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Several months ago we said, "This week we'll present seven pairs of easily-confused words. This being Wordcraft, however, our pairs will not be so commonplace as imply/infer or lie/lay."

We return to that thought and, as then, "We start with a pair half of which is familiar."

solecism – 1. a word blunder: a nonstandard usage or grammatical construction 2. a social blunder: a violation of etiquette; an impropriety
solipsism – the philosophical view that the self is all that exists, or is all that can be known to exist
    The NBC network carries the Olympics in prime time, which is, given the time difference, anywhere between seven and twelve hours after they took place in Greece, while maintaining the absurd fiction that no one knows the outcome of events that are already aeons old in modern information-age time. I can think of no greater testament to American solipsism than this assertion of the assumption that nothing has happened until viewers in New York and Los Angeles have turned on their TV sets at 8pm.
    – Gerard Baker, The Statesman (India), August 25, 2004
 
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Yesterday's word solipsism leads us naturally to today's two words. Though they are often used interchangeably, and that use is quite proper, there is a distinction.

egoism – excessive concern for oneself (often with an inflated sense of self-importance)
egotism – talking about oneself too much; self-exaltation; self-praise; magnifying or parading oneself (in words or in action)

Our first quotation keys on the distinction between the two, in careful speech. Says MW, "Egoism is a state in which the feelings are concentrated on one's self. Its expression is egotism. Egotism is the acting out of self-conceit, or self-importance, in words and exterior conduct."

    The NFL* draws a reasonable line in terms of what is an ``excessive'' celebration. The idea is to strike a fair balance. The idea is to permit players to naturally express their happiness, but not to the degree it becomes unsportsmanlike. Don't get so caught up in your egotistical self-praise that it becomes showboating, and showing up the opponent.
    – Greg Cote, The Miami Herald, August 31, 2004
    [*NFL = National Football League, the professional league in US football]

    This is a typical act of seeking regional egoism of local politicians, who only think of the interest of their constituents, ignoring national real estate policy.
    Local egoism runs amok, Joongang Daily, South Korea, Sept. 6, 2004

    Poland joined an outcry Thursday against a French proposal to cut structural funds for new European Union members that have tax rates below the EU average. President Aleksander Kwasniewski said: "We should be able to benefit from structural funds, if not we will never be able to overcome the inequalities that exist on our continent. European leaders must renounce their egoism."
    – EUbusiness, UK, Sept. 9, 2004
 
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incommensurable – without a common measure on which to compare; "like apples and oranges"
    How do you measure relative power? Realistically, it's hard to quantify the differences between, say, a chief executive and a Supreme Court justice. They wield power in vastly different ways. But we attempted the impossible — comparing the incommensurable — by creating a power scorecard.
    – Elizabeth Macdonald and Chana R. Schoenberger, World's 100 most powerful women, Forbes, Aug. 20, 2004
commensurate – of corresponding size or degree; proportionate (can also mean "commensurable")
    [Meetings] are ineffective. The most justifiable reason to loathe meetings is that they don't contribute to the success of our organizations. With so many demands on people's time, it is especially frustrating to have to invest energy and hours in any activity that doesn't yield a commensurate return. So the big question is why? Why are meetings boring and ineffective?
    – Patrick M. Lencioni, Death by Meeting
commensal(zoology) of a relation where one species obtains benefits from another without damaging or benefiting it. (contrast parasitic, symbiotic; MW Unabridged says, "both species may be benefited.") [originally, "eating at the same table"]
    The 560 acres of Muir Woods National Monument on the southwestern slopes of Mount Tamalpais symbolize a commensal relationship between man and nature.
    – Marta Yamamoto, Berkeley Daily Planet, September 17, 2004
 
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venial – forgivable; not heinous; pardonable
. . . .[A venial sin is often contrasted with a mortal sin, in Catholic religious doctrine.]
venal – corruptible; open to bribery
. . . .[Venal is related to vendor, with the underlying sense of "available for purchase".]
venery¹ – sexual love (adj. venereal)
venery² – the act or sport of hunting (adj. venatic; venatical)
. . . .[Each sense of venery comes, sensibly, from the root wen- "to desire, strive for". From that same root are win, wish, and venerate.]
    Democrat turned Republican Terry Johnson wasted no time in gaining the endorsement of an influential GOP [Republican] club. Johnson was a Democrat [in his previous terms], a venial sin the club apparently was willing to forgive. "We enjoyed his great awakening[;] he just had to become a Republican," Niemeyer said.
    – Michael Burge and Elena Gaona, San Diego Union-Tribune, August 28, 2004

    While my companion eyed the tarte tatin and checked whether gluttony was mortal or just venial, I chose strawberry meringue.
    – Zoë Strachan, The Scotsman, Aug. 21, 2004

    The lack of system and order in our streets gives venal traffic enforcers an opportunity to mulct unsuspecting motorists for imagined violations.
    – Dante A. Ang, Manila Sunday Times, Sept. 5, 2004

    On a sunny autumn afternoon like yesterday, this lush little course on the Netherhampton downs seems a world away from the venal business of race-fixing.
    – Greg Wood, The Guardian, Sept. 3, 2004

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Venial always reminds me of the Catholics and their venial sins. If I recall, they have mortal and venial sins. Here is a Web site defining them. I don't mean to start a big religious discussion. I am just wondering if those sins are talked about as much as they were when I was a child.
 
