Annoyances: piqued/peaked and other confusions

My last “annoyances” post about confusing wreck and wreak made me think a little about other words that are often confused with each other in daily use.

A lot of the confusion seems to stem from the fact that one of the words is used in an English idiom – a set phrase, for example – which has old, often forgotten roots. This word may be similar to another, far more common word. If you first experience these idioms without seeing it written down, it’s easy to associate it with a more common word.

So, as I explained last time, is the case with wreck and wreak – for most of us, the English idiom “to wreak havoc” is pretty much the only time when you’ll come across the word. If you had never seen the word written down, it’s not completely outside the realms of possibility that wreck could be the spelling for wreak. Or, conversely, if you had seen it written down, it also wouldn’t be ridiculous to think that wreak was a mis-spelling of wreck, since both words are involved when talking about destruction.

So, confusion in these cases is relatively easy. Here are some other word pairs that are often confused:

“This really piqued my interest” – the word pique means to excite. Not to be confused with peaked, meaning to reach the top.

“To whet the appetite” – while the phrase might include your mouth watering (and so you could be forgiven for thinking it’s “wet the appetite”), that’s not the origin of the phrase. To whet something means to sharpen it, and so also comes to mean to make it keen or eager.

“Waiting with bated breath” – often confused for baited, which means to lure. To bate something is to moderate or to restrain: so the phrase actually means to hold your breath.

Moot point” gives rise to a particularly common error, as it is often confused with the incorrect “mute point”. The words sound similar, but the meanings are actually almost opposites. A moot is a discussion, usually of a hypothetical point; and the adjective moot means “open to discussion”. So, a moot point means that something is debatable. Mute, meaning “silent”, has nothing to do with the phrase.

“To pore over a book” means to study it intently – “to pour over a book” would… probably ruin it.

Finally, an error that is becoming so common that some could probably argue that it is now ‘standard’ English: when somebody wants to agree with something somebody else has said, they might say “hear, hear” – NOT “here, here“. The phrase has something of an interesting history – it is actually a short form of “hear him, hear him”, and came into popular usage because it was often used as a way for politicians in one of England’s parliamentary buildings, the House of Commons, as a way for people to agree with whatever had just been said. Since traditionally you are not allowed to applaud in the chambers of the House of Commons, it became standard to shout “hear him, hear him”, or more simply, “hear, hear“.