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DominicX's avatar

Do you know any English words that seem like they only have one usage in one context?

Asked by DominicX (28762points) August 27th, 2009

This is kind of an odd question and I won’t be surprised if no one responds, but I was just thinking about the phrase “wreak havoc”. There doesn’t seem to be much you can wreak other than “havoc” and there doesn’t seem to be much you can do with havoc other than “wreak” it. It’s like those two words were made especially for that phrase and are rarely used outside of it. I remember telling this to my mom and couple years ago and she had never thought about it.

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “chagrin” used outside the phrase “to my/his/her chagrin”. Not saying that these words are never used outside these phrases, but I rarely hear it.

Are there any other examples of words that are mostly used in one context?

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35 Answers

DominicX's avatar

I just thought of another one: the word “grubby” is almost always used to describe “hands”. It’s always “grubby little hands” or something of that nature.

SheWasAll_'s avatar

NO. and I’m not saying no to your question. I mean the word “no”

ragingloli's avatar

that is not right
when women say “no” they mean “i expect you to do that”, for example, when the man asks “do you want to go out tonight”, and she says “no”, then she expects the man to take her out.

Bluefreedom's avatar

Yes, affirmative, beyond a doubt, certainly, definitely, exactly, indubitably, most assuredly, positively, precisely, sure thing, surely, undoubtedly, unquestionably.

MrItty's avatar

You can also “cause” havoc. And I believe Shakespeare had something about “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war”.

I’ve always felt the same about the phrase “brand new”. This is the only instance in which the word “brand” means “completely” or “very”.

DominicX's avatar

Just thought of some more:

“amok” is always used in the phrase “run amok”.

“cranny” is always used in the phrase “nook and cranny”.

“sleight” is always used in the phrase “sleight of hand”

By “always” I mean I’ve never or rarely heard the word used outside of those phrases.


And yes, I’ve heard “create havoc” and “wreak destruction” before too. I just meant on average. As for “brand new”, the dictionary says that “brand” is never an adjective, so I’m confused about that one. Seems like it just comes from a brand of a product. But then what is the connection, I have no idea.

DominicX's avatar


lol…yay, someone else thought about it. Okay, I’m discovering more thanks to Wikipedia. Apparently there is a phenomenon known as a “fossil word”. It’s an archaic word that only appears in some phrases. Wikipedia provides a list including many I’ve never heard and a few I’ve listed already:

I should’ve thought of “ulterior”. It’s true that “ulterior motive” is the only context I hear of that word.

MrItty's avatar

@DominicX actually has “brand new” as a separate entry. So it seems that for that one, ‘brand’ as an adjective only exists in that phrase.

DominicX's avatar


Interesting. I really want to know the origin of that phrase now.

Also, the word “bated”. It’s always “bated breath”.

barumonkey's avatar

How I Met My Wife, by Jack Winter, the New Yorker, July 25, 1994.

It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate.

I was furling my weildy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way.

I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknowst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened. And even though I had only swerving loyalty to her, my manners couldn’t be peccable. Only toward and heard-of behavior would do.

Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or a sung hero were slim. I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion.

So I decided not to risk it. But then, all at once, for some apparent reason, she looked in my direction and smiled in a way that I could make head or tails of.

I was plussed. It was concerting to see that she was communicado, and it nerved me that she was interested in a pareil like me, sight seen. Normally, I had a domitable spirit, but, being corrigible, I felt capacitated—as if this were something I was great shakes at—and forgot that I had succeeded in situations like this only a told number of times. So, after a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings.

Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had not time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous. Wanting to make only called-for remarks, I started talking about the hors d’oeuvres, trying to abuse her of the notion that I was sipid, and perhaps even bunk a few myths about myselfs.

She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savoury character who was up to some good. She told me who she was. “What a perfect nomer,” I said, advertently. The conversation became more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me. To my delight, she was committal. We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it.

DominicX's avatar


That is hilarious. I’m serious; I was laughing throughout the whole thing. I showed it to my mom; she loves it. I love his usage of unpaired words (like ungodly vs. godly or innocuous vs. nocuous, etc.) and the way he reverses phrases. Some of those I’ve never even heard of.


MrItty's avatar


“Brand-new is c.1570 and must have meant “fresh from the fire” (Shakespeare has fire-new).”

Because “brand” comes from “firebrand, piece of burning wood, torch”. Interesting. Good question!

aprilsimnel's avatar

One fell swoop. It always happens in one fell swoop. Not two swoops. Or two fells. Or whatever.

Jack79's avatar

There are obviously thousands of words that only have one meaning (eg “algorithm”). Most of the scientific words are like that. But yes, English has many words that can various meanings depending on context, as well as homophones and other such coincidences that the languages has picked up over the years.

You are actually referring to collocations with “wreak havoc” and yes, that’s a typical example. There are others of course.

One of my favourites is “pretty ugly”. I don’t know, it cracks me up for some reason.

DominicX's avatar


Yeah, I didn’t mean “one meaning” as much as I meant one usage in one context primarily.

janbb's avatar

“As was his wont”
“It behooved me”

CMaz's avatar


grumpyfish's avatar

“avast”—only works when you’re being a pirate. Likely because it’s stolen from Dutch.

I actually enjoy using these words (once I know their actual meaning) in other sentences.

filmfann's avatar

@barumonkey Lurve for the New Yorker post. I want to add a word there. Whelmed.
I have often been overwhelmed, more often underwhelmed, but constantly just plain whelmed. Dinner tonight was exactly as I expected; no better, no less. I was whelmed.

Jeruba's avatar

You can wreak revenge. You can also search every cranny.

I like your question. I understand just what you mean and have noticed many such instances myself. They are actually pretty common. The unique words are often archaisms or metaphorical or both. But I can never come up with examples when asked. I’ll listen and watch for them and come back when I find some.

Zen's avatar

@MrItty You are correct about the usage of havoc, but brand has an extra use with new, when we use it in: “brand spanking new.”


wildpotato's avatar

“with great aplomb”

aprilsimnel's avatar

Is there any other sort of -withal? Besides “wherewithal”, I mean?

Jeruba's avatar

I’d have to disagree there, @wildpotato. There’s more than one use for that word.
— He was known for his aplomb.
— She exhibited aplomb in trying situations.
— I’d like to know how he manages such aplomb.
It has only one meaning, but that’s not the question. The question is whether it can occur in more than a single expression. Take “hoist with his own petard” as an example: we have lots of uses for “hoist,” but we don’t use “petard” in any other phrasing.

@DominicX, “bated breath” is really short for “abated,” as in “held back,” and we do use that word in numerous contexts.

As for “chagrin,” sure. You can feel chagrin, show chagrin, try to conceal your chagrin, etc. In other words, it’s not just an object of a preposition in a “to” phrase; it can also be a direct object—and a subject: her chagrin showed on her face. It’s not a unitary expression like “wreak havoc” (or as “wreak havoc” almost is).

When you or someone close to you has kids, you’ll know that lots of things besides little hands can be grubby: faces, clothes, shoes, etc., not to mention fingerprints.

“Ulterior motive” is a pretty good candidate, although there is no reason why you can’t say “ulterior purpose.”

wildpotato's avatar

@Jeruba Hm, I’ve never heard any of those – but then again I’ve lived only about ⅓ as long as you have. I shall keep an ear open.

Jeruba's avatar

@wildpotato, I’m not repeating common phrases. I’m writing sample sentences that illustrate using the word appropriately. In point of fact you are much more likely to encounter “aplomb” in writing than in speech.

filmfann's avatar

Ulterior motives. They are never ulterior nudges.

wildpotato's avatar

@Jeruba True. A few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I described our cat as taking aah! gerund! another cat’s bullying with great aplomb. We said it in unison, and then started cracking up – it was the first time that either of us had heard it said out loud.

@filmfann What about an ulterior plane [of existence]?

filmfann's avatar

Never heard of it. Obviously, it had ulterior motives.

wildpotato's avatar

@filmfann Google “ulterior plane”; second hit

DominicX's avatar


I know it’s not just that, of course I know the words have other uses; I’m referring to how I hear it used. That’s why I said “seem” in the question. I don’t hear anyone say anything other than “to his/her/my chagrin” on average.

Jeruba's avatar

Oh, I see, @DominicX. That actually sounds to me like a different question from the original one. What we hear depends mostly on the people we associate with. What we hear is typically very different from what we see in print, and what we see in print can cover a very wide range indeed, depending on whether we read mostly magazines and popular novels, professional journals, works of literature, or online blogs and e-lists. I’m speaking only from my own experience.

Shegrin's avatar

Myriad. Which is misused all the time. You can have myriad choices, not a myriad of choices. I find that interesting. The whole phrase is in that one weird word that can only be used to mean a lot of something. Also, is it more, or less, than a plethora?

DominicX's avatar


According to the dictionary, using “myriad” as a noun is perfectly acceptable. Actually, you may find this interesting, “myriad” was used as a noun originally and began to be used as an adjective only in the 19th century.

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