Sunday, November 14, 2021


Zoë Sharp


It comes as no surprise to those who know me that I love playing with words. My dictionary is falling apart and decorated with Post-It notes of words that would make great titles, names, or just ones I love the sound or shape of. Looking up anything always takes me longer than I expect because I get very easily side-tracked. I collect weird meanings and derivations of unusual words and phrases.


But it’s not just unusual words that fascinate me. I love common words with unusual meanings, or slight difference in spellings that change everything. (A while ago, I was sent an email imploring me to sign a partition.) When I started making a note of some words that caught my eye for this post, I quickly filled pages of notes, and then had to force myself to stop. Here are some of my favourites, in no particular order.



In UK English, we have both practice and practise—noun and verb. So, you could be practising your backhand during tennis practice.


And although in UK English we would ask someone to use their best judgement when making a decision, if the context referred to British legal proceedings, the spelling would be judgment, as in US English.


One that often seems to cause confusion is callous, meaning to be insensitive or to have a cruel disregard for others, and can also mean hardened and thickened, but callus particularly means a thickening, or a hard thickened area, of skin or bark. So, someone might have either callous hands, or callused hands—or even callous, callused hands—but the meanings would be very different!


While androgynous means having both male and female characteristics, androgenous means having only male offspring.


Everyone knows what angry means, but angary is a legal term meaning a belligerent’s right to seize and use neutral or other property, subject to compensation.


Pursue means to harass or persecute—or, in Scots law, to prosecute—and Spenser spelt it pursew with the same meaning. But written persue, it is not only another alternative spelling, but also means a track of blood. (Spenser again) from the act of piercing.


Consent might be to agree or comply, but concent is a harmony of sounds or voices.


The meaning of blanket is familiar, but blanquet is a variety of pear, blanquette is a ragout of chicken or veal made with a white sauce, and bloncket means grey. (That bloke Spenser gets everywhere.)


lake is not only a body of water, but also a small stream or channel, or a reddish pigment made from combining a dye with metallic hydroxide to give the colour carmine. Spell it laik and it becomes a Northern English term meaning to sport or play, or be unemployed, and lakh means the number 100,000 in India and Pakistan, especially when referring to rupees, or an infinitely vast number.


While a block is a mass of stone or wood, a bloc is a combination of parties, nations, or other units to achieve a common purpose.


One that always used to confuse me as a kid was the difference between demure, meaning chaste or modest, and demur meaning to object or hesitate.


And I know for a fact I’ve accidentally mixed up defuse, to take the fuse out of a bomb or, according to Shakespeare (and what did he know?) to disorder, with diffuse, meaning widely spread or wordy, or also to pour out all around; to scatter.

clue might be anything that points to the solution to a mystery, but it’s derived from clew, being the ball of thread that guided Ariadne through the labyrinth, as well as being the lower corner of a sail, or one of the cords by which a hammock is suspended.


To be discreet means to be careful of intentionally unobtrusive, but discrete means distinct or unconnected.


Another I keep coming across in my recent reading is reign, meaning to rule, being used in the context of somebody being given a free hand to do as they like. I can see how this might seem logical, but it should relate to horse riding rather than the monarchy, as in to be given free rein. Not to be confused with wet rain falling from the clouds, or the US gender-neutral name Rayne, meaning abundant blessings from above.


And this is before we get to the words with one spelling but lots of different meanings...



To smirkle means to assume a facial expression somewhere between pleasure and sarcasm, followed by laughter; an emotional response to an idiotic question; a dance move in Revenge of the Nerds; a gag reflex to a noxious odour, and also to pilfer or steal.


Swanky can be used as a compliment for something that’s strikingly fashionable or luxurious, but it can also mean to be overly ostentatious, or using one’s wealth, knowledge or achievements to try to impress others. In Scots, swanky means an active or clever young fellow, one who is tall but lank, or to be empty or hungry. Whereas swank is a Scots word meaning slender, pliant, agile, or supple.

Pernicious means both destructive and highly injurious, but also (according to Milton) swift, ready and prompt.


tent could be a portable canvas shelter, an embroidery or tapestry frame, a plug or roll of soft material for dilating a wound, or the Scots word for taking heed or notice of.


rabble could be a disorderly mob, but also a device for stirring molten iron etc in a furnace.


