Augur vs. Auger

By Maeve Maddox

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Although they sound the same and are often misspelled one for the other, the words augur and auger are not remotely related.

augur
In ancient Rome, the noun augur signified a religious official who interpreted the sounds and movements of birds to predict outcomes of matters of public concern. In time, the practice of augury also included the reading of other phenomena, such as the entrails of sacrificial animals, sun halos, eclipses, and earthquakes as omens.

The contemporary English use of augur is as a verb, meaning “to predict, prognosticate, or anticipate.” The word is seen frequently in headlines, used intransitively, followed by an adverb:

Polls augur well for House Democrats (Economist, 2018)
Detroit’s woes augur ill for US (BBC, 2007)
China’s Uighur abuse augurs poorly for the world (The Hill, 2019)
Data does not augur well for easing of lockdown (Manila Times, 2020)

Used transitively, augur introduces direct objects that may take the form of single nouns, noun phrases, or noun clauses.

Turkey upheaval augurs challenges to West (Global Times, 2016)

High CRP augurs worse outcomes from palliative surgery for cancer. (Internal Medicine News, 2013)

The new discovery should provide insight into the elusive origins of the strange bright signals, and augurs a dawning era in which they will be found and studied by the thousands. (Scientific American, 2018)

This [changes resulting from authoritarianism] augurs that Turkey’s secularization is coming to an end. (Global Times, 2016)

Unidiomatic uses of augur include

• following the intransitive form with an adjective (“augurs bad”)
• coupling augur with for (“augurs for”)
• using it as a noun to mean prophesy or prediction rather than prophet. (“an augur of good things to come”)

Here are some examples of misuse:

And the normalization of our panic is having dire consequences and augurs for even worse. (William J. Bennett and Seth Leibsohn, Real Clear Politics, 2020)

Better: the normalization of our panic is having dire consequences and augurs even worse.

There are strong signs that what is true at Bell Labs augurs for the future of all corporate life, a tomorrow where the basic skills of emotional intelligence will be ever more important, in teamwork, in cooperation, in helping people learn together how to work more effectively. (Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Random House, 2012)

Better: There are strong signs that what is true at Bell Labs augurs a tomorrow in which the basic skills of emotional intelligence will be ever more important for the future of all corporate life. . .

Finally, in the title of a blog post about sun halos—”Signs and augurs”—the word augurs is used as if it were a noun meaning “predictions.” When tempted to use augur as a synonym for prediction, a writer can choose instead from sign, prediction, prognosis, forecast, or prophecy. The noun augury signifies the art of divination from signs.

auger
This word for a tool for boring holes comes from an Old English compound that combined a word that gives us navel (nafu/nafa) and the OE word for spear (gar): nafogar.

The first element of the word referred to “The central part or block of a wheel, into which the end of the axle-tree is inserted, and from which the spokes radiate; a hub.” (OED)

The “hub spear” was a tool used to bore a hole through the hub of a wheel. OE nafogar evolved into Middle English nauger. Then, by way of a process known variously as misdivision, metanalysis, and rebracketing, the word nauger lost its initial n and became auger.

Literacy in the UK did not become widespread until the eighteenth century. In the Middle Ages, most people had to rely on their ears to determine the separation of spoken words. When a wheelwright said he needed “a nauger,” a listener might think what he wanted was “an auger.” In that way, ME nauger became ModE auger.( Other former N-words in English include adder, apron, and umpire.)

The principal error with auger is spelling it as augur, as in this textbook excerpt:

The hole itself can be made with a tool comprising augurs for soft and stiff clay, shells for stiff and hard clay, and sand-pumps for sandy strata. (Bridge Engineering, Tata McGraw-Hill Education, 2008)

NOTE to nuclear scientists
The attributive use of auger, as in “Auger effect,” derives from the name of French physicist P.V. Auger (1899-1993) and has nothing to do with either augur or [n]auger.

NOTE to non-nuclear scientists
Auger effect: the non-radiative transition of an atom from an excited electronic energy state to a lower state with the emission of an electron.‥ The electron ejected in the Auger effect is known as an Auger electron.

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