Small Donate Button

Mortified: It Doesn’t Mean Scared 

It seems many people are under the impression that “mortified” means “scared” or “terrified.” Why do they think this? It may be because it has the same suffix as “terrified,” and the same consonant “r” sound. In fact, “mortified” has nothing to do with fear. Instead, it means embarrassed (or a superlative of embarrassed, which is to say, very embarrassed). 

Merriam-Webster defines “mortified” as “feeling or showing a strong shame or embarrassment.” That’s it. There are no alternative definitions, number 2 or number 3, or different context in which it means something different. 

Merriam-Webster definition

This is not to say that no one knows what it means. It is of course used correctly by educated people who write books. But when it comes to casual conversation, one hears all the time “mortified” to mean something like “terrified.” 

A famous movie comes to mind: In Beautiful Mind, One of John Nash’s rivals taunts him to a board-game: “You scared?” Russell Crowe as John Nash responds:

“I’m petrified, mortified, stupefied, by you.” 

In this context, Nash is directly responding to the notion that he’s scared. In a spirit of sarcasm, he agrees and amplifies, using “mortified” along with words that are synonymous with scared, such as “petrified” and “terrified.” Yet mortified doesn’t fit in there. You can’t really be “mortified” “by you.” More often, a situation could be mortifying, such as a situation in which you are embarrassed. So I would submit that the word is misused in that otherwise great film, just as it is misused in casual conversation. 

Correct examples of the word “mortified”: 

“I was mortified when I came to what turned out to be a birthday party with no gift.” 
“I’m mortified, your email went to my spam and I didn’t even know you had contacted me!” 

Mortified is a fairly formal or literary word, but still it’s a perfectly good word. Just be sure you are clear on its definition before you throw it into your casual conversation.

Follow me on Twitter

Sign up to be informed about new posts:

Comment below:

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: