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Commonly Confused Words: Lightning Round!

June 20, 2022 by ProofreadingPal in Grammar

Over the last few months, this blog has looked at how shifts in our language and culture can cause mix-ups in the meanings of words. This time, let’s dispense with the philosophical framework and plunge directly into some confounding pairs!

Lightning vs. Lightening

We might as well start here. These two share a common root in Middle English: the verb “lighten,” meaning “to become brighter or cause to become brighter, ” in other words, the opposite of “darken.” The present participle of “lighten” as a verb retains its “e” in modern English. The archaic form “lightning,” without the “e,” has become a noun referring to the atmospheric discharge of electricity from clouds.

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Ex. After one final flash of lightning, the rain clouds cleared and the sky began lightening.

Curiously, the verb form for the phenomenon of lightning remains “lighten,” though the form is rarely used in everyday writing.

Ex. The storm thundered and lightened for several hours.

Imply vs. Infer

These two are sort of mirror images.“Imply” means to suggest something without stating it outright; “infer” means to figure something out from context or evidence. Someone who implies is dropping a hint, while someone who infers is picking it up.

Ex. The Riddler’s note read, “What letter has a sting?implying that his next crime would involve the letter B. Based on this, the Batman inferred that the villain would hijack the B Train of the Gotham City subway.

“Imply” is also sometimes confused with “implicate.” Both words ultimately derive from the same root, the Latin verb implicare, meaning “to enfold,” but with subtle shades of difference. “Implicate” indicates not just a hint, but proof (or at least a strong suspicion) of direct involvement, often in a crime. The object of the verb has a different character, too; an abstract notion such as a fact or opinion can be implied, but implication falls upon an entity—a thing or animal or, most commonly, a person or group of people.

Ex. I don’t mean to imply that James is a bad person, but he was implicated in a string of robberies.

Hardy vs. Hearty

These soundalike words both invoke a sort of jolly, manly quality, so it’s not surprising they’re often mixed up. But their meanings are quite distinct, as we see when we remove the terminal Y, and see that their roots are “hard” and “heart,” respectively. “Hardy” thus describes someone tough or durable, characterized by strength and stamina, or conditions that require such toughness in constructions like “a hardy winter.”

“Hearty,” by contrast, means to express or cause emotional warmth, good cheer, or exuberance. A hearty welcome makes you feel good, in fact, so good that you might give a hearty cheer.

Ex. The hardy travelers endured a difficult journey, and were rewarded with a hearty meal.

Both adjectives might apply to the same person, of course; someone can be both physically sturdy and emotionally sincere (e.g., Fezzik from The Princess Bride).

Cachet vs. Caché vs. Cache

Lastly, for now: Here’s a three-for-one that points up how things can muddled when foreign terms are borrowed into English. “Cache,” with no diacritic, is pronounced the same as “cash” and derived from the French verb cacher, meaning “to hide [something].” It is used in English as a noun meaning a secure storage place or the contents thereof, and as a verb meaning to hoard or stockpile.

Ex. Susan kept a cache of Paul’s old love letters in the piano bench, tied with a red ribbon.

When we add the acute accent, we get caché (pronounced “ka-SHAY”), the past participle of the French verb “to hide.” In French, we would say Marguerite a caché l’argent (“Marguerite hid the money”), or Les diamants sont cachés (“The diamonds are hidden”).

But this form doesn’t exist in English! When borrowing cache into English as a verb, we use the standard English verb endings (–s, –ed, –ing), so the past participle cached has no accent mark and is pronounced in a single syllable, KASHT, just as you would pronounce “cashed.”

Ex. The spy cached his documents in a strongbox.

Ex. The leprechaun’s gold was cached in a hollow tree trunk.

A verb borrowed into English is conjugated like any other English verb; that’s natural enough. The real confusion, though, comes from the noun “cachet,” also pronounced “ka-SHAY.” Although they share a root, “cache” and “cachet” have had separate, very different meanings in French for almost 400 years. “Cachet” means a mark of distinction or an indicator of quality. Sometimes the mark is literal; stamp collectors, for instance, use “cachet” to mean a printed logo on stationery. But more often it is intangible: an air of prestige, or what we might colloquially call “class” or “swagger.” In this sense, it is always spelled with a T, never with an accented E.

Ex. Sergeant Jennifer single-handedly destroyed an enemy weapons cache, a feat that gave her a certain cachet among her fellow soldiers.

We’ll sign off on that note of distinction. The blog will return next month with more commonly confused word pairs. In the meantime, if there’s a distinction that always trips you up, let us know in the comments, and I’ll write an explanation in a future installment!

Jack F.

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