or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Distain is Bound for Glory

The trouble with spell-checkers is that they don’t know the difference between “they’re”, “there”, and “their”. (Grammar checkers aren’t much better, in my experience.)

This isn’t about typos. Any decent spell-checker can catch a typo. The trouble is that it’s not going to catch mistakes that look like words: it’ll get “teh”, but it won’t flag “that” where you meant to say “than” (a surprisingly common error).

I stumbled across “distain” on a website today. It looks like a misspelling or a variant of “disdain”, and my spell-checker (in Appleworks) doesn’t think it’s a real word. But it is! Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean “disdain” at all; it means “to stain or discolour” and, by extension, “to defile or besmirch”. The two words don’t even have the same root.

But if you Google “distain”, you’ll see it’s been used quite a few times--over 69,000--and almost always as if it meant “disdain” (which is how it was used on the website in question). Uh-oh. Does Microsoft’s spell-checker allow it? I can’t imagine why else it would be showing up so much.

It’s an easy mistake to make: “-sd-” isn’t a very common sound in English, and “disdain” is often pronounced identically with “distain”. (Likewise, “-sg-” is rare in English, and “disgusting” is often pronounced as if it were spelled “discusting”; it’s easier that way.) If I were to make a prediction, it would be that in twenty to fifty years, “distain” will simply be an alternate spelling for “disdain” and its current meaning will effectively vanish from the language, remaining only as a ghost. I don’t think losing “distain” will be a disaster for English.


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