Jackie Strauss, a dear contributor to our Good Word series, wrote me the following yesterday:
“I’m enjoying going through your list of commonly confused words. When I got to the word “apprised”, I wondered why you didn’t include “abreast”. I often hear people using both of these words to mean the same thing. Do they? Are they entirely interchangeable, e.g. “I’ll keep you apprised of his post-surgical condition” or “Please keep me abreast of his post-surgical condition”. Which would be correct, or are they both correct? Or can one only keep oneself abreast of anything?”
“And why is there no word like “disconfuse” or “unconfuse” that I could use in this very sentence?!? Please DISCONFUSE me!!”
Keeping someone abreast and apprised do not mean the same but the two words often can be used in the same context. “Keep me abreast” means “keep me up-to-date” while “keep me apprised” means “keep me informed”.
Somewhere I’ve written about the difference between meaning and reference. Words and phrases with different meanings can have the same reference, e.g. “the morning star” and “the evening star” refer to the same celestial body (the planet Venus, by the way). Jackie’s examples fall into the same category. These phrases are different in meaning but in such a way that they may often be used interchangeably in appropriate contexts.
When one of my students years ago wrote in a term paper that President Nassar of Egypt saw himself as “the halter of the British in the Middle East”, my marginal comment was, “My, you do keep abreast of things”. In that situation, only one of Jackie’s words seems to work.
Now, disconfuse is another story. We use disremember so often in the US that several dictionaries now carry it—including Merriam-Webster. It appears currently about 38,000 times on the Web. In fact, there is no reason not to add the prefix dis- to remember and the meaning is clear. I would say the same applies to disconfuse, which appears 143 times on the Web today (so Jackie is not the only one who has thought of it). The meaning is perfectly clear to me and is not synonymous with clarify, the antonym of confuse.
We are not restrained to use to words that we have already heard when we speak or write. Language is very productive and we are free to create new words whenever we need them so long as we follow the rules of grammar. My sense of the grammar is that the prefix dis- can be added more or less freely to verbs of Latin origin so I can think of no grammatical reason why we shouldn’t use disconfuse.
Did this disconfuse the issue enough for you?