Words you’ve had wrong your entire life


As a child, my mother would always call out "banzai" when she wanted me to raise my arms above my head so she could put on or take off a pullover shirt. I assumed that banzai was the word for "stick your hands in the air!"

It wasn't until well into my adult life that my mother explained to me that, no, banzai does not mean "stick your hands in the air." It's a Japanese word meaning "ten thousand years", shouted as a term of approbation and accompanied by (you guessed it) throwing one's hands into the air. My mother was using it as a play term; in the United States, when you get your child to throw his hands into the air, you might accompany it with a shout of "Touchdown!"

What words have you gotten wrong your entire life?

Related: I Used to Believe.

Reminder: This upcoming Sunday is Mother's Day in the United States, and it honors all mothers, not just your own.

Bonus niece chatter: For a time, one of my nieces called a sneeze a bleshoo.

Comments (76)
  1. Mark says:

    My father has a number of little affectations which were quite confusing for me growing up; he would refer to the temperature of an oven as its ‘speed’. I was a teenager before I realised that it was just my dad who used this term and that everyone else would get confused if I talked about ‘the oven needs to be on a speed of 200°’.

    We also in my family had the word ‘sillies’ for pre-dinner snacks (crisps, nuts etc.)…

  2. phouse21 says:

    no matter what wrong words I have encounter with my mom, I still love her…happy mother’s day!

  3. mare says:

    My brother believed for quite a long time that a page and a sheet mean the same thing and I thought that philanthropy has to do with collecting stamps… :)

  4. Peter Hornby says:

    I was well into adulthood before I realised that “misled” is not the past participle of the verb “to misle”. I still unconsciously see it that way when I see it that way in print.

    [Ah, that brings back memories. There was a time when I mispronounced “misled” on purpose in humorous situations. -Raymond]
  5. Robert says:

    When we visited my parents, who lived 6 hours away, my son would see this awesome park near their house and ask if we could go there, and we’d always say "maybe next time" (we usually only visited in late fall for thanksgiving/xmas), eventually that just morphed into can we go to the "next time park?"

  6. The first time I heard the word "condone," the speaker actually meant "condemn." I had the meaning backwards for years.

    I do have many other examples, because the majority of my vocabulary is from reading. While definition mistakes were not unheard of, pronunciation mistakes were all too common.

    To this day there are words that I only write and do not speak.

  7. Mike Dunn says:

    My parents used the word "thongs" to refer to the footwear now called "flip-flops." "Thongs" isn’t wrong, just not in common usage anymore, as "thong" now means a different kind of clothing. But I still say "thongs" just to see people’s reactions.

  8. JohnD says:

    Kinda related.  For years I never understood the old joke ‘How do you get down off an elephant’, but dutifully laughed anyway.  It was not until I was an adult that someone pointed out the pun, and I was totally embarrassed.

    Until a couple of years later I was watching Johnny Carson interviewing a college professor who had written a book about humor. He mentioned one kind humor where the hook is that the answer has no relation to the question.  He used as his example ‘How do you get down off an elephant…You don’t, you climb down off a duck!"   University professor, studied humor and wrote a book about it, and he didn’t get the joke!

  9. frymaster says:

    @JohnD:

    I don’t get it either

  10. JasonD says:

    I thought "prerogative" was "perogative" until I was about 35.

  11. Matt Green says:

    James: the correct pronunciation of "array" eluded me for quite awhile. Worse, when I was told my pronunciation was wrong (AIR-ay), I thought it was simply a matter of taste. (One knows everything at age 16.) I envy people growing up in an age where collections are the norm, not chunks of memory.

  12. Joe says:

    bemused does not mean to be mildly amused, rather "to  cause  to  be  bewildered".

    I learned that relatively recently.

    For the truly embarrassing, when I was about seven or eight, I thought rape meant to attack voraciously. One Sunday dinner, we had chicken and I said "I’m going to rape this chicken." Needless to say my mom wasn’t happy, especially given our religious guests at the table.

  13. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    @frymaster:

    I’ll be damned forever for explaining a joke. OK. "down" as "direction down" versus "down" as "fluff under large feathers" that’s used to stuff pillows.

  14. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    @mare:

    Remember also that philanthropy and philandering are different things… Even though they have the same roots.

  15. Levendis says:

    When I was a kid I thought that "cremation" was the act of turning something into a cream.  This lead me to believe that funeral homes had big blenders that they tossed corpses into.

