7 Similar but Distinct Word Pairs

By Mark Nichol

Look-alike, sound-alike words can cause confusion. Note the distinctions between each pair of terms listed below:

1. Abjure and Adjure

Abjure, from Latin by way of French, means “to deny” or “to renounce,” or “to avoid.” Adjure, which took the same route to English, means “to confirm” or “to command,” or “to advise or urge.” In some senses, therefore, they are near antonyms. (That’s logical: Ab- means “from” and ad- means “to.”) However, they do share a root syllable, the same one that is the basis of jury, jurisprudence, just, justice, and other terms from the realm of law.

2. Chafe and Chaff

Chafe, ultimately derived from the Latin term calefacere, “to make warm or hot,” originally meant just that, but then, from the added sense of “rubbing to make warm,” it acquired the negative connotations of “make sore by rubbing” and then, by association, “irritate.” Chaff, an unrelated word, comes from Old English and refers to seed husks and, by extension, anything discarded as worthless. By association with the cloud of husks and other debris produced during threshing of grain, bursts of tiny scraps of metal ejected from aircraft to interfere with enemy radar is called chaff.

3. Discomfort and Discomfit

These similar-looking words have similar meanings, but it was not always so. Discomfort is the antonym of the word ultimately stemming from the Latin term confortare, meaning “to strengthen.” (Fort is also the root of, well, fort, as well as fortitude.) Discomfit, from the French word desconfit, meaning “defeated” (its Latin root means “to make”), was weakened by false association with discomfort to mean “frustrate” or “perplex.” Unlike the antonym for discomfort, comfit (“to make”) is not an antonym; it refers to candied fruit. Comfiture, however, is a rare synonym meaning “an act of support.”

4. Perspicacious and Perspicuous

Both words stem from the Latin term perspicere, meaning “looking through,” which is also the source of perspective. (The element spic, from specare, meaning “look at,” is also the root of spectacle and speculation.) However, the meanings are distinct: A perspicacious person is one who is astute or mentally alert; the quality so demonstrated is perspicacity. A perspicuous argument is one that is plainly clear and precise.

5. Practicable and Practical

Something practicable is usable or feasible, while something practical is useful — a slight but significant distinction. Practicable is used to refer to something that is or could be done (“a practicable policy”), while practical is associated with action or use: A practical umbrella is one that keeps rain from falling on you in the rain; an impractical one is decorative but not sturdy or waterproof enough for practical use.

6. Turbid and Turgid

Turbid refers to a sate of cloudiness, opacity, or obscurity; its Latin source is turba, meaning “confusion.” Turgid, from the Latin term turgidus, meaning “swollen,” means just that — or, by extension, “embellished” or “pompous,” in that a turgid speech, for example, is delivered by a person swollen with self-importance.

7. Waiver and Waver

Waiver, referring to abandonment or relinquishment, is from an Anglo-French word meaning “to abandon.” Waver, likely from the Old English term waefre, which means “restless,” means “to act indecisively.” The latter term is therefore probably related to the verb wave, meaning “to move back and forth,” and the same word as a noun, referring to the act of waving or to something that moves back and forth, like an ocean wave or a radio wave.

You’ll find discussions of many other easily confused words by searching on this site for the words “commonly confused” or for the specific words.

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3 Responses to “7 Similar but Distinct Word Pairs”

  • Glenn

    Some of the words were quite new for me here, glad to come across this 🙂

  • R. E. Hunter

    Re #2, I finally understand why the warming dishes used in a buffet are called chafing dishes.

  • Tim Bradley, Writer

    If you haven’t mentioned them already, some other confused pairs I see often are “pour” and “pore,” and “flare” and “flair.”

    Also, you could say something about the redundancies “false pretenses,” “end result” and “exact same.”

    Thanks. This is a site for sore eyes.

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