To cleave is both to split apart and to join together.


race is the descendants of a common ancestor, a fixed course or track over which anything runs, the white streak down an animal’s face, a rootstock of ginger (Shakespeare) to raze or erase, or to tear away or snatch. (Both Spenser. He just made them up as he felt like it, didn’t he?)


One of my pet hates is the word feisty, used to mean tough, independent, or spirited—usually about a heroine. It can also mean lively and aggressive. However, originally feisty mean either a small, excitable, yappy dog, or to be flatulent. Not the kind of characteristic I particularly want to be associated with Charlie Fox


Anyway, there are LOTS of others, so what are your favourites, folks? And what’s the best accidental misuse of a word you’ve ever come across?


No Word of the Week this week. I think I’ve used quite enough, don’t you?


  1. A reader once took us to task for a character getting their "just deserts" - pointing out that deserts should be spelt desserts (as in the dinner course) since it is pronounced that way. So "deserts" has always been a favourite of mine.

    1. I have been taken to task for a character having 'another think coming' which is actually correct, although people usually believe it should be 'another thing coming'.

  2. It seems to me that your frequent reference to Scottish meanings is unfair, as Scottish is a discrete language, all its own, that only a callous or pernicious person would practise in pubic. Er... public. He said, with a smirkle.

    1. Bravo, EvKa. You win the prize for most words crammed into a comment!

    2. And I have just been looking up Glaswegian slang in particular. I think I should just consult the expert -- Caro!

  3. Decades ago, there was someone who had a daily "made-up words" thing in newspapers, that were then collected into a book or two. The one that has always stuck in my memory is 'cinemuck', that sticky, gooey coating on the floors of movie theaters.

  4. Yeah, what the hell IS that on movie theater floors?

  5. Lovely article, Zoë! I like the creative process diagram. So accurate!

    1. Thanks, Kwei. It's certainly following my creative process fairly accurately at the moment, lol!

  6. Hi Stan. Oh, those are lovely words, but there's a whole series of them were a letter is either substituted or added. A couple of my favourites are osteoporNosis, which is a degenerate disease, and Testiculate, which is to wave your arms around whilst talking bollocks...

  7. Hi EvKa. The Uxbridge English Dictionary, which was introduced on a long-running BBC Radio 4 comedy programme, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, has wonderful alternative meanings for words, such as 'cardiology: the study of knitwear'. And Douglas Adams produced The Meaning Of Liff, which gave definitions to place names, such as 'Grimbister: a group of cars on a motorway all travelling at exactly the speed limit because one of them is a police car.'

  8. Your guess is as good as mine, Kwei. Possibly popcorn residue, but I wouldn't taste it to find out!

  9. PS, Stan. Did you notice my ironic and, ahem, deliberate mistake of missing out a letter in the word 'where' while discussing adding extraneous letters to other words? (At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it...)

  10. Add my love to the creative process flow chart.

    As for my most memorable run-in with an accidentally misused word, it occurred back in my lawyering days in an affidavit submitted by an adversary in a hotly contentious divorce action when Husband argued that his Wife's claims should not be believed, because "Wife is driven by disparate values I do not share."

    In her response, Wife stated how pleased she was to learn that Husband had finally come around to accepting that the parties possessed irreconcilable differences.

    VIVA la desperate.

    1. I love that story, Jeff. Reminds me of a friend who was taken to task for a misplaced aphostrophe in a newsletter she sent out, by someone who, having pointed out the error, explained that he was a strict 'grammerian'. She very politely did not point out his typo...

  11. I have to admit that it sipped passed me.

  12. What fun, Zoe! Being a terrible speller and a worse proofreader, I have had to develop ways to avoid embarrassment. Often, even when I know the right thing, my dyslexic eyes don’t see the mistake when I am trying to clean up that my text. I learned, for instance, how to keep desert and dessert straight by thinking that of desserts I would gladly have two, but of deserts, one would be enough. Typos are my downfall. I once wrote an article for a magazine in which “now“ appeared we are “not“ should have been. The sentence came out “this service is now available to the general public.“ Thousands and thousands of telephone calls came in to my employer asking for something they did NOT want to give away.

    1. Ooh dear, that's a small but vital change of letter. I sympathise entirely. They reckon a good trick when proofreading is to completely change the font before you make your final pass over a document. It looks so different that you tend to spot things you might not otherwise have seen.