Oh, words. So useful, but so easily confused.

Back story/background

Recently overheard in the hallway: That’s the back story to the file.

Well, not quite. A back story is the fabricated biography that a spy is given as a cover, especially for the purposes of a future interrogation by someone hostile.

What the person in the hallway meant was just background – although perhaps back story sounds more exciting.


A recent request that crossed the screen: Can you queue up a meeting?

While you queue up for tickets (or, more usually, in North America, line up), timing a meeting is to cue it up.

Think of an actor’s cue to do something at a particular point in the script.


These are close in meaning, so any confusion is perhaps to be forgiven.

To be reticent is to be unwilling to speak freely.

Reluctant is a bit broader: it is to be unwilling to do something in general.

Hesitant is like reluctant, but suggests the person may get over that momentary unwillingness.

While someone who is reticent is also reluctant, the reverse is not (necessarily) true.

So don’t say I am reticent to participate in the meeting.


People still get these confused? They do!

Like CNN, which stated that ‘The President’s claims of innocence looked even more incredulous Tuesday night after The New York Times reported …’

What they meant was incredible – that is, ‘hard to believe’ or ‘fantastical’. (Incredible has also joined the list of words that have come to mean ‘superlative’ but which started off meaning something else, like awesome, fantastic, terrific, tremendous and unbelievable.)

Incredulous, on the other hand, is what one says of people when they hear – but do not believe – an incredible story (in the ‘not capable of belief’ sense).


Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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