Leech and Leach

By Maeve Maddox

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Reader Erik Engstrom was surprised to see this misuse of the word leech in an article at Wired:

. . . certain chemicals that leech metals from the body.

Pronounced the same [lēch], leech and leach have different meanings.

The word leech is the old word for “doctor.” It comes from OE laece, “physician.” Leech meaning “bloodsucking aquatic worm” may have originally been a different word, but assimilated to the word for doctor, possibly because doctors used leeches for blood-letting.

Figuratively, a leech is a person in a parasitic relationship with another.

The word leach comes from the OE verb leccan, “to moisten.” In current usage the verb leach refers to percolation of a liquid. The Wired writer was using the word in the sense of “to take away by percolation.”

Related to leach is the word leak, “to let water in or out.” It may seem that the figurative sense of leak to mean “allowing secret matters come to public attention” must be a 20th century innovation, but it’s not.

The intransitive use of leak with this figurative meaning dates from 1832. The transitive use, “to leak information,” is recorded from 1859. The figurative use of the noun leak to mean “the information leaked” didn’t come along until 1950: The Post published the latest leak from the White House.

We can thank Henry Miller for the first published use of leak as a noun meaning “the act of urination” (Tropic of Cancer [1934]).

Leak as a verb meaning “to piss,” however, dates from 1596.

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3 Responses to “Leech and Leach”

  • Vic

    I think the biggest problem these days is that people don’t check spelling or definitions. This is ironic, too, because a dictionary is right at your fingertips on your computer. How many times do we see the misspellings of its/it’s or your/you’re? Homonyms seem to get people every time.

  • Dani

    This one makes sense to me, actually. Maybe it’s just too late at night. But if the chemicals suck metals from the body, the way a leech sucks blood from it, it seems like an apt word choice?

  • Garfield

    Dani’s comment makes perfect sense. The writer could very well be using a metaphor and the reader construed it as a misuse of the word.

    In direct response to Vic’s comment, I’d like to posit a possibility. We’re all familiar, I dare to say, with spell-check and how it works. I’d also go out on a limb and further suggest that at some time or another we all fall victim to its sometimes embarrassing intrusion. I know I have, multiple times. In most of the instances, however, it is only after the message has been sent that we become aware. Sometimes, even never.
    So, rather it be a case of not being attentive to our typing, I think it’s more a matter of paying attention to proof-reading and editing.

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