As I announced yesterday, inspired by the reception of my Countdown to Christmas series of posts, and as a way to give me a writing prompt every day, I’m going to experiment with a theme for each day. This started with the first Sunday Nibble, followed later by Saturday Morning Reading, with Monday’s subject of history, one of my favorites, revealed yesterday.
Today’s theme is Talky Tuesday because it will be all about another of my favorite subjects: language. Okay, so the “talky” part is purely figurative until I turn this into a podcast, but I couldn’t think of a better word that relates to language and creates alliteration with Tuesday.
And while “Wordy Wednesday” might have seemed like a natural, having only four possible letters — S, M, T, and W — limits the options, especially if one insists as one does on using the full “th” alliteration for Thursday, but finds a better fit of subject for that than another alternate for Wednesday’s theme, which will be revealed tomorrow.
And I know I blew the alliteration on the weekend, but that’s because I came up with those first. I suppose one could become the Sunday Snack, while I’m really tempted to call the other one the Saturday Morning Post. Incidentally, the original Saturday Evening Post is still around and will celebrate its bicentennial next year. While its presence nowadays is more online and it’s owned by the Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical Society (Franklin kinda sorta founded the magazine), it still prints six issues a year. A far cry from coming out in time for the second mail delivery every Saturday, but still impressive in this day and age.
The print magazine in its heyday also made Norman Rockwell a very famous artist and American institution to the extent that many of his cover illustrations are still instantly recognizable to this day to people not at all familiar with the original magazine,
But now you’ve got me going down a side path because I love diving into rabbit holes and sharing interesting bits of trivia, and you’ve managed to get me bringing up history in the set up for the language theme. Gee, thanks!
So let’s bring on the topic at hand!
More frequently confused words
As I’ve discussed recently, English is a mongrel of a language, cobbled together over centuries with the collision and mixing of various other languages and with a propensity after the fifteenth century to borrow words from everywhere. If you’ve ever taken algebra — or a siesta — you’ve used borrowed words. You can also see the roots in the words themselves. In the sentences above, discussed and centuries come from Latin, language, and collision are French, cobble and mongrel are Anglo, and our borrowed examples are, in order, Arabic and Spanish, although Spanish has a ton of Arabic words courtesy of the Moorish occupation of Southern Europe for centuries.
Hint: Any Spanish word that starts with “al” is probably Arabic because “al” is the Arabic equivalent of “the,” and the two wound up stuck together. So… algodón, cotton; alfombra, carpet (not to be confused with carpeta, file folder); alazar, to hoist or erect (not to be confused with al azar, at random); alcalde/alcadesa, mayor.
But… the point is this. English, like many other languages, has become more of a spoken medium than it is a written one, at least on a large scale. That’s part of the reason why internet news aggregators get choked with video links instead of text, and yeah, this one drives me nuts. No, I don’t want the story read by talking heads who obviously don’t get it because I’m probably not in a place where I can listen to the audio or watch the video, just give me the words, please.
And for god’s sake, make sure that they were edited and proofed by a professional, although I despair more and more by the moment of that ever happening, and in major media outlets more often than not I see articles that my high school English teacher would have failed without remorse.
That said, to the people who don’t read a lot, it does become obvious when they post online, because they will play the “sounds like” game with a lot of words (when they’re not just making up spellings, but that’s something for a completely different post), and frequently manage to grab exactly the wrong word.
Ripped from today’s… social media comments (no, really) here are six more words that are frequently mixed-up and misused.
Away and aweigh
I’ve seen this mistake made frequently when someone is referring to a ship leaving port and getting underway, and given that the arts of sailing and seafaring are very alien to most modern people — particularly those who live in urban or landlocked areas — it’s a very understandable mistake to see “Anchors away!”
I mean, on the surface, that makes sense, right? What are you trying to do? Get away from the port or the dock, and it somehow involves removing the anchors that are holding you there, right? And if you have a naïve understanding of how anchors work, that adds another level of sense to it. Anchors are notoriously heavy, right? So they must work by weighing down the ship (ooh… look at that word!) and keep it from moving until they’re cast away. Ooh. Another seafaring word when you combine them into castaway!
Except… that’s not how anchors work. Anchors may be heavy in human terms (or not), but they weigh nothing compared to the weight of the ship. What they do do is drop to the seafloor or lakebed, and then dig into the sediment with those hooky-thingies on them. You know. The whole reason an anchor is shaped like that. Its job is to grab that mucky slop down below and dig into it so that the ship stays where it’s been moored.
By the way, have you ever noticed that a grappling hook looks a lot like an anchor? Yeah, that’s because it does an anchor’s job in reverse.
But… a ship would never cast its anchors away because then they’d have nothing to moor themselves with at the next port, or to do likewise in an emergency at sea. What ships do do is call “anchors aweigh,” and it’s an expression ultimately built out of old English.
The word “weigh” refers to a really old English expression meaning to lift, measure, or carry, while the “a-“ prefix most likely takes on the middle English mean of “off” or “from.” So… the proper phrase, “anchors aweigh,” means to lift the anchors from… in this case, whatever silt or sludge they’re stuck in. And the word “aweigh” happens to have been coined specifically and only to refer to the concept of hauling up an anchor.