  16. frymaster says:

    @alexandre:

    in which case it’s still a nonsense joke, since it says “climb down” and not “get down”

    [The humor professor turned it into a nonsense joke by mis-telling it, betraying that he didn’t get the joke originally. -Raymond]
  17. Anonymous says:

    For some reason, I used to think that "eloper" was a term for a rude, lazy, or ungrateful person.  Until I got married.

  18. Usage of the word "thong" to apply to a particular kind of footwear is still in common usage in many parts of the world.

  19. Jeffrey says:

    Oh, good — a confessional.

    I only recently learned that ‘spendthrift’ meant the exact opposite of what I thought it meant.  Yikes.

  20. mike says:

    It took me years (decades) to make the connection between the written and spoken versions of "albeit." My wife still doesn’t get that "faux" is pronounced "foe." More examples:

    http://mikepope.com/blog/AddComment.aspx?blogid=1347

  21. Adam says:

    My wife hates it when I say "wheelbarrel" instead of "wheelbarrow". It’s like half a barrel with a wheel on the front so you can push stuff around in it. What the heck is a barrow?

  22. Bob says:

    @Adam:

    Barrow

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Barrow may refer to:

       * a cart or flat rectangular tray with handles at each end; for example, a wheelbarrow

  23. Carl Gibbs says:

    Before supermarkets carried Ciabatta and Baguettes break came sliced or unsliced.  The unsliced used to be labelled BREAD – WHITE BOOG.

    It was years before I realised that rather than Boog being a special type of bread, 800G was just the weight.

  24. a random passerby says:

    @frymaster:

    No, the joke still makes sense – the answer is reversing the mistake that the listener likely made when hearing the question, making the joke a double-pun.

    Q: How do you get down off an elephant?

    A: You don’t. You climb down off a duck.

  25. Shaun says:

    Mike, my parents have also always used thongs to refer to flip flops.

    My favourite moment was when my Mom asked my grandparents (older than 85) if they wanted her to get their thongs for the pool in our backyard – two of my friends were there and the look on their face was priceless!

  26. Adriano says:

    Try asking the meanings of ‘affect’ and ‘effect’, possibly with an example sentence thrown in, and see how many get it right.

  27. Nick says:

    @James

    I can understand that.  One word in particular that I pronounced wrong for ages was "melee".  I always said it as "mee-lee".  Even after I found out that was incorrect I continued to say it that way because I thought it sounded better (as you may have noticed, my small crusade to change the way it’s pronounced ended in failure).

    I’ve gotten over the habit of saying "mee-lee", but I still think it sounds better.

  28. Josh says:

    @Nick: Melee is a problem for a lot of my friends. The downside to playing role-playing games: You’re exposed to a lot of archaic words that are rarely heard aloud, then you pronounce them hilariously wrong until someone points out the correct pronunciation. Another one I encountered:

    Amulet -> Om-you-let

    And that’s ignoring the secondary issue of made-up words that everyone finds their own way to pronounce and no one ever agrees due to the absence of an authoritative source. I get that one two fronts, both RPGs and random web neologisms. My ears still grate when someone pronounces "Wiki" as "Weekee". I don’t care if it’s the correct pronunciation in the source language, when you’re talking about web technologies, it’s just annoying.

  29. awesome and aweful… mean almost the opposite

    Those mean the same thing (aweful is made up though.)  The opposite word you’re thinking of is "awful."

  30. felon says:

    I have a mate who chatted online about his friend’s "Mr. Meaner".

    The reaction was quite different from when he told the story verbally, where you instead heard "misdemeanor".

  31. James Schend says:

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who had problems with "array".

  32. Ray Trent says:

    Speaking of getting "rape" wrong…

    This is kind of a backwards instance of this problem. At Caltech (at least when I was there) "rape" was used to mean "screwed over" in a mild general sense, rather than just the literal violent one. E.g. "Oh man, your prof assigned homework over the holiday? What a rape!".

    It took me years to break myself of that habit.

  33. JJJ says:

    My first semester of graduate school I learned the word "posterity".  Up until then, I always said and wrote prosperity, assuming that "for posterity" was just a phrase people said that didn’t really make sense if you thought about it too hard.

    And @Josh:  Great observation, and too true.

  34. CodeOrDie says:

    French being my mother tongue and living in the US, an English speaking country, more than once has it happened that I learn that some word I thought was English is actually a borrowed French word. The pronunciation was just so completely different, I just never put two and two together.

    For instance, I would sometime hear the word "new-sense", like in "I don’t want to be a new-sense." And I never gathered the courage to ask what that word was or meant, I just figured it meant something like "fly in the ointment" or some such.

