29 Hard English Words and Phrases with Definitions, Examples and Tips to Remember Them
Tricky English words can trip you up (cause you to make mistakes).
Many of them are difficult to spell or even pronounce.
Some can have different meanings depending on the situation!
In this post, I will show you 29 common but difficult English words and phrases, plus my favorite tricks for dealing with complicated English vocabulary.
- 29 Hard English Words
- 1. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
- 2. Colonel
- 3. Necessary
- 4. Ironic
- 5. Aggrandize
- 6. Brusque
- 7. Cacophony
- 8. Paraphernalia
- 9. Nauseous
- 10. Irregardless
- 11. Anachronistic
- 12. Untoward
- 13. Anemone
- 14. Dilate
- 15. Literally
- 16. Nonplussed
- 17. Left
- 18. Refrain
- 19. Bound
- 20. Overlook
- 21. Dust
- 22. Custom
- 23. Either
- 24. Original
- 25. Hold Up
- 26. Back Up
- 27. Throw Out
- 28. Go Off
- 29. Wound Up
- How to Learn Difficult Words in English
- And One More Thing...
29 Hard English Words
If reading “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is scary enough, you are not alone! Even native speakers have a hard time with it, given that it is one of the longest words in the English language.
“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is an adjective that comes from the 1964 Disney movie “Mary Poppins,” where it was made into a really catchy song.
The word has since come to mean two things: something truly wonderful or something ridiculously complicated.
Meaning #1: Wonderful, great, awesome.
If I won the lottery, it would be a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious experience.
Meaning #2: Overly complicated.
I did not understand anything from the lesson because the explanations were supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
“Colonel” is a tricky English word because its pronunciation is so different from its spelling. Rather than “co-lo-nel,” you pronounce this one as “ker-nel”—like a corn kernel!
“Colonel” is a noun that refers to a high rank in the military, usually below the generals. For example:
Even though KFC’s founder is called Colonel Sanders, he was never in the military.
The adjective “necessary” is easy to misspell (like “neccesary” or “nesesarry”). It is also confusing to pronounce, since the “c” and the “s” have the same sound as in “said” and the “y” is pronounced like an “i.”
Luckily, it has a straightforward meaning! When you say that something is “necessary,” you mean it is required or needed.
A working computer and internet connection are necessary for my job as a writer.
“Ironic” is difficult not only because of how it is pronounced (eye-RO-nick) but also because of its multiple meanings.
Also, if you first came across this adjective through Alanis Morissette’s song of the same name, please know that “ironic” does not simply mean bad things that happen to you.
Instead, it refers to:
Meaning #1: Two contradictory but related ideas or events that happen together.
It is ironic that a man who says he believes in God treats his family badly.
Meaning #2: The use of irony (using one thing to mean the opposite) in humor or comedy.
The comedian is famous for using ironic humor to criticize the government.
“Aggrandize” is another word that is difficult to spell correctly. You may also find it hard to pronounce—is it a-gran-DEE-ze or a-gran-DICE?
It is a verb that has three meanings.
Meaning #1: To make something look bigger or more important than it really is.
The man liked to aggrandize his achievements because he thought it made him popular.
Meaning #2: To increase the size of something.
The government wanted to aggrandize the public parks by planting more trees.
Meaning #3: To increase one’s wealth and power.
The politician aggrandized himself through policies that put more money in his pocket.
Contrary to its spelling, the adjective “brusque” is pronounced as “brusk” rather than “brus-kei.”
It also has three different meanings:
Meaning #1: Curt or harsh behavior or quality.
The man’s brusque words made the girl cry.
Meaning #2: Sudden or unexpected.
The brusque arrival of the storm caught everyone off-guard.
Meaning #3: Rough appearance.
Although the house looks brusque, I like it!
“Cacophony” is a noun that can be difficult to spell and pronounce. It can also be positive or negative depending on the context.
Meaning #1: Unpleasant mixture of sounds.
Unable to bear the daily cacophony of construction sounds and car horns, she decided to leave the city.
Meaning #2: Deliberate mixture of sounds that do not go together for artistic effect.
The composer’s music stands out because of his skillful use of cacophony.
This is another word that is difficult to spell and is a mouthful (hard to pronounce) even for native English speakers.
“Paraphernalia” is a noun that used to refer to a woman’s property other than her dowry (gifts with monetary value given to a husband or wife when they are married).
Today, it simply means a collection of items that seem randomly thrown together.
You could say:
I could not throw away the paraphernalia that reminded me of better times.
