Words and their lesser-known meanings
May 21, 2015 7:00 AM   Subscribe

Help me find very common words with secondary, uncommon definitions.

I love words that are very commonly used for one thing but also have a much lesser-known meaning which is rarely being referenced when the word is being used. Examples would be purple to mean "shocking or profane", blue to mean "indecent or risqué" and august to mean "venerable". Can you please give me examples of other words like this. The main thing is they have to be already commonly used words. Obscure words with fun meanings are also great, but a totally different topic. Thanks!
posted by triggerfinger to Writing & Language (68 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Ejaculate" has a dated definition of "to say something quickly and suddenly." Really threw me for a loop the first time I saw it used that way in an old book.
posted by griphus at 7:04 AM on May 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


I've always thought that 'tight' (as in "to get tight") was an odd bit of slang for 'drunk'.
posted by usonian at 7:05 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


crank as an obsolete meaning of "fan" e.g. of a sport. "I'm a crank of the Brooklyn Trolleydodgers."
posted by blob at 7:13 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


keen - I grew up with it used as an expression of being something interesting, but it's also a kind of deep, penetrating wailing.

Fantastic means "based in fantasy, not reality" according to Reggie of Archie comics, circa 1975. He called Archie's basketball skills fantastic.

mean - my kids see this only as bullying, "He's so mean to that dog", but it also means (ugh sorry) very basic or poor, "Their home was a mean little lean-to that leaked".
posted by tilde at 7:15 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


queer - odd, unusual. "That's queer" was commonly found in mystery novels of the 19th century.
posted by blob at 7:16 AM on May 21, 2015


"Venerable" has a technical meaning in the Roman Catholic Church, to wit, "used as a form of address for a person who has reached the first stage of canonization." It's also an indication of office (archdeacon) in the Anglican Church or the Episcopal Church.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:18 AM on May 21, 2015


piggybacking off of what tilde mentioned, "keen" can also mean very sharp.

lay - most people think of it as lying down, laid out, etc., but it also can be used to refer to the common man. For example, layman, lay clergy, etc.
posted by _DB_ at 7:23 AM on May 21, 2015


Nice, to mean precise.
posted by lollusc at 7:26 AM on May 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


'truck' has a barter/business definition which leads to the phrase, "I hold no truck with [x]."
posted by komara at 7:26 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


terrific: causing terror. "You've got a truly terrific voice, dear."
posted by pracowity at 7:27 AM on May 21, 2015


"Mere" has more meanings than just "only".
posted by invokeuse at 7:31 AM on May 21, 2015


The original/"correct" definition of "decimate" means "destroy 10% of", rather than "destroy a huge amount of", as it is commonly used nowadays.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:31 AM on May 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


"Ejaculate" has a dated definition of "to say something quickly and suddenly." Really threw me for a loop the first time I saw it used that way in an old book.

My high school english teacher - in an all-boys school - tried to teach us this with the following statement:

"Boys, boys, boys, you're not taking this seriously. WOW! Now that's an ejaculation."
posted by entropone at 7:37 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


sanguine-- happy, but also red (is that too uncommon? I read it a lot, but that might be just me)

"make love" in a lot of 19th c./early 20th c. books means talking about love and maybe kissing, not anything the requires nudity.

another one for queer is using it as a verb-- "he queered the pitch" means that someone ruined a scenario in advance by changing the setup at the last minute (so that previous circumstances no longer applied)

boner used to mean an embarrassing mistake. It makes reading early 20th c. headlines/comic books confusing at times.

purple also means overly grandiose or flowery, when talking of purple prose.

abortion used to be a common word for miscarriage.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:40 AM on May 21, 2015


"Awful" usually means "extremely bad," but it also has the literal meaning "filled with awe, filled with or displaying great reverence."

"Career" is a noun meaning "a profession" and a verb meaning "to move or run at full speed; rush."

"Careen" means "to lurch or swerve while in motion" and "to turn a ship on its side for cleaning, caulking or repairing."

"Proud" means "feeling pleasurable satisfaction over an act" and "standing out or raised; swollen" and "excited by sexual desire; (of female animals) in heat."

