Clean vs. cleanse

The verbs clean and cleanse share the definition to remove dirt or filth from. But clean is more often used literally. For example, you clean the floor, the dishes, and your hair. Cleanse, meanwhile, is more often figurative. For example, you might cleanse your soul by confessing your sins, or you might cleanse yourself of a bad memory by replacing it with good ones. Cleanse has two other meanings it does not share with clean: (1) to remove a group of people from an area, and (2) to rid one's … [Read more...]

Distinct vs. distinctive

Something that is distinct is (1) easily distinguishable from other things, (2) discrete, or (3) easy to see. Something that is distinctive is an identifying or unique feature of something else—for example, the distinctive leaves of the oak tree, or the distinctive voice of Bob Dylan. This is the traditional definition of distinctive, anyway. It is often used in place of distinct, especially in the latter's first sense. Examples Sky-high TV ratings and well-honed messages give presidential … [Read more...]


Lubber is an old word (dating from the 14th century) meaning a clumsy or stupid person.1 This is its sense in the sailing term landlubber, which refers to an unseasoned sailor. The word alludes to what veteran sailors regard as new sailors' distinctive ineptitude at sea. See this passage from Herman Melville's Omoo (1846):   Now, nobody is so heartily despised as a pusillanimous, lazy, good-for-nothing land-lubber; a sailor has no bowels of compassion for him. Yet, useless as such a character … [Read more...]

Esprit de corps

Esprit de corps (not esprit du corps) is French for spirit of body. Body here refers not to the human body but rather to a body of multiple people---for example, a military unit, a business, or a sports team. To have esprit de corps is to have high regard and pride for the body to which one belongs. The expression has a long history in French, and it has been in English for a long time as well, with the first documented instances appearing in the second half of the 18th century.1 It was and … [Read more...]

Gargle vs. gurgle

To gargle is to pass air through liquid suspended in the back of the throat, usually for hygienic or therapeutic purposes. The word is also used as a noun for a liquid that is used to gargle, and it is used figuratively to describe sounds that resemble gargling. It is in this figurative sense that gargle comes close to gurgle, which means (1) to flow in an irregular current, and (2) to make a noise resembling liquid flowing in an irregular current. But the words are easy to keep separate if you … [Read more...]


Lieutenant is the only spelling of the word denoting a second in charge, a deputy, or a rank in the armed forces and (in the United States) police services. The spelling is the same in all varieties of English, regardless of pronunciation. Confusion sometimes arises because, in the U.S., the word is routinely said "lootenant" (or sometimes "lyootenant"), while in the United Kingdom and other countries of the British Commonwealth the preferred pronunciation is "leftenant." The "American" … [Read more...]

Savoir faire

Savoir faire is French for to know how to do. In English, we use it as a noun referring to the ability to do the right or appropriate thing in any situation. A person with savoir faire has admirable confidence and poise in social situations of all kinds. There is no exact English equivalent to savoir faire, which is why it survives in the language, but social grace, diplomacy, and tact come close. The term is sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not. There is no universal standard for this, and … [Read more...]


For several centuries, the primary definition of enervate was to weaken or to sap of energy or will. In current usage, however, it is often used as a synonym of energize---almost the opposite of its older sense. Many people understandably consider the older sense the only correct one, and careful writers and editors continue to keep it alive, but this might not be enough to stop the spread of the word in its newer sense. Related Enervate vs. innervate Enervate comes from the Latin … [Read more...]

Vice president (capitalization and hyphenation)

Vice President is usually capitalized when it is a title that comes immediately before the name of the vice president of a country—e.g., Vice President Biden. When it is a title that applies to other types of vice presidents (e.g., vice presidents of companies and universities), it is rarely capitalized in edited publications, but it is often capitalized in the official documents of companies, universities, etc. It is also capitalized when it is part of an official job title---e.g., Vice … [Read more...]

Parricide vs. patricide

The nouns parricide and patricide share the definitions (1) the murder of one's father, and (2) a person who murders his or her father. But parricide is sometimes used more generally, referring to the murder of one's mother, grandparent, or other close relative. Both words came to English around the 16th century, and both have Latin roots. Pater is the Latin word for father, and -cide is a Latin suffix meaning slayer or murderer. Parricide, which comes to English via French from the Latin … [Read more...]

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