Words I can never remember the meaning of

Saturnine, which I’m convinced means Byronically handsome. But when I look it up seems to just mean “dark” or “gloomy”.

Pusillanimous, which I’m always a hundred per cent certain means “stingy” but turns out to mean “cowardly”.

Chiaroscuro, which I have long confused with kaleidoscopic, but which actually means black and white. Or a kind of drawing in black and white. Or something. To be honest it’s a word I now avoid.

I know I’m not alone on this. What are yours?


  1. Rachel Brown on #

    Pullulating. In “Maximum City,” a porn movie is described as having “penises pullulating in vaginas.” I am still not sure what pullulating means.

    Perhaps it’s related to pulsating. Though probably not pusillanimous.

  2. Kathleen on #

    I thought “Byronically handsome” *meant* dark and gloomy.

  3. cuileann on #

    Paradigm. But that might be because I’ve never gotten a definition of satisfactory clarity. And formerly, dichotomy, but I think I’ve finally got that one down, after looking it up about ten times.

  4. janet on #

    Ennervated. The word makes me think of “energetic,” but it means the opposite.

    Livid. It means pale, but I always envision an intense red or green, maybe because it’s usually used to describe someone who’s angry.

    It’s not so much that I can’t remember these words’ meanings, but that my intuitive sense of the meaning is different from the dictionary meaning.

    Then there’s “decimated,” which technically refers to a situation in which 1 in 10 of something is destroyed, but is usually used to describe much more overwhelming destruction. That’s probably a secondary meaning of the word by now.

  5. Jane on #

    Hyperbole , hubris and paradigm – I know what they mean but I don’t feel it so I rarely use them myself and often have to look them up – to be sure, (to be sure)!

  6. claire on #

    eschatological. tho’ honestly, when am i gonna use it anyway?

  7. Reb on #

    I have serious problems with “former” and “latter” because I can never remember which one actually means first, and when I try and reason it out I end up with neither one of them making sense to me anymore.

  8. Nicholas Waller on #

    I always think of Pusillanimous as being aggressive and angry, as though it’s a union of Pugilistic and Animosity.

    Chiaroscuro is not so much straight black & white, either flat blocks as in Sin City or variably grey as in b&w photos, but light and shade, as in well-rounded objects with strong highlights and dark areas; I always think of the painter Caravaggio when the word crops up.

    My bete noires are hermeneutics and heuristic, though I don’t have much cause to come across them. It’s not that I think they mean something other than they do but I’ve looked them up several times and their meaning never sticks.

  9. cathy on #


    Also, I’ve never been entirely sure what makes something ironic.

  10. AliceB on #

    Spendthrift. Shouldn’t it mean that you spend in a thrifty way?

  11. Celia on #

    I find it’s easiest to remember if you match the first letters to the synonyms: first = former, last = latter. I seriously have to do this little mental check everytime I encounter the word, but it’s a lot harder to screw up than other methods I’ve heard.

    I also agree with Kathleen that Byronically handsome totally is dark and gloomy.

    And while I’m sure there’s a word or two I could use here, lately my biggest problem has been forgetting the second half of idioms while I’m saying them, and casting blindly around for the rest of it. “Well, that’s no skin off of my…duck’s back?”

  12. Liz on #

    Chiaroscuro is not an easy term for art historians either!!! I always think of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of hands. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Study_of_Arms_and_Hands.jpg
    It’s really about playing with light and dark and creating volume to make everything look more alive and real with this technique. I am not sure anyone would ever use this term outside of art history though. Do they?

  13. Lori S. on #

    My mnemonic for ‘pusillanimous’ is ‘pussy,’ aka ‘scaredy cat.’ Crude, but it works.

  14. Justine on #

    Kathleen & Celia: Saturnine can mean that if it’s modifier. As in “saturnine good looks”. But on it’s own it just means dark or gloomy. Though I have a feeling it gets used that way and may be shifting to meaning Byronic good looks.

  15. atthecross on #

    baleful. i always think it means sad and hopeless… but it means murderous. needless to say i have gotten myself into many a pile of poo with this misunderstanding…

  16. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    Huh. And here I thought a baleful expression was one of hopeless pleading. Why do people describe puppies has having large, baleful eyes? I’d better quit using it that way…


  17. cuileann on #

    @ Janet (4):
    What’s even worse about “enervated” is that the ennervate spell in Harry Potter REVIVES those who have been stunned. I don’t really need the extra confusion…;)

  18. Danielle on #

    Longtime reader but first time chimer-inner to say YES! I perpetually forget what ‘saturnine’ means and continue to confuse it with ‘handsome in that rugged sort of way you know you like.’ Heh.

    (Ellis Peters uses that word all the time)

  19. Patrick on #

    I’m still baffled that someone thinks about those three words at all. 😀

  20. Seth Christenfeld on #

    For a very long time, I thought that “erstwhile” meant “long-time.” It wasn’t until later that I learned that it really means “former.”

  21. Leahr on #

    I have a lot of words like that. I like Lori S’s comment- mnemonics are the best solution for such words. I had to look up halcyon a dozen times…can’t remember any more right now.

  22. Leahr on #

    I had to come back and add:
    That wikipedia page is getting way too familiar. I think I’ve looked it up a dozen times- it’s driving me crazy.

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