    Until DECADES later, in the middle of someone’s sentence, I finally clicked (in my head): "OOOOH! ‘NUISANCE’!!!!!"

    Subsequently, a hardly explainable explosion of laughter on my part and people asking me if I’m all right because it’s not like what they just said was particularly funny. "Yes, yes, I’m fine. Never mind me. I’m just… Prffffft. No, really, I’m fine. Mmmprrfrffttt. It’s just… Er… Whew… Please, go on. What were you saying?"

    Honestly, if you’re just talking in front of me and I suddenly start laughing. Don’t take it defensively. It’s not you, it’s me. (Laughing at myself, believe me.)

    p.s. I can’t really spell it phonetically but it’s like "Nu-ee-zanh-ss". In any case, the two pronunciations are a universe apart.

  35. James Schend says:

    Stephen: I had the same problem. Particularly with the word "array" which, if you’ve only read it and never heard it, you have *absolutely no idea* how to pronounce. (Or at least I didn’t.)

    There were actually a whole bunch of words I said wrong, due to being a bookworm, but "array" is the only one I still remember.

  36. Chad says:

    When I was (much) younger I thought when my grandfather called me a "little shyster" it was a term of endearment.

    Then I learned a little bit of German…

  37. Pato Moschcovich says:

    A colleague of mine told me this one.

    He is American with Italian roots.  When he was a kid, his grandma used to say "disgrazia" whenever he did something.  He was sure it meant "cute" for many years :)

    Of course it means "disgrace"

  38. W says:

    I thought for a long time there was only one awe*** word, while there are awesome and aweful which made understanding a bit hard since they mean almost the opposite.

    Even now I have to think about which means which.

    (Not a native speaker)

  39. Jonathan Wilson says:

    Here in Australia, Thongs is still the correct term for that item of footwear.

  40. David R. says:

    I used to mispronounce ‘boolean’ as boo-Lean. Purely because, at the point when I learnt about it (when I was a kid) I had never heard anyone else actually say it.

    Not until I was taught about circuits and and boolean algebra did I realise my mistake

  41. Joseph Koss says:

    What, no ‘cache’ ?

    cash vs cash-aye

    (I continue to use the later pronunciation)

  42. Andrew from Vancouver says:

    I think there a lot of words I knew from reading books, but hadn’t heard how they were pronounced, hence, when I heard them, I thought it was a different word.

    Like awry… I thought was pronounced "orry" and that hearing "a rye" well, that’s a different word.

    I knew how to say and read Kansas, which I thought extended to Arkansas… very different, actually. And reading cowboy comic books, I thought Texarkansas followed the pronunciation of Kansas as well.

    The example that fits the blog post the best might be flammable and what I thought was the opposite, inflammable. I thought that for a very long time.

  43. Lou says:

    So, you’ve never seen "The Karate Kid"? The difference between banzai and bonsai is explained.  The literal meaning wasn’t explained, but it was pretty clear what it is used for.

  44. Anonymous Coward says:

    Just reform your spelling and be done with it. Anglophones…

  45. Shachar says:

    @Josh – you should hear Jimbo Wales pronounce Wikipedia. Wee-kee-pee-dee-yah.

  46. sumdumgai says:

    Not 100% related.

    English is my second language (and I still cannot master it…) I learned it when I went to school in Hong Kong, when it was a colony of Britain. I guess they taught us British English. One of the word I learned was “anguish”.

    Later, I attended university in Toronto. But I never heard “anguish” in Toronto. I wonder if Americans use this word or not.

    One time, when I wanted to borrow an eraser, I asked my classmate, “Can I borrow your rubber?” And she gave me a weird look. It took me  some time to figure it out.

    And when I referred the “elevator” as the “lift”, no one understood me.

    Let me tell you how difficult for a Chinese to learn English. As a lousy analogy, chinese is Python and English is the assembly language. In chinese, there are no tenses, no subordinate clauses, no prepositions. The grammar is much simpler in chinese. For me, learning English is like a python programmer learning assembly language. Well, maybe I am biased.

    [Chinese makes up for the lack of tenses with the very subtle way tense information is conveyed by other means, like the inscrutable rules surrounding the particle 了. (And then there are the dozens of different noun genders…) Oh, and Chinese does have subordinate clauses; you just don’t realize it because you never learned them formally. -Raymond]
  47. Cheong says:

    Is "banzai"(萬歲)Japanese? I always thing it’s a Chinese word that’s literally equal to "Hurray!" in English.

    This word has 3 usage that I know. You now know one of them, the second is what you’d name the Emperor of current dynasty. (There’re also names like "九千歲" (nine thousand years) and "千歲" (thousand years) for close relatives of him.

