5 Great Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean

  1. Bombast. Maybe it’s because it has that word bomb in it, but bombast is often misused to describe harsh, exaggerated, or over-the-top rhetoric. Actually, it refers to speech that’s pompous or pretentious. Originally, bombast was a name for the cotton padding used in clothes. So when you hear a speech with lots of padding or filler—that’s bombastic. Or, (ahem) it could describe writing that has the same qualities.
  2. Hypocrite. We all know that a hypocrite is someone who says one thing and does another. Right? Well, actually, no. The word derives from the Greek word for a stage actor—someone who’s pretending to be someone else. So, if you‘re not living up to your own standards—that just means you’re human. If you’re pretending to do so—then yes, you’re a hypocrite.
  3. Diffident. This word is sometimes used as a synonym for arrogant or aloof. Actually, it describes someone who is timid or shy (dif-fident—the opposite of con-fident).
  4. Stereotype.When we hear this word, we automatically think of ethnic or racial stereotypes. But it originated in the printing trade, referring to a plate of type made of cast metal—so the printed image it produced was always the same (from Greek stereos, or solid, and type—meaning, well, type).
  5. Hackneyed. Book reviewers love to skewer hackneyed—meaning trite or stale—prose. And we've all heard the shortened version: hack politicians, and so forth. But the original definition is much more noble. Hackney refers to a breed of high-stepping English horses that were once used to draw carriages. Their use in such a common activity eventually led to the derogatory connotation.

So, impress your friends. Use these words; just use them right. Please.


  1. I only knew "hypocrite" and "diffident," the latter quoted in the 1828 Webster's definition of "modesty," which aligns with its biblical meaning as a display of inner humility. Of course, the biblical concept was supplanted by Victorian prudery's moral fear of the external anatomy, and ever since, the Christian culture has read "hiding skin" back into the original "modesty" of Peter and Paul.

    1. Excellent, David!

      Drawing you out of the woodwork makes this silly thing worthwhile. How are you?

  2. Thanks, Bill. Fun to read and well-written. Nothing bombastic about it.


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