or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, April 09, 2005


Very often in English, one word will serve as two or more parts of speech without any surface change, which makes possible such smart little puns as this line from Snidely Whiplash:

"You'll never get her back! Or any other part of her!"

But sometimes you'll have two words, often different parts of speech, that are spelled slightly differently; perhaps they come from two different sources, perhaps they stem from the same word but parted company in the past, or perhaps they just happen to have a surface similarity. These words create the spelling and usage traps that so many people have trouble avoiding. One of those traps is the pair of words "loathe" and "loath" (sometimes spelled "loth", just to make things even more complicated for the unwary)--and to make things even more confusing, the words are sometimes pronounced in the same way. They're distantly related, but their meanings diverged a long time ago.

"Loathe" is a transitive verb. It's invariably pronounced with a soft "-th" sound (it rhymes with "clothe"). It means "to despise". "Loath", on the other hand, is an adjective meaning "unwilling or reluctant". At least some of the trouble arises from inconsistent pronunciation; it generally has a hard "-th" sound (rhyming with "both"), but sometimes it's heard sounding exactly like its cousin "loathe".

One of the first rules children learn is that adding an "-e" to a word lengthens the vowel (Sam/same, pet/Pete, writ/write, lop/lope, cub/cube, and so on endlessly); this is also generally true of words ending in "-th", and the "-e" also has the effect of softening the "-th" sound (breath/breathe, lath/lathe, cloth/clothe, and so forth) "Loath/loathe" is an exception to the first half of this rule--both forms have a long vowel sound. ("Sheath" and "sheathe" form another exception.)

I think it's this lack of a vowel change which leads to the spelling confusion. If you Google "I am loathe" and "I loath", you'll see a great many people using the words incorrectly. They're not interchangeable; not yet, not while I'm around.


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