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That which is easily understood, vs. he who is good at understanding.

perspicuous – clearly expressed; easy to understand
perspicacious – having penetrating mental discernment, keen understanding

To remember which is which, it may help to associate 'perspicuous' with 'conspicuous'.
    [H]er strengths - offbeat but perspicacious observations of modern life, the creation of luminously unusual, eccentric characters - have always been better shown in short stories.
    – Katie Owen, reviewing a novel by Nicola Barker, The Telegraph, Sept. 15, 2004

    The philosopher clarifies basic theoretical ideas and sets out conceptions of justice in a perspicuous form, so that people can see clearly the arguments for and against them, and can compare them to their own considered judgments about justice.
    – Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, as intervied in Change, Jan.-Feb., 2002
Allow me to share an older quotation, on the subject of words. From Thomas Hobbes, A Brief Of The Art Of Rhetorick, Bk. III ch. II, Of the Choice of Words and Epithets:
    THE Vertues of a Word are two; the first, that it be perspicuous; the second, that it be decent; that is, neither above, nor below the thing signified; or, neither too humble, nor too fine. Perspicuous are all Words that be Proper. An Orator, if he use Proper Words, and Received, and good Metaphors, shall both make his Oration beautiful, and not seem to intend it; and shall speak perspicuously.
 
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Yesterday we had a word-pair about clarity. Today's pair concerns obscurity. The dictionaries obscure the meanings in a tangle of inconsistencies between dictionaries and, sometimes, within a single dictionary.

To disentangle: just as "I see," can mean, "My eyes behold," or, "I understand," so too something obscure can hard to view, or hard to understand. Today's terms make that distinction.

obscurant – something that obscures to the vision, as a smokescreen [chiefly military] (adj: tending to obscure visually: obscurant clouds)
obscurantist – one who writes with deliberate vagueness, obscure to the understanding (adj: so written)*
    Calif. Health And Safety Code: "Obscurant" means fog oil released into the atmosphere during military exercises which produces a smoke screen.

    My mathematician friend insists the book is "a parody of math books." He couldn't make head nor tail of it, and said that Mr. Wallace is either an "obscurantist" or just showing off. The text is a thicket of symbols and equations. Mr. Wallace lists 37 abbreviations on pages 3 and 4, supposedly for convenience. It is not convenient.
    – Dick Teresi, book review, The New York Observer, Nov 17, 2003
Also, our words have a second sense, in which they are synonymous.
obscurant; obscurantist – one opposing new ideas or social or political reform (adj: opposed to same)
    Tim Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity: "The term 'fundamentalism' came to denote an unduly defensive and obscurantist attitude which was anti-scholarly, anti-intellectual and anti-cultural."

    William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance:
    p. 184: "The fog of religious strife was, if anything, thicker than those of secular wars; obscurant theologians in Rome and hard-liners in the dioceses abroad saw the widening apostasy as an opportunity to stifle dissent."

    p 119: "Then, in 1509, Johannes Pfefferkorn, a Dominican monk who was also a converted rabbi, published an anti-Semitic book proposing that all works in Hebrew be burned. Reuchlin, dismayed by the possibility of such desecration, formally protested to the emperor. Pfefferkorn, he wrote, was an anti-intellectual 'ass.' Reuchlin's riposte so outraged the Dominicans that the order, supported by the obscurantist clergy throughout Europe, lodged a charge of heresy against him."

*Andy Rooney missed the distinction, in Sincerely, Andy Rooney: "His booklet of black poems seems pretentious. I took little from a first reading. Anyone who decides to write poetry, should first master prose. I have not read enough of Ken Boulding's prose to know whether or not he had a license to write obscurant verse."
 
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The sound of a word in one language might coincidentally also be a word, in another language, but with entirely different meaning. For example, to a Spaniard the sound [sē] (long e) means "yes," while in English the same sound means either "view" or "body of water" (see or sea).

Simalarly, Hebe in Greek was the goddess of youth, while hebes in Latin meant "dull" (like either a dull knife or a dull mind). Naturally, the English words derived from Greek Hebe and from Latin hebes have very similar sounds, but very different meanings.

hebetic – occurring at puberty [Gk Hebe=youth]
hebetude – mental dullness; lethargy [L hebes=dull]
. . .(adj: hebetudinous; hebate. verb: hebetate – to stupefy; to make dull
Note: With minor exception, this is mental dullness only. You cannot speak of "a hebate knife".

These words look very useful, and I commend them to you. But each is extremely rare. Indeed, for hebetic I can't find a single decent quotation.
    Messrs. Buecheler and Vahlen are hampered by two grave encumbrances: they know too much Latin, and they are not sufficiently obtuse. Among their pupils are several who comprehend neither Latin nor any other language, and whom nature has prodigally endowed at birth with that hebetude of intellect which Messrs. Vahlen and Buecheler, despite their assiduous and protracted efforts, have not yet succeeded in acquiring.
    – A. E. Houseman, Commentary on Manilius

    an epidemic of hebetude among young people who . . . are placing too great a reliance on electronic devices to do their thinking and remembering.
    – Reader's letter, in The Weekend Australian, Oct. 2, 2001

    Habitude has engendered hebetude; and familiarity, overfamiliarity.
    – Paul West, A Stroke of Genius: Illness and Self-Discovery
 
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A few of my favorite pairings (errings?):

Bathos/pathos
Extant/extent
Paramount/tantamount

(Is there such a thing as a drive-by posting?)


RJA
 
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