Five Confusing, Misused Words and Phrases

This is the first of an occasional series, likely when I don’t have any better ideas. Let’s discuss the English words and phrases that are confusing by their nature or have become twisted by American speakers into a different “common” meaning. I love words; I just hate that people use them.

“Could Care Less”

This one came from a phrase with worthwhile intentions. There are many, many things about which I don’t care. I could use a phrase to emphasize the fact that my CARE LEVEL is zero. In comes “couldn’t care less.” Perfect. The phrase recognizes that my amount of caring is of the lowest possible degree. It cannot be lessened.

So what a shame that I can’t enjoy the phrase because so many people get it wrong. They say “I could care less” or other variants. Curses. I get that you can get tripped up by the double negative, but the implication becomes that you care at least somewhat. And caring is stupid.

“Subpar” and “Below Par”

“Hey, pal! How’d you hit ’em on the golf course today?”
My round ended up being subpar.

What a pair of conflicting definitions when you remember that being below par in golf is good/the goal.

1. (golf) (of a score) Less than par for the hole or course
2. (idiomatic) Not up to the average or normal standard

 That doesn’t mean that people are misusing the word, really. I just wonder how definition No. 2 came about.

“Payoff Pitch”

Another sports term that makes sense at first, but break it down. Announcers use it for any ol’ 3-2 pitch. It implies that the next pitch will lead to the end of the at-bat by either a strikeout, walk or ball in play. Often it does. Just as often it does not.

That’s unfortunate. The term “payoff pitch” sounds nice. It’s less jargon-y than other baseball terms like “blown save,” “platoon player,” “hot stove” and why in the world a pop-up to the outfield can trigger the infield fly rule. Anyone could understand a pitch having a payoff, but it doesn’t work as such.”


The correct definition is “the state of being famous or well known for some bad quality or deed.” Emphasize bad. It describes someone of ill repute. The adjective form is “notorious,” and that usually gets used correctly.

Somehow “notoriety” just became a synonym for “famous.” We may need other synonyms for famous, especially in a world where media have become so fragmented that one person’s famous is another’s unknown. What percentage of America do you think actually know who Mike Trout is? But notoriety is not the word. It needs to keep its definition of “famous for bad things,” because that description can apply to many more people than just B.I.G.

“All Downhill From Here”

I’m certain people used this correctly at first. Going downhill is easy and fun! Think of all the exciting activities that involve a downward trajectory on a hill: skiing, snowboarding, sledding, skateboarding, snowtubing, water slides and good ol’-fashioned rolling down the grass.

Yet the phrase “all downhill from here” has often come to mean an experience is only going to be bad (then worse) in the future. Some may even describe such an experience as “an uphill battle.” If we reclaim “all downhill” to mean being easy and fun, we can eliminate this contradiction that calls Sisyphus to mind. This is the hill I’ll die on.

Have suggestions for a future edition of Confusing/Misused? Let me know in the comments. And because I am taking a position as shaming poor grammar, go right ahead and criticize my word mistakes as well. I deserve it.


2 thoughts on “Five Confusing, Misused Words and Phrases

  1. I am embarrassed to say that until this day, I have been using notoriety incorrectly. Of course it’s not a word I use often, but I think I have only used it as a synonym for famous. Thanks for teaching me something.

    Here’s some food for thought (whatever that’s supposed to mean): When you adjust the air conditioner to make your house warmer, have you turned the air up or down? You may turn it up to make the temperature go higher by pressing the up arrow, or you may turn it down with respect to the intensity of the cold air.

  2. I assume people must think the root word of “notoriety” is “noteworthy”. So they think it just means “noteworthiness”

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