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Led Astray By Context:

I'm looking for examples of how people have learned a new word or phrase from context -- but learned it incorrectly, either (most amusingly) because they interpreted an ambiguous term the wrong way, or (probably more commonly) because they didn't learn an important limitation or qualification that just wasn't raised by this particular context.

Can any of you contribute such examples from your own history, or that of your friends -- preferably funny examples? I'd like to use some such examples as cautionary tales in something I'm writing, but for some reason none come to my mind right now (even though I'm sure this has happened to me in the past). Please post the examples in the comments. Thanks!

Senor Chumbawumba (mail):
I recently discovered (and this as a 1L) that the word "chastity" doesn't usually mean "sexual morality" but rather "abstinence" or "celibacy." The ordinary usages of the words are virtually synonymous.
11.15.2005 6:45pm
Just John:
I believe Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, once told a story about a child who asked his parents where babies came from. After some hemming and hawing, they eventually explained that Mommy and Daddy "had sex" and that it had something to do with Mommy and Daddy being close, but left out most other details. Some time after, at a dinner party that both the parents, the child, and Miss Manners herself were attending, the father happened to put his hand on Miss Manners's shoulder. "Mommy! Mommy!" shouted the observant child. "Daddy is having sex with Miss Manners!" Miss Manners later reflected that she had never gotten a room's attention so absolutely focused on her before or since.
11.15.2005 6:52pm
DanB:
My younger brother (he was about ten at the time) learned a word from a medicine ad on TV. He didn't understand the laughter when he announced at the dinner table, "I think I have a hemorrhoid on my elbow".
11.15.2005 6:57pm
JFP (mail):
The new edition of Harpers Magazine (Dec. 2005, p.19-20) has a list of funny sentences by high school and college students, some of which involve malaproprisms. They are pulled from a book by Richard Lederer, The Revenge of Anguished English, that was published this year.

Many of the sentences from Harpers are not what what you're looking for ("The cause of dew is the earth revolving on its own axis and perspiring freely.") but some might be useful ("Dinosaurs used to smell bad, but they don't anymore because they are extinct.").
11.15.2005 6:58pm
alkali (mail) (www):
11.15.2005 6:58pm
David Rose (mail):
I recall a published letter to the editor in, I believe it was Car and Driver magazine, wherein a reader excoriated the editorial staff for reporting that the storage capacity of the trunk of a reviewed Buick sedan was niggardly. The writer wrote something like: "Hey, black people like nice cars, too, so cut out the racist crap."
11.15.2005 6:59pm
Richard Samuelson (mail):
Not sure this is quite what you're looking for, but it might amuse some people. When taking the SAT, a question had to do with the meaning of the word "throng." Since my school had us read Chaucer in middle English, I remembered the phrase, "gan pullen up the smok and in he throng." Alas, that was not the meaning they had in mind.
11.15.2005 7:00pm
Moshe (mail):
Again, not exactly what you're looking for, but my wife was convinced for years that 'misled' is the past tense of the verb 'misle'--pronounced MY-zel, and meaning to trick or deceive surreptitiously. She had never made the connection between the spoken and written forms of 'misled' and the instances where she had seen it written were sufficiently ambiguous to allow such an interpretation.
11.15.2005 7:08pm
Mark H.:
Until reading Guy Kawasaki's Rules for Revolutionaries, excerpt:

For the longest time, I thought that hoi polloi referred to the elite, upper crust of people (after all, it is a foreign and therefore hoity-toity sounding word).

I had thought the same and for the same reasons.
11.15.2005 7:08pm
Robert F. Patterson (mail):
I used to be in charge of collecting the $1 per person admission to our high school football games. School was at the top of the hill, and I had eight senior class girls helping me, two at each of the four approaches to the school. I stayed at the center to solve the problems that might arise with youngsters trying to get in without paying.
I was supervising two of the girls, seventeen or eighteen year olds. Within close ear-shot of me, one was telling the other of her recent visit to the dentist. "He (the dentist) put this soft thing in my mouth to get the imprint of my teeth, and then he told me to masturbate." Of course she meant masticate. I had to pretend I had not heard.
11.15.2005 7:09pm
Krishl (mail):
Well, this is tangential, but I think it's funny and has something to do with misinterpretation. A couple we knew had their second baby on the way, and their little toddler knew a thing or two about the birds and bees. One Sunday in church, a rather fat man sat beside them in the pew, and the little boy patted him on the stomach and said "Got a baby in there, don't you?"
11.15.2005 7:13pm
A. E. Steinbach:
My mother is British so I used to use terms I learned from her without realizing that they were more British English than American English. This has lead me at least once to attempt to make a distinction in meaning between the British term and the American term where there really is none. I used to believe that the term napkin was intended to mean only those dinner table linens made of paper, while serviette was the proper term for those made of cloth.
11.15.2005 7:18pm
microtherion:
Language Log had an interesting explanation of how the word "twat" made it into Robert Browning's poem Pippa Passes.
11.15.2005 7:25pm
The Shadow:
This may not quite fit your requirements, but neither do the ones above! I grew up watching "Star Trek", and as a result came to think that the word "sentient" means "intelligent", because that's the way it seems to be used on the show. I've come across other Star Trek fans who misuse the word in the same way.
11.15.2005 7:26pm
Anonymous1L:
My parents love to tell a story from when my two brothers were growing up. On a road trip, the younger one, a little boy at that point, saw some cows on a farm they were passing by. He asked what they were and the older one said "they're called Charlies." So for some time afterward, whenever my little brother saw cows, he would jump around and excitedly say "Look at the Charlies! Look at the Charlies!" to everyone.
11.15.2005 7:28pm
B. Foster:
If this is funny at all, it's more for the reaction than my mistake.

During my freshman year of college I took a history of philosophy course in which we read Berkeley's Dialogues. Somewhere in there was the word "obviate" which I had never seen before. Rather than looking it up, I guessed from the context and the spelling that it meant "to make obvious."

I then used the word in that sense in the next paper I wrote for that class. The professor's comment in the margin: "This is NOT ENGLISH!!!"
11.15.2005 7:29pm
RhiannonStone (mail):
This happened just today in class, actually: the young lady leading the discussion on the assigned reading (an essay about nature vs. nurture with regard to gender differences) took the phrase "Is the Pope Catholic?" to mean the same thing as, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" (I guess she thought it meant, "Which came first, the Pope or Catholicism?") and based much of her discussion around it. I felt bad correcting her in front of the whole class but no one had any idea what she was talking about.
11.15.2005 7:44pm
Eric:
Bourgeois is frequently misused by the democraticunderground types, unfortunately the best example I found was a horrible misspelling so I can't find it.
11.15.2005 7:52pm
Bruce Lagasse (mail):
"I used to believe that the term napkin was intended to mean only those dinner table linens made of paper, while serviette was the proper term for those made of cloth."

The first time I ate in a British restaurant, I was corrected about the napkin-serviette distinction as follows: Serviette was the generic term for any sort of towel, either paper or cloth; napkins were what women used once a month.
11.15.2005 7:52pm
Jerry Mimsy (www):
Perhaps along a similar line to the Pope being Catholic, for long-forgotten reasons I have always, from a very young age, connected the phrase "never look a gift horse in the mouth" with the story of the Trojan horse. Thus, I took it as a sarcastic statement that one should *always* look a gift horse in the mouth. Be wary of gifts from people who are likely to have antagonistic or ulterior motives. If I don't stop to think about it, I still do take it that way.

(Fortunately, I guess, few people in San Diego use that phrase.)
11.15.2005 8:02pm
Craig Richardson (mail):
My parents were amazingly tolerant WRT censoring my reading material (figuring that anything I wasn't ready for would bore me - and they were right more often than not). So I was able to read Dan Jenkins's hilarious gridiron novel _Semi-Tough_ well before I was able to understand all the nuances.

Well, there was one passage in which he used a number of terms, all vaguely disparaging, to (in the narrator's voice) describe a character. One of them was "pimp". Since I recognized a number of the other terms as being "merely" insulting, I figured this one was as well.

So I used it when I was irritated at a slightly older boy (I think I was 12 and he was 14). He clued me in to the connection with the prostitution industry, to my embarassment.
11.15.2005 8:03pm
CCMCornell (mail):
Craig,

I think you'd find a different explanation today, since "pimp" and "pimpin'" are compliments.
11.15.2005 8:16pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Well, to continue the running "napkin" theme here, as a (pre-pubertal) child I once put a coin in a bathroom "sanitary napkin" dispenser, expecting one of those cleanser-infused handwipe thingies, and was most confused by what actually emerged. I think I gave my mom the laugh of her life when I recounted this.

Not really what Eugene needs, though . . .
11.15.2005 8:18pm
Ninomaniac:
When I was about 8, I was watching a movie that depicted a dogfight (between fighter planes). One of the pilots said something like "that bastard at 11 o'clock is shooting at John, I'm going to go help him." I thought "bastard" was another word for "bad guy" or "opponent." A few days later a group of friends came over and we, along with my sister, played capture the flag. My sister ran toward my team's flag, and I yelled out "that bastard is about to get our flag." My Mom was really, really angry until I explained why I said it.
11.15.2005 8:22pm
Chukuang:
When I was but a wee lad, I often heard older boys in the neighborhood call each other "dildos." Since it was a goofy sounding word and was used so freely, I assumed it meant something like "doofus," "idiot," etc. I discovered I was mistaken when I reported to my mother that my younger brother wouldn't stop being a dildo.
11.15.2005 8:32pm
IT Guy:
One of my Russian professors in college told us the story of a fellow Russian immigrant friend of hers who thought that the word "xing" was the name for deer, because she saw lots of signs with a picture of a deer with the word "xing" below it.
11.15.2005 8:38pm
Bemac (mail):
Not a funny example, but the use of "beg a question" for "raise a question."
11.15.2005 8:56pm
Anonymous coward:
My dad tells the story of his medical training in London for one year in the '60's. He was a born and bred Brooklyn-er, and hadn't quite mastered the English idioms. During a particular medical procedure while he was in London, a nurse made a simple mistake and the English doctor asked my father how they'd handle such a situation in the United States. My dad, exuding Yankee confidence (and a pre-PC mentality), replied "well, we'd just slap her on the fanny and tell her not to let it happen again." There was a looooong silence in the room, and then the English doctor observed, "please do remember that over here, 'fanny' is dorsal, not ventral."
11.15.2005 8:58pm
AWT (mail):
I used to think that a "drinking problem" was when you couldn't get your lips around a glass like a normal person, and instead tossed your drink onto the front of your shirt a la Ted Striker on Airplane!

