or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Two of a Kind

Two of the websites I was reading this morning used the same word, or meant to: one of them made the correct choice and one didn't, because the word is actually two words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same, with slightly related but ultimately different meanings. So: which is right and which is wrong?

First, from BoingBoing, this excerpt from an excerpt from a new novel, "City of Saints and Madmen":

The trickle of red from the scalp that winds its way down the cheek, to puddle next to the clenched hand, is as harmless now, leached of threat, as if it were colored water.

Second, from Salon.com's Broadsheet blog, here's the first sentence from a piece about feminism and religion:

For those of you looking to leech the patriarchy out of your Bible studies, Broadsheet presents Phyllis Trible, a feminist theologian profiled this weekend in the Winston-Salem Journal.

Two metaphors, one leach, one leech, one error, and it belongs to Rebecca Traister of Broadsheet. The verb "leech" means "to drain the essence out of", and is obviously derived from the bloodsucking creature of the same name. The verb "leach", on the other hand, means "to empty or drain", a metaphorical extension of an earlier (and still existing) sense, "to remove through the action of percolating liquid", as when nutrients are leached from soil. As I said, slightly related meanings: they sound like they ought to be interchangeable, but they aren't. "Leach" is neutral: it simply means "extract". "Leech", on the other hand, has a strongly negative connotation; it inevitably suggests a parasitic attachment to someone or something, as when a useless relative leeches off you.

It is, I suppose, an easy mistake to make, but it shouldn't wind up in published, professional writing, which is what editors are for.


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