Overcoming language “hurdles” and other confusing words

Published 4:21 pm Friday, March 29, 2024

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The other day I typed a word in Google Docs that I was confident was correct. But then the program indicated that it was actually wrong and suggested me another word instead. Immediately, I was a little skeptical – because Google Docs doesn’t always have the best track record in suggesting corrections to writing errors – so I turned to the Internet for verification first.

As it turns out, according to Merriam-Webster, Google Docs autocorrect was indeed right in this case, and I was wrong.

The words in question were “hurdling” and “hurtling.”

They’re quite similar. In fact, the two words are practically pronounced the same. But I’d forgotten that there are differences in meaning, and they’re not really interchangeable.

“Hurdle” is a word we often associate with Track and Field. Remember watching those Olympic athletes leap over obstacles on the track as they race to the finish line? That’s hurdling, the sport.

But the word can be used metaphorically too. For example, you could say you’re “hurdling adversity” when you have to overcome a lot of life obstacles standing in your way to success.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “hurdle” was used hundreds of years ago (earlier than the 12th century) to describe a set of portable panels that you could put around land and livestock. Those hurdles were literal obstacles, acting as barriers to keep things out or in! Over time, the sport we know today developed. And what better name would there be for a sport about jumping over barriers than “hurdling,” right?

(Also, a side note: the dictionary also noted that between the 15th and 19th centuries, “hurdle” was also used in England as the name of a sled that would drag traitors off to their executions. Oh no! Thankfully, that meaning is no longer in use today…)

The other word, “hurtle,” also invokes movement, but not necessarily by leaping over something in your path. The verb has two meanings: “to move rapidly or forcefully” and “to hurl or fling.”

Imagine, for example, you’re playing a fun little game of baseball with your friends in the neighborhood. You pick up the baseball and hurtle it towards home plate in an effort to keep the other team from scoring. But you’ve thrown it too hard that it misses the catcher’s mitt, and you can only watch helplessly as it hurtles right into a window, shattering it to pieces.

(Then, of course, the whole team starts hurdling over each other in a frantic effort to escape the scene of the crime before getting caught!)

What’s the lesson here? (Other than “be careful where you throw baseballs, metaphorical or otherwise” of course.) It’s that English is a confusing language, and switching one letter in a word can make a world of difference. Or the words can be so similar that it’s only nuance which separates them.

Here are a few more English words than can be easily mixed up, again from Merriam-Webster:

Accept/Except: this is another example of words that basically are pronounced the same but can’t be used interchangeably. “Accept” means to receive or take something willingly. “Except” is most often used as preposition (such as “everyone’s here except that guy”), but it can be a verb too. In that case, the meaning is “to leave out or exclude.” The dictionary notes that the verb “except” is mostly just used for legal texts.

How to remember the difference? Remember that “EXcept” means “EXcluding.” If you’re receiving something instead, that’s “accept.” I hope everyone accepts that explanation!

Lose/Loose: this is a pair that causes me to pause frequently when writing to make sure I didn’t accidentally switch them. “Lose” means to miss from one’s possession or to undergo defeat, while “loose” means not rigidly fastened or securely attached.

You can, for example, easily lose (misplace) your loose change, since it’s probably rattling around in your pockets, in your wallet, in your car’s cupholders, etc.

How to remember the difference? Imagine that “lose” misplaced one of its “o” vowels, which is why it only has one.

Peak/Peek/Pique: All three words sound exactly the same, but mixing them up will muddle the meaning of whatever you’re trying to say. “Peak” is for describing the top of something (such as a mountain peak or peak capacity). “Peek” is a quick look at something. And “pique” is to get excited by something (like when something “piques your interest”).

How to remember the difference? Since “peek” means looking at something, you can imagine the two e’s in the middle of this word as a set of watchful eyes. “Peak,” however, is spelled with an “a” which is at the top of the alphabet… just like a peak is at the top of a mountain.

Capital/Capitol: an easily-confused pair where the different meanings are still kind of related when used in reference to the government. “Capital” has many meanings, but the important one here is a city serving as a seat of government. “Capitol,” on the other hand, is a building in which the governing body meets.

Both are places, but one is particularly smaller than the other! You can blame Latin for the confusion, as capitol comes from “Capitolium” (the name of a specific Roman temple) and capital comes from “caput” (which translates to “head”).

How to remember the difference? Well, in my opinion, capitol buildings typically have very fancy architecture. If you go visit a capitol, you might say “Oh! How fancy!” as you look at it, and then you can remember that the word is spelled with an “o.”

These are only a few examples of words that are easy to mix up. I hope this information has piqued your interest to learn more. But if not, well… I hope that you at least don’t take this newspaper and hurtle it straight to the trashcan!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.