Avert vs. Avoid

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What’s the difference between avert and avoid? They share a primary meaning (with a subtle but significant distinction) but despite their structural similarity are etymologically unrelated. This post discusses their senses and origins and those of similar-looking synonyms.

Avert derives from the Latin verb vertere, which means “turn.” To avert is literally to turn away; one averts one’s eyes or gaze when one turns away, so as not to make eye contact or see something. But avert also means “prevent” or “ward off,” a sense it shares with avoid.

However, while avert implies active effort to stop something from happening, avoid often suggests keeping away from or refraining from something rather than preventive action. One averts disaster by doing something to stop it, while one avoids it by removing oneself from a situation that will result in disaster.

Aversion, originally the noun form of avert, still alludes to the physical act of turning away in its modern senses of “dislike” or “repugnance”; more rarely, it refers to an object of antipathy.

Avoid stems from the Latin verb vuider, which means “empty” and is also the origin of void, which as a verb means “empty” and as a noun means “emptiness.” The a is a vestige of the Latin prefix ex-, in this sense meaning “out”; the prefix, slightly altered in the Old French word esvuider, ended up in Anglo-French as the first letter of avoider, from which the English word avoid is derived. (Devoid, meaning “without,” also has the root word void.)

Something is said to be avoidable, and an act or practice of avoiding is avoidance.

Another word that appears to be related to avert and avoid is evade, which means “avoid” or “escape” but its origin is the Latin verb vadere, meaning “go”; to evade is literally to not go. Something avoidable is also evadable, though this adjective is seldom used. The noun form is evasion.

Inevitable, meaning “unable to be avoided,” is also unrelated; its antonym, evitable, is rare but also goes back hundreds of years. Their ultimate source is the Latin verb vitare, which means “shun.” In addition to being an adjective, inevitable sometimes appears as a noun, as shown in “Accept the inevitable” (meaning, “that which cannot be avoided”).

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