!

It's late/early. I hope that made sense.
posted by thebrokedown at 3:32 AM on November 3, 2007


I can never believe "salubrious" is a good thing: healthy, nice etc. It sounds like the opposite to me.
posted by ravcasleygera at 3:33 AM on November 3, 2007


Everyone always thinks "puce" is more of a chartreuse than a mauvey purple.
posted by that girl at 4:28 AM on November 3, 2007


callipygian (and possibly steatopygic, although I think you could imagine massive buttocks when looking at that word.)
phlegmatic
rhotacism (if only because, like lisp, it's designed to enrage the people it applies to)

And I'm sure this list of odd words will have many examples of what you're looking for.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 5:02 AM on November 3, 2007


Glabrous always makes me think of squishy or puffy, even though I know it means hairless or bald.
posted by christinetheslp at 5:27 AM on November 3, 2007


Carminative
posted by bricoleur at 5:53 AM on November 3, 2007


'Dilation' always seemed to me to be a word that sounded more like something closing in rather than the opposite.
posted by h00py at 5:55 AM on November 3, 2007


When I was younger, I thought befriended meant betrayed.

Having a dearth of something sounded like a lot to me as well, but it means very little.

I heard "I'll cut you with a blunt knife" so often in stories as a kid I assumed at some point it must mean sharp, but it definitely does not.
posted by mathowie at 6:03 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


mathowie, you're thinking of "defriended," obviously.

"Enervate" sounds like it should mean "energize," but it actually means "to weaken or lose energy or strength."
posted by Rock Steady at 6:12 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


My pick would be meretricious. It sounds like "full of merit", but in fact means "plausible but false or insincere."
posted by broady at 6:17 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Cunnilingus. Fellatio. Masturbation.
posted by humannaire at 6:32 AM on November 3, 2007


sinecure.
posted by exlotuseater at 6:39 AM on November 3, 2007


Spendthrift, which sounds "thrifty" to me but actually means "spendy" (someone who is reckless with his money).
posted by ethorson at 6:39 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


I've always thought it interesting that priceless is the antonym of worthless.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:44 AM on November 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


I used to think "Much to my chagrin" was a good thing.
posted by yeti at 6:45 AM on November 3, 2007


phlegmatic
posted by greta simone at 7:03 AM on November 3, 2007


Sweetbread.
posted by extrabox at 7:08 AM on November 3, 2007


A spendthrift is the opposite of a thrifty spender. Confusing as heck.
posted by phoenixy at 7:12 AM on November 3, 2007


Temerity sounds like it means 'timid', but it actually refers to reckless fearlessness and daring.
posted by lsemel at 7:18 AM on November 3, 2007


Not so much a dissonance as a complete red herring: "metastasis" doesn't refer to a semi-stable state, even though that's what it seems to say.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:23 AM on November 3, 2007


i always thought felony sounded too close to melody to REALLY mean "serious crime". It flows too nicely.
Unfortunately, no one will change the dictionary for me.
posted by d13t_p3ps1 at 7:27 AM on November 3, 2007


Flaccid, when pronounced with the hard k.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:27 AM on November 3, 2007


Neither "long"n or "monosyllabic" describe themselves, in fact quite the opposite: they describe each other!
posted by kandinski at 7:39 AM on November 3, 2007


I have to nominate "pithy," because it has always seemed to me that it should mean "something that was meant to sound intelligent but which actually is dimwitted or obvious." That mey be just me, however.
posted by planetkyoto at 7:40 AM on November 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


Tantamount is just as grandiose-sounding as paramount, but it means "equal to" instead of "superior to". And is there a -muont word that means "lower than"?
posted by hermitosis at 7:42 AM on November 3, 2007


Also, riffing off of phlegmatic, "sanguine" and all its variations disturb me a little, because the word sounds nice and its meaning is usually cheerful and enthusiastic, but the definition always mentions blood over and over, which is the image I associate with the word.
posted by hermitosis at 7:46 AM on November 3, 2007


Potable. As close to portable as it is, it certainly should mean something similar.
posted by Ms. Saint at 8:13 AM on November 3, 2007


Donnybrook, a suburb of Dublin, has a beautiful name but a bad reputation.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:17 AM on November 3, 2007


Chlamydia sounds like some kind of flower.
posted by Partial Law at 8:29 AM on November 3, 2007


Fecund.

And you probably don't want ot use the word "niggardly" around someone who doesn't know the meaning.
posted by dzot at 8:33 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


secular
posted by Eringatang at 8:49 AM on November 3, 2007


"cleave" usually means cut in two, as with a meat cleaver, except in the bible, where it means stick together "a husband should cleave to his wife."

"impregnable" sounds like "capable of being impregnated" but actually means incapable of being penetrated or impregnated.

"secrete" can mean hide away, or ooze forth, take your pick!

looks like another commenter beat me to "inflammable".
posted by bruce at 8:53 AM on November 3, 2007


It took me the longest time to realize that "hirsute" meant "hairy." I think I associated it with "astute" and assumed it meant "wise."
posted by bibliowench at 8:54 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


someone
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:59 AM on November 3, 2007


"Limpid" seems like it should mean dull or nonenergetic, to me, but it just clear or transparent.

(Great question. It's like synesthesia for words ...)
posted by lisa g at 9:03 AM on November 3, 2007


*just means
posted by lisa g at 9:04 AM on November 3, 2007


Just an aside: "flammable" was actually a coined word for use as a warning sign (as in on tanker trucks) because so many people thought the correct form, "inflammable," meant "not flammable."
posted by charris5005 at 9:18 AM on November 3, 2007


"Baleful" always seemed to mean sorrowful to me, but it means menace.

I was also confused by dearth in the same way as mathowie, because I agree it sounds like a lot instead of a little (possibly because it rhymes with earth). I also always thought puce ("puke") was green.

Prepositions give me no end of trouble. I never related them to actions or directions until I was well out of childhood. I still have to catch myself before I say I'm going up somewhere that's south or somesuch thing.

I hate the word matriculate. I relate it to mater, not matrix. So, I think of it as I do alma mater, and relate it to graduation, not entrance.

"Provincial" always sounded sophisticated to me, in part because Provence is known for great food and wine and is a high-end tourist destination.

Christ, it's a wonder I can speak the language at all. (Yet cleave never confused me. It's one of my favorite words.)
posted by melissa may at 9:21 AM on November 3, 2007


Classy
posted by 517 at 9:22 AM on November 3, 2007


Factitious gets me every time.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:32 AM on November 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


"fulsome" is a good one, though if you look at its etymology, its meaning has shifted and is shifted, or perhaps it means two things--one good, one bad--at the same time
posted by not that girl at 9:35 AM on November 3, 2007


Soporific
posted by The World Famous at 9:54 AM on November 3, 2007


livid
The original definition was "pale, ashen, dull and colorless", but now that's changing because people are taking it to mean "angry, reddish, vibrant", as in "I was livid pissed, my face was so red."
posted by iamkimiam at 10:06 AM on November 3, 2007


Envisage always sounded like it should have something to do with visages, but it doesn't.

Obviate sounds like it should mean "make obvious" but it acutally means "remove the need for."
posted by SoftRain at 10:08 AM on November 3, 2007


"secrete" can mean hide away, or ooze forth, take your pick!

Really? I thought the "hide away" definition was a whole bunch of people making the same typo or back-formation, and that it was actually spelled and pronounced "to secret."

Wordnet has both definitions, but the "hide away" meaning is in past tense, so I can't tell if they're correct or not.

(languagehat?)
posted by librarina at 10:09 AM on November 3, 2007


Chlamydia sounds like some kind of flower.
posted by Partial Law


"No, I thought I was giving you flowers, my bad."
posted by iamkimiam at 10:13 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Fungible sounds like something fun and squooshy like a Teletubby, or maybe a friendly mushroom. But no, it is the cold, soulless, interchangeability of a commodity. As an office drone, for example, I am completely fungible with the next drone. And mom had always told me I was a snowflake.

Anodyne sounds like electron-charged robot skin, not soothing or relaxing.

I don't know how it happened but somehow I grew up thinking inertia meant momentum, sort of its opposite. I still have trouble remembering it correctly, even though I can use inert as a reminder.

Picayune sounds like a slow-moving spiked animal in the tropics, or maybe a sour dish involving pecans or mustard rather than describing something small and trivial

A poltroon should be some sort of Army troop carrier or Marine landing craft, or maybe that military vehicle from GI Joe and I guess real life that makes bridges over small rivers. But no, it means a coward.
posted by Askr at 10:22 AM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


To me "fecund" means something like "rotting" or "nasty" ("the air was full of fecund odours") rather than "fertile" or "productive"
posted by so_necessary at 10:36 AM on November 3, 2007


"Proscribe" sounds like "prescribe," but it means "to condemn".

"Promulgate" means "to bring into law" or "officially announce," but I never associated anything legal to it.
posted by trim17 at 10:38 AM on November 3, 2007


superscillious. super silly? nope!
posted by bluesky43 at 10:40 AM on November 3, 2007


I can't get it through my head that "concur" means to agree, instead of disagree/contest. I think it's because I associate the "con" part with negativity? Every time I hear/read the word, I have to remind myself it's a good thing.
posted by saturnine at 10:59 AM on November 3, 2007


"Askance." Up until last year I thought "looking askance" at someone meant you were giving them a questioning glance ("ask-ance"). Turns out it just means you're looking at them sidelong ("a-skance"). This is one of those words I'd read but never heard spoken, or else I might have figured it out sooner. (Like the ever-popular "misled.")

A couple of years ago, it was "redux," which I always thought was a fancy way of saying "reduced." I therefore thought "Apocalypse Now Redux" was a bizarre title for a version of the film longer than the original. Fortunately, such an obvious contradiction spurred me to actually look the word up for the first time.
posted by kindall at 11:20 AM on November 3, 2007


"Masticate" sounds likes something one would not do in public.
posted by SPrintF at 11:23 AM on November 3, 2007


Refulgent!
posted by pullayup at 11:24 AM on November 3, 2007


wherefore (means why or therefore, not where)

"Masticate" sounds likes something one would not do in public.