"Striker?! I hardly know her!"
11.15.2005 8:58pm
Jay (mail):
Neither of these are very amusing, but I think are examples of what you describe.
1. Like many other people I guess, I frequently used the word "disinterested" in my writing to mean the same as "uninterested," until about 10 years ago I was corrected by a friend who gave me the correct definition of "disinterested" as "neutral" or "impartial."
2. When I was a kid I always thought "virgin" was term to describe a religious or holy person (i.e., "Virgin Mary.") In 4th grade we had an assignment to generate sentences that incorporated the spellings of U.S. states in the sequence of letter in the sentence, such as "This is the MAIN Entry to my house." So I put, "Is she a VIRGIN, I Asked," prompting my teacher to ask me whether I knew what the word really meant, then providing me with the awkward explanation when it was clear I did not.
11.15.2005 8:59pm
Jacob (mail):
This probably isn't exactly what you're looking for, but the eggcorn database (http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/) might be a place to check out. It fits the theme of learning a phrase incorrectly.
11.15.2005 9:09pm
guest (mail):
Perhaps not quite what you're looking for, but when I was a kid the sports pages used to change f**king (and other profanity) in quotes from ballplayers to "bleeping", as in "I can't believe that bleeping bleepity bleep hit the bleeping ball out of the bleeping park." I thought "bleeping" was a profane word that ballplayers used.
11.15.2005 9:19pm
FXKLM:
In my first year of law school, I remember a professor asking a student if he knew what loss of consortium was and the student said "I think it's some sort of business tort." That was hilarious.

BTW, if the person who said that is reading this thread, don't be too embarrassed. I don't actually remember who said this. I just remember the comment itself.
11.15.2005 9:23pm
Master Shake:
A friend of mine has often used the term "nonplussed" to mean somewhat the opposite of what it actually means, my guess being because it sort of looks like "non-flustered" or something like that.
11.15.2005 9:36pm
big dirigible (mail) (www):
Here's one I ran into, and you probably all have too - the idea that a "gunsel" is a gunman. Sam Spade calls Wilmer, Casper Gutman's torpedo, a "gunsel" in "Maltese Falcon". In fact, he does it twice. Everyone assumes the obvious, and incorrect, meaning. I see it in print fairly frequently. Lileks has used it twice that I've noticed in his various columns.

Philip Marlowe liked to work contemporary prison slang into his "hard-boiled dick" stories, partly for an air of authenticity, and partly to put one over on zealous editors. A gunsel is, according to my favorite (albeit bombastic and circumlocutionary) definition, Depression-era American prison slang for "a young man kept by an older man for purposes of pederasty." The context in "Maltese Falcon" certainly makes that plausible, if you recall the Joel Cairo character.

Since I mentioned "torpedo," people generally interpret that incorrectly, too. It is Latin for "numbness." In crime fiction-speak, it means "stupid" - same root as "torpor," "torpid." Not inappropriate when applied to a thug.
11.15.2005 9:37pm
Freddy Hill (mail):
Then there is the old Far Side cartoon: A dog sits in a car excitedly telling his doggie buddies, "After we go to the store my master is taking me to the vet to get tutored."
11.15.2005 9:42pm
Argle (mail) (www):
I thought I knew what the word "libertarian" meant till I saw it being applied in odd ways around here.
11.15.2005 9:50pm
Byomtov (mail):
One of my Russian professors in college told us the story of a fellow Russian immigrant friend of hers who thought that the word "xing" was the name for deer, because she saw lots of signs with a picture of a deer with the word "xing" below it.

A friend who learned English while growing up in Sweden told me he had no language problems when he came to the US, except that when he saw a sign that said "ped xing" he had no idea what it meant, and just assumed he was in a Chinese part of town.
11.15.2005 9:51pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
In my experience, people often get the following words wrong when drawing from the context:

"Penultimate" doesn't mean really really ultimate; it means, basically, second-most.

If you're "ambivalent" about something, it doesn't mean you don't care about it; more properly, it means you're conflicted, or torn.

- AJ
11.15.2005 9:52pm
Chukuangzi (mail):
Byomtov,

"Xing" is coincidently the Romanization for a Chinese word meaning, among various other things, "to walk," making it especially apt in this case.

As for symbols being misunderstood, before hitting the 1st grade, I thought the thing that I would later learn was a map of the US was the symbol for "weather."
11.15.2005 10:09pm
Frank Kingery (mail):
My wife tells me that, as a child, she learned that drinking "non-fat or skim milk" as opposed to regular milk was a way to lose weight. From this context, and from that point forward, she says she referred to this drink as "skin milk" because it made people skinny.
11.15.2005 10:10pm
Dave in US:
When I was about 13 or 14, my school friends were using expression "on the rag" a lot to mean hostile, irritated, angry, etc. I was unfamiliar with the origin of this expression, and my mother didn't appreciate it a lot when I used it in that context at home (especially since she was already angry about something else when I used it to refer to her attitude at that moment).
11.15.2005 10:30pm
Jack Diederich (mail) (www):
I thought "approximate" meant "extremely precise" for too many years. The cause was the scifi movie staple where a scientist (or smart ass) is asked for an estimate and answers "approximately twenty four point oh oh five nine minutes."
11.15.2005 10:40pm
Mark H.:
Re: Deer Xing.

As kids we used to picture deer making x's in the snow with their hooves and wondered why anyone would put up a sign to acknowledge it...
11.15.2005 11:04pm
Michael B (mail):
Homer Simpson deserves a mention: "Weaseling out of things is important to learn. It's what separates us from the animals...except the weasel." h/t, The Crazy Rants of Samantha Burns
11.15.2005 11:16pm
Paul Johnson (mail):
At one time in my youth, I thought I wanted to become a priest. I read a classic book called "The Cardinal," in which one of the characters said about another -- who was bound for the seminary -- that he should join one of the priestly orders (e.g., Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, etc.), because there was "not a trace of the secular about him." As a good Catholic boy, I understood that there were priestly orders, and there were diocesan priests. One who was not in an order was a diocesan priest.

So, when I told my mother that I wanted to become a "secular" priest (meaning diocesan as opposed to an order), she looked at me very strangely, and I did not know why until many years later.
11.15.2005 11:25pm
Pius XXX:
I once had to bring up a problem to a superior at work, to which she responded "well, i guess we're gonna have to speak with x and nip this issue in the butt." "excuse me, did you just say, 'butt'???" There was much confusion and disbelief. Apparently she never saw it in print nor did anyone ever enlighten her.
11.15.2005 11:27pm
Skip (mail):
Here's one from the first line of a personal profile currently on-line: "I am a warm, responsive woman, with simplistic tastes ....."
11.15.2005 11:28pm
RMM (mail):
When my granddaughter was very young she would stuff her mouth full of food without swallowing. We would have to prod her by saying "Down the hatch" until she swallowed. Later, she had a cold and a sore throat and would complain, "My hatch hurts."
11.15.2005 11:37pm
mark h (mail):
i used to assumed that "indifferent" necessarilly means not caring one way or the other, which used to make me curious because the episcopal liturgy (rite one, i.e., the old version) describes God as an "indifferent" . then i read c.s. lewis, who explained that the older (and more correct) definition of indifferent is impartial or unbiased. i just looked it up on m-w.com, however, it seems so many people have made this mistake that now "unbiased" is an acceptable, if secondary, definitition of "indifferent."
11.15.2005 11:47pm
NYU Jew (mail):
I learned recently that "with all due respect" is not as respectful as I thought it was.
11.15.2005 11:54pm
NYU Jew (mail):
as I thought it is.
11.16.2005 12:06am
NYU Jew (mail):
This from Dictionary.com:
Historically, flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. However, the presence of the prefix in- has misled many people into assuming that inflammable means “not flammable” or “noncombustible.” The prefix -in in inflammable is not, however, the Latin negative prefix -in, which is related to the English -un and appears in such words as indecent and inglorious. Rather, this -in is an intensive prefix derived from the Latin preposition in. This prefix also appears in the word enflame. But many people are not aware of this derivation, and for clarity's sake it is advisable to use only flammable to give warnings.
11.16.2005 12:09am
EDS:
These malapropisms remind me of a widely cited story about President Bush's first year at Andover:



Bush also was struggling in class. For his first essay - on emotions - he wanted to impress his "eastern professors" by using "big, impressive words." Looking for a way to describe "tears" running down his face, he consulted the Roget's Thesaurus that his mother had given him. He replaced "tears" with the word "lacerates."

The teacher marked the paper with a zero so bold that "it left an impression all the way through the back of the blue book," Bush wrote.

(From Knight Ridder)
11.16.2005 12:18am
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
Many years ago, a young cousin reported that he had learned in Sunday School that Pontius the Pilot took Jesus up to Heaven in an airplane. I believe Sunday School misunderstandings are an entire genre of humor, though I don't have any other examples.
11.16.2005 12:29am
Tom952 (mail):
Growing up, I mistook the phrase "dubious distinction" to be a form of praise. Thankfully, I looked it up before I seriously embarrassed myself (again).

The oft misused Spanish term "mano a mano" does NOT mean "man to man", but "hand to hand".
11.16.2005 12:32am
Passing By:
My little brother and his friends, many years back, were watching the video for George Michael's "I Want Your Sex". They were all about thirteen at the time. The video's moment of mixed messages comes when Michael writes "monogomy" in lipstick on a woman's leg. One of the friends asked, "What's monogomy?" My brother answered, "I think it has something to do with a woman's anatomy."

I mentioned to a friend a while back that I was feeling "a bit peckish'. (My years in Britain were showing.) He looked puzzed, and asked why. "I haven't eaten for a while," I replied. "What does that have to do with it?" he asked.... This ended with his explaining that based upon his experience watching British television programming, he thought "peckish" meant "arrogant". (Apparently, British television stars seem a bit haughty as they announce their intention to have a snack.)
11.16.2005 12:42am
DRJ (mail):
Flammable/inflammable seems like a winner. It may not be humorous but it definitely fits the concept of a "cautionary tale".
11.16.2005 12:42am
Defending the Indefensible:
College history professor teaching a course on Medieval Law and Government was talking about trials in those days. A student inquired about perjury, and the professor replied that it was unlikely to happen, because people in those days believed that God was IMMINENT. And she wrote it on the board, just so. Another student asked her what that meant, and she replied, "Just about to happen."

