It can be argued that English is the richest of all the world’s languages. If nothing else, it certainly has the most words; in fact an excess of 500,000 and if we include technical and scientific words, we can add an additional 150,000. Compare that to the second most word filled language, German, which has approximately 185,000 words, or even French, which has but 100,000 words.
So, I thought it might be fun to examine some of the more curious aspects of our language. Has anyone ever heard the term “bated-breath?” Did you try to spell it? Well, it’s not ‘baited,’ it’s ‘bated’ as in abate. Or how about to “pore over.” The correct spelling is “pore,” that’s what we do to a manuscript; pour is what we do with a pitcher of water.
Then of course there’s “straitjacket?” The proper spelling is ‘strait’ as in The Strait of Gibraltar, i.e., it’s narrow and constricting, not straight as in without twists or curves. Here’s another beauty, have you ever sat in a “chaise longue?” A chaise longue is a long chair; it’s not a lounge.
Does anyone remember the scene from the movie Animal House when the Otter runs into Mrs. Wormer at the Food King? The two were ‘discussing’ cucumbers when Mrs. Wormer corrected Otter on the difference between “sensual” and “sensuous.” Both words refer to the senses, not the mind being gratified. ‘Sensuous’ is an uncharged term that applies to the type of pleasure we receive from music, art, or scented candles. ‘Sensual’ has more to do with erotic pleasure and indulgence such as lust, gluttony, and other passions. Make the “ual” connection, i.e., sensual/sexual, and you’ll never have difficulty distinguishing between the two.
This next one is easy but misused all the time. What did you “imply” and what did someone “infer?” We “imply” a meaning in a remark to a friend, who in turn may “infer” something completely different.
When we accept something as being factual, we “presume.” However, when we “assume” something, we postulate about its veracity. Presume and assume both mean “to take something as true,” but presume” implies more confidence or evidence backed reasoning, while an assumption suggests there is little evidence supporting your guess. Perhaps the most understated presumption occurred on the banks of Lake Tanganyika when Stanley uttered his famous phrase, “Dr. Livingstone I presume?”
This next one has always been a bit tricky from my perspective and you’ll not see me use either word very often. “Affect and Effect.” “Affect” is a verb most of the time and it ‘implies’ influence. “Smoking can ‘affect’ one’s health; how has it ‘affected’ yours?” “Effect” is the equivalent noun. “Smoking has had an ‘effect’ on me and my health.” However, I always seem to get into trouble when ‘effect’ is used as a verb. Because as a verb it carries with it a meaning much more than just influence; it brings a sense of purpose or impact. “I must effect my plan to stop smoking.” Even my spell-check gets this one wrong!
Another favorite is “Continual” vs. “Continuous.” ‘Continuous’ is uncompromising. A ‘continuous’ slope or something steady, unbroken, and invariable, without even a temporary reversal or a tiny interruption. ‘Continual’ on the other hand allows for gaps and suggests that something reoccurs at regular intervals with time out in-between. “Young children ‘continually’ interrupt their parents.” Continuous is usually more serious in nature, as in an astronomer’s theory of ‘continuous’ creation. In normal conversation, ‘continual’ is what we usually mean—it’s more figurative and it describes how things seem, feel or strike an onlooker.
Let me close by saying, I ‘presume’ we’re going to have a great ski season because the weather service is predicting ‘continual’ storms and that are sure to ‘affect’ skiers because the ‘effect’ of gliding thru deep powder is a very ‘sensuous’ experience.
Quote of the day: “Words are free. It’s how you use them that may cost you.” -Kushand Wizdom