    For the third one, I’m not sure whether it’s local usage in Hong Kong or not, means "I’ll pay for all the expense of the party/dinner". The reason? You’ve probably guessed it right – The sound come out when someone declaring this.

    On a related note, there’s one small bell in bars that we named "萬歲鐘". Be sure not to hit it unless you have lots of money and can’t find a better way to spend it. (Related to the third meaning I explained)

  48. Fowl says:

    I still refused to pronounce GUI "gooey". I’m not entirely sure way.

    Oh and cache is "cay-sh". :P

    I still don’t know how to pronounce melee (damn u rpg’s!)

  49. Drak says:

    @sumdumgai: Hehe, I went to school in Hong Kong too for a while in that period, and I thought the exact opposite. Chinese was hard compared to English (which is a second language to me, as my primary language is Dutch).

    Melee -> we always say ‘muhlee’ (maybe a bit of a Dutchism there), but I guess the correct way is meh-lay?

    Why would ‘cache’ be pronounced ‘cash-ay’? It almost like people saying ‘Portia’ when the mean a Porsche (then again I noticed in South Africa that a lot of kids think words ending in ‘er’ end in an ‘a’ and in other places it’s just the other way around: ‘Cucumber’ -> ‘Cucumba’, and ‘Banana’ -> ‘Banan-urr’

  50. Fowl says:

    @drak: I think it’s an Australian techism. Some of the comments here are interesting: http://languor.us/pronunciation-cache

  51. Fowl says:

    after some more googling… I’m not so sure any more.

    Kay-sh sounds cooler anyway, so I’m sticking to it. =)

  52. GWO says:

    This whole modern US "Mother’s / Mothers’ Day" is, of course, part of the liberal leftwing progressive media’s on-going "War On Mothering Sunday" ((c) Sean Hannity).

  53. Pete says:

    Vivid was my one I got completely the opposite meaning to this word because people say they had a "vivid dream" a lot. Was about 20 before I realised this because it’s not something you would be corrected on easily.

    Also thought it was normal to have a tiny hole in the roof of your mouth until I was about the same age

  54. J says:

    When my nephew was 12 he was dismayed that he hadn’t "started poverty" yet.

    I had a friend that pronounced cache like "cake". I had no idea what he was talking about for the longest until I said "ahhh! cash!"

    When I was little, I had a poster on a wall with a little boy offering an umbrella to a girl in the rain that said "A little courtesy goes a long way." I knew I had an Uncle Curtis, so I figured that courtesy was the boys name, and had no idea why giving someone an umbrella would make him travel a long distance.

  55. Mark Hoffman says:

    A friend of mine was on a business trip to Europe, and during the meeting he would answer "piece of cake" to their questions about the product’s technical abilities.

    After a few minutes, the confused Europeans asked him "Are you hungry. Do you require food to continue?" He spent the next few awkward moments explaining American colloquialisms to a bewildered audience who thought he was demanding pastries in exchange for work.

  56. Gregory says:

    Is it just me, or are people making a whole lot of spelling (and other) mistakes? If so, then this is truly a self-demonstrating article (and of Muphry’s Law in action also)…

    Asians will pronounce Wiki as wick-y. Mostly. How else would you pronounce it?

    As for cache, well, how would you pronounce cachet? Hence the slight confusion.

    And of course, something that affects your behaviour obviously had an effect on your behaviour.

    Mind you, for the longest time I never did put together the fact that most people pronounced harangue like they would meringue. I always pronounced it ha-runge.

  57. pptteam says:

    I read an article on MSNBC (can’t find it now) about Anne Jarvis (founder of Mother’s Day), which suggested that she lobbied hard for the rendering "Mother’s Day", as opposed to "Mothers’ Day", in order to emphasize the idea that it’s explictly *not* about celebrating all mothers, but about individual families celebrating the mother within the family.

    You general point (as espoused in the target of your link) is still valid (since technically what you’re doing is helping your kids celebrate their mother), but technically, the day does not "honor all mothers."

    </nitpicking>

  58. kog999 says:

    This whole thing would be a lot easier if words were just spelled how they sound. Why we have all these complicated rules and special cases is beyond me, and English is my native language. I guess it has to do with backwards compatibility.

  59. J says:

    @kog999

    I wood like to by to peaces uv for by for wood for my sun’s tree house.

  60. southerner says:

    My grandmother never drank the last bit of coffee in her cup and when I would ask why, she said she didn’t like the "drugs" in the bottom.  Took years for me to realize that caffeine didn’t sink and that she meant ‘dregs’.

