I love the English language. I love our words, their convolutions and quirkiness, their interesting edges, like jigsaw pieces. Foreigners must go crazy trying to sort out some of our really odd words. I love the way our language borrows from other languages, from all other languages, bringing words in and then shaping them to our needs. Sometimes, through ignorance, shaping them erroneously. The best example I can think of to show this is my old bugaboo about forte and forte. The first, pronounced “for-TAY,” is an adjective or adverb, from Italian, and is restricted to music, telling the musician to play it or sing it “loud.” The second, pronounced “fort,” is a noun from Old French to Middle English and basically means “strength” and by extension means something a person does particularly well. Curiously enough, it can also mean the strong point of a sword, from the hilt to the middle. And the counter word is foible, or weakness, specifically the weak point of a sword, from the middle to the tip. Note the similarity to “feeble” or weak. But to the point (not the foible), too many of our television sportscasters or news analysts now invariably speak of a person’s particular strength as his for-TAY. I just hate when that happens. We will soon lose the wonderful color and connotation of the two words, their histories coming from two different languages as we blend, even in error, these words into our language.
Two other similar words that cause confusion are discomfort and discomfit. We’re all fairly sure of our use of discomfort, usually as a noun meaning “unease” or “distress.” Discomfit causes us discomfort and we avoid it like the plague. Here it comes: it’s always a verb meaning to frustrate plans or outcomes, to thwart, to make uneasy or to confuse. And as you can see, if you discomfit someone, you’re going to cause them to feel discomfort.
Had enough? Nah. Let’s try torturous and tortuous. The more common one, torturous, is an adjective that means “full of pain or anguish.” And tortuous is an adjective that means “full of twists or turns, crooked, devious, deceitful, or tricky.”
Two sets of words that are often misused, mainly because one is real and one is false, not even a word. George W. is the most prominent guilty party, the one who most loved to talk about nucular weapons (no such word) instead of nuclear weapons (all too real). He should have known better, which must say something about either his ignorance or his stubbornness. Then there’s memento and momento. A memento is related to memory, a thing that serves as a reminder or warning, or, more commonly, a souvenir. But consider this Latin phrase: memento mori, any reminder of death. The common mistake is to think this word is momento (no such word). Misusers must first think of something that’s momentous (which is a word), or very important, and go on to a thing that must be important, or a momento (still, no such word).
On a different tack, look at see and watch. We all tend to "watch" television and go to "see" a movie. We don’t see television nor do we watch a movie, at least not in a theater. We might, though, watch a movie on television. Now notice the slipperiness of “We saw an approaching storm” and “We watched an approaching storm.” Which one is one single moment in time and which one implies time passing?
Those poor people trying to learn the vagaries of English. Let them consider our many different meanings of up and down. Let them try to get a handle on got.