A word to the wise – May 2009

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient

One of the many high class readers of this column recently offered a list of words that are spelled alike but have different meanings and usually different sounds. You know the sort, words like these:
• The bandage was wound around the wound.
• The garden was used to produce produce.
• Since there is no time like the present, she decided to present the present.
The list goes on and on, and may make us wonder how anyone can learn English. However, another similar class of words is even more malicious. These words too have different meanings, but they sound very much alike, and to befuddle us further, they are spelled differently.
They’re called homophones, and some choice examples follow:
• Breath and breadth. “Sweet is the breath of vernal showers,” wrote the lyrical Thomas Gray. That modest breath should not be confused with the infinite breadth in Robert Browning’s verse: “Unless you can love, as the angels may,/ With the breadth of heaven between you,/ …Oh, never call it loving.” In other words, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
• Arrant and errant. Except that he lived a century earlier, a more hard-headed writer like Oliver Goldsmith could have been scoffing at Browning’s romantic notion when he wrote, “This same philosophy is a good horse in the stable, but an arrant jade on a journey.” That is, such thinking sounds good, but doesn’t always work in practice. Arrant means notoriously wicked, while a jade is a disreputable woman, not necessarily of the sort described by Scott, who tells us that his hero “has seen the errant damsel safe home.” An errant damsel simply is one who has wandered or is lost, and who probably is not at all arrant, or the hero would not have given her succor, as they used to say.
• Fare and fair. “Brown bread and the Gospel is good fare,” went a Puritan adage. A poet named Richard Hovey tells us, “It’s always fair weather/ When good fellows get together,” and we can bet that their fare would be something other than brown bread and the Gospel.
• Ingenuous and ingenious. The first means frank and open; its opposite, disingenuous, describes a subtly dishonest person. J.B. Priestley tells us “shame is no punishment except upon persons of ingenuous dispositions.” Ingenious simply means clever, like Christopher Morley: “A human being is an ingenious assembly of portable plumbing.”
• Pore and pour. Often misspelled, to pore over something is to ponder deeply on it. Chaucer’s scholar in The Clerk’s Tale was said “upon a book in cloister always to pore.” The demonic Macbeth illustrates graphically the more common verb: “Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell.”
• Raze and raise. The former can mean to demolish or simply to scrape off or cut off. A farmer might raze a decrepit barn. A Shakespearean sonnet tells of a famous warrior who, once defeated, is “from the books of honor razed quite.” Raise has several senses. Baudelaire employs with a passion the usual sense: “O Death, old captain, it is time! Raise the anchor!” That crusty old editor named Anon. uses a metaphoric notion: “A newspaper’s duty is to print the news and raise hell.”
Spellcheck won’t help correct errors with words like these, and who’s to say whose spelling could not be more particular?

Word for the month
Tortuous (TOR-chew-us), an adjective meaning roundabout, circuitous or twisted. Martin Luther King, in his Nobel speech, alluded to “the tortuous road which has led from Montgomery to Oslo.” The spelling of tortuous is confused easily with torturous, which of course means tormenting or painful. Here’s literate Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, describing the language of opponents as a “torturous arrangement of words without rhythm or cadence.”

— Gerald Waite

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