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That’s a Real Word? Posted by on Jun 29, 2017 in English Vocabulary

It is easy to mangle the English language. I hear native speakers do it all the time. But when I learn that a word, which I assume is either mispronounced or made up, is a real word then I’m gobsmacked.


Let’s start there. Gobsmacked is common British slang for being surprised and, to my utter astonishment, it’s in most dictionaries. It’s a slang verb which has become so common that it has become accepted English vocabulary. It is derived from the British slang word for mouth, gob, which comes from the Scottish Gaelic word for mouth (also gob), and the verb smack, meaning to quickly put your hand over something. This not to be confused with the hard, round candy called a gobstopper, known in the USA and Canada as a jawbreaker. You can’t talk when a gobstopper is in your mouth. If you could talk, you’d probably say something like, “Really? Gobsmacked is a real word?”


The very existence of this word astounds me, simply because all my life I’ve heard people use it when they mean supposedly. An adverb meaning “reported to be true”, supposedly implies a degree of skepticism. “She supposedly came home late because she got lost.”

I always assumed that anyone who said “supposably” was either incapable of pronouncing supposedly, or they simply didn’t know any better. It never occurred to me that supposably could be a real word. In fact, it is an adverb derived from the same source as supposedly: sup, a variant of sub and meaning “slightly or nearly imperfect” and pose, meaning “to make a statement”. However, supposably is synonymous with conceivably, and is more philosophical in meaning and implication. “Life on one of Jupiter’s moons is supposably more likely than on Mars.” The meaning, therefore, is quite different.


A very common English phrase is, “I’m completely overwhelmed by…” fill in the blank. It is a verb meaning “to be overcome or inundated by something”. I bet I use the word overwhelmed several times a week. It is even proper to say that you are underwhelmed by something, which means to be unimpressed. However, you never hear anyone say that they are whelmed by something. Well, guess what? Whelmed is not only in the dictionary, it means exactly the same as overwhelmed.

‘I am completely overwhelmed by all this paperwork.”

“I am completely whelmed by all this paperwork.”

Whelmed entered the English language sometime around the 14th century, from the Middle English verb whelmen, meaning “to overturn.” Somehow, the word “over” was added, which would mean “to over overturn”. The redundancy of overwhelmed is somehow preferred to the simpler word whelmed, perhaps because it emphasizes (or overemphasizes) the point.


Most dictionaries accept the noun participator as a valid word, even though there is a perfectly good, and more widely accepted substitute – participant. Both words can be defined as “one who takes part in an event.” Once again, I long assumed that anyone who added the extra syllable simply didn’t know any better. Silly me. It’s a real word. However, I would not want to be a participator in your embarrassment. Save yourself from the perplexed looks of others and stick with participant.


At this point, you probably think I’m really making stuff up. I’m not. This, God help us, is a real word in many English dictionaries. It is an adverbial form of the word friendly, and it is as annoying to me as it is unpronounceable. As you can probably tell by the addition of the letters “-ly” at the end, this is an adverb meaning “to behave in a friendly manner.”

“She put her arm around my shoulders friendlily.”

In English, we add the “-ly” ending to adjectives to create adverbs. In Old English, adverbs were often formed by adding “-e” or “-lice” to the end of adjectives. Over the years, to avoid multiple confusion, adverbs evolved into the now commonly accepted “-ly” form. So, 200 to 300 years after friendly entered the English language, someone saw the need to create an adverb form of the word.

However, the word friendly is simultaneously an adverb and an adjective and has been for centuries. Although it is primarily used as an adjective, with its “-ly” ending, we can use it as both.

“A-ha!” you may say. “But in the example you gave, exchanging friendly for friendlily looks and sounds awkward. That can’t be right!” It isn’t, but a simple re-phrasing of the example, using friendly, is far more elegant and proper.

“She put her arm around my shoulders friendlily.”

“She friendly put her arm around my shoulders.”

Every English speaker needs a good editor.

Are there any English words which you can’t believe exist? Please let me know!

Photo by Tomi Taplo K on Flickr

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  1. Shalini:

    I quite liked the way new words are being added to my vocabulary effortlessly.

  2. javed:

    I’m Speechless when i went through it. I liked it.