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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

10 Trendy Words You Throw Around But Probably Don’t Understand

Who's not a woke, dystopian dotard these days? Not sure what that means? You're far from alone. Here's a round-up of trending terms to make sure you really understand what you're hearing and saying.

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DystopiaTatiana Ayazo /, shutterstock


In real life, however, the term “dystopia” has been thrown around a lot lately as a descriptor for everything from fashion to post-hurricane images on the news. A dystopia is an “imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives,” according to Merriam-Webster. So, technically, you’re not really dystopian when you rock your trendy bomber jacket and combat boots. Because you’re not in an “imaginary place.” If you say it as a description for something scary and real, it makes sense: “When flood waters gushed through the living room, it felt like a dystopia.” Make sure you start using these 10 almost-extinct words before it’s too late.

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SyzygyTatiana Ayazo /, shutterstock


Everyone was obsessed with the solar eclipse in August 2017, so obscure scientific terms got trendy! One of the most trendy terms was “syzygy.” That word basically means “yoked together” in ancient Greek. Astronomers use it to describe the situation when three celestial bodies get in formation in a straight line. It also has something to do with gravitation pull. Syzygy is as complicated as it sounds. Use it this way: “The solar eclipse created a rare syzygy when the sun, moon and earth were in perfect alignment.” Here are the 70 words and phrases you’ve probably been using all wrong.

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LiterallyTatiana Ayazo /, shutterstock


You’ve probably heard someone use “literally” to exaggerate a point. This usage is gaining popularity with the younger generations. As in, “I’m so tired. I literally haven’t slept in five days.” But actually, that’s the wrong way to use this word. So, what does “literally” mean? The word “literally” implies an actual truth. It can’t be used hyperbolically or in a figurative or descriptive sense. You could say, “I’m so tired because I literally got five hours of sleep last night.” Just don’t use it to exaggerate a point that’s not precisely true, as in: “I’m so embarrassed I could literally die.”

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WokeTatiana Ayazo /, shutterstock


This slang term transforms the past tense of a common verb, “to wake,” into a description for someone who’s “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues,” especially those concerning racial and social justice. If someone describes you as woke, you can take that as a compliment. However, it’s not for you to decide. Don’t be like this: “I added an extra quarter to my barista’s tip jar and thought about how woke I’ve been lately.” To earn wokeness, you need to be genuinely devoted to understanding social justice and actively taking a stand.

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BallisticTatiana Ayazo /, shutterstock


Sometimes you say you’re about to go ballistic. What you really mean is you’re angry, but the other sense of word is linked to a type of missile. The term started trending because of increasing reports of North Korean missile launches. The word describes the act of “hurling” but doesn’t relate to the word “ball” like you might think. It comes from the Latin ballista, “a military siege engine which would hurl missiles a considerable distance.” Here it is in a sentence: “Ballistic missiles are powerful and dangerous.” Try to solve these word puzzles that will leave you stumped.

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TransgenderTatiana Ayazo /, shutterstock


The term transgender has been gaining popularity. It reached a peak with Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn. But many people still don’t know exactly what the term actually means. Transgender doesn’t mean someone who’s taken hormones and had surgery to adopt a different gender. It means that a person has a gender identity that differs from the one they were identified with at birth. It’s a basic descriptor that shouldn’t have negative connotations. In a sentence, “Transgender people deserve equal rights and protections from discrimination.”

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DotardTatiana Ayazo /, shutterstock


This old-timey word started trending after Kim Jong-un used it to describe Donald Trump. Kim was being totally ageist. Dotard basically means someone who is in their “dotage,” meaning “in a state of senile decay.” Here it is in a sentence that reflects its correct definition: “To people in their thirties, anyone over 70 might seem like a dotard.” Trump’s only 71, Jong-un! Age is state of mind. Don’t be caught saying these other words that make you sound old.

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IronicTatiana Ayazo /, shutterstock


Ever since Alanis Morrissette’s 1990s hit, “Ironic,” people have been misusing this word. Morrissette’s lyrics describe the word as “the good advice that you just didn’t take” and “a black fly in your Chardonnay.” Not exactly, Alanis! Let’s break this down because the term is always on trend. When something is ironic, it isn’t funny or coincidental or sarcastic or weird or unusual. Irony refers to something that is the opposite of expectations. A perfect example is the fact that the Titanic sank, because it had been touted as an unsinkable ship.  If you want to be ironic, say the exact opposite of what you really mean—like Morrissette’s non-ironic irony song. Take a look at these 33 middle school vocabulary words adults still get wrong.

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RacistTatiana Ayazo /, shutterstock


In our politically sensitive culture, the word “racist” sometimes gets used when it shouldn’t. For example, if you forget your child’s friend’s name and describe her as the African American one on the right in the class picture, it’s not racist that you pointed out her skin color. (It would be racist if you said something negative about her based on her skin color.) Racist is an adjective or noun that defines an individual, practice, or system that uses discrimination or hatred based on race. There may even be an explanation for how and why we learn prejudice. Racist individuals believe—sometimes unconsciously—that certain races of people are superior to others, and those perceptions are very often people based on stereotypes of say, the best athletes or the worst criminals, the strongest at math or the worst drivers.

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TravestyTatiana Ayazo /, shutterstock


What do you really mean when you say, “That’s a travesty?” Most people call something a travesty when what they really mean is tragedy. A travesty is a “debased, distorted, or grossly inferior imitation.” That’s why the phrase “a travesty of justice” is so common when a legal outcome doesn’t align with known and accepted laws. There’s an imitation of justice that’s totally inferior. It you say, “The game’s outcome was a travesty!” that doesn’t make sense if it’s a regular loss that follows the conventional rules. A travesty requires a major distortion or debasement. Now that you’re up to speed on today’s trendiest words and their definitions, check out these other English words that used to mean totally different things.

Molly Pennington, PhD
Molly is a writer and collage artist with a PhD in film and cultural studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her professional astrology services and artwork are available at Baroque Moon Astrology. She covers the zodiac, books, movies, TV and culture for Reader’s Digest, and loves to talk about all the ways we make meaning.