The internet houses a plethora of “Commonly Confused Words” lists — Google returns 1.15 million hits for that phrase. Such common confusions are child’s play for experienced editors. No, we get tripped up by the less commonly used but easily confused words.
Here are ten of them the store away for future use:
A faun is a mythological beast that is half-man and half-goat, similar to a satyr but not so rowdy or hedonistic. Debussy’s beautiful Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is about one of these woodland creatures.
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, though, the word you want is fawn, which is both the verb (with over) meaning “to ingratiate oneself in a cringing or flattering way” and the noun meaning “a young deer.”
Remember that these two spellings exist, but also keep in mind that faun is the unlikely choice.
As anyone who regularly falls into a “food coma” knows, gluttonous — the adjectival form of glutton — means “voracious, given to overeating.” The first syllable of gluttonous is pronounced “gluht.”
The beginning of the word glutinous sounds like the word gluten. Though the two words come from the same root (the Latin word for “glue”), glutinous does not mean “containing gluten.” Instead, it means “having the properties of glue,” that is, gummy or sticky.
Glutinous rice is so named because of its consistency and the way it sticks together; it contains no dietary gluten.
The noun hurdle refers to a barrier in one’s path that usually, but with some effort, can be jumped over, either physically or metaphorically. Hurdle is also the verb meaning “to jump over a barrier.” In other words, one hurdles a hurdle.
Hurtle is a verb meaning “to move rapidly or forcefully.”
If you’re working with text about the summer Olympics, your subject might be the track and field competition called hurdles. However, it doesn’t help the matter any that these races begin with an unblocked stretch of track to give runners a chance to get up to speed. So when, for example, a heat of the men’s 110m hurdles begins, the athletes will hurtle down the first 45 feet of track before reaching the first hurdle, which they will hurdle.
One possible mnemonic is to connect the t in hurtle with the first letter in travel.
Most of us don’t get many opportunities to use either of these words, but when we do, we’d better pick the right one. An error in this case would be very embarrassing . . . and possibly hilarious.
Scatology — from the Greek root meaning “excrement” combined with that old “study of” suffix -ology — has absolutely nothing to do with jazz “scat singing” (though what a wonderful opportunity for a malaprop that is!). In a clinical or scientific situation, scatology can simply mean the study and/or analysis of fecal material. More often, though, it is used metaphorically to refer to an interest in or treatment of obscenities. For example, the scatological humor of South Park has dropped a load of both cash and notoriety on its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Eschatology is completely different. From the Greek eschatos “last, farthest,” eschatology is a doctrine about or the study of the ultimate end of things, which could mean death in general (which falls under the more specific heading of thanatology), the end of mankind, or the destruction of the Earth.
For a simultaneous (and probably unhealthy) dose of both scatological and eschatological humor, check out Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s movie This Is The End.
Better yet, don’t.
Torturous — causing or feeling like torture — is relatively easy to remember because its root — torture — is right in there.
Tortuous can be a bit tougher because many things that can be described as tortuous can also be described as torturous, such as the lines to get through airport security or the paperwork for buying a house. Tortuous, from the Latin tortus “twist,” means “winding, circuitous, or overly involved.” To remember, you might try to think of that –uou– combination as a U-turn on either side of a roundabout.
Being a good copy editor doesn’t mean you must be able to accurately produce the correct one of these ten words on cue. It means you must remember that these distinctions exist and then crack open your dictionary as needed to ensure you make the right choice.