Lean and lien
Yeah, actually seen in a “give me free legal advice because I can’t adult enough to figure out how to google that that’s a thing” post on a social media site, something along the lines of (paraphrased to protect a-hat’s identity): “My bank just put a lean on my car because I missed a few payments. How can I not lose it?”
Well, the simple bonehead advice is, “Talk to your bank and arrange to make those payments, dumbass.” But, on top of that one, if your bank leaned on your car, assuming that your bank is a big building of at least one story, I don’t think that there’d be much of a car left.
The word they were thinking of is lien, and it’s basically any official charge placed against a piece of real property. Anyone who’s ever bought a car from a dealer and contracted to make payments knows it well, since the phrase “lienholder” will appear on the registration until the day you pay that loan off.
There’s also a nice ironic reminder on this one. “Lien” happens to be the French word for “link,” and in its traditional sense, that’s what a lien was — a link between a physical piece of property and the money owed on it. Boom, done. But… go to French websites, and that word means more often than note “click here to go there.”
Fortunately, the quick way to remember and not mistake “lien” and “lean” is that the first two letters of “link” are “Li.”
Illusion and allusion
In this case, the former is definitely used to mean the latter far too often. An illusion is an image, mirage, or the word that GOB prefers to trick. An allusion is a literary reference. You’ll see the former in Vegas constantly. You’ll have to think back to 10th grade English to remember that latter one, which is basically referring to something without referring to it.
Frankly, my dear, allusions can be… tricksy, and not as clear-cut as you’d assume without making an assumption out of it or you and me. But let’s rejoyce in the idea that one doesn’t need to reference a hawk to describe a handsaw unless one is being chased through an empty field by a crop-duster.
And that was a paragraph packed with allusions. The idea that I just made you think of at least a few books, movies, authors, and directors was no illusion.
Ascent and assent
Thanks to that pesky silent “C,” I see the latter word misused to replace the former a lot more often: “The mountain climbers planned to begin their assent at five a.m.”
Well, of course you’d want a mountain climbing team to agree on everything before they start going uphill, but they can’t start the climb until they begin their ascent.
The word ultimately comes to English via French and Latin, with the Latin source being the word “scendere,” to climb. You can easily see the pair of English antonyms that come from this: descend and ascend, along with their noun versions descent and ascent.
The prefixes determine direction. A descent is a climbing from, while an ascent is a climbing to. In our interpretation of “climb,” these become up and down.
Assent, while it also comes from Latin, took a very different route and it comes from the prefix “ad” and the verb “sentire,” to feel. When “ad” is combined with a word starting with “s,” it becomes “as.” The prefix itself implies moving toward, so an assent is moving toward a feeling, i.e. the group coming to a common decision.
Interestingly enough, the French took the Latin word for “to feel” to mean “to smell,” and this lead directly to the English word “scent,” but not to the English word ascent. Go figure. It’s just one of those weird linguistic coincidences.
But… it does give us a mnemonic to tell them apart. What is a smell? “A scent” that goes up your nose. Meanwhile, a message you receive “as sent” agrees completely with what the sender intended.
Mantle and mantel
This pair is regularly swapped, and it’s easy to see why. Strictly speaking, a mantel is the one that’s around a fireplace and nothing else, while a mantle is a cloak or covering, or part of the surface of the Earth that comes above the crust.
But to confuse things, mantel itself is a fifteenth century variant of the Middle English mantel, which came from the Latin mantellum, which means cloak. So, ultimately, a mantel is just a cloak for a fireplace, but if you put a mantle near your fireplace, it’ll probably burn up.
Yes, derivations can be silly and make no sense sometimes, but here’s a way to remember the very special word that only goes around your fireplace. What’s in your fireplace? The fire. In Spanish, that’s el fuego. And what are the last two letters of the right word? That’s right. “El.”
Now, I could confuse things a bit more by giving you an “le” mnemonic for mantle by reminding you that “the cloak” in French is “le manteau,” and that second word should look familiar, but I think the fire clue should be enough.
Sorted and sordid
A rare find in the wild, but indeed it did appear, with the former word being used in place of the latter in the context of “delving into those sorted (sic) affairs,” when, of course, those affairs were sordid.
Again, though, if it’s a word someone has only heard, sorted, like away, makes some kind of sense, if only because sordid affairs tend to involve a lot of bits and pieces, so the assumption that somebody would have to sort them to work them out makes total sense.
The funny part here is that sordid is by far the older word, and while sort came into English in the 13th century, the dictionary only attests “sorted” to the 1950s, believe it or not, and only in a specific jargon usage in geology, although I know many an Australian who’d differ with that opinion, since the love to deal with getting confusing situations sorted, i.e. figured out.
As for sordid, it came from the Latin word for dirty. Specifically, the Latin word for dirt with the suffix –id indicating “born from.” So… filthy things are sordid.
I can’t think of any really good reminder here other than these. First, if it’s dirty it’s got double D’s, like sordid. Or… sordid kind of sounds like the answer when someone asks, “Hey did you read that trashy article in (insert gossip rag here)” and you say, “So I did,” with the proper drawl. (“Sah uh did.”)
And there you go. Which pair of confused words annoy you, or which ones do you always mix up? Let me know in the comments below!