The Top 3 Most Easily Confused Word Pairs
If any CHP patrolman or Starbucks barista wrote this scene in a screenplay (everybody in California from San Luis Obispo to the Mexico border is writing a screenplay), even the 19-year-old Paramount Studios summer intern would groan at the desperate ploy for a laugh. It’s funny only if it’s truly accidental and innocent, as it was. And if you hear the story on a Saturday afternoon while wine tasting with a few friends in Sideways country east of Santa Barbara, as I did, you will snort the Pinot out your nostrils, as I also did. Although Nabokov once said there’s no such thing as a “true story,” this is a true story.
We find ourselves in the shoes of First Woman, who works for a big Public Relations firm in Los Angeles. Second Woman works for the same PR firm, and she needs constant reassuring that she’s okay, that she’s doing a good job, that she’s worthy, that she’s a good person. First Woman constantly reassures Second Woman that she’s okay, that she’s doing a good job, that she’s worthy, that she’s a good person. First Woman does this by telling Second Woman about her own shortcomings, how she even has out-of-date cottage cheese in her refrigerator. Oh my. This makes Second Woman feel much better, but it drains First Woman because it never stops. Finally, First Woman confides wide-eyed to Third Woman, “Whenever I’m around her, I totally exhaust myself. It’s driving me crazy that every time . . . .”
Let me pause here for just a moment to point out that the most dangerous of all English usage problems are word pairs that look and sound so much alike, they almost seem to be the same word, yet they’re not, and they have different meanings, sometimes radically different meanings. Three excellent examples:
A censor is a person who removes “harmful” words and images from books, letters, and films, like a Nazi librarian in 1938 Berlin; or a school board member who has never read Catcher in the Rye but is absolutely certain it has bad stuff in it. “Censor” can also be a verb to describe what this narrow-minded person does. But censure is “strong criticism” or “condemnation,” the kind we see when a Democrat demands a Republican’s head on a pewter plate. And there’s the verb version, to “blame” or “rebuke,” the kind we see where, instead of doing something, a Republican blames and rebukes a Democrat.
Incipient is an adjective that describes a thing at its “beginning” or in its “early stages.” We use it, for instance, to describe athlete’s foot that appears in but one toe crack. But insipient, although archaic (we rarely see it unless someone misspells “incipient,” which happens frequently), means “lacking wisdom,” or being “stupid” and “foolish.” I would like to start a campaign to resurrect this archaic word and keep it handy for when we need to describe the above censors, censures, and politicians.
A prerequisite is something “required as a condition,” but a perquisite is an “allowance” or “privilege” considered one’s “right” besides wages and salary, as in hot stone massages and $1,300 bottles of Roederer Cristal Rosé on company jets for certain bankers at certain publicly-bailed-out banks. The abbreviation for perquisites is “perks.”
You see what I mean? So close, yet not the same. Like a harmless scarlet king snake and a deadly coral snake. Now where were we? Oh, right. So First Woman is lamenting with Third Woman the constant need to reassure Second Woman’s fragile ego. She’s sick of it. “It’s driving me crazy," she says to Third Woman, "that every time I’m around her, I have to be so, so self-defecating.” Third Woman nods in sympathy. The two women stare at the floor, shaking their heads.