5 Words That Switched Meaning Because Everyone Used Them Wrong

‘Entitlement’ now means you don’t deserve something, which is absurd
5 Words That Switched Meaning Because Everyone Used Them Wrong

Some words mean two things that are complete opposites. “Cleave,” for example, can mean both splitting something apart or joining two things together. Sometimes, this is because the same word has two different roots, but other times, it’s because people got the word wrong, and the new meaning stuck.

The word “peruse” can mean both to read in detail or to skim, but it first just meant to read in detail, till people misused it. To find some more strange ways misuse kicked in, peruse the following list. 

‘Steep Learning Curve’

In the 1930s, economists sat down to study how much it costs to make airplanes. This was a vitally important matter — by the end of World War II, the U.S. would be finishing production on an average of 260 airplanes every single day — and any change in efficiency could spark vast changes in output. An engineer named Theodore Paul Wright noted that each process’ efficiency increases over time, as workers gain experience. He proposed a concept called “learning curves” to measure this. 

A steep learning curve indicates a process that’s easy to learn, with production rates rapidly increasing over time. With a shallow curve, on the other hand, rates increase more slowly, indicating a process that’s harder to learn. 

Mechanized P-38 conveyor lines

via Wiki Commons

Picture a plane that ascends steeply. Gaining altitude’s easy in one of these.

This definition will surprise and confuse you, if you know the phrase “steep learning curve” only from how it’s mostly commonly used. Currently, people almost always use the phrase for stuff that’s hard to learn, not easy. Climbing something steep is hard, after all, so it seems like a steep learning curve should be hard. 

Picture a graph that charts “learning” against time, or against experience. With a steep curve, people learn quickly. That means it’s easy. But people who use the current definition are more likely to consider this a graph of how quickly they’re required to learn something, rather than how quickly people do learn it. That steep climb looks daunting. 

Short and long learning curves

Alan Fletcher 

Why not chill and take the dotted road? Destination’s the same. 

While those sound like two differing valid interpretations of the phrase, the original learning curve was definitely about describing previous progress, not assigning targets. Also, it originally didn’t plot learning against time at all. It plotted hours of labor or cost per airplane against the total airplanes that had previously been produced. As a result, a steep learning curve (an easy production process to learn) was a curve that curved steeply downward

Learning curves

University of Lowell

Picture a plane that descends steeply. Dying’s easy in one of these. 

Since people refer to steep learning curves in the exact opposite way from how the phrase was intended, you might say everyone’s using it wrong. But if you instead adhere to the true meaning and call something easy a “steep learning curve,” no one will understand you, so don’t do that. Honestly, there’s no need to ever use the phrase at all. Feel free to say, simply, “It’s hard to learn,” or, “It’s easy to learn.” 

Unless, of course, you’ve plotted an actual logarithmic graph that describes unit costs using the function y = Kxn.

‘Mystery Box’

If you’re a normal person, you may go your whole life without hearing about mystery box storytelling. If you’re a nerd, however, you know the term well. Mystery box storytelling is when a series lures you in by dangling a bunch of mysteries, mysteries to which the writers themselves do not yet know the answers. For example, if you’re watching a show about plane crash survivors encountering a bunch of random supernatural phenomena, and the writers clearly have no idea where this is going, you’re watching a mystery box show.

Yellowjackets

Amazon

We are, of course, referring to Yellowjackets.

Yellowjackets, pictured above, is called a mystery box show, but the most cited example is Lost. The name “mystery box” comes from a TED talk that J.J. Abrams gave in 2008, initially inspired by people asking him what the island in Lost is. Abrams wrote and directed the pilot of Lost, and though he left the show early in the first season, returning only to write one more episode a couple years later, people still widely credit/blame him for the path Lost took. 

Knowing that Abrams gave a speech called “The Mystery Box,” and talked about Lost in it, you might think this is a 20-minute defense of shows with endless chains of mysteries, or a guide on how to write them yourself. It isn’t. It’s actually about several different things, very loosely tied together using the phrase “mystery box.” 

To start with, he brings out an actual mystery box, a box with undisclosed contents sold by a magic shop. Shops sold such boxes as a mild form of gambling; you didn’t know what you were buying, but you bought it based on the potential. Abrams has kept this box from his childhood, only because it reminds him of his grandfather. He’s never opened it, preferring to let it represent infinite possibility. “There are times when mystery is more important than knowledge,” he says. 

