Monday, June 3, 2013

Vicious and Viscous

This is another one of those mix-ups that can cause hilarity, if you pay close attention.

Vicious means ferocious.

Viscous refers to a thick fluid, like molasses.

The snail, leaving behind a viscous trail, looked docile, but was in fact vicious: he bit me! (Somehow.)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Rack and Wrack

People! Stop "wracking" your brains! It sounds terribly painful. Actually, so does "racking" your brain. Read on...

Racking something is to stretch it out, as if it were on the medieval torture instrument seen here. You "rack your brain" to try to get information from it. It sounds like a terribly mean thing to do.

Wracking refers to disastrous accidents. Think of it as being similar to "wreck."

He's back...
I've been racking my brain trying to figure out how this lion got into the kitchen. Tonight's dinner has been wracked by his shenanigans.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Ambivalent and Indifferent

There is a lovely scene in Girl, Interrupted (one of my favorite movies) where Susanna tells her therapist that she is "ambivalent" about something. The therapist says that's interesting, because it's clear that Susanna means that she is indifferent, so the therapist corrects her (eliciting what appears to be an actually indifferent response).

Ambivalent means being pulled strongly in two different directions by an issue.

Indifferent means having no strong opinion about the issue one way or the other.
I'm ambivalent to the sheep invasion I'm witnessing (it is simultaneously adorable and terrifying) but I am indifferent to the reasons for it; I just don't care why it's happening.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


I heard, years ago, that the word "gyp" (pronounced "jip") was culturally insensitive. I stopped using it immediately.

According to the OED, gyp means (among other things):
(noun) U.S. slang for a thief.
(noun) A fraudulent action, or a swindle.
(verb) To cheat, trick, or swindle.

You probably already knew that. What you may not have known, however, is where it came from: the word gypsy. Which is no big deal, right? Well, actually, that group of people prefer to go by Rom (of which the plural is Roma or Romani).

Yes, like Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Romani historically have a reputation of being nomadic and staying in a town just long enough to trick everyone out of some money before moving on to the next town. This is, obviously, an unflattering stereotype, but  we still use gyp to describe this sort of behavior, so it unfortunately doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Insure and Ensure

I overpronounce these when saying them, as if to say, "I know which one I'm using. Really, I do."

To insure something is to guarantee that no loss or harm will come to it, usually by way of purchasing an insurance policy.

To ensure something is to make something certain or sure; to guarantee it.

As you can see, they're very similar. Really, to insure something is to ensure that it will be safe (or you will be provided with appropriate compensation in the unfortunate event that it meets some terrible end).

Ensure that you turn off the stove when you're finished cooking; our home isn't insured against fire damage.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


If you're anything like me, you think decimate sounds pretty detrimental. If a horde of orcs decimated the Shire, you'd expect the Shire to be pretty flattened and burned to the ground, with nearly all the hobbits dead, right?

Not under Gandalf's watch, you wouldn't.
But in reality, only one-tenth of the hobbits would be dead. You see, decimate means to kill, destroy, or remove one in every ten of something.

It also used to refer to tithing, because people were meant to give 10% to the church.

It can also mean to divide into tenths.

Decimate has the same root as decimal: deci- means ten, like how octo- means eight or tri- means three.

Let's get Kitchen Lion to help us out here:

The lion in the kitchen decimated the cabinets; there were ten, but now there are only nine. The tenth one was destroyed by the lion.

Thank you, Kitchen Lion!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Compliment and Complement

Both of these words indicate nice things,  but they do not mean the same thing.

A compliment is a nice thing to say to someone.

To complement something is to go well with it, perhaps bringing out the best in it.

I gave the hostess a compliment on the meal she had prepared, but the wine I brought didn't complement it at all.