-1999, Nebraska. I'm driving my exchange sister to the airport to pick up a friend, when she notices that the interstate signs all say "To Municipal Airport", not "To The Lincoln Airport". She, being a non-native speaker, asks "what does municipal mean?"Now, in my defense, I was driving on the interstate and looking for the best route to the airport, and didn't really want to get into the levels of governance and their nomenclature. I looked at her briefly, and said "the. Municipal is a long word for the. The airport."
I don't know at what point in her life she realized that "municipal" was mis-defined for her that day, but she's never again asked me what a word meant.
-2004, Minnesota. I'd chosen to sign up for a Ph.D-level Shakespeare seminar taught by the most wonderful prof in the Lit department, because 1) this professor was truly amazing and probably close to death and I felt that I should take every opportunity to take his courses before he was no longer around, 2) I was crazy and felt that overacheiving in such ways was somehow a good idea while finishing my B.A., especially in that last semester of undergrad with a full course load and the looming prospect of having to obtain gainful employment. The syllabus noted that our final papers, 70% of our course grade, were due on the day of the penultimate class meeting.
I never questioned it.
In my head,"penultimate" meant "the Tuesday after the last regular class meeting- the one after the ultimate, right?", and I operated under that theory for the full semester. Then, on the actual occurrence of the penultimate class meeting, he asked us to turn in our final papers. "What?", I sputtered, "but those aren't due for another two weeks!"
Oh. Oops. Perhaps a dictionary might have cleared that due date up for me. I had to admit, out loud and to a room full of Ph.D candidates, that I didn't really know what "penultimate" meant. Had I not saved my drop-a-class-free pass until that final semester of undergrad, I would have earned the very first failing grade of my life.
Lesson: words are your friends, so don't fuck with them, or they will screw things up mightily for you.