This is fun! And also a rabbit hole ("the entrance to a rabbit warren" and "a way into a bizarre world.")
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:43 AM on May 21, 2015


I encourage students to use the Oxford English Dictionary. The example I love to give college English 101 students is promiscuous. I tell them that I came across it in an 1830s newspaper article describing a public lecture by someone famous- maybe Emerson, I don't remember. "He lectured before a promiscuous audience" was the sentence that got my imagination going with visions of lecture hall orgies. My students all know the word and they're sometimes eager to volunteer synonyms. Then I pull up the OED on screen and show them that back then it meant a mixed audience, men and women, something rather unusual at the time.
posted by mareli at 7:44 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Here are a bunch of uncommon definitions of common words.
posted by divined by radio at 7:45 AM on May 21, 2015


Smart- pregnant
Patronize - not really rarely known, but it's sort of fun to use both meanings. (to be a patron of and to talk down to)
Incredible- not credible/believable
posted by Flamingo at 7:45 AM on May 21, 2015


These are great so far! I just wanted to add another one that I was reminded of by an answer above: catholic (no capital "c") to mean broad or universal. Keep em coming!
posted by triggerfinger at 7:52 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh, "smart" also used to mean "clean, tidy, on time"

Calling someone "condescending" used to be a compliment, if they were high class but were still kind to servants or tradespeople or new money types. It showed that they didn't think rank outweighed politeness.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:53 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Green" to mean "inexperienced".
posted by Jabberwocky at 7:55 AM on May 21, 2015


"Salty" can mean "racy", but I've also seen people use it to mean "annoyed".
posted by neushoorn at 7:59 AM on May 21, 2015


I once tripped up a literate type by mentioning a "prurient itch." It's a dated usage, I guess, but the origin of prurient is to itch.

Smart also means well-dressed, but nothing shows up for pregnancy...?
posted by kmennie at 8:12 AM on May 21, 2015


Cute: mentally keen; clever; shrewd.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:26 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Retarded" just mans "delayed" so you might have said, "Sorry. My bus was retarded."

"Intercourse" to mean "conversation".

"Dope" to mean information. It's great in 40s movies when reporters are saying "hey I need the dope!"
posted by w0mbat at 8:28 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Before advertising skewed the words, "fantastic" meant unbelievable, as in creating a fantasy. Incredible meant without credibility. It could also mean distrustful.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:33 AM on May 21, 2015


After some confusing emails with a client in South Africa, I found out that "revert" in many English-speaking countries means "reply". Like "I am in traffic but will check the server tonight and revert [to you]."

Like whaaa .... you're going to roll back the server? You're going to turn back into me? I think this started as a misuse but it appears very common now.
posted by freecellwizard at 8:37 AM on May 21, 2015


'Awesome,' to mean 'inspiring a feeling of awe, reverence, or terror' versus the more modern slang 'that sure is nice/exciting/cool/excellent.'
posted by cjelli at 8:44 AM on May 21, 2015


It seems like a lot of these aren't really separate meanings, just different uses. Like "ejaculate" basically means to shot out -- sometimes it's shooting out semen, sometimes it's shooting out words. Catholic means universal and the christian church at one point decided to think of themselves as the universal church. Green referring to fruit or vegetables means un-ripe, that's where the inexperienced meaning comes from. Abortion is a death in utero, some abortions are induced and some natural. Retarded means delayed which is why it was used to refer to people with developmental delays. Intercourse is a kind of interaction, sometimes sexual, sometimes conversational.

It seems like a lot of these are examples of little known or unconsidered etymology rather than different meanings.

I'm not sure what purpose you're collecting these words for, but that seems important to distinguish between words that have little known unrelated meanings and words that have a broader scope of meaning than is commonly used. The examples in the OP are unrelated meanings, but most of the responses have been related to scope of meaning.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:49 AM on May 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


Something I learned from the bastards who write the GRE's: "prodigal" (as in "the prodigal son returns") actually means: "spending money recklessly; wastefully extravagant." It's not, as I had assumed from general usage: "remorseful" or "badly behaved."
posted by colfax at 9:03 AM on May 21, 2015


"Husband" to protect/preserve resources and use them sparingly and wisely.
posted by daisyace at 9:38 AM on May 21, 2015


Cataract means an eye condition, or a waterfall (not unrelated, apparently).
posted by LonnieK at 9:40 AM on May 21, 2015


I was working on a speech by Friar Lawrence...(III,iii)

"...Go, get thee to thy love, as was decreed.
Ascend her chamber, hence, and comfort her"

And that's how I learned all the meanings of "hence."