When she was asked, don't you mean "immanent" she replied, no, she did not mean EMINENT, and wrote that word on the board as well, just so.
11.16.2005 12:47am
Matt22191 (mail):
Along the lines of IT Guy's story:

The first time she visited Germany, my wife -- like innumerable tourists before her -- was nonplussed to observe that seemingly every autobahn exit led to the town of Ausfahrt. She finally asked a friend who spoke fluent German, "if this Ausfahrt place is so big, why haven't I heard of it?" (Explanation here, for those who don't know the punch line.)

And long before I met her, my wife had a boyfriend who thought that "nonplussed" meant angry or upset.
11.16.2005 12:49am
Ross Levatter (mail):
My ex-fiancee always would talk to me about "the moralistic thing to do" when she meant "the moral thing to do." Although, no longer engaged to her, I reflect she may have inadvertantly been right in what she intended to convey...
11.16.2005 12:57am
Milhouse (www):
Re "penultimate". Another word in the same category is "epicentre"; it does not mean "the very centre", it means "somewhere around the centre". (In the case of an earthquake, the actual centre is underground; the epicentre is the spot on the surface immediately above the centre.)

Oh, and Senor Chumbawumba, "celibacy" doesn't mean what you think it does either. "Chastity" means not having sex; "celibacy" means not being married. RC priests are expected to be both celibate and chaste. Nowadays, lots of people are celibate without being in the least chaste.
11.16.2005 1:12am
Brett A. Thomas (mail) (www):
When I was a boy, I thought "a couple" meant "a few," not "two." I remember getting in an argument with my grandmother when I said I'd be home in "a couple of hours," and showed up four hours later. I honestly thought I'd kept my word, but she felt misled.
11.16.2005 1:31am
Jason Fliegel (mail):
Big Dirigible pointed out the one I was going to point out (the meaning of the term "gunsel" in the Maltese Falcon), so I'll just point out that the Maltese Falcon was written by Dashiell Hammett -- Phillp Marlowe was the name of the protaganist in Raymond Chandler's stories.

And poking around on the net, it appears that Hammett liked to have fun with his editors. This webpage recounts a story of Hammett including a seemingly dirty phrase for the sole purpose of having his editor misinterpret the meaning of the phrase and edit it out.
11.16.2005 1:43am
Gary Miller (mail):
Askance: Until recently, a friend thought looking askance meant looking questioningly based on some long ago context.

Enormity: Has a very natural (mis)interpretation that is at odds with its more usual connotation. For example, there is a Forest Service interpretive site in Metaline Falls WA praising the industry of early settlers for the enormity of some construction projecct they had completed.
11.16.2005 1:44am
SJN:
I know many people who improperly use "Ground Zero" as a synonym for "Square One," as in, "I don't like the way this brief is reading; we're going to need to start all over again at Ground Zero." Apparently they don't realize that "Ground Zero" is the epicenter of a nuclear blast (i.e., the spot on the ground direcly below where the bomb goes off).

I hope I get proper credit for appropriate use of the word "epicenter."
11.16.2005 2:43am
Fred Barbash (mail):
"begs the question" is misused to the point that the meaning has changed. I'm an editor and have constantly to correct the usage by my highly literate colleagues. Term comes from "beggars the question," meaning the question answers itself. It's almost universal use now is that something "begs the question" as in "raises the question."
11.16.2005 5:58am
Scott Scheule (mail) (www):
[Peter's theme, an episode of "Who's the Boss," is picked for the parade]
Lois: It's great they picked your theme, but isn't it a little esoteric?
Peter: Esoteric?
[zoom in to the guys in Peter's brain]
Guy1: Could it mean sexy?
Guy2: I think it's a science term.
Guy3: Fellas, fellas! Esoteric means delicious!
[back to the real world]
Peter: Lois, Who's the Boss is not a food.


Brian: Swing and a miss.
11.16.2005 5:59am
Jules (mail):
Another of the foreign language signs misunderstandings....

Midway through a backpacking-across-Europe trip, my friend and I found ourselves unexpectedly in Verona, Italy, on very little sleep. Since we hadn't intended to go there, we had no guidebooks or maps or anything, so we just wandered around. As we were wandering, we kept noticing signs with arrows and the words "Senso Unico." "I wonder what this 'Senso Unico' thing is," one of us said, assuming that it must be some sort of tourist attraction. "Want to follow the signs and find out?," said the other. After walking around in circles for a bit, we realized that "Senso Unico" means "One-Way Street."
11.16.2005 7:51am
Nikki (www):
I was ten or so and had just read Huckleberry Finn. My family is about as Caucasian as it's possible to be. (Trust me, it's relevant.)

One evening at the dinner table I got mad at my younger sister and (in a fit of puffed-up self-righteousness) called her a low-class nigger. My mother was shocked.

I had gotten the impression that "nigger" meant "bad person" and completely missed the racial context.
11.16.2005 9:00am
Alan (mail):
The words anti-social and asocial are often confused and misused in a manner similar to what you seem to be looking for.
11.16.2005 9:16am
Larry Zangla (mail):
Along the lines of penultimate, I've always had trouble with the term "antebellum", which means "pre-war", because in order to have "antebellum", there must first be a "bellum". "Antebellum" doesn't even exist until after there was a "bellum", hence, in my screwed-up mind, "antebellum" wants to mean "post-war".
11.16.2005 9:18am
Stevetype:
I have always mistaken the word "temerity" for being nearly the same as "timid" or "timorous." So now I have to go slow and careful when I encounter that term - making sure I got it right.
11.16.2005 9:22am
LMS:
In the movie "Coal Miner's Daughter," Loretta Lynn's husband uses the word "horny," which she misinterprets to mean acting crazy/bizarre. She then uses the word during a radio interview, which caused an uproar.
11.16.2005 9:24am
Sasha (mail):
Richard Samuelson: Very amusing!

Jules: My (= Eugene's) family spent some months in Italy in 1975 on our way between the Soviet Union and the U.S. My mother used to see these "senso unico" (one way) signs and think that if you followed the signs you would experience a unique feeling.

Brett A. Thomas: I figured out, based on various contexts, that "a few" meant 3, "a couple" meant 5 (!), "some" also meant 5, and "several" clearly meant 7.

Eugene: My experience was with the word "rue," which I got wrong on the PSAT. At the time, I didn't know A.E. Housman's "With Rue My Heart Is Laden," which would have given it away for me. But I did know two things: (1) The lines from "You Did It" ("My Fair Lady"): "I thought that you would rue it, I doubted you'd do it, but now I must admit it that succeed you did." (2) The lines from "The Lusty Month of May" ("Camelot"): "It's time to do a wretched thing or two, and try to make each precious day one you'll always rue." Based on this context, "rue" obviously meant "ruin."

Also, there was an episode of "The Brady Bunch" where one of the sons asks whether he can do something and the mother says "Of course not." But she said it so lovingly that I thought it meant "Yes." I knew at the time (I was maybe 5) it was counterintuitive, but I thought it was just one of those expressions that didn't make literal sense. Perhaps I even used it once in that sense.
11.16.2005 9:32am
jimsjournal (www):
Fascinating topic...

When I was a little kid and heard radio commercials for a pharmacy, I assumed it was a store where farmers went to purchase seeds and tools and other farm supplies.

In church and Sunday school I heard words for various kinds of angels -- Seraphim and Cherubim -- so when singing Christmas carols for a long time I sang "Oh come little Sedorphim" (thinking that Sedorphim were simply another category of angels, probably assistants to the Herald Angels) rather than "Oh come let us adore Him."
11.16.2005 9:37am
Johnny Appleseed (mail):
When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I read Hemingway's "Islands in the Stream," which is full of profanity. I went to school one day and told my friends, "Hey, we're using the word 'cunt' all wrong."
11.16.2005 9:50am
Joseph Godfrey:
Growing up, I had always heard the term "bugger" to be either a slightly condescending term of endearment (i.e. “He's a silly little bugger, then” (John le Carré).) or to describe somebody who was being either shifty or disreputable. So, when I first heard the term "Bugger off" the meaning "go away" didn't seem like such a stretch. Unfortunately, I took the expression "I'll be buggered." to mean something along the lines of having been made to look like a fool or a liar. Imagine my surprise when I was alerted to the actual meaning after making that pronouncement in church.
11.16.2005 9:59am
Neil (mail):
During the holidays a few years back, my family was having dinner together when my sister referred to me as her "erstwhile brother." Nobody bothered to correct her the first time, as she was in the midst of complimenting me. However, when she once again called me her "erstwhile brother," I had to ask if she knew what the word meant. She replied "earnest and dependable."

Turns out she had encountered "erstwhile" many times in romance novels. Typically, these novels would describe "erstwhile lovers" or "erstwhile suiters." Apparently the former flames are always good guys, so she took erstwhile to mean "earnest and dependable."
11.16.2005 10:03am
Chuck (mail):
While in the Army, a Sergeant was giving us a class. I remember he used the phrase "verbatim, almost word for word", which struck me as enormously funny as he was a person who usually used only the most basic of English. I don't know what he thought verbatim meant but that phrase is the only thing I remember about the class.
11.16.2005 10:10am
Joshua (mail):
Larry Zangla wrote:
Along the lines of penultimate, I've always had trouble with the term "antebellum", which means "pre-war", because in order to have "antebellum", there must first be a "bellum". "Antebellum" doesn't even exist until after there was a "bellum", hence, in my screwed-up mind, "antebellum" wants to mean "post-war".
Complicating this further is the fact that, at least in America, the word "antebellum" is overwhelmingly used in reference to one specific war - the American Civil War. Use "antebellum" in reference to, say, Europe in the years leading up to WWI and you're likely to get a lot of people confused.