    She would also say that she would do things "the reckly" ("I’ll make your dinner the reckly"), which I took from evidence to mean "at a time later than now".  What she was really saying was ‘directly’ which means exactly the opposite.

    I also had a roommate who had a thing for the "mack-a-bray" (macabre).

  61. Someone You Know says:

    @kog999

    It’s because modern English is a hodgepodge of syntax and vocabulary from several other languages, including (but not limited to) Greek, Latin, German, French, and Arabic.

    All these competing influences combine and interact to form a language that is wildly inconsistent.

  62. Mike says:

    The only one I remember from my youth is totally misspronouncing "gesture", however being a parent lets you enjoy your kids errors.

    Case 1) We used to buy a brand of salsa that had a garden picture on the front, including a ladybug. My daughter, age 2, would eat it by the spoonfull and called it "bugs" because of the picture. We thought that cute as heck and didn’t correct her…. until we took her to a mexican food place and she started shouting for more bugs. The waiter (and surrounding guests) were not amused…

    Case 2) A girl at summer camp told my son (at age 8 or so) that he was sexy. He asked for clarification, and was told it meant he was "hot". Well, it WAS above 95F that day, so he accepted that as being a temperature-related descriptive, and proudly used the word in that context when I picked him up to drive him home. Upon being aprised of the real meaning of the word (in an age-appropriate way), he turned red as a beet and declared the word "sexy" verboten in our household. I, not being one to stand down from a challenge, ripped a copy of Right Said Fred’s tune to my MP3 player and played it non-stop as I drove him to camp the next day.

  63. DRX says:

    My wife, who is Japanese, also says "Banzai" or "Banzai shite" when she wants my kids to raise their arms to take shirts off.  So "Banzai" certainly is used that way by native Japanese speakers, whether it is proper grammar or not.

  64. Seppo says:

    @J

    That was very hard to read… not at all logical either. A better language would be Finnish (which is my mother tongue)

    Written Finnish is very simple in a phonetic sense. Each letter always sounds the same, no matter where it is positioned in the word. Once you learn the alphabet, you should be able to pronounce any word so that anyone can understand you.

    "Ai wud laik tu bai tuu piises ov foor bai foor vuud for mai sans trii haus."

    The simple fact is that you can’t write "good sounding" English with just the Latin alphabet. We should be using phonetic symbols, such as IPA.

  65. paul says:

    -> pato

    disgrazia in italian is a false-friend. It doesn’t mean disgrace, it means misfortune.

  66. Worf says:

    My worst one was Tucson, AZ. I always thought it was pronounced "tuck-son". My electronics teacher would tell us of stories from "two-sont" which I thought there was a Toussaint, AZ (as how a French person would spell it).

    Took me many years to figure out they were the same place.

  67. Simon Buchan says:

    @Seppo: I believe the point is that it doesn’t handle homophones. Of course we still have homographs, but I think English has much less of those.

  68. J says:

    @Seppo

    That was sort of the point that english has many homonyms that are distinguished by spelling alone.

    I wood like to by to peaces uv for by for wood for my sun’s tree house.

    I would like to buy two pieces of four by four wood for my son’s tree house.

  69. failed says:

    When I was young I thought windows was a glass opening in the wall.

  70. Steve Crane says:

    I often hear people use ‘slither’ when they should use ‘sliver’. Also ‘asterix’ in place of ‘asterisk’. I blame that last one on the series of cartoon books we all read as kids.

    A funny one I recall was a friend who would speak of someone’s ‘aubergine’ hair; of course he meant ‘auburn’.

  71. Mihai says:

    @pptteam

    XML Parsing Error: mismatched tag </nitpicking>.

    <nitpicking/> @ </nitpicking> :-)

  72. JustAQuickThought says:

    Almost everyone knows someone who incorrectly writes "for all intensive purposes", instead of "for all intents and purposes".

  73. -Sander1981- says:

    @Mihai

    XML Parsing Error: mismatched tag </nitpicking>.

    <nitpicking> @ </nitpicking> :-)

  74. trevor says:

    When I was just learning to speak I would implore my father to share some of his soda by reaching for it. He would roll his eyes and say "go ahead." Later, when I had my speaking tongue more firmly under me, I would ask him "can I have some go ahead?"

  75. Ben says:

    Ewe. Oh the shame. Grade three, in front of the whole class; eee-wee. My teacher did not stop laughing for ages. Even as an adult if I met her in a supermarket, she would look at me, say eee-wee and laugh.

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