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Category Archives: Language use

irrupt or erupt?

irrupt or erupt?

 

This one was suggested by my husband, a keen birdwatcher (see below for why that’s relevant) and adder of troublesome pairs to my list.

Erupt is perhaps the better-known of the two. To erupt is to forcefully throw out rocks, lava, gas and ash, if you’re a volcano. The next meaning is to break out suddenly, usually used of something like a fight, and similarly, you can erupt into laughter, meaning it happens suddenly and forcefully. Finally, a spot or rash erupts when it appears suddenly on the skin, and a tooth erupts through a gum when it grows in your mouth and becomes visible.

To irrupt, also a verb, means to burst into somewhere, to enter suddenly or even forcibly. The kind of thing people do when they break down a door. Interestingly, I’ve seen people being described as “erupting” in this sense, but let’s use irrupt here if we can, to preserve those two senses, yes? The second (and husband-relevant) meaning is to migrate into an area in large – that’s abnormally large – numbers, and it’s especially used of birds. So when an awful lot of waxwings descended on some trees with berries in a Birmingham car park, that was them irrupting. Or an irruption.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2017 in Errors, Language use

 

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Surfeit or surplus?

Surfeit or surplus?

This Troublesome Pair was suggested to me by my husband. He’s good at coming up with these; I’m not sure how many have been suggested  by him over the years. Both of these words mean an excess, but one just means “more” while the other means “too much!” There are some interesting archaic terms, too. For example, I always ‘knew’ that “King John died of a surfeit of lampreys” but I didn’t know exactly what that word meant, thinking it was standing for just “too much of” rather than a more specific meaning.*

A surplus is the amount that’s left over when you’ve met all your requirements. So if you have a bag of broad beans to cover every week for the next year and you will carry on with your next harvest once those are used up, anything over 52 bags is your surplus. In accounting terms, it means the positive difference between income/assets and expenditure over a period, so if I earn £100 from selling broad beans but spend £30 on bags to sell them in, my surplus is £70. And in even more specific accounting terms, it means the amount by which a company’s assets are worth more than the face value of its stock.

So a surplus doesn’t really carry the idea of TOO MUCH, whereas a surfeit is the “too much” one. It just really means an excess, but it isn’t really used in a positive sense (unless you’ve found examples – do share if you have). And in archaic terms, it was an illness that was caused by excessive drinking or eating – so King John’s “surfeit” wasn’t an excess of lampreys but the illness brought on by having eaten the excess of lampreys. If we go back to our broad beans, although it’s subjective, I’d say that having, for example, 104 bags of broad beans when you only need 52 would count as having a surfeit.

I do love these small distinctions. Interestingly, surfeit and surplus both come from Latin via Middle English (thank you, OED), so it’s not one of those cases where we have one Germanic and one Latinate word for the same thing.

And the obsession with vegetable produce? Blame the people who presumably have allotments and keep leaving courgettes out on walls and the pavement for people to take and runners to trip over / jump.

*Edited to add: Oh, deary me. I have been informed by reader Ian Johnston that “It was Henry I that died from a surfeit of lampreys, John fined the City of Gloucester for failing to deliver him a lamprey pie at Christmas; a dearth not a surfeit of lampreys”. Thank you to Ian for pointing that out and I stand corrected!

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all! The index is finally UP TO DATE so go and have a look and tell me which is your favourite so far!

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2017 in Errors, Language use

 

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Sere, seer or sear?

Sere, seer or sear?

 

This Troublesome Trio was suggested to me by the ever-helpful Linda from Linda Proofreads – thank you! Those among you with good memories will recall that she’s suggested pairs before – they can’t be infinite but I certainly haven’t thought of them all yet.

So three words with very different meanings that are spelled differently but are all pronounced the same.

Sere is an adjective (and a literary one at that) which means “withered” and can also be spelled sear, and I always thought it meant dry and kind of nobly so, so that shows it’s always worth looking things up in a variety of sources before you confidently bung down what you think something means from your vast experience, etc. It’s also a fairly new word (only around 120 years old) for a series of animal or plant communities which have been formed from succession, for example the endless lavender plants that my garden produces, one from the other but still in the same area.

A seer is a person who can see visions of the future, a prophet or the like. Seer can also be used in a very old-fashioned way to describe someone who sees a specific thing, but I would shy away from using it in that sense, to be honest. It’s also an Asian unit of weight. Who knew?

To sear (a verb) means to burn or even scorch something with an intense and sudden heat, and is often used to describe browning meat or other foods at a high temperature. As an extension into a metaphor, something can be seared into your memory of mind, fixed there, the vision of something which you can’t now “unsee”, for example. A searing pain is a strong and sudden burning sensation.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2017 in Errors, Language use

 

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Premier or premiere? What about premium?

