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I’m loath to loathe

In the Microsoft Teams chat at work yesterday, I had cause to describe a task as loathsome. Typing this word caused a shuddering realisation, one that probably dawned on you many years ago: ‘loath’ and ‘loathe’ are really quite similar words. Many websites tell me that these two words are commonly confused, yet I’ve never noticed the similarity.

I ‘loathe’ (rhymes with ‘clothe’) really horrible tasks: I hate them, feel repulsion from them. I’m not willing to do things I loathe.

Things that are ‘loathsome’ cause me to hate them… such as really horrible tasks. It’s just ‘loathe’ plus ‘some’ to make an adjective.

On the other hand, I’m ‘loath’ (rhymes with ‘both’) to do things that I dislike: I’m reluctant, somewhat averse. I’d prefer not to, but I will if I have to. ‘For fairer, for loather’ used to be a line in marriage vows—which perhaps demonstrates how different ‘loath’ is from ‘loathe’. You’d hope nobody would consider their partner loathsome at their wedding.

How did we end up in this linguistic quagmire, where the adjective ‘loath’ means something quite different to the verb ‘loathe’? Quick, let’s crack open the Oxford English Dictionary.

Unsatisfyingly, any explanation is lost to history. The divergence in meaning probably happened 1,000 years ago or so. ‘Loathsome’ came into the picture in the 1300s, which suggests that the divergence had occurred by then, as something wouldn’t need to be described as loathsome if it could just be described as loath.

Apparently, ‘loathe’ is more than twice as common in modern written English as ‘loath’, which—given the more robust sense of negativity—strikes me as a sad indictment of our times. But I can hardly complain about that when my own use of ‘loathsome’ started me down this track.

So, let me defend myself. In the two-decade-, 3,000-post history of this blog, I’ve used the word ‘loath’ twice: I was loath to read a book about the pandemic and loath to criticise those who claimed that King Charles’s approach to monarchy was reflected in his haircut

Yet, there’s only one thing I’ve ‘loathed’: I really had it in for the characters of Jane Austen’s Emma. Hmm.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, .

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