English is an impressive language. It boasts a functional vocabulary of about 200,000 words (French and Spanish commonly use only about half that number each), and adds thousands more words each year — as many as 20,000 annually, according to some estimates.
English is also a welcoming language. It descends from the West Germanic branch of Proto-Indo-European, a tongue spoken by nomads in Eastern Europe and Central Asia 5,000 years ago or more, and it is related to modern German, Dutch, and Yiddish. However, it derives many of its words from the Romance languages — Latin and, later, French, Spanish, etc. — as well as from classical Greek. That’s just the beginning, though: English incorporates vocabulary from more than 350 languages in all.
As befits a language with such diverse origins and with such an abundance of words, it’s full of ambiguities. It has, for instance, many homonyms (words spelled and pronounced the same but with different meanings, like “tire” meaning fatigue and a “tire” on your car), homophones (spelled differently but pronounced the same, like “weather” and “whether,” for example), and homographs (spelled the same but pronounced differently, like “bass” the fish and “bass” the musical instrument).
English also confounds students trying to speak it with a wealth of silent letters (receipt, muscle, knee) and phonetic inconsistencies (for example the varying pronunciations of “ou” in “though,” “thought,” “rough,” and “bough”).
Linguists use the term “false friends” to describe words in two different languages that look or sound as if they’re related but have different meanings. The Spanish adjective “embarazada,” for instance, sounds as if it means embarrassed — but it actually means pregnant. The French “actuellement” doesn’t mean actually, it means currently or now.
But there are plenty of false friends in English, too — words that are so similar that they’re easy to confuse — like further and farther, insure and ensure, or nauseous and nauseated. Confusing one of these for the other is a source of many of our errors. We make other mistakes, too, using plural nouns as if they were singular (it’s “the media say,” not “the media says”), or simply choosing the wrong words entirely. Not one of the supposed examples of irony in the Alanis Morissette song “Ironic” is actually that. And if you are “literally” starving to death, that means that you haven’t eaten anything for days, not just that you’re late for lunch.
Does it really matter if we misuse words, as long as we convey our meaning? That’s open to debate. Like any living language, English constantly evolves, not just adding new words (and gradually consigning some older ones to “archaic” status), but also changing the meanings of words as common usage gains over dictionary definitions. In medieval times, “nice” was an insult, meaning foolish, cowardly, or lascivious; “awful,” in contrast, could mean impressive or worthy of respect.
But words are arguably our most important means of communication, and using one word when we mean another will get our idea across only if the person or group we’re communicating with shares our misapprehension. Our understanding of certain words may — and almost certainly will — change over time, but until new meanings become commonly accepted, we need to stick to the older ones if we value any kind of precision in what we say and write.