Premier or premiere? What about premium?

I’m going to admit now, because there are things that all of us editors have to look up (right? Please share! Better to check than be wrong) and this is one of the ones I have had trouble with in the past and have had to commit to memory. Which one means the most important and which one means the first performance?

Premier means the first in importance or order, and this extends to being used for a head of state (in Australia and Canada, it’s the official title for the chief minister of a state or government, everywhere else it can be used to denote the head of state, “The British premier stated that …”).

A premiere is the first showing of a film or the first performance of a musical work or play. So you go to a film premiere, not a film premier.

Premium has several meanings, one of which is superior and usually more expensive – premium cat food, for example (a premium is also the amount you pay for insurance or a sum added to a normal sum in order to get something better).

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2017 in Errors, Language use

 

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Breach or breech?

Breach or breech?

I was asked about this one by my lovely friend Linda, a good friend and a super editor, too. It’s sometimes hard to think up new troublesome pairs to write about, so I love it when people suggest them to me, often because they’ve encountered someone else confusing them, sometimes for themselves (it’s the former in Linda’s case).

To breach something (the verb) means to make a hole in it OR to break something like an agreement or a law, or simply a code of conduct. A breach (the noun) is the result of someone breaching something: it’s the act of breaking an agreement or a law (a breach of conduct) or a gap or hole in a wall or other barrier. “By wearing jeans in the dining room, he breached the club’s formal dress policy”. It’s often used in a military sense, but in a general one, too.

The breech (noun only) is the part of a cannon, gun or rifle barrel that is behind the bore. The old-fashioned use of the word means a person’s buttocks, but this survives chiefly in the term “a breech birth” which occurs when a baby is turned around in the womb so that its bottom or feet emerge first.

Breeches (which that last sense of breech comes from) are short trousers, ending just below the knee, which are nowadays used in ceremonial or riding dress.

Breaches are multiple gaps in a wall, etc. or multiple infringements of policy and laws.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in Errors, Language use

 

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Venal or venial?

Venal or venial?

Another troublesome pair from near the end of the alphabet – and while we’re talking about alphabets, I’ll admit now (and sadly it will probably be true for any future readers, too; you’ll be amazed how many people search for these pairs years after I posted them) that I’m a bit behind with updating the index. However, if you use the Search feature (under menu on a mobile or in the right-hand column on a desktop) you will be able to find all of them.

OK, venal vs. venial.

If you are venal, it means you are susceptible to bribery, for example a corrupt politician or town planner.

Venial is quite different: it is used in a Christian context to describe a sin which is not seen as removing divine grace from the soul. It has therefore also come to mean, by extension, slight or pardonable, although I can’t personally recall seeing it used in this way in a non-religious context (or without any reference to religion) and I would advise using slight or pardonable instead if you want to use it in a secular context unless you’re very sure your audience will understand it.

Additional point: venial sins are contrasted with mortal sins, which are terrible, grave sins which do deprive the soul of divine grace.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2017 in Errors, Language use

 

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Swathe or swath?

Swathe or swath?

I had always assumed that there was just one word for a row of grass or other cereal crop as it falls as it’s mown, or a broad area of land, also used by extension for a broad area of anything (swathes of the English-speaking population use swathe and not swath), but then swath started cropping up in both the newspaper and the current affairs magazine I read regularly (which do not share a publisher, although some journalists write for both).

To me, personally, “swath” sounds wrong when I read it (this is where I find out not everyone hears the words in their head, like when I found out that not everyone gets earworms (uninvited music playing in your head). I’ve always pronounced the word to rhyme with “bathe”, with the “a” that’s in “cave”, presumably because I first saw it written as “swathe” and applied the rule that an “e” at the end of a word lengthens the vowel. “Swath” reads to me with a harder “the” and the “shortened”, so like the beginning part of “gather” (this is hard without using linguistic pronunciations symbols!) although I suppose you could read it with the same vowel as “bath” or even “swatch”.

As the dictionaries I consult for this series (primarily Oxford and Merriam-Webster) both say you can use either swathe or swath, I’m guessing that which you use depends on which you first saw and read and thus the way you pronounce it. I’d love to know which you use and how you pronounce it!

Oh, and if you like this kind of stuff, I can highly recommend Kory Stamper’s new book “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries”. I’ve not finished it yet, but, oh, it’s just marvellous. There’s a photo on my book review blog here and a review will appear on the blog in due course.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2017 in Errors, Language use

 

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