What Was That Again? Words With Difficult-to-Remember Meanings

Sometimes there are words that you've seen, read and maybe even used in conversation whose meaning you can never keep straight. Even after looking it up, the right definition doesn't stick. Here are 15 words with definitions that can be difficult to remember. Some look like they have a negative element in them, but either because their positive counterpoint has fallen out of use or because it never existed in the first place, the word doesn't really have a negative sense. Other words below are often confused for their opposite or have come to have connotations not quite reflected in their dictionary definitions.

Start learning with an activity...

  • Practice

    Answer a few questions on each word. Get one wrong? We'll ask some follow-up questions. Use it to prep for your next quiz!
  • Spelling Bee

    Test your spelling acumen. See the definition, listen to the word, then try to spell it correctly. Beat your last streak, or best your overall time. Spellers of the world, untie!
  • Vocabulary Jam

    Compete head-to-head in real-time to see which team can answer the most questions correctly. Start a Jam and invite your friends and classmates to join!

Explore the Words

definitions & notes only words
  1. nonplussed
    filled with bewilderment
    Laudrup appeared almost equally nonplussed to learn the officials were not required to make themselves available to the media to offer some sort of explanation.
    —The Guardian March 11, 2013
    If it looks like there's a negative at the beginning of this word, it's because etymologically speaking there is- it's from Latin non plus, "no more, no further". Still, there is no word plussed, and that can get confusing.
  2. inchoate
    only partly in existence; imperfectly formed
    Like all true grass roots movements, the TPM is inchoate, unfocused, and disorganized. 
    —Forbes July 1, 2014
    It may look like the in- at the start of this word would be the same as the one at the start of words like incomplete or inadequate. Although that may be a good way to remember it, the first letters of this word are not a negative. The word comes from Latin inchoare which meant "to begin." Inchoate things are often just beginning.
  3. cachet
    an indication of approved or superior status
    Cachet — isn’t that like panache, but sitting down?
    —Warren Zevon
    There are shades of meaning between cachet and panache that are often confused. Cachet is more about prestige and panache is more about style. Another way to put it is the fact that you are doing something at all, say,High Tea at Buckingham Palace, can have a lot of cachet in your social circle, but how you do something, like the genteel way you sip your tea can have a lot of panache.
  4. panache
    distinctive and stylish elegance
    Each one he answered swiftly, with a practiced grace and panache, deploying disarming tones and the most appropriate facial expressions.
    —New York Times May 24, 2014
    See above.
  5. indefatigable
    showing sustained enthusiasm with unflagging vitality
    They were also, along with their friend, James Baldwin, forceful members of the civil-rights movement— indefatigable because they never lost the ability to dream.
    —The New Yorker Jun 13, 2014
    It was possible to defatigare " to tire out", in Latin, but only the negative version, prefixed with in- survived the journey into English ( it came via French). indefatigable is a word you almost have to say quickly, and if you get through all those syllables, it's almost as if you've proven the definition- it takes "unflagging vitality" to reach the end.
  6. indelible
    not able to be removed or erased
    Theirs is a land that considers itself a multicultural success story, but it is one tainted by an indelible stain of bigotry.
    —BBC Jul 7, 2014
    Another etymologically negative word without a positive counterpart in Modern English, this word comes from Latin in "not" and delebilis "able to be destroyed".
  7. uncanny
    surpassing the ordinary or normal
    LaBeouf has an uncanny ability to steer the story back to him, even when the subject is decidedly not him.
    —Los Angeles Times June 27, 2014
    The word canny is rare but not unknown as a word that means "cunning" or "sly". The only problem is that that's not the meaning of canny contained in uncanny. Canny used to mean " knowing and careful" and therefore uncanny meant "mischievous" and came to refer to supernatural spirits who toyed with mortals. Comic book fans have a huge head start with this word, having grown up with the "Uncanny X-Men" who all have supernatural powers.
  8. unabashed
    not embarrassed
    He is anxious that his own trading fame doesn't overshadow the sport but is unabashed about his passion.
    —Reuters July 3, 2014
    This word is one where the positive version of it did exist, but has fallen out of use. Abash meant "perplex, embarrass, lose one's composure" in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, so unabashed means "not embarrassed".
  9. boned
    having had the bones removed
    Arend boned a chicken breast, cut it into small pieces, battered and fried the bits, and served them with a sauce.
    —Slate Dec 28, 2012
    Like the famous pair flammable and inflammable, the pair boned and deboned look like they should be opposites, but in fact have come to mean the same thing.
  10. illustrious
    widely known and esteemed
    As a member of one of Hungary’s most illustrious families, Karolyi grew up on a large estate, surrounded by acres of trees and lush fields.
    —Washington Times July 5, 2014
    Although it can get confusing, the il- in this word is not the il- in such words as illegible or illegitimate. This word comes from a Latin word illustrus which came to mean "famous", very close to what the English word now means.
  11. bourgeois
    belonging to the middle class
    To do so would be to overstep the bounds, and to display a bourgeois lack of cool.
    —Cat's Eye
    bourgeois and bourgeoisie are confusing partly because of the gap between the dictionary definitions of the words and how the words are used. An adjective describing something belong to the middle class or a noun designating that class shouldn't by themselves be judgmental words, but they are nearly always used in a disparaging way. The sample sentence for bourgeoisie is a good example of the tone that accompanies these words.
  12. bourgeoisie
    the social class between the lower and upper classes
    Somehow “kale” has become a four-letter word, like “tofu” was before it, symbolising the dietary quirks of a clueless, effete bourgeoisie.
    —The Guardian July 8, 2014
    See above.
  13. dilatory
    wasting time
    Some of the bloat has to do with the dilatory antics of the replacement referees, but that's not the lone cause.
    —Slate Sep 12, 2012
    This word is confusing because it sounds like it's potentially related to words like dilate or even depilatory. It's not related to either of those words, but luckily there are ways to remember what dilatory actually means—the word almost sounds like delay or dilly dally , both of which relate to the word's definition.
  14. martinet
    someone who demands exact conformity to rules and forms
    For the martinet manager it can only be his way.
    —The Guardian (May 19, 2014)
    This word looks and sounds like marionette, the stringed puppet, which is a pitfall to avoid, because it can lead you to believe that martinet means the exact opposite of what it actually means. A martinet has some power and no one is pulling their strings.
  15. hoi polloi
    the common people generally
    Hobnob not with the hoi polloi but rather the hoity-toity in the new unscripted series "Ladies of London."
    —Los Angeles Times May 30, 2014
    This is confusing because it's an obscure word for the common, and sometimes it's hard to keep straight whether the very upper crust or the common is being discussed. Hoi Polloi literally means "the many" with polloi being the plural of the well-known Greek prefix poly.
Created on July 11, 2014 (updated July 28, 2014)

Sign up, it's free!

Whether you're a student, an educator, or a lifelong learner, Vocabulary.com can put you on the path to systematic vocabulary improvement.