People remember that quote and figure that’s what the whole speech was about. 

JJ Abrams mystery box

TED Conferences

“This is why you must cheat the public.” — the version of Abrams that exists in people’s heads

But the speech then goes on to use “mystery box” to mean a bunch of other things:

  • The blank page is a mystery box, prompting authors to create.
  • It’s fun to take apart boxes, such as radios and even tissue boxes.
  • A movie theater is a mystery box.
  • People can now watch movies anywhere, on iPods, which are mystery boxes.
  • You can use a laptop to edit a movie yourself, making that a mystery box.
  • For a scene in Mission: Impossible III, where someone must point a gun in Tom Cruise’s face, Abrams had Cruise point the gun in his own face, and this kind of practical trickery is also a mystery box, because why not. 

The original Star Wars was a series of mystery boxes, said Abrams (this was 2008, years before he was picked to helm new Star Wars movies) because it was a list of questions — questions that were each answered before moving on to the next one, so this doesn’t feel like what we call mystery box storytelling. And he talks about Lost, but he doesn’t talk at all about enticing the audience with mysteries. He instead shows an action scene with an explosion. This is an example of what boxes can do, he says, because he had the technology to film this scene, and technology is a magic box. The show also had limitless potential like a mystery box, he says, but only in that the network gave them unprecedented leeway for the pilot, which was the most expensive pilot ever shot. 

He does talk about withholding stuff from the audience, but he talks about other filmmakers hiding the alien in Alien or muting a conversation during a date in The Graduate. These aren’t examples of stringing audiences along with unanswered questions but leaving something off the screen and the movie being better for it. Then he talks about the true appeal of movies like Jaws and Die Hard, which is the characters’ relationships, highlighting the scene below of Brody and his son. 

That’s nearly the opposite of what we call mystery box storytelling. Maybe we should be calling programs “mystery box shows” if they move us with character interactions?

Listen, if you want to hate shows like Lost (or defend shows like Lost), you’re welcome to do so. It’s a bit odd, though, to call them mystery box shows after Abrams’ choice of theme for one TED talk. Because he used the box to talk about so many different concepts, and because mystery boxes are an actual thing, with one specific mystery: What’s inside, and is it worth the price you paid? 

Actual physical mystery boxes offer an obvious metaphor you can apply to TV shows — all shows are mystery boxes until you watch them and find out what happens. But if you’re talking about shows burying us in questions, like “why’d she do that” and “who is giving them visions” and “how did the cat come back to life,” Abrams’ talk surprisingly didn’t really cover that sort of thing.

One useful authority on this is TV Tropes, who have a word for everything. They refuse to call such programs “mystery box shows.” They instead direct you to pages called “Jigsaw Puzzle Plot” and “Writing by the Seat of Your Pants.” They do have a page for “Mystery Box,” but it’s about actual mystery boxes

‘Entitlement’

An entitlement is something you’re entitled to. That’s what it means. That’s how nouns work. 

In the U.S., federal benefits programs are called “entitlements,” based on the assumption that recipients are entitled to them. Some of these programs, like Social Security, are contributory, which means you personally paid into them. Others, like nutrition assistance, are non-contributory, paid from the government’s discretionary budget, but by calling them “entitlements,” the government is still saying recipients are entitled to them. 

Over the years, the word “entitled” evolved. We associated it with people who feel entitled or act entitled, more than with people who are entitled. It therefore grew to connote that you’re not entitled to something, even though the word literally says you are. We’ve now reached the point when advocates for entitlements argue it’s insulting to refer to these programs as entitlements:

The congresswoman in the above video says it’s wrong to call Social Security an entitlement, wrong because people pay into it with every paycheck. Here’s another opinion piece from a member of Congress saying the same thing. “It’s not an entitlement!” says this argument. “It’s not an entitlement because, you see, you’re entitled to it.” And people find this argument convincing because no one wants to be accused of being entitled, right?

Clearly, we need to rename entitlements to avoid this problem. Maybe we can call them “eligibityments,” to show that they're for people who are eligible. That will probably buy us a century before “eligible” becomes an insult, referring to people who aren't actually eligible. 

