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Mink or minke?

This Troublesome Pair was suggested to me by my friend Julia quite a while ago – thank you! I’m always open to suggestions! Oh, and do you like the new picture for these posts – now I have managed to capture all my new editions in all their glory?

So, two animal words (and I feel some more coming on, now I’ve thought of these).

A mink is a semi-aquatic carnivore which is a bit like a stoat, and is unfortunately bred for its fur. It has Eurasian and North American variants, and the word is used to describe the fur, too. I’m sad now, thinking about poor fur-farmed animals. Moving on, no arguing about the plural, because it can be mink OR minks! Shocking!

A minke is a type of whale – a rorqual whale in fact. It’s grey on top and white underneath, and apparently the name only originates from the 1930s. A rorqual whale is a baleen whale which has pleated skin on its underneath, and the group includes fin, blue and humpback whales. A baleen whale is one of the ones with the whalebone sieve in its mouth to filter food. I’m going to stop there …

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

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2017 in Errors, Language use

 

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Disc or disk?

Disc or disk?

I will have to re-do this picture soon. I now have a new “New Oxford Style Manual”, a new “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” and a new “AP Stylebook” AND my new “Chicago Manual of Style” should be arriving tomorrow. Time for a new photo then, I think.

Anyway, it’s Troublesome Pairs time and I had to check this one just in case the other day when I was doing a transcription – really, we don’t use these words very often now that computers don’t use floppy disks any more, and although vinyl records are a ‘thing’ again, they tend to be referred to as ‘vinyls’ rather than ‘discs’. Oops, I’ve given the game away already, haven’t I!

So, just to spell it all out for future reference …

A disc is a flat round thing (also used metaphorically, for example for the Sun, which is obviously really a sphere) and is the spelling used for the kind of disc that is a record. I think a disc only has to be flatter than it’s round to be a disc, because you get discs of cartilage in your spine which can slip.

A disk is the computer kind of item. It contains a disc on which data can be magnetically or optically stored (the latter including CD-ROMs).

And just to confuse, in the UK you can spell both with a k, and then you have to work out which it is from the context.

The talk of the first kind of disc got me thinking about cylinders. These have straight sides and an oval or circular cross-section, so in effect a disc is a kind of cylinder as long as it has some kind of three dimensional existence.

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

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2017 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs

 

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Troublesome words – refusenik

Troublesome words – refusenik

I try not to be an over-prescriptive fuss-pot when it comes to language,* believing the important thing is clarity and accepting things change with them, while obviously, as I do here, trying to share examples where, say, there are two different words that mean subtly different things and thus should be retained and used. I know people get very cross about the use of words like “decimate”, and when I get a little bit cross about things, as with swathe or swath a while ago, I try to remember to make a point of looking them up and finding out whether our big dictionary sources back me up, or not!

Here is a (perhaps more obscure) case in point. I keep hearing the word refusenik being used to describe someone who is actively refusing to do something, usually to prove a point or in some form of protest. School uniform refuseniks and the like. I knew the term in its original meaning, which is the highly specific one describing Jewish people in the former Soviet Union who were refused to be allowed to emigrate to Israel. I kind of expanded this in my mind to incorporate all people whose exit from a place is refused. The emphasis here is on the fact that they are being refused exit – someone else is doing the refusing and they are the passive objects of the refusal (grammatically speaking).

But I checked my sources, and there we are: a refusenik is perfectly able to simultaneously be someone who refuses to do something out of principle and someone who is refused exit.

** Did you notice the at least three rules I have broken in this post to prove my point about not being fussy?

 

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2017 in Be careful, Language use, Writing

 

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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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Tricky words: What does falsify mean?

I occasionally write about tricky words rather than troublesome pairs on this blog, and here’s one that always makes me feel a little uneasy. When that happens, I look it up (a large part of being a decent editor / proofreader is knowing when to look stuff up), and I find I have had to look this one up a few times.

So, falsify.

The most common meaning for “to falsify”, in my opinion, is the one around making something become false. You might change something to mislead “We falsified the results to make it look like smoking is good for you”. You are effectively changing something, a document or some results, in order to deceive people. Falsification is the noun for the action of falsifying, and a falsifier does it.

But the other meaning is to prove to be false, or to disprove. In this case, it’s the opposite of verify, and is used in, for example, social sciences and economics texts (which is where I tend to find it). It looks odd to me when I read, “We falsified the results”, but here the writer is using it in this second meaning: “We proved the results to be false”.

To be honest, I’d rather move away from possible misinterpretation and use “we proved the results to be false” or “we verified that the hypothesis could not be proved” rather than “we falsified the results” or “we falsified the hypothesis”. However, my editing policy is to tread lightly, and it is an acceptable term, found in all the major dictionaries, so it’s not something I would change lightly (although I might make a note for the author if the text was going into general rather than academic circulation).


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Posted by on July 27, 2017 in Be careful, Writing

 

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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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