Also, until just last year I'd always thought the numeric slang "69" referred to sex in general, rather than a specific type of sex.
11.16.2005 10:17am
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Moshe, I too was misled (recursive), which I found out while reading aloud in sunday school. In 6th grade I had to correct the teacher about 'inflammable.' I thought that confiscate was confisticate, and thought Learned Hand was native American. As a 1L, I thought loss of consortium had to do with affection and companionship, and used it in an inapropriate context.
11.16.2005 10:18am
P S Bradley (mail) (www):
Regarding the experience referenced by Johnny Appleseed, supra, in the 7th Grade I read Harlan Ellison's Nebula Award winning short story "A Boy and his Dog." The story is set in a post-apocalytpic world of intelligent dogs, cannibalism, few women and much rape. On reflection, it was not the most appropriate book for a 12 year old.

Nonetheless, I and a friend of mine had read the book and couldn't figure out some of the terms used by Ellison, specifically "cunt."

Based on the context, I told my friend that it must be the past tense contraction for "cannot".

Fortunately, this understanding never made its way into any of my school papers.

This was in the early '70s. I wonder how many seventh graders today would be that ignorant.

Then, of course, there's the famous story of the tourist to Boston who asked someone where he could get "scrod."
11.16.2005 10:22am
Erik H.:
I always used to think that saturnine meant "cheery" rahter than "brooding"... odd in my case, as I actually do know mythology reasonably well.

I still say 'misled' as the past tense of 'misle' though mostly as a joke with my wife. I love misling others.
11.16.2005 10:22am
Houston Lawyer:
From watching movies, I have determined that Yankees don't understand the word "yall". It is contraction for "you all" and is never used in the singular tense.

Every newscaster seems to believe that decimated means devastated.

My niece and nephew were afraid of sleeping together in the same bed for fear of contracting AIDS. This was resolved by informing them that it could only happen if they slept in the same bed naked.

A friend of mine asked his 10-year old girl whether she wanted to feed the new baby. She said "but I can't daddy, I don't have any boobs".

Two weeks ago in church, the pastor praised the actions of a man who "beat off" two Rottweilers who were attacking a small boy. After a bit of soul searching, I determined not to inform him of the other meaning of that phrase.

Why is it that we say, about a small child, that we are going to "put him down" for the night? I thought that was something you did to a horse with a broken leg.
11.16.2005 10:32am
Don Miller (mail):
In regards to Deer Xing,

I grew up in Idaho, learned to read as a young child, phonetically. I rarely, if ever, asked for a pronunciation of a word. And unless I used it aloud, no one knew what I thought the pronunciation was.

The most common way that Idaho posts those signs, is The deer picture, below that the phrase Deer Xing, and below that a distance like 5 miles.

In my mind as a child, I pronounced the word as "Zing" and always assumed it meant a zone or region. I was in my 30's before I found out that other people pronounced the word as "crossing". I still thing Zing whenever I see it.
11.16.2005 10:34am
Joshua (mail):
The "Xing" thing also brings to mind the use of "Xmas" as written shorthand for "Christmas". Until a few years ago I was hesitant to use "Xmas" because it struck me as sacrilegious (and apparently many people still believe this), but then I learned that it's commonplace even for clergy to use similar shorthand (i.e. "Xian" for "Christian").
11.16.2005 10:40am
JBurgess (mail) (www):
An error of applying the wrong language's rules of pronunciation leads to the annoying mispronunciation of "coup de grâce". The phrase is seen far more often than it is heard correctly pronounced.

Rather than a blow of mercy or the putting another out of his/her misery (Ku de gras), it is frequently offered up as, being hit by fat (Ku de Graa).

The questions of how, when, and whether to correct someone's mispronunciation--particularly when that someone is a boss--arises too often.
11.16.2005 10:41am
David A. Smith (mail):
Disinterested does not mean uninterested.

Presently does not mean at present.

Beg the question does not mean invite the question.

Orally does not mean verbally, *even though lawyers incorrectly use it that way*!!!!!

Enormity does not mean large.
11.16.2005 10:44am
Rachel M. (mail):
When my father was a PhD candidate in organic chemistry at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, he worked in a lab with many other students, including several who were not native English speakers and thus not well-versed in British slang. At one point, one of the foreign students began to suspect that the native students thought he was stupid. In frustration, he exclaimed "you think I know bugger nothing, but I tell you, I know bugger all!"
11.16.2005 10:46am
jc:
a lot of people confuse i.e. and e.g.
11.16.2005 10:54am
Christine Hurt (mail) (www):
We moved to Wisconsin when our daughter was four and a student in "junior kindergarten." She was told to wear green on St. Patrick's Day (a big holiday here in Milwaukee). Of course, most children's green clothing here is related to the Green Bay Packers. So, to this day, St. Patrick's Day is St. Packers Day.
11.16.2005 10:54am
GD:
For an 18th Century American History class, we had a choice of several essay topics, one of which was along the lines of "Explain why Ben Franklin was a child of New England." Having grown up in Southern California and having never been east of the Mississippi, I had always understood "New England" to mean "Northeast" or "the thirteen colonies." Thus, my paper included numerous examples from Franklin's time in Pennsylvania and New York. Luckily, the professor was quite forgiving once I explained my misunderstanding.
11.16.2005 11:01am
virgin430 (mail):
I was a voracious reader of any book I could lay my hands on growing up in Europe, and as a result had a huge vocabulary of many words which are not ordinarily heard used in conversation. One of them was a word which I pronounced in my head as "MIZLED" (to rhyme with miser) which I defined as bamboozling somebody for your own personal gain.
It wasn't until I took a creative writing class in college that it was pointed out to me that I had been mispronouncing the word "MISLED" all those years. I still miss having that word, with it's extra connotations.
11.16.2005 11:19am
johnjw (mail):
I edited a report in which the author described the collection of duplicate samples as "duplicitous samples".
11.16.2005 11:29am
Joshua (mail):
While we're on the (slightly off-topic) subject of mispronunciations, there are quite a few that have actually gone mainstream, usually due to being popularized by a particularly well-known example. The two best-known examples are probably "Celt" (the European ethnicity, correctly pronounced "Kelt" but often mispronounced "Selt" after the Boston Celtics basketball team) and "Halley" (as in Halley's Comet; correctly pronounced like "holly" but often mispronounced "Hayley" because of Bill Haley and the Comets of "Rock Around The Clock" fame).
11.16.2005 11:31am
JamesT:
When I was a young lad, about 10, I visited an art show in New York with one of my aunts. I, being bored, wandered off. As I was making my way through the show, I overheard a conversation between two other show goers. I don't remember much about the painting, except it was very bright and colorful. In the conversation I overheard, the comment was made to the effect that the artist used "erotic colors" or something like that. I took "erotic" to mean "very bright and colorful." I used the word among my friends for several years without incident, as usually, no adult was present to correct me. ("Jeeze! Look at those road crew safety vests. Could they be any more erotic?") That was until freshman year of high school when Sister Leandrea returned from Mexico with a brightly colored serape and asked my opinion of it in class. It was then I learned the correct meaning.
11.16.2005 11:34am
MassRepUnsure (mail):
I knew 'bastard' and 'bitch' as slurs before I knew their original meaning. (A upbringing to be proud of, I know.) My cousin asked me if I knew what a bastard was and I replied "Yeah, a male bitch." My extended family broke up and laughed for what seemed hours as I sat redfaced, wondering what was so funny. But my understanding is true in a sense.
Sasha's story about "of course not" reminds me of the Spanish phrase "como no", which means "of course", but suggests the opposite. Does anyone know the source of the phrase?
11.16.2005 11:44am
P J Evans (mail):
Houston Lawyer: Add that far too many people, even in Texas, write it as "ya'll", which is another contraction entirely. I've given up trying to correct it to "y'all".
11.16.2005 11:49am
Derek (mail):
As a kid, I was introduced to the word "latrine" at summer camp. I was never told that although latrines are toilets, very few toilets qualify as latrines. Determined to show off my new vocabulary to the 4th grade teacher, I repeatedly asked for permission to use the latrine. Only later did I learn the word's true meaning and realized why the teacher gave me odd looks when I used it.
11.16.2005 11:50am
MikeR (mail):
Paul Johson's comment about secular priests may make sense. I learned recently that secular originally referred to those members of the clergy living in the world. Its partner was regular, which refers to those living under a rule, such as the monastic orders. (As I am not Roman Catholic, nor a serious student of Roman Catholisicm, please don't take these definitions as authoratative.)
11.16.2005 11:53am
eddie (mail):
And "verbally" does not mean spoken.
11.16.2005 11:55am
MassRepUnsure (mail):
Celtic with a soft 'c' sound is a correct pronunciation in British English. The Glasgow Celts is 'Selts.' I read that it just the difference between British English and latin, which has no soft 'c'.
11.16.2005 11:56am
Aidan Maconachy (mail):
Some of these are priceless! I laughed frequently as I read down the thread.

Okay - here's one that I found amusing. There is a neologism "Eurabia" that was coined by some on the right to describe the demographic shift going on in Europe. It refers of course to the high incidence of Muslim immigrants. The term is obviously meant to be used tongue-in-cheek and has a sort of joking connotation associated with it.

Not being politically correct, I have been known to drop the word occasionally, and not so long ago did so on a chat. This fellow became intensely interested in the term and kept referring to ancient "maps" and places like Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Turns out he was a retired British Rail worker, and was completely convinced a geographical entity named Eurabia existed. In fact he was so convinced this was the case, he had actually been researching a variety of maps on the internet.

When I explained that it is in fact a neologism, he became quite incensed and told me I was talking nonsense. I then directed him to a quotation from Oriana Fallaci and suddenly he disappeared off the chat.

Another term which is little understood is the Irish gaelic term "craic" which has now made its way into english usage also and is employed as a kind of a slang term when referring to "boisterous chat" of the type one enjoys in pubs and such places.

A friend here in Canada told me a hilarious story about a buddy who used the term one night in a bar. He said something along the lines of - "I'm going to head over to Mary's place for some craic". A fellow Miller Lite enthusiast suddenly became wildly keen to come along too, under the assumption that the reference involved wild and available women :)
11.16.2005 11:57am
Michael Lopez (mail):
Meredith Wilson ruined the word "reticent" for hundreds, if not thousands, of schoolchildren who now think it means to be cautiously hesitant if not suspiciously hostile.

I've heard more than one person used "laconic" to mean "important" -- I have no idea where that one came from.

"Alleviate" does not mean to *cure*, but that's an understandable one.