‘Low Man on the Totem Pole’

We picture hierarchies vertically. If you’re subordinate to your boss, that means you’re below them. If you’re especially lowly, you may have hit rock bottom. 

The exact orientation of this vertical imagery is arbitrary. We could instead draw organizational diagrams so the president is at the bottom. The president is ranked number one, and higher numbers should be on top, right? Or, consider the dwarves of Discworld, who refer to their leader not as the top official but as the Low King

The Fifth Elephant book cover

Isis Audio

Also, their word for “king” literally means “senior mining engineer,” but that’s dwarves for you.

You probably think the “low man on the totem pole” is the most junior person in an organization. They have not ascended very far, and they lack power. But have you considered what sort of person would manage to be the bottom figure in a human totem pole? They would need to be strong enough to support everyone else. They’re the most important person in the group and the least replaceable.

For reference, look at actual totem poles, which have been a thing since long before the phrase became part of the English language. In a totem pole, the bottom figure isn’t some peon being squashed by the important figure on top. They’re the figure in the pole who’s been carved with the most detail, and they may also be the biggest.  

Pitt Rivers Museum Totem pole

Adam Hopkinson

And is that his penis? If so, he has the hugest penis. 

In the pole above, there’s a prominent low man but no single top man. At the top are a bunch of tiny people. Here it is — the inverted hierarchal chart we promised you. 

A Special Note on ‘Literally’

As soon as you saw this article’s title, some of you probably thought of the word “literally,” an adverb that has famously been abused. Literally is a very useful word. We’ve used it multiple times already in this very article. Sometimes, however, people use it for stuff that’s not literal at all. The dictionary now notes that the word has a second definition, which essentially means “not literally,” and this inclusion attracted a lot of controversy online around a decade ago

But when we accuse people of using literally to mean “figuratively” rather than “literally,” it’s possible we’re not exactly understanding how they’re using the word. To see this, let’s consider a typical way someone in 2024 might use it, when speaking in a non-literal manner. Say, “You want me to work in an office rather than from home? I would literally rather pull out my eyeballs and stick them up my ass.”

googly eyes

Franco Antonio Giovanella

No offense to any optiglutiphiles reading this. 

You might say that person is speaking figuratively. They aren’t expressing a genuine preference for that eyeball move and wouldn’t perform it if actually given the choice. But they’re not using the word “literally” to label that image as figurative. Instead, we know they don’t mean the exact thing they’re saying thanks to context and their tone. We’d know that just as strongly if they omitted the word “literally.”

Literally doesn’t serve here as a synonym for figuratively, a disclaimer clarifying that they’re joking. It serves as emphasis. In fact, it emphasizes their statement by declaring it’s literal. You know it’s not literal (again, from context), but they’re telling you it is, and therein lies the sentence’s humor. If you criticize someone for using “literally” this way, you aren’t actually criticizing them for using bad grammar. You’re criticizing them for lying — lying in a comedic way, and deceiving no one in the process. 

typewriter keys

Johnny Briggs

Pedantry is fine, but we still need to understand humor. 

So, people generally don’t use “literally” as a synonym for “figuratively.” But they used to. 

Go through classic novels from a century or two ago, and you’ll find many authors doing so. Charles Dickens writes in Nicholas Nickleby that a character “literally feasted his eyes, in silence, upon the culprit.” Jane Eyre says, “Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye.” Here, unlike in the eye sentence we came up with earlier, you could replace literally with figuratively and capture the author’s intended meaning.

In the below 1993 clip from Frasier, a caller (Jeff Daniels) says his mother doesn’t have much of a life. “She literally hangs around the house all day,” he says. Frasier corrects him, saying that the mother doesn’t literally hang but figuratively hangs. 

Frasier is correct, if wrong to interrupt the call for this correction. But when was the last time you heard someone misuse literally that way? To label a metaphor, in the style of 19th-century authors, rather than to double down on an exaggeration? Today, someone might say “literally all day” but would not say “literally hangs.”

Despite the criticisms that young people misuse “literally,” using it as a replacement for “figuratively,” doing so now comes across as a very formal or outdated way of speaking. The word did change meaning, but it reversed in the opposite way to what people think, becoming more literal. 

Isn’t that literally the craziest thing you’ve ever heard? 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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