From here, from this place. (Get the hence Satan!)
From the living, from this world. (After a year of struggle, my daughter was taken from hence.)
In the future from now. (A year hence this will be forgotten.)
As a result. (This was made by hand, hence it is very expensive.)
From now, from this time. (The ship will leave in two months hence.)

It's a good word! Very versatile. We should use it more henceforth!
posted by jasper411 at 9:54 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Normal is an object such as a line or vector that is perpendicular to a given object.
posted by Rob Rockets at 10:26 AM on May 21, 2015


Mortify has a rarely used sense - to subdue (the body or its needs and desires) by self-denial or discipline.

I looked up alternate meanings of mortify because it's so often misused. While its correct and most common denotation is embarrassment, I've heard many people use it to describe fear instead, e.g. "that spider was absolutely mortifying!"
posted by congen at 10:39 AM on May 21, 2015


Tattoo, marking skin with ink and tattoo, a bugle or drum calling soldiers to their quarters.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 10:44 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


"pendant" has an uncommon meaning "counterpart" or "complement", especially with respect to works of art.
posted by kenko at 11:09 AM on May 21, 2015


Spoke, a thin metal rod connecting the hub of a wheel to its edge.
True, to straighten or align, for example truing your bicycle wheel.
posted by Rob Rockets at 11:53 AM on May 21, 2015


"rake" to mean "a man habituated to immoral conduct."
posted by tckma at 12:16 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure if you're counting other dialects of English, but these provide more ready examples for me -

After some VERY confusing conversations with my wife's family, who immigrated to the US from South Africa:

"robot" to mean "a traffic light."
"chemist" to mean "pharmacy" or "drug store."
"boot" to mean "trunk (of a car)."
"bonnet" to mean "hood (of a car)."
"flat" to mean "dead (like a battery)."
"flat" to mean "apartment."

After some VERY confusing conversations with the overwhelming number of British expatriates at a former job of mine:

"pudding" to refer to any dessert, rather than pudding specifically.
"suspenders" to mean "a garter belt."
"rubbers" to mean "erasers."
"fanny" to mean "female genitalia."
posted by tckma at 12:24 PM on May 21, 2015


Oh, also from my wife's family:

"hire" to mean "rent." I wondered for a long time how one could hire an inanimate object, such as a car, before I just asked what the heck they meant.
posted by tckma at 12:30 PM on May 21, 2015


"husband" to mean a back pillow with arms. That one was from an ex-girlfriend, who really scared me when I overheard her refer to "my husband."
posted by tckma at 12:32 PM on May 21, 2015


"Probable" used to mean agreeable, acceptable, good. So you would've said stuff like "indeed, he's a probable doctor, I can recommend him".
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:37 PM on May 21, 2015


A fun trio I like (although which meaning is "commonplace" probably depends on your interests for two of them): there's elliptical, parabolic, and hyperbolic. All of which are descriptions of shapes (an astronomical body's orbit, say, could be any of the three depending whether it's an ellipse, a parabola, or a hyperbola), but in addition they can describe modes of speech: hyperbolic speech indulges in exaggeration or hyperbole, elliptical speech indulges in omission or ellipsis, and parabolic speech indulges in allegory or parable.
posted by jackbishop at 12:57 PM on May 21, 2015


"Sex," as a verb, meaning to determine the sex of an animal.

Also, and sorry if this is too obvious, but "gay" meaning "same-sex attracted" has become so normal and commonplace that the original meaning of "happy or carefree" is becoming obscure, especially to younger people and non-native speakers. (I've found some European people to be quite confused by the Flintstones theme's suggestion of having a "gay old time.")
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:33 PM on May 21, 2015


Pale means light in color.
It also means a fencepost of some type. "Palings" are posts.
"Beyond the pale" means outside of the boundaries.

Braces go on the teeth. Braces support things.
Braces also means "suspenders."
posted by SLC Mom at 1:36 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Intercourse" to mean "conversation".

And "conversation" to mean "intercourse".
posted by kenko at 2:42 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Affect" means facial expression. Or to pretend.

"Mess" is where soldiers eat.