"Peruse" is almost universally misunderstood.

Thanks to Alanis Morrisette, the entire frickin' world now equates "ironic" with "a bummer."

-Michael
11.16.2005 12:02pm
Zargon (mail):
Not an amusing story, but... When I was very young and first learning the alphabet, I somehow thought "elemeno" was a single letter with a long name like "doubleyou". I think this happened because of the cadence my mother used when singing them to me. This lasted until I realized a problem when counting the alphabet and not coming up with 26 of them. (I've always been a math nerd, so that wasn't terribly long.)
11.16.2005 12:06pm
corngrower:
Words are fun!
Rush Limbaugh got into trouble because he railed about women farding in their cars, for the better part of two hours. Fard, apply makeup

Old joke; 4th grade teacher had an old fighter pilot come to talk to her class. He told many stories. One story he was relating a dog fight he was in, "This folker come from no where, I dove to avoid the folker but the folker found me again, I made a lot of evasive moves but the folker was always right there." at this point the teacher had to speak up and asked the speaker if he maybe would explain that a Folker was a type of air craft? HE said, "no this folker was a Mescherschmitt. (you have to read this out loud to make funny)

One of the most recent and amussing was the flap that arose about a govt official being excoriated at a meeting, because he accused some official of being niggardly. He was roundly put down for being a racist.

Ignorant v stupid. Ignorant=no knowledge of. stupid=unable to gain knowledge.

PIUS XXX

It is nip it in the bud, not butt, as in stop it before it is able to flower, re. reproduce

Celibate= not married, as in a catholic priest is celibate, we dont know if he is chaste.

For bonus points....What is immaculate conception?
11.16.2005 12:10pm
Stephen Humphrey (mail) (www):
Re: AJ's comment about "ambivalent"

There is a great scene in "Girl, Interrupted" where the audience experiences a sudden and dramatic shift in viewpoint. The mental-patient protagonist misuses "ambivalent" and is corrected by her doctor. Based solely on the misuse and gentle correction, the audience recasts the protagonist from "assertively in control" to "young and forlorn" and of the doctor from "antagonist authority figure" to "caring professional."
---
Patient: I signed myself in, I can sign myself out.

Doctor: You signed yourself into our care. We decide when you leave. You're not ready for it, Susanna. Your progress has plateaued. Does that disappoint you?

Patient: I'm ambivalent. In fact, that's my new favorite word.

Doctor: Do you know what that means, ambivalence?

Patient: I don't care.

Doctor: If it's your favorite word, I would've...

Patient: It means "I don't care." That's what it means.

Doctor: On the contrary, Susanna. Ambivalence suggests strong feelings in opposition. The prefix, as in ambidextrous means "both." The rest of it, in Latin, means "vigor." The word suggests that you are torn between two opposing courses of action. Will I stay or will I go? Am I sane or am I crazy?

Patient: Those aren't courses of action.

Doctor: They can be, dear, for some.

Patient: Well, then, it's the wrong word.

Doctor: No. I think it's perfect.
---

-Stephen
11.16.2005 12:13pm
MassRepUnsure (mail):
The conception of Mary, Mother of God.
11.16.2005 12:15pm
John Wismar:
I still am not sure of the correct meaning of this one, and no one uses it any more anyway, so it doesn't matter: Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont Hugh refers to something as, "gnarly," which I interpreted to mean, "disgusting." I often heard people in the mid-80s using it to mean, "cool."

Other, less-related: people in general do not understand the question, "Is that a threat or a promise?" Folks seem to interpret it to mean that a "threat" is just bravado, a bluff, but that a "promise" is more sincere, as in, "I really mean it." I always have interpreted it -- and I believe my way makes more sense -- as a half-joking, double-entendre-ish response, in effect saying, "Ooh, is that supposed to be threatening? Because it sounds like I should be looking forward to it."

Also, despite common usage, "momentarily" does not mean, "in a moment," it means "briefly." When someone tells me, "I'll be there momentarily," I always have to stop myself from asking why they can't stay longer....
11.16.2005 12:21pm
Nikki (www):
I worked in graduate admissions for a b-school for a while, on the filing/paperwork/scheduling end. One university in India — on the official transcripts, no less — described students who had completed their course of study as "passed-out students."
11.16.2005 12:25pm
John Wismar:
Oh, and more incorrect usages:

My wife always refers to a "mute point."

I often see the phrase written, "peaked my interest."
11.16.2005 12:27pm
molly:
this isn't really what you are looking for...but it's a huge pet peeve of mine...hearing someone use the words "conversate" and/or "conversating".
11.16.2005 12:34pm
abc (mail):
Fortuitous is often confused with fortunate or lucky.
11.16.2005 12:34pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
About 1970 or so, Richard Nixon gave a speech in which he complained about how the continual Vietnam War protests were accomplishing nothing, producing more heat than light. He proposed a ninety day moratorium on protests and debate to give everyone a chance to calm down, cool off, and come back to the debate a little more refreshed.

The war protesters, of course, would have nothing of the sort. They decided that the ninety day moratorium (temporary cessation or suspension) would instead be ninety days of intensified protest and argument, with teach-ins on college campuses, and for a while, the only meaning of "moratorium" that seemed to exist was "teach-in." As a result, right into the late 1980s, I would see TV journalists who grew up in that era occasionally use the word "moratorium" in rather the sense of "seminar" or "colloquiam." It just made my brain hurt to heart this. (Admittedly, these are journalists--not exactly the brightest crayons in the box.)

Oh yeah, my wife, when about nine, heard the word "prostitute" and thought it was a different pronounciation of "Protestant."

She had also never heard the expression "tube steak" to refer to something other a hot dog or sausage--leading to a rather amused reaction at a church picnic. Of course, everyone knew how innocent and sweet she was, so they figured out the cause of this faux pas.
11.16.2005 12:43pm
Alex Jablokow (mail):
To Zargon's point about learning his letters, he should know that Elemenope is the Muse of the Alphabet.
11.16.2005 12:53pm
Karl:
Anonymous coward, I can't help adding a 'fanny' story I once heard: Supposedly the Queen of England was at a charity benefit concert, and an American band began playing a song that included the lyrics "shake your fanny." The Queen got up and left in horror and disgust. I believe they had to send someone to explain the American meaning of 'fanny,' before she would return to the concert.
11.16.2005 12:59pm
Aultimer:
Lots of these "oft-misunderstood" terms do in fact have multiple meanings in modern US English that include the "popular" meaning.

Houston Lawyer - in Mississippi, "y'all" is quite properly used in the singular, prized for it's inclusiveness (meaning "you, and if you're so inclined anyone else you might feel is appropriate"). The proper plural form is "all y'all".

Of course, Texans aren't known for inclusiveness, labeling anyone who hales from a state that doesn't border the Gulf a "Yankee". My wife recently had a long discussion with a youngster from your neighborhood to explain the origin of that term, and the role of her ancestral home Virginia in the War of Northern Agression, after the youngster directed that term at her as an epithet. Clearly your schools need more standardized testing.
11.16.2005 12:59pm
Law Student Kate (mail):
I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who's been misled by the printed word misled. And I only discovered my mistake a year ago when my husband read something out loud! I still read it in my head as "MY-zled".

My own pet peeve: use of the word "irregardless".
11.16.2005 1:02pm
KevinM:
Almost everybody, usage mavens included, misuses "bemused" to mean mildly or sophisticatedly amused. Hard to catch them at it, because either meaning usually works in context.

Re: "chaste" above. As to priests it means not having sex at all; as to everybody else, though, it means not having sex outside of a marriage sanctioned [a word that, like cleave, also means its opposite] by the Church.
11.16.2005 1:04pm
KevinM:
It took years of reading Rehnquist opinions before I actually looked up "vel non." I assumed from context that it just meant "and here it is," or something like that. It's hard to glean the meaning from the context, because usually it's meaningless lip service to the opposing point of view.
11.16.2005 1:07pm
John Carney (mail):
For some time, I was nonplussed when people would say something about "have your cake and eat it too." How could you eat a cake you didn't have? I now understand the meaning, although I think it's an odd way of putting it.
11.16.2005 1:19pm
Nostromo (mail):
My favorite context story dates back to when my father was teaching one of my cousins -- who was perhaps five or six years old at the time -- the names of different parts of his then new 1960 Ford while driving around. Apparently there was some trouble shifting gears during the ride, because later the lad proudly exhibited his new knowledge to his Mother, saying "That's the brake... that's the clutch... and [pointing to the gear shift lever] that's the sonofabitch."

Context sometimes seems to spread improper usages. I hear the word "fulsome", misused to mean "full" or "thorough" much more often than the correct meaning of "offensively flattering or insincere".
11.16.2005 1:30pm
blerfyeled:
I complimented the teenaged girl next door on how well she had painted her nails, pointing out that she had done both hands equally well. "That's because I'm bilingual."

A lot of us use "evidently" to mean "I'm not quite sure, but it seems to be the case that..." whereas it is synonomous with "obviously" or "clearly".

"Matriculate" is often used in lieu of "graduate".

Many people who use "notorious" and "notoriety" are unaware of the words' negative connotation.

"Arminian" (Jacob Arminius's theology) is often confused with "Armenian" (having to do with Armenia).
11.16.2005 1:35pm
Houston Lawyer:
Aultimer

Although you are surely right on the definition of a Yankee, I agree that most folks around here would classify anyone residint North of Dallas in that category. And I certainly will yield to someone from the State of Mississippi on how to speak Southern, although there are many proper variations on that language. I had to travel to Lexington before I heard "your all's" used instead of "yall's".
11.16.2005 1:46pm
Jimmitude (mail):
When my daughter was very young, she could not pronounce skeleton and started calling them skates instead. As she grew older, we never realized that she had internally defined 'skate' as a connected group of bones until she went to a halloween party in her teens. She was quite confused that no one had ever called a skeleton a skate.
11.16.2005 1:56pm
Bill R:
[Insert obligatory "slightly" OT message here]

I was born and raised as a young child in Berkeley during the early/mid 60's. Hitchhiking was of course very common at that time in that area.

