You Keep Using That Word

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”.

Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride (1987).

(IMDb. The Princess Bride.  Retrieved: 29 May 2016).


We all do it.  Use words incorrectly.  I never thought I would become one of those people, you know, the ones who rant and rave about incorrect English?  I have become one of those people.  Although I prefer Steven Pinker’s term “the careful reader.”

Recently I have become annoyed by the use of the word “humbled.”  Recently I have heard statements like “I’m so humbled receiving this award.”  But the word doesn’t mean honoured, or proud, or even undeserving.   Humbled means to be brought low, to be reduced in status.  For example, “she was in humbled circumstances.”   A second meaning is to be defeated soundly (and perhaps by someone who was through to be a weaker competitor), “the politician was humbled in the last election by her opponent.”

Why does it matter if people use a word incorrectly?  The pendant in me just likes things to be done right.  The student in me likes to be acknowledged for being right.  But it is the communicator in me who wants precision in language to ensure that we all understand the content of a message.  This can avoid broken friendships, lawsuits, and possibly, wars.

The other day my dad asked me the meaning of the word “empirical.”  I laughed and then told him to look it up in the dictionary. This was an old family joke – when I was a child he told me to look up every word I asked him about in the dictionary.  This changed my relationship with words.  “Looking it up” gave me the power to understand words, and to choose them based on their appropriateness in the situation.  (As an aside, after I pulled out my iPad and looked up “empirical,” we had a good conversation about empiricism – it has a broader meaning than most of us generally associate with it.)

Words are powerful, they give us the ability to communicate, to influence, and to understand. So please, take a minute to “look it up.”

Categories: Communication, Learning

2 replies »

  1. I’m with you on this but in fairness I must confess that most days I feel more and more like the, “Hey you kids….. get off my lawn” guy.

  2. « But it is the communicator in me who wants precision in language to ensure that we all understand the content of a message. »

    Yes. If the purpose of language is to communicate, then sender and receiver need to have a common understanding of words.

    Languages do evolve, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to justify errors.

    On a related point, good writers sometimes choose to break the rules of grammar. But that’s different than not knowing the rules in the first place.

    All that said, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of “that doesn’t mean what you think it means” from time to time.

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