Etymological Evolution: 12 Words Altered By Historical Misuse

They say two wrongs don't make a right, but what about countless wrongs piled one on top of another like corpses on the battlefield? Please don't misconstrue-- this isn't some crackpot justification of genocide. We're not talking the 2+2=5 of politics or religion, here. "How many lights do you see?" "I see four lights." "No, there are five." Nothing like that. What we're talking about is the evolution of words over time-- specifically due to their chronic misuse, mispronunciation, and misspelling. If enough people abuse a word long enough, the Dictionary Dictators have no choice but to begrudgingly accept. Like it or not, this is one of the ways the English language goes through changes. And it's an important one. Without it, the know-it-all armchair etymologists of the internet would have nothing to complain about.

Who gets to decide when the wrong becomes right? According to Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman, authors of the highly informative Origins of the Specious, we all do:

The 'rules' are simply what educated speakers generally accept as right or wrong at a given time. When enough of us decide 'cool' means 'hot,' change happens... correctness is determined by common practice.

So prepare to get angry, as I present to you 12 special words. Words that have had their meaning, spelling, pronunciation or usage changed because the ignorant outnumber the anal. If it helps, you can consider these changes growing pains. Because as long as we got each other, we can take anything that comes our way.


Formerly the plural form of agendum-- a single thing "to do" on a list-- the word agenda has become a singular noun encompassing the entire list itself. Confused? Think about the poor 17th century time traveler who goes into the future. The modern plural of agenda is agendas, so to them it would seem like an incorrect pluralization of a plural, or multiple groups of multiple things that are part of a group.

More recently, the word has taken on a more insidious meaning associated with scheming and proselytizing: religious agenda, political agenda, homo agenda.

See also: criteria, which seems to be headed in the same direction; and data, which has long since become accepted as an abstract mass noun. Poor Latin. Where's Max Fischer when you need him?


Once upon a time, hopefully was a simple adverb living a simple life, modifying verbs and whatnot. But sometime in the swingin' 60's when morals were a' loosenin', it grew in popularity as a disjunct: an adverb or adverbial phrase that modifies a sentence to suggest the speaker's commentary on the content of the sentence. Uptight squares will tell you that using hopefully as a disjunct is incorrect and morally reprehensible, but new-fangled dictionaries are starting to say otherwise. Hopefully people will get with the times, and hopefully they'll do it with hope


I am amused by bemused's linguistic history. Bemused means confused, while amused-- which used to mean preoccupied or distracted, which is similar to confused-- means entertained. You would think educated people would know the difference, but surprise! Ill-informed journalists and broadcasters are forcing the two words to become synonyms. And we are starting to see certain dictionaries buckle under the pressure. Merriam-Webster now includes this third definition: to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement. Many linguists are bemused by the new definition's acceptance, and are in no way amused by it, tolerantly or otherwise.


Alright you Bush bashers, we all know who you want to blame this one on. The word is pronounced noo-klee-er, not nyoo-kyuh-ler. But just because no President has mispronounced it since, that doesn't mean plenty of them didn't mispronounce it before: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and even our coolest president who wasn't black-- Bill Clinton. Bush Jr. just happened to become the target of choice for liberal linguists who were conservative about language. In fact, I'd venture to say it is their fault that nyoo-kyuh-ler is being listed as a variant pronunciation in some dictionaries, albeit one that is discouraged. They are the ones who shined a giant light on that cockroach. So cut W. some slack. At least on this. There's so many other things we can blame him for.


The word unique isn't so unique anymore. It used to be an absolute which meant one of a kind. But in the 1800's its meaning became diluted as people started to use it to mean unusual or uncommon. And to make matters worse, they started adding modifiers such as pretty, somewhat, and kind of. How can something be kind of unique? You can't kind of be one of a kind. Either you is or you ain't.

Sadly, dictionaries are bowing to the pressure of the unwashed masses. The American Heritage Dictionary accepts the more informal usage of the word, but still draws the line at pairing it with modifiers. Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, has gone so far as to accept the inclusion of modifiers as correct usage. Damn liberals.


