In reality, the words we use mostly come from older sources, so there are a few meanings already implicit within them. Admittedly, that's not always the case, as some words seem to appear out of nowhere (one of the oldest examples is "dog", which is unrelated to any word in any other language) but mostly it is.
Nonetheless, everyone should take care to use the right word to avoid being misunderstood, so here's a guide to some of the most commonly – or dangerously – misused words.
You are misusing this word by using it at all, because it doesn't exist. My guess is that people are conflating "regardless" and "irrespective", which have similar meanings. "Regardless" literally means "without regard to". While it is possible to make a word "irregardless", it would mean "not without regard to". That's an awkward double-negative, meaning (if it means anything at all) "with regard to", which is the opposite of what someone using "irregardless" actually intends to say.
I wrote a post back in June (here) about the use of words that are similar to familiar words but sound more impressive. The problem is, they often don't mean what the writer thinks they mean. I used the examples "epicentre" and "amphitheatre", but even more common is the confusion of "empathy" for "sympathy".
I trust we all know what "sympathy" means. "Empathy" is being increasingly used as a more intense form of "sympathy", but it means something far more specific: "the power of projecting one's personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation", in other words, feeling the same.
So, a man might sympathise with a woman who is suffering labour pains, but there is no way he can empathise because has never given birth and doesn't even possess many of the body parts that are hurting. When Apple's customer survey asked whether the technician "empathized" with my problem, I couldn't answer because I didn't know if she had ever had the same problem with an iPod. And the Rolling Stones couldn't have begged Empathy For The Devil, since none of their listeners had ever been a supernatural lord of universal evil. Probably.
Too many writers don't seem to know the difference between "e.g." and "i.e.". They mean "for example" and "that is" respectively, and are abbreviations of the Latin phrases "exempli gratia" and "id est". If you use "i.e.", you have to name everything in the group. So, if you write, "the countries of the European Union, i.e. …", then you have to name all 27 of them. If you use "e.g.", you only need to give a few examples.
It's becoming quite common for people to use the word "cancel" when they mean "postpone". If an event is cancelled, it won't happen at all, ever. The Guardian should know better, but on Thursday it ran the headline
"Tottenham Hotspur v Everton cancelled due to riots". Similarly, the Daily Mail wrote "Clubs set to cancel opening Premier League fixtures". The same mistake was made by the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror and the Huffington Post, and they weren't alone. Of course the match wasn't cancelled; it was postponed (from the Latin "post", meaning "after", and "ponere", meaning "to put"). You can be 100% certain that it will be played between now and when the season finishes in May.
Monarchs reign. Horses are controlled by reins. So, when you're trying to control something, you rein it in, not reign it in. The Daily Mail got this one wrong last week, when it wrote about "the use of social media to reign in rioters". Interestingly, it got it right in the headline but not the body copy.
Not only is this word commonly misused, it is also one of the most mispronounced words in the language. "Dissect" means (roughly) to cut up. "Bisect", on the other hand, means to cut in two.
These two words do not rhyme. Look closely: "dissect" has a double-s, while "bisect" only has one, and there's a reason for that. You know the rules of pronunciation: a double consonant shortens the vowel before it, which is why "rising" doesn't rhyme with "missing". The root word is "sect", from the Latin "secare": to cut.
The prefix "dis-", with the sense of "apart", always rhymes with "miss" (and, indeed, with the prefix "mis-"), and I don't need to tell you how to pronounce disrupt, dissolve, dismiss, disappear, etc. The prefix "bi-" (two) nearly always rhymes with "eye": binary, bisexual, bimonthly, bipartisan, etc (though not, interestingly, binoculars).
Everyone knows what this means, if they pause to think about it. Unfortunately, pausing to think is anathema to many people, such as the Radio 5 commentator who reported earlier this year on a player who "literally crawled through the defence to score". Football is a funny game, but I doubt that the goal was scored from a kneeling position. There are so many instances of people saying and writing "literally" when they actually mean the exact opposite – i.e. "figuratively" – that I can't detail them here. Thankfully, someone else has.
Like irregardless, this isn't a word. Unlike irregardless, it's an attempt to express a concept for which no word exists. The reason the word doesn't exist is that the concept doesn't exist either. A guess is a conclusion based on no evidence. An estimate is an approximation based on incomplete evidence. There is no halfway house here: you're either estimating or you're guessing. Either you've got evidence or you haven't. When people say "guesstimate", they're trying to imply that they've got some evidence for what they're saying when they haven't. They're guessing. And lying.
An angry marketing manager heard what I'd said about his press release and marched to my desk, saying, "I hear you've got issues with this." I replied, "No, I've got a problem with it." He was visibly annoyed, so he had no reason for the mealy-mouthed euphemism. An issue is something that needs to be discussed. As everyone in the UK discovered last week, riots are a problem. The underlying cause of the riots is an issue.
A poor press release is a problem. Writing better press releases is an issue.
10. Leverage (as a verb)
Our old favourite, leverage, is a noun formed from the verb to lever. As a verb, it has a specific, technical meaning to do with debt-financing, and there's nothing wrong with that. Increasingly, however, it is used by business people instead of the more prosaic "exploit". I suppose that users think it gives them an aura of dynamism, rather than an aura of bullshit. They're wrong.
A company I worked for tried to rewrite its mission statement to include the phrase "we will leverage our customers". That sounds positively painful. "Exploit our customers" means the same thing, and at the same time reveals how undesirable such a policy would be – or at least how undesirable it would be to let our customers know how we viewed our business relationship. How can you pursue effective policies in business if you can't even articulate them in comprehensible English?
Moral: The words you use reveal you. The words you misuse betray you.