The Most Dangerous Words in America

Rob Kyff on

Product warning labels can sometimes be hilarious: "Remove child before washing" on a pair of kids' overalls, "May cause drowsiness" on a package of sleeping pills, "This costume does not enable flight" on a Superman costume.

My all-time favorite is, alas, made up: "Not to be used as a flotation device" on a package of Life Savers candy.

Some words should come with warning labels, too. Here's my list of the most dangerous words in America:

--Nonplussed: This adjective means "perplexed, bewildered," e.g., "The candidate's withdrawal left her supporters nonplussed").

But many people are now using "nonplussed" to mean "indifferent, unfazed," e.g., "Despite the intensity of the blizzard, snow plow drivers were nonplussed."

Warning: Using "nonplussed" to mean "indifferent" may leave others nonplussed.

--Moot: This adjective originally meant "debatable, not decided." But, perhaps because a mock debate of fictitious cases by law students is called a "moot court," "moot" acquired a second meaning: "of no practical importance, hypothetical."

So when a "moot point" could be either a point that's debatable or one that's irrelevant.

Warning: Use "moot" carefully or your meaning might be "moot" (in both senses of the word).

--Fulsome: Although "fulsome" once meant "copious, generous," it has also taken on a disparaging sense of "abundant to excess, overdone," e.g., "His unctuous flattery was fulsome."

But some people still use "fulsome" in its original, positive sense, e.g., "Ted offered a heartfelt and fulsome tribute to his brother."

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Warning: Avoid using "fulsome," even though it's a stupendous, amazing, fantastic, incredible and terrific word.

--Enormity: Traditionally, "enormity" has meant "monstrously wicked, heinous," e.g., "Newspapers reported the enormity of the dictator's crimes against humanity."

So using "enormity" to mean simply "huge, vast," e.g., "The enormity of the federal tax cuts," can lead to winces, smirks and grimaces.

Warning: If you use "enormity" to mean "huge," purists might consider your error to be an enormity.

--Sanction: "Sanction" is a true contronym -- a word with two opposite meanings.

It can mean either "to approve, endorse," e.g., "The IOC sanctioned the addition of mixed doubles curling to the Winter Olympics," or "to punish, condemn," e.g., "The IOC sanctioned athletes who tested positive for steroids."

Warning: Sanction "sanction." Now what do I mean by that?


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2018 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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