The adjective “nauseous” came from the Latin nauseosus, meaning something that makes you feel disgusted or repulsed (like a horror movie). Now, it is an adjective that means feeling dizzy or lightheaded, rather than the thing that causes that feeling.
I should also note that “nauseated” is considered more grammatically correct than “nauseous,” though the two are understood to have the same meaning.
With that out of the way, here is an example of how “nauseous” might be used:
I felt nauseous during the road trip, so I took medicine for motion sickness.
Another word that is often considered grammatically incorrect is “irregardless.” It is a combination of “regardless” and “irrespective.”
What makes it confusing is that it means the same as “regardless,” even though the prefix “ir-” would normally imply the negation of a word.
I do not recommend using this word at all, but if you must, here are a couple of examples.
Meaning #1: Even though; in spite of.
Irregardless of the mysterious man’s warnings, the group still entered the haunted house.
Meaning #2: No meaning; added for emphasis.
Irregardless, I will go through with my plan.
“Anachronistic” is another adjective that can twist your tongue. You can figure out what it means from its origins, though. “Anachronistic” comes from a combination of the Greek words ana (against) and chronos (time).
There are a couple of ways you can use it.
Meaning #1: Something or someone out of their historical or cultural time.
The time traveler’s T-shirt and jeans were anachronistic in the age of dinosaurs.
Meaning #2: Something that is outdated or unfashionable.
The old typewriter looked anachronistic in an office full of laptops and HD monitors.
You probably learned that the prefix “un-” means the opposite of the word that follows it. For example, you have “undo,” “untie,” “unpack,” etc.
However, that is not the case with “untoward.” It is an adjective that implies something bad, rather than not going in a certain direction.
You could say:
The student’s consistently untoward behavior got him expelled from school.
Unless you like plants or the sea, you are probably unfamiliar with the noun “anemone.” The pronunciation can throw you off since the stress is on the second syllable (uh-NEM-uh-nee). It is also a word with letters you do not often see together.
There are three ways you could use it.
Meaning #1: A sea-dwelling animal related to jellyfish and coral.
The sight of fishes swimming among the anemone’s tentacles was beautiful.
Meaning #2: A type of brightly-colored flower.
She planted a lot of anemones in her garden.
Meaning #3: An ornament that looks like the anemone flower.
The anemone brooch on her dress added a nice touch!
You will often hear this verb used in a medical context. “Dilate” is a difficult English word because of its pronunciation (it is read as DYE-leyt rather than dee-lah-teh). There is also the fact that it is easy to mix up with “delight,” a word that has a completely different (and more positive) meaning.
“Dilate” typically means the expansion or widening of blood vessels or your eyes’ pupils.
It is said that your pupils dilate when you look at someone you find attractive.
Originally, this adverb meant something that was exact and the opposite of “figuratively.” Today, through much misuse, the word is most often used to exaggerate something, and make it seem bigger and more important.
Meaning #1: Exact and not exaggerated.
There were literally thousands of butterflies flying all around us.
Note: This means that if someone had counted all of the butterflies, there would have actually been thousands.
Meaning #2: Exaggerated for emphasis, and not necessarily true.
That is literally the ugliest bag in the world.
Note: There are likely other bags that are uglier than this bag, so it is not actually the ugliest in the whole world.
The adjective nonplussed comes from Latin, and means “no more.” It is a state of being where nothing more can be said or done, like when you are so confused by something you are not sure how to react.
Speaking of confusing, this word can mean “surprised” or “not surprised” depending on the context!
Meaning #1: Extremely surprised and confused.
He was nonplussed at seeing his cat chase the neighbor’s dog up a tree.
Meaning #2: Not surprised or affected at all (mostly used in American English).
The surprise birthday party left him nonplussed; he had known about it for a week already.
“Left” seems like a simple enough word—until you realize how many meanings it has!
Meaning #1: Departed, moved away from someplace.
He left his house at 6 in the morning to be on time for his flight.
Meaning #2: Remaining, something not moved away.
He missed his flight because he accidentally left his passport in his bedroom.
Meaning #3: Direction equivalent to the west; opposite of “right” or “east.”
To get to the airport, turn left near 31st Street.
Meaning #4: A political ideology that is the opposite of right.
In the United States, educated individuals often have leftist beliefs.
This word can be both a verb and a noun, and they have two completely different meanings.
Meaning #1: To stop yourself from doing something.
Please refrain from making noise during the concert.
Meaning #2: A line or phrase that is repeated in a song or poem.
The chorus, or the repeated part of a song, is called the refrain.
“Bound” is another word that has several meanings. It can be a verb, adjective and a noun!
Meaning #1: Restrained and held in place.
