We all stumble harmlessly over our words occasionally, especially after a few lunchtime whiskies. Less forgivably, however, we sometimes choose the wrong words even when sober, particularly when two similar words have different – and perhaps completely opposite – meanings. In time, if the mistake is repeated often enough, the distinction between words can – unhelpfully – be lost. Even dictionaries give up fighting and describe words that once had separate meanings as synonyms. We’ve gathered together a few of the more common word-pairs where a distinction that once existed is rapidly becoming lost or misunderstood, even among professional writers:
Nauseous/Nauseated: The original distinction was helpful…and huge. That which was “nauseous” caused people to feel ill. When you felt ill, you were “nauseated”. So to say you felt nauseous meant you were physically repellent to other people. Now that’s probably not what you meant….
Empathy/Sympathy: Empathy allows you to imagine yourself in another person’s position and therefore to understand, at least to a point, their feelings. Sympathy is to feel sorrow or pity for someone, although you might not actually be able to relate to how they feel. “I easily felt empathy with Kenny Biggs when he passed his driving test, as I had passed my own test only a week earlier. I felt sympathy when Kenny immediately crashed his car, although I have never crashed a car myself.”
Imply/Infer: A classic of confusion and distinction. To imply means to indicate an idea or a feeling without directly stating the point. To infer means to reach a conclusion that has not been directly stated. “Terry’s wink implied Kenny had stolen the car. Arthur inferred from Terry’s wink that Kenny had stolen the car.”
Deny/Refute: Another example of words now commonly considered synonymous, where once a distinction was clear. Again, the distinction was very helpful, especially to crime reporters. To deny a rumour, for example, was merely to claim it to be untrue. To refute the rumour was to prove the point. “Kenny denied he had stolen the car from outside the house in Romford. He then refuted the allegation by proving he had been in Madrid at the time, stealing a Spanish car.”
Restaurateur/Restauranteur: A “restaurateur” is a person who owns and manages a restaurant. A “restauranteur” is a spelling mistake; there is no such word.