Doublet and Triplet Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

Thanks to the tendency of the English language to borrow freely from various languages, we often end up with two or more similar words — often, one derived from Latin and one or more taken from one of its daughter languages (French, usually) — that develop distinct meanings. Here are five sets of such words.

1. Adamant/diamond (Latin adamas, “diamond”): Adamant originally denoted a supposedly impenetrably hard stone (including a diamond) and now applies to an extremely hard object or substance, while diamond refers to the hardest known mineral, which is, interestingly, employed in industry and in jewelry alike.

Adamant, as an adjective, refers to an unyielding attitude. Diamond is used in adjectival form only to modify a reference to jewelry (for example, “diamond ring”) or machinery (for example, “diamond saw”) or to denote an exclusive category (for example, “Diamond Class membership”).

2. Frangible/fragile/frail (Latin frangere, “to break”): Frangible describes something easily broken, either accidentally (such as glassware) or deliberately (such as a frangible bullet, designed to disintegrate on impact rather than ricochet). Fragile and frail both mean “weak,” but fragile generally refers to objects, while frail usually applies to people. Both terms are also used in reference to intangibles (for example, “a fragile peace,” “a frail hope”).

3. Frantic/frenetic/frenzied (Latin phreneticus, referring to inflammation of the brain): These three words have similar meanings, but for the first two, at least, the connotations are distinct. Frantic refers to excited activity, but the sense is usually that a frantic person is in an anxious, distraught, highly emotional state. Frenetic more neutrally implies excessive activity, confusion, or excitement. Frenzied, meanwhile, suggests an abundance of excitement or emotion.

4. Regal/royal (Latin regalis, “kingly”): Regal and royal both pertain to something suitable for or suggestive of a king or his court, but regal has the added sense of “magnificent” (for example, “regal splendor), while royal is employed less often that way and is often used more neutrally (for example, “a royal pardon”). Royal may also apply to intensify the word it modifies, as in “a royal pain.”

5. Secure/sure (Latin securus, “without care”): Secure means “safe, protected” or “confident” or “dependable,” while sure suggests certainty, reliability, or inevitability. Secure has a more formal feel to it (for example, “She was secure in her knowledge”), while sure is often used casually (for example, “Are you sure?”).

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1 Response to “Doublet and Triplet Adjectives”

  • Benny Rietveld

    Another fun article, thanks!

    I’d like to add a comment about the “fragile/frail” set. It would seem that in fact “fragile” is also often applied to people, but almost always in reference to their emotional state, whereas “frail” usually applies to a person’s physical state.

    Cheers!

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