Confusables are word pairs that appear to have more in common than they actually do. A word's history (or etymology) may offer a clue to its present-day meaning, but we need to be careful: over time, definitions can change significantly. And words that look and sound alike may have altogether different stories to tell.
Let's look at a few examples.
- Dual and Duel
The adjective dual, which means "double" or "twofold," is a cousin of the noun duo: both are descendants of the Latin word for "two." So a person with "dual citizenship" has an allegiance to two countries at the same time. The noun or verb duel--which means "formal combat"--comes from a Latin word for "war." Duel is the title of an early Steven Spielberg movie--the story of a businessman who's terrorized by the driver of a massive tractor-trailer.
- Faint and Feint
Our spell-checkers won't recognize the difference between these homophones, but we should be able to. Both words entered English by way of an Old French word meaning "feign," but their meanings have gone separate ways. As a verb faint means "to lose consciousness"; as an adjective it means "weak" or "timid." (Erma Bombeck once claimed that her favorite household chore was hitting her head on a bunk bed until she fainted.) Feint, as a noun or verb, involves tricking an opponent with a deceptive move. Boxers and politicians tend to indulge in this sort of feinting.
- Flair and Flare
The noun flair comes from a Latin word that means "to give off an odor." Nowadays the English flair means "a natural talent or ability" (as in "a flair for decorating"). As a noun, flare denotes "a bright light" or "sudden outburst"; as a verb, it means "to blaze out." The origin of this flare is unknown.
- Flaunt and Flout
Exactly where these two words originated is a bit of a mystery, but their distinct meanings are worth keeping straight. To flaunt means "to show off." ("If you've got it, flaunt it" is the motto of the fashionista.) To flout means "to defy" or "show contempt for." ("Flout 'em and scout 'em and scout 'em and flout 'em: thought is free," sings Stephano in Shakespeare's The Tempest.)
- Interment and Internment
The Latin word for "earth" is still buried in the noun interment ("the act or ritual of burying"), while the Latin for "internal" resides in internment ("confinement"). For interment, think "graveyard"; for internment, "prison."
To learn more about confusables (hundreds of them), visit our Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words.
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