When the family was travelling in the car, I would notice (when I wasn't too busy asking "are we there yet?") truck weighing stations on the side of the freeway - often in fairly isolated areas. The signs declaring a weigh station often (maybe always) had a smaller sign under them stating NO PICKUPS. This perplexed me for many years — after all, how would a hitchhiker get to these isolated stations? Although, I partially resolved that in my mind because there was no sign stating NO DROPOFFS so perhaps there was quite a supply of hitchhikers who had been dropped off — which made me somewhat uneasy as I wondered what happened when they ran out of food and water on since they could never be picked up.

It was only when I was in my 20's and was driving a particularly boring stretch of freeway which had a weigh station when I had a moment of enlightenment and realized that if I was driving a Ford 150 pickup truck, I wouldn't be required to stop at the weigh station. (Embarrassingly, it took me a few more years before I sorted out the "misled" thing - I'm glad to see I wasn't the only one misled by this.)

Ah, the twisty mind of a child...
11.16.2005 2:02pm
Jadagul (mail) (www):
KevinM: "chaste" is a term with both a layman's and a specialized religious meaning. In Catholic theology, for instance, all Catholics are required to be "chaste," with chaste interpreted exactly as you've defined it, as "not participating in improper sexual activities." But the more general secular definition is something like "refraining from sexual activity altogether." Per Dictionary.com:
Chastity, n.
1. The condition or quality of being pure or chaste.
2.
1. Virginity.
2. Virtuous character.
3. Celibacy.
11.16.2005 2:06pm
Noah (mail):
In my first-year contracts class, we read a case in which a state supreme court was reviewing the decision of the state's intermediate court. The court said, in essence, "We apply the same clearly erroneous standard of review that the appellate division did, and therefore affirm." And I went nuts: if the appellate division applied an erroneous legal standard -- much less one that was obviously erroneous -- why on earth would the state supreme court repeat the mistake? It took the professor a few minutes even to understand why I objected to using a "clearly erroneous standard of review" (whihc to my ears sounded like, "We're knowingly using the wrong rule.")
11.16.2005 2:07pm
Kaimi Wenger (mail):
At some point in my early teens, I heard someone refer to my grandfather as being senile. He was old and strong-willed. I assumed that the word meant "old but strong" --sort of Gandalf-like.

I had a creative writing assignment shortly after that, and I wrote a poem about a knight. One of the lines mentioned the "senile castle walls."

My English teacher raved about my novel use of the adjective, and how it showed some clever dual meaning or something. I nodded, but it sounded wrong. Later, I looked up the word in a dictionary and realized I had been using it wrong.

I never did tell that English teacher that my novel use of the word stemmed from a misunderstanding of its definition . . .
11.16.2005 2:10pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
John Wismar:

Your memory may be playing you false regarding "gnarly". My understanding is that it was invented by the scriptwriters of HEATHERS (1989). They figured that it would be a year or two from scripting to release, so any real teenspeak they used would be obsolete by that time.

OTOH, the word appeared in 1939, in the title of the short story "The Gnarly Man" by L Sprague de Camp.
11.16.2005 2:10pm
blerfyeled:
Here in the Los Angeles area I first heard "gnarly" applied by surfers to big and hard-to-surf waves.
11.16.2005 2:32pm
Thief (mail) (www):
When I was in high school, I thought "disenfranchised" meant "unhappy with politics." Close, but no cigar (losing voting rights would make you unhappy with politics) Thankfully, my AP Euro History teacher straightened me out.
11.16.2005 2:38pm
guest (mail):
Can't believe no one has mentioned the constant misuse of "literally" to mean "figuratively." As in, "when she was nine months pregnant, she was literally as big as a house."
11.16.2005 2:41pm
Dixie Flatline:
Funny that "misled" keeps coming up here -- the "my-zeld" pronunciation is a longtime running joke in our family, although I don't know if there was a specific incident that it stems from.

A recurring error that I keep seeing online is the use of "for all intensive purposes" by people who mean "for all intents and purposes", but have apparently never seen it in print.
11.16.2005 2:45pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
Rich Rostrom-
That anecdote about Heathers is definitely apocryphal. "Gnarly" is used as teenspeak in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which predates Heathers by around 7 years.
Neil-
I had the exact same experience with "erstwhile." LOL
11.16.2005 3:03pm
rico:
Events at my company are publicized by a functional illiterate, so we get quite a parade of errors. I'm still chuckling over the holiday party with food that is "pleasing to the palette".
11.16.2005 3:12pm
Laura:
Not quite on topic, but, being raised as an atheist, I was pretty unfamiliar with basic Christian (or any other) theology. Thus, upon hearing the carol Silent Night around the age of ten, I naturally concluded that the line "round yon virgin mother and child" was actually referring to three distinct people, as it was obvious a mother could not be a virgin. To this day I still mentally place a comma after the word virgin when I hear that song.
11.16.2005 3:15pm
rico:
My own experience was with "impotent". Learned its (non-sexual) meaning in context sometime in grade school, and then cracked up a class in junior high with my pronunciation: "im-PO-tent".
11.16.2005 3:25pm
Master Shake:
"Gnarly" used in Fast Times:

Spicoli: "Oh, Gnarly!"

http://www.classicmovies.org/soundfasttimes.htm
11.16.2005 3:29pm
Aultimer:
"Matriculate" is often used in lieu of "graduate". This qualifies for EV's status as the first place I ever saw the word "matriculate" was on a high school graduation card given by my parents - something witty to the effect "You matriculated! Now clean it up". I didn't figure out the actual meaning until my own graduation years later.
11.16.2005 3:39pm
Zephyr:
Okay, as young kid, when watching the earliest episodes of Star Trek, the intro (which has not changed) stated: "To Boldy Go...yadda yadda". Well, I did not hear that correctly and thought the narrator said: "To-bo-le-go." I thought, what the hell is a Bolego? So, I just passed it off as some strange phrase for the show and let it go at that. It was (duh) twenty years before I actually "listened" to the intro and got it right! I don't feel too bad though. Upon my telling the above to my Mom, she stated I "got that honest". (Meaning, my ability to misunderstand a simple phrase I inherited from her.) As a kid, she was riding past a funeral home with her dad, read the sign and exclaimed: "What is a fun-er-roll"? Life has its moments. LOL
11.16.2005 4:09pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Re "misled": I had the same sort of experience as a kid with "reuse." It was in an article in Ranger Rick, a sort of environmentalist kiddie zine, and the article, which was about recycling, kept saying "Reuse that paper bag!" And there I was thinking "Roose? Roose? What does it mean?" An argument in favor of hyphenation, I think.
11.16.2005 4:11pm
Joshua (mail):
John Wismar wrote:

Other, less-related: people in general do not understand the question, "Is that a threat or a promise?" Folks seem to interpret it to mean that a "threat" is just bravado, a bluff, but that a "promise" is more sincere, as in, "I really mean it."


In the same vein is the old cliche "It ain't paranoia if they really are out to get you." Um, yes it is. Paranoia is defined simply as the notion that others mean to persecute you or otherwise do you harm. Whether or not that's actually true is irrelevant to the meaning of the word.
11.16.2005 4:13pm
jdp:
The owner of a store I worked at in high school told me that he once saw a headline in the newspaper - "Fastidious Women Choose Hair Removal" - and concluded that fastidious meant hairy.
11.16.2005 4:16pm
Edward Lee (www):
Thanks to Alanis Morrisette, the entire frickin' world now equates "ironic" with "a bummer."

See, this is part of Alanis's genius -- it's ironic that all the examples cited in the song are just unfortunate coincidences instead of instances of irony. Yeah, that's the ticket.
11.16.2005 4:23pm
Felix:
Here's a quote from John Kerry during the last presidential election campaign that nicely exemplifies another common word-usage faux-pas:

"Yes, we need increased accountability in schools. We need to raise the standards. But you don't have to do it in a way that disrespects teachers and literally throws the baby out with the bath water, which is what they're doing today."

http://www.opinionjournal.com/best/?id=110004606
11.16.2005 4:24pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Another example: one of my sisters lived on a farm outside of Beaverton, Oregon. When she was raising her kids there, they were still pretty far out in the sticks. The only neighbors that they had were named the Bruners. Her son reached a fairly advanced age before he realized that "Bruner" wasn't the word for "neighbor" but a family name.
11.16.2005 4:42pm
AF:
Only recently (on this site in fact) I learned that "condone" means "to overlook, forgive, or disregard (an offense) without protest or censure." I had always thought it meant "endorse." The reason I thought that was it's often used along the lines of "I don't condone [violence or something else bad], but [I have some sympathy toward it in this case]." In that context, I always thought "endorse" was what was meant, rather than merely "overlook" or "forgive."
11.16.2005 4:45pm
Clay Blanknenship (mail):
I just now understand what erstwhile means!

When I was young, I interpreted the line

"where seldom is heard a discouraging word"

from Home on the Range this way: seldom is a kind of antelope common out west (why I thought this I don't know), it also has some other meaning that I'm not quite clear on, therefore it is a "discouraging word" since its meaning is ambiguous.

I also misinterpreted the line "they've got nothing but their genes" from the Different Strokes TV theme song as "nothing but the cheese", meaning a big smile (a la Gary Coleman). Not until after I was married did I figure out the right words.
11.16.2005 4:46pm
Master Shake:
Joshua-


In the same vein is the old cliche "It ain't paranoia if they really are out to get you." Um, yes it is. Paranoia is defined simply as the notion that others mean to persecute you or otherwise do you harm. Whether or not that's actually true is irrelevant to the meaning of the word.


Not sure I agree - paranoia requires delusion or irrationality.

Main Entry: para·noia
Pronunciation: "par-&-'noi-&
Function: noun
Etymology: New Latin, from Greek, madness, from paranous demented, from para- + nous mind
1 : a psychosis characterized by systematized delusions of persecution or grandeur usually without hallucinations
2 : a tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others
11.16.2005 4:48pm
David M. McClory:
I learned the word circumcision in Grade 6 when tasked to find and defind a word by the teacher. I said "circumcision", but read out the definition of "circumference". It was this latter word and its attached idea that I thought I was dealing with.

The teacher took me aside, not able to determine whether I was being snarky or not (I had the reputaion somewhat, but this was above my head). I looked the word up afterward, and was probably still puzzled, but talked to no one.

