What That Word Really Means

Photo by Cristian V. / CC 2.0

Photo by Cristian V. / CC 2.0

In the classic movie The Princess Bride, an arrogant, know-it-all character frequently sputters the pronouncement "Inconceivable!" All the situations that he deems inconceivable (such as the possibility of his black-masked pursuer surviving a fall) proves to be not only conceivable, but they end up happening. Finally, another character says to him, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." 

Likewise, businesses in their communications often use words that do not mean what they think they mean. For example, a website I happened upon for an app development firm touts:

"Unlike many other tech and software development companies, we have made support the epicenter of our business model."

But epicenter is not a fancy synonym for center. It's a scientific term used when discussing earthquakes. It also means "the central point of something, typically a difficult or unpleasant situation." In short, the connotations of the word are negative.

Another example is the word penultimate. "Our store is the penultimate provider of fine men's clothing" is something you might read in a catalog, for instance. Penultimate, however, does not mean beyond the ultimate. It simply means "second to last," as in "The penultimate letter of the alphabet is Y."

The instinct that impels companies to misuse words such as epicenter and penultimate is understandable. They are trying to shout above the din of a noisy marketplace. But puffed-up words often fall flat and end up confusing readers. Ultimately, there's nothing wrong with the words center and ultimate. There's nothing wrong with keeping it simple.