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Commonly Confused Words: Ship’s Carpenter Edition

September 16, 2022 by ProofreadingPal in Grammar

While proofreading a client project last month, I ran across a phrase I had never encountered before: “offer times,” as in, “Patients who lack resources offer times are unable to access the care they need.” I stared at that sentence, puzzled, for a good thirty seconds before it clicked: the word the client needed was “oftentimes.”

This kind of unintentional wordplay, sometimes called an eggcorn, comes from mishearing or mixing up similar-sounding words. And it reminded me that it is once again time for me to offer a few tips for distinguishing between commonly confused words.

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Vise vs. Vice

Our first example takes a few twists in more ways than one. Originally a vice, with a “c,” meant something immoral or obscene. It is in this latter sense that the word was used in law enforcement: the vice squad handled cases involving sex trafficking or pornography. (This use has been largely phased out in modern policing, replaced by terms like “special victims unit.”) The term is also applied to personal flaws, whether obnoxious personality characteristics (e.g., the vice of hypocrisy) or self-destructive behaviors like gambling and substance abuse. The word derives from the Latin vitium, meaning a disability or weakness.

A vise, with an “s,” is a clamping tool you might find mounted on a workbench, consisting of two metal jaws that open or close when a handle is cranked. A similar mechanism is used in vise grips, specialized locking pliers tightened by turning a thumbscrew. This word also derives from Latin, in this case vitis, meaning “vine,” presumably because the spiral screw that widens the jaws is reminiscent of vines twining around a column.

Homophones with unrelated roots, vice and vise both entered the language during the Middle English period, and people started confusing the former for the latter almost immediately, especially when speaking metaphorically about holding strength.

Ex: His hand clutched my arm in vise grip.

Ex. She kept a vise-like hold on the gun.

Ex. The big man had a handshake like a vise.

In all these examples, the “s” spelling is plainly correct in context, but over time, the “c” spelling has overtaken it. A Google search for “vice-like grip” returned five times as many hits as one for “vise-like grip.” What’s going on here?

This is, I think, an eggcorn in the classic sense. There’s a sort of poetic logic at play: A bad habit or addiction, which is one sense of vice with a “c,” can be extremely hard to shake. Indeed, it is commonly said that person is “in the grips of” on addiction, or that an addiction “has a hold” on them; their vice has them in a vise, so to speak. So it makes a sort of intuitive sense to conflate the two words.

And indeed, that conflation has become formalized in some countries. Despite the fact that the words are etymologically unrelated and have distinct meanings, most British dictionaries and style guides now use vice with a “c” for the clamping tool as well as for the personal failing, listing the “s” spelling for the former only as a variant. American dictionaries are holding the line, for now, but they too will likely cave in time.

The prescriptivist part of me finds this a little sad. The top goal of almost all writing is clarity, and when you have two unrelated words with radically different meanings, using the same spelling for both only invites confusion.

Chantey vs. Shanty

The same principle holds for our next example. You may remember a moment in early 2021 when there was brief vogue on TikTok for songs about ocean voyages and whaling expeditions, sung in manly baritones by ruggedly handsome guys in cable-knit sweaters. A rousing tune like “The Wellerman” falls into the genre of a sea shanty.

Or at least it does now. Originally, and perhaps still, depending on your favored dictionary, the word for a work song used to set the pace for a shipboard task was spelled “chantey,” from the French verb “chanter” (shon-TAY), meaning “to sing.” This same French verb is also the source of the English “chant.”

“Shanty” is word in its own right, meaning a crude or temporary dwelling usually made of scrap wood. A collection of shanties is a shanty town or shantytown, such as are found near urban areas in the developing world. Examples of shantytowns include the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the townships of South Africa. Shanty in the sense of a dwelling is also from the French, the unrelated noun chantier (shon-tee-YAY), meaning “construction site.”

The two words are unrelated either in origin or meaning, although you could, in theory, hang around your shanty singing a chantey, and so it only makes sense to use unique spellings. But alas! Dictionaries are increasingly relating “chantey” to variant status, robbing English of a perfectly useful word with a highly specific definition.

Shifts in the language happen very slowly, of course. I imagine “chantey” (and “vise,” for that matter) will still be listed in dictionaries a hundred years from now, perhaps with the parenthetical note “old-fashioned.” But consolidation is definitely in the wind. My advice is that if you want to spell these words differently according to their meaning, you’d better do it now, while you still have the option.

Jack F.

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