"Butt" is where you store water.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:58 PM on May 21, 2015


Light, nails, thick, boil, book, straw, clock, short, shore, order.
posted by flink at 3:41 PM on May 21, 2015


"Depend" can mean "hang down."
posted by eruonna at 3:51 PM on May 21, 2015


A brace of something, for example rabbit, is a pair.
posted by tilde at 3:57 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Pedestrian:

A person walking

An ordinary thing bearing no real notice.

Learned this from reading the Ray Bradbury story, The Pedestrian.
posted by bilabial at 4:11 PM on May 21, 2015


Another Britishism... the word "revise" is used to mean study, as for a class or exam.

Maybe an obvious one, but I recently realized that the original meaning of the word "draw" was to drag something.... such as a pencil across a page.
posted by switcheroo at 5:52 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


remit, as a noun: an area of responsibility or authority; one usage might be "that is beyond my current remit".
posted by forthright at 7:04 PM on May 21, 2015


"Dear" can mean expensive.
posted by southern_sky at 7:24 PM on May 21, 2015


the original meaning of the word "draw" was to drag something.... such as a pencil across a page.
I think that's where "drawer", the furniture that we store things in, comes from.

"Homely" also means "proper or suited to the home or to ordinary domestic life; plain; unpretentious"

Gunsel has a peculiar history. Originally it meant "a tramp's young intimate companion". However, when Dashiell Hammett wrote 'The Maltese Falcon', he knew his editors wouldn't accept anything like "butt boy", so he described one of the characters as a mob boss's gunsel. Everyone thought that "gunsel" meant "gunman", "assassin" or "hit-man", and the meaning stuck.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:32 PM on May 21, 2015


"pudding" to refer to any dessert, rather than pudding specifically.

To me the oddness is that Americans have a thing that is "pudding specifically". WTF?

Further back in time a pudding was a dish that was boiled, hence "steak & kidney pudding".

And while I'm here - a dish can be something in which you put food, or it can be the food itself.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 9:29 PM on May 21, 2015


To cleave means both to stick to closely ("Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife") and to separate (cleaver, cloven hoof). It's its own opposite!
posted by hydrophonic at 10:13 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


...I recently realized that the original meaning of the word "draw" was to drag something.... such as a pencil across a page

Perhaps even, "to draw and quarter" someone? Yeeek.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:29 PM on May 21, 2015


'Slut' can also mean untidy, messy (but is still, I think, only applied to females).
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 3:11 AM on May 22, 2015


Pale means light in color.
It also means a fencepost of some type.


And in heraldry it means a vertical band down the center.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:27 PM on May 22, 2015


An English teacher of mine once corrected "rasher" to "more rash"... and that's when I learned that rasher = bacon.
posted by invokeuse at 9:40 PM on May 22, 2015


"Clever," in addition to meaning smart or talented, can also mean "skillful in a dishonest way." An example from "The Enterprise Incident" episode of the original Star Trek series:

Romulan Commander: It is unworthy of a Vulcan to resort to subterfuge.

Spock: You're being clever, Commander. That is unworthy of a Romulan.


Also, when I briefly worked in telemarketing, I had someone on the line who told me an advertisement he had received for the service I represented was clever. I told him I was glad he liked it. He thundered at me that he did not like it at all. I had to go back to Spock to figure out what he meant.
posted by bryon at 12:32 AM on May 24, 2015


Also, when I briefly worked in telemarketing, I had someone on the line who told me an advertisement he had received for the service I represented was clever.

There is a separate term for what he meant, which is "clever-clever".
posted by w0mbat at 2:42 PM on May 29, 2015


In British usage, to "table" legislation means to "introduce for discussion and possibly voting".
In American usage, to "table" legislation means to "defer or postpone indefinitely".
They are exact opposite meanings.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:36 AM on May 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


Cotton, the fibre, blends well with other fibres, particularly wool, linen, and polyester. So the word "cotton" has acquired several meanings like, "to get along well together", "to agree", and "to come to an understanding with someone".
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 3:47 PM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


When I was reading Angela's Ashes years ago, I noted that each chapter ended with someone dying of "consumption", which I didn't know at the time meant pulmonary tuberculosis.
posted by blueberry at 8:47 AM on June 1, 2015


"Quarrel" is an archaic word for a square-headed crossbow arrow, a square- or diamond-shaped pane of glass, or several tools with pyramidal heads.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:44 AM on June 15, 2015


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