Obviously, the two words were comingled because they were right by each other in whatever student dictionary I had.
11.16.2005 4:56pm
St.:
It's only a quaint old regionalism, but I learned at a young age that here in South Carolina "directly" often has the exact opposite meaning.
"Grandaddy, when are we going home?"
"We're going home directly" = after a while, and certainly not directly.
I've seen it in print at "too-reckly," but I've never heard that pronunciation.

Joshua re: John Wismar
In the same vein is the old cliche "It ain't paranoia if they really are out to get you." Um, yes it is.
We say, "Sure I'm paranoid, but am I paranoid enough?"
11.16.2005 5:07pm
AF:
I thought the cliche was, just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.
11.16.2005 5:16pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
David McClory,

I remember having a very prim, religiously conservative lab partner in 9th grade biology. Our assignment was to put a hydra under a microscope and draw it, labeling the parts and describing their functions. When we compared our drawings just before handing them in, I had to point out to her that she had labeled the tentacles "testicles" throughout. She blushed faster than I'd have thought possible for one so pale, and got really busy with the eraser.

(The odd thing is that hydras, according to our textbook anyway, really do have things called "testicles," when they get around to reproducing. But that structure wasn't where the arrow in her diagram was pointing.)
11.16.2005 5:32pm
jallgor (mail):
"See, this is part of Alanis's genius -- it's ironic that all the examples cited in the song are just unfortunate coincidences instead of instances of irony. Yeah, that's the ticket."

I am going to defend Alannis Morrisette here because everyone always busts on that song for not giving examples of irony. Some of the things she mentions are ironic. Rain on your wedding day? no. A free ride when you've already paid? Yes. Unfortunate coincidences are sometimes ironic in the sense that one defintion of irony can be fate playing a game with us. It's the type of irony displayed in the short story Gift of the Magi.
11.16.2005 5:47pm
Steven Jens (mail) (www):
Thanks for teaching me "condone", AF.

I had an econ prof who had been involved in the IBM anti-trust case, and he didn't think much of the judge. He told the story that one of the lawyers in the case made a reference to "the penultimate paragraph on" some page of a document. Opposing counsel immediately objected to the characterization of said paragraph as "penultimate", and the judge sustained the objection until the word was defined.

I'm under the impression that, Alanis Morisette notwithstanding, "ironic" is more often used to mean "coincidental" than "disappointing". But maybe I just have that impression because that's how my landlord uses it.

My (very left-wing) sister was surprised to learn a few years ago that "corporation" had an actual meaning, and wasn't just an epithet usable for large, for-profit companies.
11.16.2005 6:02pm
Steve S:
As a ute of perhaps 10 or 11 years old I was allowed to watch Saturday Night Live. Readers of a certain age may recall the running series of sketches on "Weekend Update" in which Jane Curtin and Dan Akroyd would satirize a "Point/Counterpoint" debate by having Jane recite some viewpoint, which Akroyd would then rebut. On at least one episode I watched, Dan began his rebuttal, "Jane, you ignorant slut." Around this time my mother once asked me to do the dishes. In the process or responding to this request I uttered the same retort that the live SNL audience had found so amusing. That's right, "Mom, you ignorant slut." This comment was poorly received. My usually mild-mannered mother (who, incidentally, had recently gotten divorced but was dating) slapped me so hard I still can feel it. After that, I was not allowed to watch SNL.
11.16.2005 6:05pm
Greg Hamer:
Growing up, when I would ask for something, my mother would often answer with 'I doubt it'. So my first definition of 'I doubt it' was 'probably'.
11.16.2005 7:05pm
equitus (mail):
"The first time she visited Germany, my wife... was nonplussed to observe that seemingly every autobahn exit led to the town of Ausfahrt."

The same thing happened to me. My wife and I just moved to Denmark from the US and one weekend we took a drive to Flensburg, just over the border in Germany. I was navigator and still a bit nervous about doing so in Europe. Expecting the Flensburg exit, we instead found the exit to Ausfahrt. We started to panic as I searched in vain (in vein? in vane? :-) on the map for the town of Ausfahrt. We missed our exit as a result, and subsequently got our initiation on the ways of the Autobahn.
11.16.2005 7:18pm
Visitor Again:
Ah, the twisty mind of a child...

When my parents said they were taking me to Belle Vue, a pleasure park that had a zoo in northern England, I heard it as "Belve-You." So, naturally, having a logical mind, I referred to it when I was speaking as "Belve-Me."

Gnarly was in use in England when I was a child, as in a gnarly tree, which I think meant it had a lot of bumps and knots and twists and turns. And it was definitely used by surfers in the Sities to refer to unruly waves.

My dad also used hoi polloi to refer to the upper class, the wealthy, the powerful, instead of the masses despite my hints that it didn't mean what he thought it did. We were part of the working class and I guess he thought it sounded too fancy to apply to us commoners.
11.16.2005 7:20pm
Tom R (mail):
When I was about six or seven, I read a "grown-up" history book about the Crusades (title something like The Sword and the Scimitar) with a chapter called "The Rape of Byzantium". When I asked, my mother said it means "making someone they do something they really don't want to do". For the next 2-3 years I used it in that general context -- fortunately, only rarely, and at worst only got some odd looks. It was, ironically (in a Morisettian sense) no less than the good old Readers Digest that tipped me off to the correct usage.

> "please do remember that over here, 'fanny' is dorsal, not ventral."

In Australianese, "rooting" means "having sex with". Someone in 1992 brought home a US paper with headline "Women Rooting For Bill Clinton" and it got on late-night TV.

Re Celt: Supposedly, a drunk once approached Richard Burton and started begging him to give money to "a fellow Selt". Burton, it is said, replied: "Go away, sir. I am a Selt -- you are just a Sunt."

> My wife always refers to a "mute point."

Blame Rick Springfield in Jesse's Girl for perpetuating this. Like most examples, it is a case where either "moot" or "mute" would fit the context.
11.16.2005 7:23pm
Hotel Coolidge:
As a child, I thought that accidentally on purpose meant that you didn't mean to do it, it just happened by accident. Got in real trouble with my father for hitting my brother before that 'who's on first' interlude was over.

My favorite - Baited breath....giving a whole new meaning to holding your breath in anticipation.

Another variation on paranoia: Just becasue you think you're paranoid, doesn't mean someone isn't following you...
11.16.2005 7:55pm
Larry (mail):
Kids do this often.

When my younger daughter was two, we used her first and middle names - in that stern voice - when reprimanding her. As in:
"Lauren Jeanne! Don't touch that..."

She soon took to using the same convention when she was angry with her siblings:
"Joe Jeanne! Stop it!"
"Kelly Jeanne! Give it to me!"

***

When my son was 1 1/2, I said to him: "Ok, buddy, let's get you dressed" and promptly walked over to his sister's closet, and started ruffling through the dresses.

***

When my older daughter was four, I was explaining how our ancestors came from Europe originally.

Kelly: "What is an ancestor?"
Dad: "Someone in your family that lived before you. So our grandparents, and their parents, and so on are our ancestors?"
Kelly: (pause to think about it) "How come they don't call them anbrothers?"

***

When my son was 5, I took him to an historic farm.

The farm had a blacksmith, and the smitty was making something. Joe asked me, in a whisper, 'What is he making?’ I replied 'I don't know'. Seconds later, someone watching said 'It's a lost art.' The smitty agreed 'Yes, it is a lost art.' Joe looked up to me, and said "Oh! It's a lost art!'

***

Weeks after "Oh! It's a lost art!" Joe came up with this one:

When visting my in-laws, my mother-in-law left for church early on Sunday to give blood.

Later I was getting Joe ready for church. Joe was delaying even more than usual, so I said
Dad: "If we don't hurry we are going to be late for church!"
Joe: "Of course. I want to be late for church"
Dad: "Why?"
Joe: "Because I don't want them to take my blood."
11.16.2005 8:04pm
equitus (mail):
As a pre-pubescent in the early '70s, I sometimes saw and/or read instances of hippies shouting "fascist!" to businessmen or politicians. I reasoned that a fascist was any person who held some power and position. I wasn't sure why the hippies were so angry, though.

I think hyperbole is sometimes to blame for such misunderstandings. For example, it isn't uncommon to call sitting through a long lecture or a bad movie "torture". And now it seems that torture has come to signify any kind of prolonged discomfort.

Less political, I remember thinking a "blockbuster" movie was one that was overly hyped - having nothing to do with its actual popularity.

Anyway, it sounds like most of these examples are malapropisms. Still, this thread is very enjoyable and I'll pile on with my own off-topic examples.

For some reason, the mothers' car-pool for my kindergarten was called a "hook up," which I misheard as "hiccup." Being only 6, I accepted this unquestioningly and for several years continued to refer to ride sharing as a hiccup.

I was kind of a smart-alec (still am, I guess), and I would pester my older brother about his figures of speech - playing dumb as to their meaning and being literal. He'd of course get mad and say to me, "You always have to take things so liberally!" (Isn't it ironic, dontcha think?)

My brother was quite a malaprop. We had a chihuahua-mix dog growing up that was able to slip out of every collar we tried. So we used a harness instead - which dear brother called a "furnace." We later got a sheepdog who was quite sloppy when it came to his water dish. According to my brother, the dog would stick his whole "nozzle" into the water - meaning muzzle, of course.

Two words I learned from reading that took a while before I understood them pronouced. "Chaos" was in my mind "cha-os" (rhymes with Laos), and "recipe" was "re-sipe". But who could blame me?

Keep them coming! And someone forward this link to Richard Lederer.
11.16.2005 8:18pm
Tom Goldstein (mail) (www):
An example from debate days - high school debaters would hear the phrase "delimited" and, given that the context could point in either direction, think it means "without limits" when it actually means the opposite.
11.16.2005 8:44pm
Gregg the Obscure (mail):
In the late '70s when I was a teenager, Steve Martin had a comedy album out. One song included the line: "have an S&M party in a telephone booth". My friends older and not-so-hip folks heard that line. The mom asked the dad, "What's this S&M?" The dad replied, "Sounds like it must be sex and marijuana."
11.16.2005 8:59pm
Ben Pugh (mail) (www):
Let's not forget the study on birth control methods, explained by Eugene himself (and maybe this is where this is all going), that paradoxically found the failure rate (i.e., rate of getting pregnant) for "abstinence" at something like 25%. Eugene speculated that the press improperly shortened the term "selective abstinence" i.e., the rhythm method.
11.16.2005 9:07pm
Matt22191 (mail):
This really isn't the sort of thing Eugene is looking for, but neither are many of the other anecdotes here.

