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3 Common Phrases That Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean

Teacher Writing Education on the Blackboard
Fuse, ThinkStock

Words are the paint of language. They color our thoughts and ideas and help create a picture in the mind of the listener. That is assuming that the listener and the speaker are speaking the same language with the same interpretation of that language.

Much like Facebook, what you actually say doesn’t mean nearly as much as what someone else thought you meant. That’s how a Facebook status of “good morning” can go from a pleasant salutation to “your mother eats roadkill out of old army boots” in less than three comments.

Here are three common phrases that most people have used or have heard used in day to day language. In most cases each of these phrases is used to suggest the opposite of what the original meaning was actually trying to convey.

Carpe Diem: It was in the movie Dead Poets Society. Most people know it literally means “seize the day”. That phrase when interpreted by most people comes across as the ancient equivalent of the modern day YOLO, you only live once. To many the phrase suggests let the future be damned, today is all that matters.

Here’s the real meaning. Carpe Diem actually is part of a longer phrase, “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero”, which means “seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.” The intention of the advice was to use the day to work hard for the future because life has a tendency to not just happen. You have to make it happen.

Curiosity Killed The Cat: Believe it or not, no cats were killed in the creation of this often misused  phrase. Most of us grew up believing that this phrase meant don’t stick your nose into a place where it doesn’t belong. Alas, our translation of the phrase has us using it for the most part the wrong way.

The origin of this saying goes back to the 17th century and a man who gave us a lot neat words and phrases, William Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the phrase used is “care killed the cat.” Now, that doesn’t mean that caring about a cat will kill it. Back in Shakespeare’s time “care” meant “to worry” so in essence he wrote “worry killed the cat”. In other words, if you worry too much then  you’ll catch a heart attack and die.

Charity Begins At Home: Many of us believe that means if you’re going to be giving to others you should really give to yourself first. That couldn’t be further from the truth of the phrase in its original context. That’s how a lot of people justify getting that new bass boat before helping the high school band pay for a trip to the Tri-State Marching Festival in Enid Oklahoma. 

Back in the day, the word “charity” had a different meaning than what most of us believe it means today. In our world charity means giving. Back in the day charity had a broader scope in its definition, it meant kindness. Thus the phrase really means being kinder in your own hometown or local area would foster the desire to spread kindness around the world.

I realize that none of these explanations are going to change the way people use these sayings. However, you will now know what they should have been saying and when they say it on Facebook you can be that guy who corrects them. Correcting people on Facebook is destined to become an Olympic sport in the near future. There are so many people that are so good at it.

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