Then osculating is right outta the question.
posted by hangashore at 11:29 AM on November 3, 2007


"Upheld" never feels right for me, as in "the complaint was upheld". I feel that this means that the complaint was rejected, whereas it means the opposite. I think this comes from a feeling that the complainant is putting the complaint onto the complainee, and that upholding it means that the person judging this is lifting the complaint away.

I concur about concur, too.
posted by Jabberwocky at 11:31 AM on November 3, 2007


When I first heard the word "melena", I thought it sounded lovely. I'd even heard it used as a female name (with a different meaning in Spanish/Portuguese). Unfortunately, as a term in medical English, it means black, tarry, foul-smelling loose stool. Yuck.
posted by flying kumquat at 12:55 PM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


toothsome
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:00 PM on November 3, 2007


Here's a different take on your question. These words answer the "what words do you know which have a strong dissonance between their form and meaning?" part:

Monosyllabic
Unwritten
Long
Foreign
Plural

Or any other heterological word.
posted by painquale at 1:04 PM on November 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Cromulent was the first thing to come to mind...
posted by schyler523 at 2:04 PM on November 3, 2007


Frabjous, to me, isn't associated at all with what Lewis Carroll intended (fabulous/joyous) but instead sounds negative.
posted by Mapes at 2:20 PM on November 3, 2007


"Behead" should be "dehead."
posted by kirkaracha at 2:23 PM on November 3, 2007


I remember reading a story, possibly apocryphal, about an immigrant couple who moved to America without speaking much English. They had a daughter soon after they arrived, and named her after the most beautiful-sounding English word they had heard: diarrhea.
posted by molybdenum at 3:04 PM on November 3, 2007


preclude
erstwhile
fortnight
retard
posted by Brian B. at 5:10 PM on November 3, 2007


I only recently learned that sleeping fitfully meant sleeping poorly. I always associated it with "fit" as in "healthy."
posted by booth at 6:37 PM on November 3, 2007


Firmament.
posted by ROTFL at 8:24 PM on November 3, 2007


Ooooh. Is that what Baleful means?! Awesome, I learned something today then.

I always think Gelid has something to do with animals, don't ask me why. Gelding maybe? But it means Icy.
posted by gerls at 9:51 PM on November 3, 2007


Enervate. You'd think "instill with energy" but it means "weaken."
posted by rleamon at 8:29 AM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


Frottage. It sounds like it should belong to a much nastier act than what the word is actually used to mean.
posted by kosher_jenny at 2:27 AM on November 5, 2007


I don't know how it happened but somehow I grew up thinking inertia meant momentum, sort of its opposite.

I had that problem too. I think the issue is that when used in physics, it does mean momentum (including, but not limited to, zero momentum). That is, the tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, and the tendency of an object at rest to remain at rest.

I learned the physics definition first, and so it took me a long time to adjust to the common metaphorical meaning of the word.

And I had been misinterpreting "baleful" all the time too, until this thread.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:03 AM on November 5, 2007


I came in here to provide the example of pulchritude, but I see you have that covered, so I will only add that commencement and matriculation have always sounded to me like the reverse of their meanings.
posted by fidelity at 9:11 AM on November 5, 2007


And let us not forget, of course, "Republican" and "Democrat/ic."
posted by DenOfSizer at 8:23 PM on November 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


A word that's already taken this path is obnoxious, which has the archaic meaning of "vulnerable", "exposed to harm". Somewhere along the way, I'd imagine, the meaning became kind of mashed together with "noxious", and we formed the meaning - objectionable, unpleasant - that we have today.
posted by flashboy at 6:24 AM on November 6, 2007


"Meconium" always sounded to me like a Renaissance-era stringed instrument, or possibly a 19th-c. mechanical version of the same. Sadly, it means baby's first poop.
posted by gleuschk at 9:21 AM on November 6, 2007


Bless you, DevilsAdvocate, for disproving my I'm Crazy theory. I DID learn that in 11th grade physics!
posted by Askr at 12:20 PM on November 6, 2007


I've always thought awful/awesome to be particularly fascinating. They're antonyms and synonyms!
posted by Reggie Digest at 8:51 PM on November 7, 2007


so_necessary: To me "fecund" means something like "rotting" or "nasty" ("the air was full of fecund odours") rather than "fertile" or "productive"

Manure.

posted by Reggie Digest at 8:57 PM on November 7, 2007


"Puce" always seemed like a light green, like "puke".

"Metaphysics" as many people use it doesn't really have a whole lot to do with physics or science.
posted by divabat at 12:52 AM on November 9, 2007


Treacle. Brown and sticky, yes, but sweet? I wouldn't have thought so.
posted by Reggie Digest at 11:20 PM on November 14, 2007


Approbation. Perhaps it's due to the embedded "probation."
posted by thebrokedown at 12:30 AM on November 21, 2007


Decimate is one I got wrong for years and years. It actually means to cut something by a tenth - which makes sense if you look at the word - but it sounds so utterly destructive.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:30 AM on November 23, 2007


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