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No fear of loathing

Nancy Friedman, whom you may know as @Fritinancy, tweets this morning: “Have seen 2 examples this morning of "loathe" (verb) where "loath" (adj.) is needed. Time to give up this fight?”

To the barricades, citizens!

Both are very old words in English.

Loath, or loth, meant “hostile” or “repugnant” or “ugly” at one time or another until the sense of “averse,” “reluctant,” “unwilling” became dominant. Chaucer uses this sense in describing the Wife of Bath. The OED’s earliest citation of loathe, for “to feel disgust,” is from The Destruction of Troy in 1400.

Though their etymologies differ—loath from various Germanic cognates for “sorrow,” “pain,” loathe from Germanic forms of “to hate”—the spellings switched back and forth until orthography became standardized. The pronunciations, while close, are not identical.

The spelling is the problem, and people’s tendency to confuse the spellings blurs an important differentiation.

To be loath to do something is relatively understated emotionally. It is the equivalent of Melville’s Bartleby saying, “I would prefer not to.”

But to loathe is of a much higher intensity. If I loathe something, I am not reluctant to express my sentiments. I dislike it. I more than dislike it. I detest it. I despise it! IT IS A STENCH IN MY NOSTRILS!*

The difference in emotional intensity is a difference in meaning, and an important one. It would be a loss to the language to lose that distinction merely because some people have trouble with their spelling.

I, for one, am holding firm. Who will stand with me?





Posted by John McIntyre at 10:57 AM | | Comments (20)


Aux barricades! I am with you, sir.

I am loath to admit this -- and I'm concerned doing so will cost me my membership card to the Word Nerd Club -- but this is one I did not know.

Thanks for teaching me something today.

When you post about the similarly confused "bath" and "bathe," I'll be there!

I too am with you. And I will fight all the harder thanks to the charming Bartleby reference. Huzzah!

@Amy: Worse yet, "breath" and "breathe" and (more obscure) "lath" and "lathe." Is this all at root a phonics problem?

If you'll retract that nonsense about throwing in the towel in the fistfight for the appropriate use of careen/career, then I'll be prepared to put down this cuppa and join you.

Actually, "loath" and "loathe" are etymologically from the same root; ultimately from Proto-Germanic *laiþo-. One of the prominent early senses of "loath" is 'hateful'. "Loathe" is a denominative verb formed from the noun/adjective "loath".

[That is, Proto-Germanic *laiþôjan "to hate", < *laiþo- "hateful". So Old English "láð" adjective (and also noun) meaning "hateful, unpleasant" (adj.) or "something hateful; evil; dislike" (noun), and Old English "láðian", originally 'to be hateful, to be displeasing' (intrans.) or 'to excite loathing or disgust in someone' (trans.), later (post-OE) 'to dislike, to hate (something/someone)'.]

Thank you, BeSlayed, for clarifying my bumbling attempt to pass through the etymological thicket in the OED for this entry.

Actually, that the two words come from a common root throws in relief the differentiation that has developed since 1400.

I would expect professional writers to know the distinction, or at least recall that there is a distinction, prompting them to get out their dictionaries.The hoi polloi may not use the two words often enough in writing to realize. Nevertheless, ignorance and laziness are not acceptable. I will stand with you but must rely on you to be the negotiator in any discourse with the barbarians.

As to the adjective: when writing to please myself, I make it "loth"; but when writing for others, I avoid it. "Unwilling" serves everyone better in prose, and rewording in headlines.

I'd be willing to bet that the answer to "Time to give this one up?" is often a function of whether the person being asked even knows the issue. People who don't know the distinction between "who" and "whom" are probably a great deal more ready to "give this one up" than those who do; same for "lie" and "lay". (Confusion about both of these is well represented even among the literate.)

We've seen recent discussion of similar pairs (premiere/premier, gantlet/gauntlet) where people who "should know better" apparently don't. Which does raise the question (not beg it <-- there's another) of whether there's even much left to fight about. If ordinary readers and writers don't know these distinctions, who are we fighting for?

Yes, if it must be used, let's get it right.

Some years ago, while reading The Economist, I had to look up a new word, loath. That blasted paper usually does that to me. So I was aware of the existence of the other loathe. However, thanks to your explanation, now I know how to tell them apart: when in doubt, I would prefer not to add the final e. Thanks.

Off topic, but the use of the phrase "the hoi polloi" in Kem White's comment makes me wonder, is an English article necessary when using a foreign phrase that includes the article in the phrase itself? "The El Niño," to give another example, always looks wrong to me.

As a member of the hoi polloi, the base canaille, the vulgar plebs, I take my lead in this matter from Sir W S Gilbert, the members of the House of Peers, and the citizens of Faerie. If they can use the definite article, then so will I.

I really liked Linda's question. Not that I have the answer but because it gave me an excuse to get out my dictionary. Since I don't have the answer (nary a clue), all I can do is quote part of the usage note in my AHD4:

"Since the Greek phrase includes an article some critics have argued that the phrase the hoi polloi is redundant. But phrases borrowed from other languages are often reanalyzed in English as single words. For example, a number of Arabic noun phrases were borrowed into English as simple nouns. The Arabic element al- means "the," and appears in English nouns such as alcohol and alchemy. Thus, since no one would consider a phrase such as "the alcohol" to be redundant, criticizing the hoi polloi on similar grounds seems pedantic."

Prior to Linda's observation, I probably would have written "the El Niño" as in "The El Niño is a periodic warming of the ocean's surface." It doesn't look completely wrong to me and I would not have noticed the redundancy. Now I'll have to be on my guard.

Back in 2002, Language Hat put himself on record for "the hoi polloi" memorably thus:

"To speak English correctly, you don't need to know any other languages."

re: "the hoi polloi" -- see also that diner favoirte, the beef sandwich "with au jus sauce." :-)

mikes hits on one my my menu pet peeves, the misuse of "au jus" in various permutations. That's almost as bad as "mescaline salad" (for mesclun).

mike, sorry for the inadvertent pluralization of your name--a slip of the finger. I suppose that deserves a squirt of "au jus" in the eye.

I was once asked if I wanted "the au jus" on the side.

Ugh, don't get me started on menu redundancies: marinara sauce, ragu sauce. Next will probably be "pie a la mode with ice cream."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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