Thursday, February 28, 2013

More confused words

The last time I wrote about oft-confused words, it wasn't meant to be an exhaustive list. This post isn't the last word on the matter either.

Douse vs Dowse
I have a proof copy of Adrian McGinty's splendid new detective novel, in which it says: "…he tried to dowse the flames…". I presume it got corrected in the published book, so I won't be scurrying off to to log it, though I was puzzled that a relatively rare word replaced a more common one. Normally, it's the other way round. 

In short, dousing means smothering something, usually a fire, with water. Dowsing is searching for water by waving a stick about.

If you want to douse >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
apply to your local fire brigade.

If you want to dowse >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
then the British Society of Dowsers is the club for you. This is a group of people who think it needs a special talent to find water in the rain-soaked British Isles.

Slander vs Libel
If you're going to sue me for anything I write here, sue me for libel. Slander is spoken defamation; libel is written.

So, was the fulminating Calvin Harris wrong to tweet "Looking into taking action on @BBCNewsbeat for that libellous broadcast" (Guardian, 22 November 2012)? In theory, a defamatory broadcast should be slanderous because its statements are spoken, but the courts in various jurisdictions are happy to classify broadcast defamation as libel, presumably because broadcasting is seen as a kind of publication and can be heard by millions.

If you need a mnemonic, remember that 'libel' is the only* word in English that rhymes with 'Bible', a rather well-known written collection of history, folklore, philosophy and libels.

Laws vary around the world, but under English law libel has to be both untrue and defamatory, i.e. damaging to the reputation of the person mentioned.

*Except in New Zealand, where libel also rhymes with 'stable'.

Illicit vs Elicit 
You'd think this was better known, but even Press Gazette recently stated: "The newspaper also insisted there was nothing “elicit or underhand” about the way it obtained the photographs" (8 January 2013; it was later corrected).

They're near-synophones and both come from Latin, but they're unrelated. "Elicit" means to draw out. 'Illicit' is the opposite of "licit", meaning lawful. Despite the similarity, it has no link with 'solicitor' (an English lawyer who doesn't appear in court), which appropriately comes from solicitare, meaning to shake, harass or disturb.

'Illicit' can also be used for something that is actually legal but is frowned upon by society, especially if it involves pleasures that society is annoyed about missing out on.

I know, you knew all that. But it's good to have some more information so you can carry on the conversation after you've humiliated someone by pointing out their mistake.

Scold vs Scald
'Scolding' is a woefully under-used word for a telling-off, and seems unable to break away from being something done only by women to their husbands or children. Who said sexism in language was dead? Oh, hang on, it was me, wasn't it

'Scalding' is burning with hot water. Mnemonic-mongers will remember that 'scOld' is 'cOld'. Latin-speaking mnemonic-mongers will remember that 'scAld' is 'cAlidus' (Latin for hot). English holidaymakers in Europe often scald their hands because they don't expect hot water from a tap labelled C (the cold tap is marked F, as in fridge, which is not a coincidence). 

Thanks to Sarah Townsend (@STEcopywriting) for reminding me of that one.

Though vs Although
Nobody mistakes these two words, because they mean the same thing. There are probably style guides that insist on 'although' being the proper form and excoriate 'though' as a barbarous interloper. Me, I couldn't care less. However, as an editor I always change 'though' to 'although' so the speed reader, the tired reader, the reader in a dimly lit pub or the foreign reader won't confuse it with 'through'. 

There's much to be said for purity of style, but the best style is the one that makes it easiest for the reader.

Founder vs Flounder
Fail vs Flail
The problem with these two pairs is that the similarity in spelling is matched by a similarity in meaning, such that either one will make sense in the same sentence. People who are flailing are probably failing too, while an organisation that is floundering could be in the process of foundering. And a person who is floundering in water will probably be flailing, while foundering is the ultimate failing.
Fail is the opposite of succeed
To flail is to flap aimlessly, or to whip someone (the stringy bit of a whip is the flail)
To flounder is to flail in water
Foundering means taking on water and sinking, and is related to 'profound', meaning deep
The important distinction between founder and flounder is that the flounderer can recover. A ship only founders when the waters close over it.

It's scandalous that so many words have to carry the burden of two meanings when there are plenty of English-sounding words that don't actually exist. Words such as 'sharn', 'thring' and 'oblendificacious' would not only beautify the language but would also have won me that last game of Scrabble. It's a vast, unused resource of gorgeous syllables. Really, there's no excuse for such a poorly organised language.

Moral: If we're ever playing Scrabble together, don't forget that "JUXQOCK" is a perfectly valid word, meaning 'a person too timid to challenge an obviously made-up word on a triple-word score'.


  1. There's much to be said for purity of style, but the best style is the one that makes it easiest for the reader.

    Amen and amen.

  2. It might have been dealt with somewhere before, ALTHOUGH it is not apparent how "espresso" relates to EXPRESSO, or "exetera" to "et cetera".. is it some kind of English obsession or a national sport to change the sound of pretty sound foreign vocab? Me, I AM "bothered" every time I'm forced to hear that..

    1. "Espresso" is a loan word from Italian, which doesn't have the letter X, even though their Roman ancestors gave it to us. "Excetera" is just a mistake based on mis-hearing, like "could of" or "asterix".