He was bound to the chair with ropes.
Meaning #2: Moving towards a destination.
She is bound for college this weekend.
Meaning #3: Something that may happen in the future.
Because she had a happy childhood, she was bound to be successful when she grew up.
Meaning #4: To move with wide strides (difference between steps or positions)
The good news made him bound out of his room.
The ball bound into the garden of their neighbor.
Meaning #5: A boundary or limit.
The city’s edges were along the bound of the forest.
Overlook can mean one of four things.
Meaning #1: To supervise and watch over something.
His job is to overlook the construction site and make sure everyone remains safe.
Meaning #2: To neglect or fail to see something.
Because he overlooked a big safety hazard, the construction had to be started over.
Meaning #3: To forgive (a mistake or failure).
I will overlook your mistake now because you are my friend, but please be more careful next time!
Meaning #4: To have a view over something.
The top floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, overlooked the clouds of Dubai.
“Dust” is another word with multiple meanings—two of them contradictory to (opposite) each other!
Meaning #1: To add small particles to a surface.
The policemen dusted the crime scene for prints.
Meaning #2: To remove small particles from a surface.
My mother likes to dust our tables and shelves at least twice a day.
Meaning #3: The small particles on a surface.
After years of neglect, the house became covered in dust.
If you are not a native English speaker, “custom” is another word that can be easy to mix up.
Meaning #1: Typical behavior exhibited by many in society.
Taking off your shoes when entering the house is not only a custom, it is also polite.
Meaning #2: Specially made, one of a kind.
This violin was custom-made for the famous violinist who has really small hands.
The word “either” is an interesting one, since the definition we use most often is not entirely correct. The word comes from an Old English word that meant “both” or “each.” When we use the word to mean both, we are using it the way it was used originally.
Also, it can be pronounced “EE-ther” or “EYE-ther.” American English uses both, while British English uses “EE-ther.”
Meaning #1: One or the other.
You can choose either this chicken sandwich or the beef one.
Meaning #2: Both.
There is traffic on either side of the road.
“Original” is an adjective that means one of three things.
Meaning #1: Something old and unchanged that has existed for a while.
The original schedule started with a dance number, but it was changed into a singing competition.
Meaning #2: Something new and unique that no one has thought of before.
I had an original idea for a company, but I have no money to start it.
Meaning #3: The first of something.
I liked the original version of the movie better than the remake.
25. Hold Up
This verb phrase has several meanings that can be positive or negative depending on the context.
Meaning #1: To support something so it doesn’t fall down.
We need more poles and ropes to hold up the tent.
Meaning #2: To stay strong and continue despite troubles.
The tree held up to the rough hurricane winds, but the house was wrecked.
Meaning #3: To prevent something from continuing.
What is the hold up? Can we please get going!
Meaning #4: To rob a place like a bank.
The robbers held up the bank and left with all of the money.
Meaning #5: To show as an example.
The young man was held up as an example of what people from his generation should be like.
26. Back Up
Another verb phrase with contradictory meanings is “back up.” It is also easy to confuse with “backup,” which is a noun.
Meaning #1: To help or support someone.
I will back you up whenever you are in trouble. We are friends, after all.
Meaning #2: To retreat or move away.
I backed up slowly to get away from the growling dog.
Meaning #3: To duplicate or copy something.
You should always back up your digital files.
Meaning #4: To cause a delay (like in traffic).
The accident caused traffic to back up.
27. Throw Out
The key to understanding this verb phrase is the word “throw,” or the sometimes-used synonym “toss.” When you throw something, you are moving it away from yourself.
You can use this phrase in two ways.
Meaning #1: To dispose of or put something in the garbage.
I threw out my old socks because they had holes in them.
Meaning #2: To suggest or bring out a new idea.
When we had our meeting, I threw out some new ideas that the boss liked.
28. Go Off
Separately, “go” and “off” are easy enough to understand. Together, they become a verb phrase that can mean different things depending on the context.
Meaning #1: To leave suddenly.
I will go off to work soon, so please take care!
Meaning #2: To turn on.
I didn’t hear my alarm go off this morning, so I was late to work.
Meaning #3: To explode.
The bomb was set to go off at exactly 12 noon.
Meaning #4: To behave angrily and shout at someone.
Even when Max is upset, he does not go off on people.
Meaning #5: To start something with energy and enthusiasm.
I will go off and start building my business!
Meaning #6: To become spoiled or rotten.
Eggs go off quickly, so use them as soon as you can.
29. Wound Up
Before we had electricity, many things worked through gears. You had to wind up the gears to keep them running (the past tense is wound up). That is why when someone is wound up (adjective), it is like someone moved their gears to get them excited.
