So last week it was teddies, this week it’s bears. One subject we tend to hold back from mentioning on HH is confusing and confusable words. That’s largely because doing so tends to open up not so much a can of worms, but a more a shipping container of worms.
Can you, for instance, use literally to mean “figuratively”? Some dictionaries say yes. Some dictionaries say no. Some style guides say absolutely not, no, never, and in no universe that ever has or will ever exist. Are disinterested and uninterested synonyms? Is irregardless a word? Does it really matter that the sign reads “10 items or less” instead of “10 items or fewer”? The answer to that, of course, is that what really matters is that the person in front of you has 11 items, one of which doesn’t have a barcode on and now look—THEY’RE HOLDING EVERYONE UP.
But we digress. Sooner or later HH had to broach this subject, and that’s precisely where we went with this week’s video. Stationery vs. stationary. Prescribe vs. proscribe. Loathe vs. loath. The meanings and origins of 10 pairs of confused and misused words are explored here:
English being what it is, of course, cutting this list down to just 10 entries was easier said that done. Troublesome pairs like affect and effect, averse and adverse, complacent and complaisant, and elicit and illicit all failed to make the cut—while another pair of words that just missed out on the shortlist had us thinking about one of HH’s more peculiar language facts:
Let’s start with the second of those first. Nowadays, we tend to use the adjective grisly to mean “frightful” or “gruesome”, but its original meaning was much stronger: when it first emerged in the language in the Middle English period, it meant “horrifying” or “soul-quaking”, and typically referred to the kind of feelings or responses you might have if you witnessed something truly unnerving, or else supernatural or demonic. In that sense, the word itself derives from an earlier verb, grise, which meant “to tremble with fright”, and probably has its origins in an ancient Germanic word meaning “shudder” or “fear”.
Despite any similarity, however, grizzly is entirely unrelated. It derives from grizzle, a fourteenth century word for grey hair, which in turn has its roots in the French word for “grey”, gris.
But grizzly bears are quite literally “brown bears”, not grey—so where did that name come from?
One theory is that the name grizzly could refer to the greyish sheen the bears’ fur sometimes appears to have (in fact, silver-tip is another old name for what we’d now call a brown bear). Another theory is that it might be a figurative reference to the use of the word grizzle as another name for an old man—which might make the grizzly bear essentially “the old man of the woods”. Or else it could just be a genuine mix-up; perhaps when they were first described as such in the early 1800s, the original grizzly bears were actually intended to be grisly bears, but confusion between the two led to the creatures seemingly being misnamed.
Confusion between confusing words, it seems, is nothing new.