Recently an associate of mine tossed something over my transom because somebody had tossed it over his transom (yes some people still have transoms – digital ones, anyway), and he thought I could use it. That something was a study from that was about “The words that confuse Americans the most.” And my associate was right, I could use it, and I did — and here’s the gist of it.

What the experts at writing app ProWritingAid did was to analyze Google search data for the phrase “What does . . . mean?” to see which terms Americans wanted to find out about the most.

Heading up the list with 204,000 monthly searches is “pushing p,” which isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. In fact, it’s a good thing. “Pushing p means “acting with integrity and style” or “keeping it real.” The P, it turns out, stands for “player” (or “playa,” if you’re so inclined).

A distant second (with 150,000 monthly searches) is “SMH,” which stands for “shaking my head,” and can be used to indicate either disappointment or frustration.

When I started researching this column, I expected that all of the abbreviations here would have different meanings than the ones I was used to, but I was wrong. Many of them, it turns out, have been around for a long time, but some people are just now having to look them up.

For example, “gaslighting” still describes the act of “manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity,” as the husband tried to do to his wife in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play “Gaslight.”


“Woke,” as most of us now know, refers to being aware of important issues and facts, especially those concerning racial and social justice. And, if you’re woke enough, you know that a person who’s “nonbinary” has a gender identification that doesn’t fit into the binary male/female divisions.

Even on TikTok the meanings of some (but not all) things remain the same. “POV” still stands for “point of view,” for instance, as “in my point of view.” In other words, it means the same thing as the name of the PBS program that showcases nonfiction independent films.

On the other hand, “valid” does not mean “reasonable, or having a sound basis in fact.” Nope, in the TikTok world “valid means that something has a high standard or looks good.”

TikTokers also have another meaning for “asl,” which is pronounced “as hell” and is used to emphasize things, as in the sayings “I’m hungry asl” and “I’m tired asl.” (If you’re referring to American Sign Language, “ASL” would be capitalized.)

“SOS” still means “save our souls.” Originally the letters, which indicate a dire emergency, were chosen because when transmitted in Morse Code on a telegraph they were easy to send and understand: three quick dots for an S, three longer dashes for an O, and three dots for another S. They were given their current meaning (save our souls) later, which makes the abbreviation a backronym. (By the way, “SOS” by ABBA also happens to be a palindromic song by a palindromic band.)

The people at Merriam-Webster were not part of the survey, but they get in their two cents’ worth by asking, “What does ‘sus’ mean? The fact that you’re asking is kinda sus, tbh (to be honest).” Owing its current popularity to the internet game “Among Us,” “sus” is used to refer to the player who’s an imposter among the crewmates, who need to complete their tasks before he kills them in the game. Being who they are, the Merriam-Webster people hasten to point out that “sus” has been used to mean “suspicious or suspected” since the 1920s.

And then there’s “cheugy,” which is used to refer to someone who’s out of date in their thinking, music or style of clothing. Don’t try too hard to figure out if you or someone else is cheugy, just remember that, as they say on the internet, YKIWYSI (you know it when you see it).

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: