7 Similar but Distinct Word Pairs

This post, by Mark Nichol, originally appeared on Daily Writing Tips.

Look-alike, sound-alike words can cause confusion. Note the distinctions between each pair of terms listed below:

1. Abjure and Adjure

Abjure, from Latin by way of French, means “to deny” or “to renounce,” or “to avoid.” Adjure, which took the same route to English, means “to confirm” or “to command,” or “to advise or urge.” In some senses, therefore, they are near antonyms. (That’s logical: Ab- means “from” and ad- means “to.”) However, they do share a root syllable, the same one that is the basis of jury, jurisprudence, just, justice, and other terms from the realm of law.

2. Chafe and Chaff

Chafe, ultimately derived from the Latin term calefacere, “to make warm or hot,” originally meant just that, but then, from the added sense of “rubbing to make warm,” it acquired the negative connotations of “make sore by rubbing” and then, by association, “irritate.” Chaff, an unrelated word, comes from Old English and refers to seed husks and, by extension, anything discarded as worthless. By association with the cloud of husks and other debris produced during threshing of grain, bursts of tiny scraps of metal ejected from aircraft to interfere with enemy radar is called chaff.

3. Discomfort and Discomfit

These similar-looking words have similar meanings, but it was not always so. Discomfort is the antonym of the word ultimately stemming from the Latin term confortare, meaning “to strengthen.” (Fort is also the root of, well, fort, as well as fortitude.) Discomfit, from the French word desconfit, meaning “defeated” (its Latin root means “to make”), was weakened by false association with discomfort to mean “frustrate” or “perplex.” Unlike the antonym for discomfort, comfit (“to make”) is not an antonym; it refers to candied fruit. Comfiture, however, is a rare synonym meaning “an act of support.”


Read the rest of the post, which includes four more word pairs, on Daily Writing Tips.

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