I'm more interested in uncommon misspelled words — words that are rarely used but easily misspelled. The following six cases are not-so-commonly used pairs of words that are related etymologically and are spelled nearly identically.
These are the words that even the best editors and proofreaders have to look up while they work.
marinate, marinadeAs long as you remember that the verb and noun forms of these words are different, this is the easiest of the bunch. That -ate ending on marinate calls it out as a verb, like formulate, deviate, and obfuscate.
Marinate, then, is the verb. It's what you do when you let your chicken breasts soak in marinade — the noun meaning a savory and usually acidic sauce — overnight. Both probably come from the Italian marinare, "to marinate," though marinade went through French (mariner, to pickle) before entering English.
If you get the two confused, don't feel too bad. Marinade has been (mis)used as a verb as well for quite some time, long enough to get its own entry in Merriam-Webster's. But marinate is better as a verb, and it's never a noun.
Exactly how you pronounce marinade (does it end with an aid or an odd?) is between you, your grandmother, and Martha Stewart.
mucus, mucousThese are both gross. Both stem from the Latin mucus, which arrived unchanged into our language as a noun meaning "snot."
Mucous, the adjective form, came from mucosus, the Latin adjective derived from the noun.
Like marinade/marinate, if you find the word and can remember that there are two homophones, you can work out which is the adjective and which the noun. That -ous ending marks mucous as the adjective, leaving mucus as the noun: Our adventurous adventure ended with a torturous torture involving a large pot of warm, mucous mucus.
propellant, propellentThese two words have been used interchangeably so often that dictionaries have essentially given up trying to keep them separate. Nonetheless, a glance at these words' suffixes should reveal that they are different parts of speech.
Propellant, the noun, is a substance that causes propulsion. The "usual" propellants are the pressurized gas in aerosol cans or the more explosive chemical propellants that shoot rockets into space.
Propellent (an antonym of repellent) is an adjective that describes something that is capable of propelling. Propellant is propellent.
Both words derive from Latin propellere: pro- "before" + pellere "to drive."
prophecy, prophesyDid you sense that this pair was coming?
A prophet has a prophecy — a noun. To tell that prophecy to others is to prophesy — a verb.
The pronunciation of these words differs by only the last syllable, which might have offered you a handy mnemonic to keep them straight.
Might have, but doesn't:
- The last syllable of the noun prophecy is pronounced like see (a verb) or sea (a noun).
- The last syllable of the verb prophesy is pronounced like sigh, which can be a verb or a noun.
saccharin, saccharineThe adjective saccharine has been around for over 300 years. It has journeyed from Sanskrit śarkarā, meaning both "gravel" and "sugar," through similar-sounding words in Prakrit, Greek, and Latin. It originally referred to something that was related to, resembled, or produced sugar.
But then in the late 1870s, Constantin Fahlberg, while working on something completely different, discovered he had created the crystalline compound C7H5NO3S, or benzoic sulfamide. This substance was 300 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, and before long it was being used as a substitute for sugar.
So what do you call something that is more saccharine than sugar? Saccharin, of course (without the e).
One drawback of saccharin, though, was that it also left a bitter or metallic aftertaste, especially if you used too much of it. As saccharin used became more widespread and common (especially during the sugar shortages of World War I), the adjective saccharine shifted by association. Instead of "like sugar," saccharine came to mean "like saccharin" — sickeningly sweet or cloying. It was then only a matter of time before the word came to be used metaphorically to mean "friendly in an ingratiating way" or "overly sentimental."
At any rate, the stuff in the pink packets has no e in its name. If you're describing the flavor of the stuff in the pink packets, you need the e. The two words are pronounced identically.
sarcophagus, sarcophagousMost people only ever use the first of these homophones, the noun sarcophagus. Anyone who's seen a vampire or zombie movie knows what a sarcophagus is. So linked is the word with the storage of the deceased that one might think its etymology must go back to a word that means death.
But you won't find a necro- or thanato- — the two most common roots that mean "death" — in sight. As it turns out, while there is death in a sarcophagus, there is no death in the word sarcophagus.
Both sarcaphagus and the adjective sarcophagous come from the Greek root sarc-, meaning "flesh" (think sarcoma), plus -phagous, "to eat." Sarkophagos originally referred to the limestone used in Greek coffins — it was literally "flesh-eating stone."
While sarcophagus is what we call a stone coffin today, sarcophagous stays closer to its roots. Something that is sarcophagous (or sarcophagic) is flesh-eating. Like maggots, for example. Or mothers-in-law.