The Language Perfectionist: Confusables, Redux

When I studied French in high school, we were taught the phrase faux amis, or “false friends.” The expression refers to foreign-language words whose meanings you think you know but which can lead you astray if you’re not careful.

A similar phenomenon occurs in English, as demonstrated by the many pairs of “confusables” regularly featured in this column. Here’s a fresh batch of examples from the media:

    • “The godfather of punk rock delivers an enervating, ecstatic set in the San Francisco of 1981, channeling the raw power and utterly maniacal energy for which he was known.”

It’s tempting to assume that enervate means to energize, excite, invigorate. In fact, it means the opposite: to weaken, tire, or fatigue. Clearly, however, that’s not the intended meaning of this music critic.

  • “The impact with the truck caused the car to careen off the road, into an electrical pole.”

To careen is to lean or tilt while in motion. To move rapidly and wildly is to career, which is what the car is very likely doing in this case.

  • “The moment Scott Brown won the special election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, he was asked about presidential ambitions. He had the good sense to demure, but….”

The correct verb here is demur, which means to object or take exception. The adjective demure means shy, modest, or coy.

  • “Luckily, enough family and neighbors ran forward to coral the horses and tie them at a safe distance.”

An enclosure for horses is a corral, and the verb to corral indicates the process of driving them there. On the other hand, coral is a colorful organism found in tropical waters.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]