The verb “to wind” comes from the same root as “wander”: to move around or travel. That explains the third definition: When you wind up somewhere, you are ending your traveling and coming to a conclusion or a final place.
Meaning #1: To turn a knob or handle so something will work.
The last time I wound up my old clock was yesterday at noon. I have to wind it up every day or two, otherwise it stops working.
Meaning #2: To be excited or upset about something. (Informal adjective)
The children will be completely wound up if you let them eat all of that candy today.
Meaning #3: To end up.
I originally thought I would come back home, but I wound up staying at Sarah’s house last night.
How to Learn Difficult Words in English
When you come across a difficult English word that you want to learn, here is what you can do.
Listen to catchy song lyrics.
Some songs are naturally easy to remember because they are fast-paced and easy to sing. You can take advantage of this for learning English vocabulary!
You can use websites like Lyrics.com to find songs that have a vocabulary word you want to learn. Try reading along with the lyrics next time you listen to a song, or turn the subtitles on if you are watching a music video.
Alternatively, you can use an online immersion program like FluentU. It has music videos on its platform, along with movie trailers, TV show clips and other interesting English media. Every video has interactive captions that let you instantly look up unfamiliar words and get more information on their definitions, use, example sentences, etc.
Here are a couple of difficult words you can remember better with songs.
- The word “millennial” means someone born roughly between the early 1980s and late 1990s. The 1975 song “Give Yourself a Try” uses this word in its lyrics (“I was 25… a Millennial that Baby Boomers like”):
- “Oblivious” means to not be conscious or aware of someone or something. There is actually a song called “Oblivious,” and it uses the word repeatedly throughout the lyrics. The singer talks about wishing he was oblivious to the troubles he had in a difficult relationship:
Make associations with art.
When you catch yourself staring at a piece of art for a long period of time, whether in an art museum or online, that art is bound to stick in your mind. Associating difficult vocabulary terms with beautiful images is another way to help you remember them.
For the following words, we will use Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Mona Lisa” painting to make our vocabulary associations. You can of course use any meaningful image that works for you!
- “Sustainable” means to be capable of being maintained or to be eco-friendly. Think of how “Mona Lisa” has sustained her mysterious smile for centuries! To remember the environmental aspect of this word, fix your mind on the green background behind her.
- “Ecstasy” is a state of elated bliss, and is often used to describe extreme emotion. In contrast, Mona Lisa has a famously flat smile. You can imagine how different she would look if she were in ecstasy—mouth open, arms waving!
Describe your everyday routine.
You know your everyday routine inside and out. There are objects you see every day, like your mirror or coffee pot. These are opportunities to create memorable associations for hard English words.
You can also use this exercise with younger children who want to learn tricky English words.
- “Supersede” means to take the place of something or someone no longer useful.
For a very long time, I’ve been using a scratchy, cheap old toothbrush. Today, my new electric toothbrush arrived and superseded the old one.
- “Maintenance” means the upkeep of property or equipment, usually in reference to your home or belongings.
Today I called my apartment complex’s maintenance service to fix my oven, which I’ve been wanting to cook in for a very long time.
Use context clues.
Imagine you are taking an English exam. You do not have Wi-Fi or a dictionary, so you have no clue what a word means.
No problem! You can just use context clues.
Context clues might not get you the exact meaning of the word, but they do give you a strong hint or idea (in other words, a clue!).
- “Commodity” means a product that can be bought or sold.
In his last job, my grandpa was in charge of the commodities between his farm and one of the factories that still operates to this day. He sold his vegetables, fruits and other crops, and the factory bought them from him so they could produce food.
From this passage, you can see that the commodities must be the same as the vegetables, fruits and other crops. You can figure out that they must be the products the narrator’s grandpa was selling.
- “Recommend” means to express a good opinion of something or suggest something to someone else.
My friend recommended the new pizzeria that had just opened across the street. I took her suggestion and enjoyed it very much.
Since the one who made the suggestion was your friend, you took it—because why would your friend do you wrong?
Get a high-quality dictionary.
You need a good English dictionary to help you quickly learn the hard words you encounter.
My favorite online dictionary is Vocabulary.com. It is a great tool where you can get the audio, definition and simplified outline of what the word means.
Unlike other dictionary apps or online dictionaries, this site breaks down what the word means in ways you can understand. It also gives you the option to see where the word can be found in other online resources.
It looks like we have wound up at the end of this post! Start using these hard English words and phrases and applying the tips above, and their meanings will not be so difficult anymore.
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.