If you were to comment on the enormity of a person's testicular elephantiasis, you would be correct in your usage of the word, but probably not in the intended usage. Because while giant balls certainly are enormous, enormity actually means horrific or monstrous, which, you know, also applies. Still, some dictionaries are starting to accept the word as an indication of largeness, which purists find to be an enormous enormity.

Interesting side note: Elephantiasis is in danger of being replaced by its own incorrect variation, but remember: no matter how many times you hear it on TV, elephantitus is not a real word (at least until someone decides it is).


This one's a big deal. Certain people will literally start a riot whenever someone uses literally to mean figuratively. I literally stuck my hand up Josh's ass and ripped out his heart when he misused the word literally. Literally!!!

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but hyperbolic use of the word literally is becoming an accepted practice (just ask Merriam-Webster, who seems to be going soft, if you ask me). But before you go reaching for a latex glove and some Vaseline, the usage does have a literary history. Just ask Louisa May Alcott. From Little Women (1868/69):

Then Jo and Meg, with a detachment of the bigger boys, set forth the supper on the grass, for an out-of-door tea was always the crowning joy of the day. The land literally flowed with milk and honey on such occasions, for the lads were not required to sit at table, but allowed to partake of refreshment as they liked freedom being the sauce best beloved by the boyish soul.

Our own Taylor Houston wrote about this very subject in her recent column, 10 Words You Literally Didn't Know You Were Getting Wrong. Looks like not knowing has made all the difference. Sorry, Taylor.


This one's another deal-breaker for purists. LitReactor's Jon Gingerich touched on it in his 20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes column, but it bears repeating. Something is ironic when it is the opposite of the intended outcome or meaning. A coincidence is not ironic, no matter what Alanis Morissette says. Yes, Uncle Joey's spurned ex has misinformed myriad angsty 90's chicks, but that doesn't mean it's too late to save this word. Current dictionaries still balk at the inclusion of the incorrect definition, even if it is accompanied by a catchy tune.


This is a tricky one. What does this word mean, and how do you pronounce it? According to Merriam-Webster, it is defined as: a public official who audits government accounts and sometimes certifies expenditures, and is pronounced as kuhn-troh-ler, or controller. Isn't the English language silly? Just looking at the word you would think it should be pronounced the way it is spelled: komp-troh-ler. And hey, guess what? A lot of people do. So many people, in fact, that the latter pronunciation is becoming preferred.

So why the hell wouldn't they just spell the word controller, the way it sounds? Because back in the day, they actually did. The word originally meant someone who kept a counter-roll, a duplicate set of financial records. But sometime during the 15th century, some ignoramus effed things up by assuming the first part of the word had to do with counting as opposed to countering, and substituted compt-- a derivative of the French and Latin words for count-- for comp. So now both pronunciations and spellings are used interchangeably, willy-nilly.

Though its meaning hasn't changed, see also restauranteur, an erroneous spelling variant that is gaining in popularity due to misuse.


I present for your perusal, the word peruse. Does that mean you will be taking your time to study this entry with care, or are you just going to read through it casually? Because at this stage of the game, either would be correct.

But it wasn't always this way. Before peruse became the victim of definition reversal, and even before it meant to examine in detail, it meant to use thoroughly. So if you were to peruse the stock at a local brothel, you weren't casually inspecting the wares; you had already made your choice and gotten your money's worth. Nowadays, the meaning of the word is much less potent, and I'm sure sex workers everywhere are thankful for it. And speaking of less potent...


The Word flaccid first appeared in print in the year 1620 and meant what it still means today: soft, limp, droopy. Only, it wasn't pronounced flas-id, it was pronounced flak-sid. But people didn't feel that a word whose very definition was soft should sound so hard. So they opted for the softer pronunciation. By the late 19th century this incorrect pronunciation had run so rampant, pronunciation guides tried to stifle it. But by the time the 60's rolled around they began to give in, listing the soft pronunciation as well. Nowadays, the soft pronunciation is listed first, and if someone pronounces the word with a k sound, they are laughed out of the room in a very emasculating fashion.

