Mark Liberman at the Log follows up on Bob Ladd’s suggestion for a post “about inexcusably unmemorable terminology for related concepts that have to be sharply distinguished from one another.” It’s turned into a really interesting discussion, with pairs I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of; Bob’s examples are progressive/regressive assimilation, sensitivity/specificity, and tonicity/tonality/tone, and commenters have weighed in with accuracy/precision, sequence/series, hyper-/hypo- (“often indistinguishable when spoken”), coherence/cohesion, mean/mode/median, afferent/efferent, abductor/adductor, high-context/low-context, determiner/determinative, meiosis/mitosis, syncline/anticline, stalactite/stalagmite, meteor/meteoroid/meteorite, metatarsal/metacarpal, affluent/effluent, molarity/molality, phonetic/phonemic, pleistocene/pliocene/miocene… more are coming in even as we speak! hector asks:
Is the ur-example of this problem the distinction between right and left? Most people occasionally use the wrong word. Both are words of one syllable, thus easy to say, and often need to be said as quick responses to events. If one of the two was one-syllable, and the other multi-syllable, would this reduce the number of mistakes?
And narmitaj responds:
As well as normal confusion (I got confused during my early driving lessons and even briefly – and non-disastrously – during my test at one point), there is also the problem that crops up in film-making and other environments when people are facing each other and trying to give and take directions. The cinematographer might say to the actress “move to the right” and the actress moves to her right, and the cinematographer says “no, the other right”, his right, camera right or screen right.
A similar pair in Spanish is derecho ‘straight (ahead)’ and (a la) derecha ‘(to the) right’; after I had terrified my driving instructor in Argentina one too many times by turning when he wanted me to go straight, he made me teach him the English words (which in his pronunciation were /es’tre/ and /rai/). At any rate, I’m beginning to suspect that specialists like having hard-to-distinguish distinctions; it makes the specialty that much more impenetrable and mysterious.