Back in junior high school I was discussing Piers Anthony's Ogre, Ogre with a friend who had just finished it, and I mentioned the "eye cue-ee" vines that made Smash, the half-ogre, intelligent. My friend laughed, then informed me of the proper pronunciation of "queue." "Well," I thought, "that explains some things."
11.16.2005 10:12pm
Tom R (mail):
Oh, yeah, the time when my fellow young public service trainees thought the bonding retreat workshop we were attending was to be conducted according to "Chatter House Rules", actually "the [singular] Chatham House Rule": http://www.riia.org/index.php?id=14.
11.16.2005 10:28pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
In the days of detente, an official at the Soviet Embassy in D.C. proposed a toast for some American guests. What he meant to say was "bottoms up", but his English was not quite idiomatic and he said "up your bottoms".
11.16.2005 11:49pm
Michelle Dulak Thomson (mail):
Dr. Weevil,

As Matthew Parris had it in one of his books, it was Andrei Gromyko, and, having refused the assistance of a translator, he said "A toast to this gracious lady. Up your bottom!"

(Quoting from memory here, but it was memorable.)

I thought it was in Read My Lips, Parris' wonderful anthology of political faux pas, but I can't find it in there somehow. Did find this, though, which is actually back to the original point of the thread:

In 1948, a Washington radio station contacted ambassadors in the capital, asking what each would most like for Christmas. Britain's representative, Sir Oliver Franks, mistook the request.

French ambassador: Peace throughout the world.
Soviet ambassador: Freedom for all people enslaved by imperialism.
Sir Oliver: Well, it's very kind of you to ask. I'd quite like a box of crystallized fruit.
11.17.2005 12:12am
Visitor Again:
Can't believe no one has mentioned the constant misuse of "literally" to mean "figuratively." As in, "when she was nine months pregnant, she was literally as big as a house."

Perhaps that's because Slate rencently explored misuse of "literally" here.
11.17.2005 12:51am
Fra. 219 (mail):
My sixth-grade art teacher taught us how to draw dogs, trees, and other living orgasms -- er, organisms.

Every time she tried to say the latter word, the former came out -- to the class's great amusement.
11.17.2005 1:31am
Fra. 219 (mail):
Oh, and another one. When I was in elementary school I read about a kind of light that people can't see: infrared light, which I read as in-frared light. I figured that if infrared light can't be seen, then to infrare must mean something like "to make invisible".
11.17.2005 1:36am
anonymouse:
Moot!

From context, I was taught that "moot" meant "irrelevant" point, not one that was open to argument! I'm not willing to contribute the funny tale of when I misused this around a group of lawyers...it's too embarrassing.

I don't know if this actually fits your usage issue, but for the longest time, I misunderstood signs that said "Frontage Road". I thought that sign was telling me the name of the road was "Frontage." I was very confused as to why Frontage was such a common road name that occurred in so many different towns--like Main or State or Elm--given that I didn't know the word "Frontage." I decided that Frontage must have been the name of a famous person, like Washington or Jefferson. I was about 10 when I asked who Mr. Frontage was, to the amusement of my parents.
11.17.2005 1:36am
anonymouse:
Moot!

From context, I was taught that "moot" meant "irrelevant" point, not one that was open to argument! I'm not willing to contribute the funny tale of when I misused this around a group of lawyers...it's too embarrassing.

I don't know if this actually fits your usage issue, but for the longest time, I misunderstood signs that said "Frontage Road". I thought that sign was telling me the name of the road was "Frontage." I was very confused as to why Frontage was such a common road name that occurred in so many different towns--like Main or State or Elm--given that I didn't know the word "Frontage." I decided that Frontage must have been the name of a famous person, like Washington or Jefferson. I was about 10 when I asked who Mr. Frontage was, to the amusement of my parents.
11.17.2005 1:37am
TFKW:
I didn't learn that there were words for someone's male and female children until I was four or five. I tried to explain something to my mother, saying "Oh, she's ____'s son." It took her several minutes to untangle that one! Somehow I had never heard the word "daughter" until then.

I had the same problem with "uncle" and "aunt", but I fear that one was left deliberately uncorrected for a while because my aunt thought it was cute to be called "Uncle _____".
11.17.2005 2:15am
Joshua:

When my son was 1 1/2, I said to him: "Ok, buddy, let's get you dressed" and promptly walked over to his sister's closet, and started ruffling through the dresses.


I think there's a pronoun missing from this sentence.
11.17.2005 2:46am
The Legal Reader (www):
This is not exactly what you're looking for, but close enough and too funny not to recount.

In the 1980s a friend of mine lived in Stowe, Vermont — which is not a very ethnically diverse place. She had her first child there, a daughter who turned out to be very precocious and funny.

When the daughter was around 2 1/2, the family took a trip down to Boston. Driving down Commonwealth Ave. near BU (a very ethnically diverse area), the daughter suddenly sat up in the back seat, pointed at the sidewalk, and said:

"Look, mommy! Cosbies!!!"

Of course, the only black people she had ever seen had been on TV on "The Cosby Show," so she quite logically inferred that African Americans must be called "Cosbies."

[I hope this doesn't offend anyone. It's a true story, and I think it's innocent and funny and not at all racist.]
11.17.2005 3:01am
ChrisF (mail):
Not sure if this meets your requirements, but it is funny:

Remember the Bud Ice commercials with the stalking penguin? It would call its victims and sing "Dooby Dooby Do".

The two-year old niece of an ex-girlfriend thereafter knew penguins as "Doobies".
11.17.2005 10:18am
treezycat:
endgame.
Its often used in the newspaper, by sports commentators and in business meetings as being the end, a point.
A chess fanatic friend gently corrected me that it is actually a process, the final last stages.
11.17.2005 12:09pm
Doug D.:
Then there's the one about the young Sunday-school student who thought the hymn "Gladly the Cross I'd Bear" was about a bruin with an odd name and an unfortunate ocular problem...
11.17.2005 8:28pm
A. E. Steinbach:
A rather recent mixup that I made was when I heard people saying "the Guard and Reserve" I heard it instead, for quite some time, as "the Garden Reserve" and just assumed that people were talking about some special branch with that name.
11.18.2005 12:41am
Jam (mail):
These are from my kids when they were much younger:

1) Mom, why is it called a wind breaker? Because it breaks wind?

2) Son: Mom can I go outside and ride my bike?
Mother: No Seth. You cannot because you need supervision and I am busy right now.
Son: Moooom, there is no such thing as super vision.
11.18.2005 8:26am
ralph:
In the popular culture, when a nuclear reactor goes "critical", the assumption is that it is about to blow up. The reality is that a "critical" reactor is operating at a steady state condition, with the number of neutrons produced in any one generation of fission equal to the number in the preceeding generation. A reactor can be critical at any power level, from 0.000001% to 100%.

"Cap'n, the reactor has gone critical, and I d'na think it can hold together much longer!"

This is a common complaint of nuclear engineers about how their technology is represented in the popular media.
11.18.2005 2:52pm
Donald Kilmer (mail):
Although born in Western New York, I was raised in the South (Texas, Louisiana &Virginia). My father being a military man, we moved around quite a bit.

When I was on the cusp of man hood, our family attended a wedding in Fitzburg, MA. The event took place at a family home in a middle/working class neighborhood. We all had to park our cars on the street many blocks away from the house where the reception was taking place.

I spent as much time as I could with some of the older cousins and uncles at the reception (circa 1972). I was doing my best to fit in among the adults, as I was long past running and jumping games, and yearned to be accepted by my new found peers with the incomprehensible Yankee accents.

It was a Summer wedding, and it turned hotter as the day went on. My mentors started shedding their suit coats and asked if I would deposit them in a safe place. Eager to appear useful and thereby gain acceptance into the herd I was soon burdened with at least a half dozen suit jackets. Off I went to deposit the garments where I was instructed to by the alpha male of our group.

The men drank beers (I still had to drink soda), the food was served and the merriment went on into the evening.

Later, one of the owners of the suit coats came up to me and asked where I had put them. He was looking for his cigarettes and lighter. I told him I put them in the Impala, just as I was instructed. He shrugged and went in search of his belongings.

Ten minutes later, he was quizzing me again about the location of his jacket and tobacco. I reiterated that they were all in the red, two door '64 Impala with the white top. It was the only Impala parked in the neighborhood, and lucky for me people weren't obsessed with locking their car doors then. It didn't even seem strange to me that I had to hike three blocks to find the damn car, the streets were crowded with a lot of cars from the wedding guests.

My uncle/cousin (don't remember which now) started laughing so hard he was crying by the time he stopped.

That was how I learned that the Yankee concept "parlor" was the equivalent of what we in the south were taught was a "living room."

My Yankee cousin had said: "Put them in the parlor." My southern ears had heard: "Put them in the Impala." And when I confirmed to him that "I put them in the Impala", my cousin/uncle heard "I put them in the parlor." It wasn't until I later added the context of "red, two-door with white top" that it dawned on both of us that I was talking about a car and he was talking about a room.

The error was auditory, but context played a role too, as either place was just as logical to temporarily store the unneeded coats until the party was over. I had assumed, that was I putting the garments in the vehicle that my cousins/uncles were going to drive home in.

This story is now told at family reunions whenever the subject turns to the embarrassing things we all did as children. My faux indignant retort is always the same: "It would not have been as funny if the owner of that Impala had driven off with your suit jackets." You see, nobody in the family, nor any guest at the reception, drove a red Impala.
11.19.2005 7:06pm
Kelaine Vargas (mail):
You're probably done with this all by now, but I'm catching up after a busy week at work.

As a child I thought French kisses were the kind in which you kiss someone once on each cheek (seems reasonable, doesn't it?). Oh, the look on someone's face when I said "I don't understand the big deal about French kissing, that's how I kiss my grandma."

And the general problem of your post is a familiar one to me. I signed up for the Merriam Webster word-of-the-day email and, while most of them are really silly, I keep up with it because about once a month a word comes that means nothing like I thought it meant: reactionary, jejune, moot...

Moot is another good one. I, and according to the American Heritage dictionary, most people, think it means a point that no longer needs to be argued, when in fact, it means almost the opposite.
11.20.2005 5:28pm