For another hard to soft error gone legit, see also: niche.


Another word we can't seem to make up our minds about. Fulsome initially meant rich or abundant, which is a positive thing, especially if you were a peasant in the 13th century, from whence the term originated. But then something happened. The word evolved to mean plump or well fed, and eventually overgrown or overfed. Was this a backlash against farmers who were doing well for themselves? By the mid-17th century it had come to mean offensive to taste or good manners. That's not positive at all. Can't the rich ever catch a break?

Maybe they finally are. Since the peace and love of the 60's, the original, positive meaning of fulsome has steadily come back in vogue, especially in the term fulsome praise. And if there's such a thing as too much praise, I haven't experienced it.

These are just a few of the many examples of how we change the English language by butchering it. Do you appreciate a living, breathing language, or are you resistant to change? Which of these examples do you refuse to accept? Any examples I missed that you absolutely loathe? Be sure to let us know in the comments.

Image via Pop Vulture


Joshua Chaplinsky

Column by Joshua Chaplinsky

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor. He is the author of The Paradox Twins (CLASH Books), the story collection Whispers in the Ear of A Dreaming Ape, and the parody Kanye West—Reanimator. His short fiction has been published by Vice, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Severed Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Broken River Books, and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @jaceycockrobin. More info at and

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Jon Harding's picture
Jon Harding from Northwest Territories November 23, 2012 - 1:43pm

Now I'm torn.  Apparently I've been saying niche in the traditional manner (nitch, right?)  Does this mean that most people secretly think I'm an idiot for not pronouncing it neesh?  I don't take it upon myself to correct anyone who says neesh because, well, I'm not a total dick.  At what point am I just wrong? 

I'm holding my ground on literally, though. 

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words November 23, 2012 - 2:13pm

no way am I giving up on "ironic."

and apparently "nice" seems to have gone through a lot definitions over the years, making it uniquer than other adjectives even.

Edward Byrne's picture
Edward Byrne November 23, 2012 - 4:49pm

I would say that we should teach language prescriptively, have prescriptive dictionaries, but also language guides, which would describe how the language is sometimes used outside accepted canon, and be significantly more forgiving of linguistic mistakes. 

We should get better at teaching the language though, I think. I have a friend who was taught the definition of irony by a student teacher using the Alanis song, which then of course became massively ironic.

Don Gwinn's picture
Don Gwinn November 23, 2012 - 7:59pm

I do believe you have been unfair to Miss Alcott.  When she says that the land "literally flowed with milk and honey" when the boys had their tea time outside, she appears to be saying that the boys spilled milk and honey all over the ground.  That would be the correct use of "literally." Did I miss something?

Kurt Anderson's picture
Kurt Anderson November 23, 2012 - 8:09pm

Neither billy clinton, nor barry HUSSEIN soetoro/davis/DUNGham are "cool." 

James Dawson's picture
James Dawson November 23, 2012 - 11:44pm

What about Naive?

I remember my English teacher telling me that there are masculine and feminine variants e.g. A Naive woman and a Naif man.

How many people are aware of the difference?


notgump's picture
notgump from Florida is reading Everything I can about writing November 24, 2012 - 5:14am

I thought one was an adjective and one a noun.

Anyway, I'm too old to go along with all this degradation as evolution. Where murder becomes an "incident," for example.

"The 'rules' are simply what educated speakers generally accept as right or wrong at a given time. When enough of us decide 'cool' means 'hot,' change happens... correctness is determined by common practice." 

This is a two-dimension statement in a four-dimension world. By that I mean if you take the statement literally we have to have an "educated speaker" available to referee every conversation!

