Shades of meaning

One of my colleagues was wondering the other day about the difference between “continuously” and “continually.”

“Continuously” refers to something that happens nonstop — without interruption — while “continually” is more appropriate for something that happens often, but with breaks in between. (Full disclosure: I had to look it up.)

This got me thinking about the subtle shades of meaning that pepper the English language. Just for the heck of it, I started jotting down words that express similar concepts, but with slightly different meanings.

Let me give you some examples. What’s the difference between the sets of words in the two columns below?

Brave                       Fearless
Engine                     Motor
Poison                     Toxin
War                          Battle
Money                     Currency
Font                         Typeface
Sprain                     Strain
Axe                          Hatchet
Shrub                      Bush
Ensure                    Insure
Refute                     Rebut
Application            Program
Rifle                         Shotgun
Missile                    Rocket
Emigrate                Immigrate
Serpent                   Snake

How many did you get? Were you surprised by how many of the terms seemed interchangeable? In case there were any stumpers in there, here are the answers:

A brave person may experience fear and act anyway, but a fearless person is, well, without fear.

An engine uses energy to create mechanical power. A motor does the same, but with the specific purpose of causing motion.

“Poison” covers a gamut of substances that could kill you, but “toxins” come only from natural sources such as microbes, animals and plants. (Yes, there are 100% organic toxins!)

“War” can be applied to many degrees of human conflict, but it generally implies a large-scale, prolonged encounter. “Battle,” on the other hand, connotes a more localized contest over a specific area.

The two are interchangeable today. But historically, “money” referred to the concept, while “currency” was the physical manifestation of that concept.

A font is the digital file that tells your computer how to display a typeface. The typeface is the actual physical design of the letters — the width of the serifs, for example, or the depth of the bowls.

A sprain is an injury to a ligament (the thick fibrous tissue that connects your bones). A strain, on the other hand, is an injury to the muscles or to the tendons that connect them. If you’re really uncoordinated — like me — you may simultaneously suffer both.

Paul Bunyan had an axe (long handle, good for felling trees), but the Vikings favored hatchets (smaller, with shorter handles, good for felling pretty much everything).

Both are defined as “woody plants with many stems,” but “bush” may be more appropriate for a single plant, whereas “shrub” may connote a series of plantings (similar to a hedge).

It’s important to ensure that you’re properly insured. Ensure means “to make sure.” Insure means “to protect against loss.” If you’re unsure whether it’s “ensure” or “insure,” try substituting these phrases instead.

If you refute someone’s argument, you’re completely disproving it. But if you rebut someone’s argument, you’re just voicing a different point of view. Hopefully without shouting.

These two are a matter of degree. An application is software that performs a specific, limited task. A program, on the other hand, is usually fairly complex, and is dependent on the computer’s operating system as a platform.

Rifles fire a single bullet, while shotguns fire a zillion little pellets.

Like “bush/shrub,” these two are a matter of connotation. They are technically interchangeable, but missiles usually contain weapons.

When you emigrate, you’re leaving. When you immigrate, you’re arriving — unless you get lost on the way.

Serpents have a bigger-than-life mythological and biblical reputation, whereas snakes merely live in your back yard.

You’re still reading? Wow. I salute your stamina.

Well, since you’ve stuck with me, here are four more:

Infer vs. Imply
Envy vs. Jealousy
Arrogance vs. Conceit
Simple vs. Easy



Text © Heather Munro.