(If you take it figuratively, you are better off but not by much,)

I think slang works a lot like this. In the early development of a term you have to know already what the speaker is thinking in order to decode. That's what slang IS. What it is not is communication.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks November 24, 2012 - 3:49pm

I think the evolution of "bourgeoisie" is interesting. Originally, Marx coined it to define the "middle class," but the middle class and lower classes have evolved to the point that middle class and lower class are nearly indistinguishable, which meant that middle class drifted to the proletariat side. So, now, "bourgeoisie" means upper middle class or affluent, while "proletariat" means lower middle class (since there isn't any "middle class" left.)

@James I believe that that's because naive originated as a French word, which sometimes uses "ve" and "f" to distinguish between male/female adjectives. I used the "f" spelling of naive in a French essay, but whenever I use it in English, I stick with "naive." I didn't know some people use the "f" spelling in English. That's interesting.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine November 26, 2012 - 9:25am

Some great examples, especially nice. I had no idea. Thanks for sharing.

@Don: You make a good point, but I still think this falls under the banner of hyperbole. Even if they were dousing each other with milk and honey, is the land flowing with it? Flowing connotes rivers, which makes the phrase itself hyperbolic, even without the 'literally.'

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 November 26, 2012 - 11:20am

Good piece! These are all interesting (and I admit to f'ing plenty of these up) - you know the one that really gets me though and which I thought might be here?


Man, I love that word, but only as the technically incorrect usage, otherwise it just sounds weird. As a result I just don't ever use it...which sucks!

SGJ's picture
SGJ from Midland, Texas (but in Boulder, Colorado, now) is reading weird fiction and horror fiction and science fiction and literary fiction and innovative fiction, or maybe a romance or a western or a magazine on bowhunting or show trucks or anthropology November 26, 2012 - 12:38pm

nice list, solid write-up. and, yeah, I avoid 'non-plussed' as well. such a large part of writing is just avoiding all the goofy words, and laughing at the people who don't.

Jenna Healy's picture
Jenna Healy December 1, 2012 - 1:51am

Ataahh brilliant! Just as I was reading this and reached ironic (a word which I always use correctly!), my partner said he was being ironic (he also used it correctly) - to which I said "That's interesting, I was just reading about the use of that word", and he replied "That's... coincidental?" (Part of the reason he tried so hard to find the right word is because I'm training him in my purist ways).

whitli's picture
whitli March 19, 2013 - 11:12am

I am taking an English class right now at the University of Iowa, in which we are studying literary terms from The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Its definition of "situational irony" actually includes Alanis Morissette's song as a correct example. It left me ruffled and unsure, since I have also learned that her song is more a list of coincidences. 

Sofia's picture
Sofia from London, UK is reading everything August 16, 2013 - 9:35am

I think Alcott's use of literally in the example was metaphorical, not wrong. The land literally flowed with milk and honey=the boys spilled food and drink. The flowing was literal, the milk and honey were figuative.

UKGrammarPedant's picture
UKGrammarPedant October 16, 2013 - 10:21am

I think that Louisa May Alcott was using the word 'literally' entirely correctly in the extract quoted above from 'Little Women'. The boys in Miss Alcott's tale were eating outside and could very possibly have been eating bread and honey, and drinking milk. They were rejoicing in the freedom of not eating 'at table'; the honey may well have spilled liberally and the milk may well have flowed copiously.

TJ Bradders's picture
TJ Bradders September 18, 2016 - 9:23am

Agnostic -
The word agnostic has been turned from a noun denoting Professor T.H. Huxley's principle of agnosticism to an adjective denoting confusion, indecisiveness or lack of belief.
The reason behind this, is that in 1889 Huxley effectively dismissed both theism and atheism showing both to be mired in unjustified know-it-all-ism. The reaction was not to confront this arguments in open debate, but to effectively change the very principle Huxley employed to make his point.


papaclanc's picture
papaclanc September 21, 2016 - 12:15pm

My fave is the fact that "ravel" means the same thing as "unravel."