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Demure or Demur?

We just published and aired a comparison of two words that are often confused but receive little press: demure and demur.  The difference of the final “silent” E is critical not only to the pronunciation but to the meanings of these two words. Demure is pronounced [de-myure] while demur is pronounced [duh-murr]. Big difference there.

Demure, of course, is an adjective meaning, roughly, “coyly shy”.  If someone asks you whether you know something about a topic on which you happen to be an expert, a demure reply is appropriate: “Do you know anything about words?”  “A little,” would be a demure reply from a lexicographer or lexicologist. 

The verb means to show reluctance in doing something, to hold back or hesitate in an open-ended fashion. You would (I hope) demur from sharing the password to your online bank account with anyone. 

I exemplified the disparity between this word and demur with a comment about one of my favorite co-diners, Cherry Pitt: “Cherry Pitt demurred from the offer of a second dessert, waiting until asked a second time, at which point she demurely accepted.”  

It just occurred to me that the difference between a lexicographer and a lexicologist might make an interesting note.  I won’t devote a whole essay to the topic but just say here that a lexicographer is someone who compiles dictionaries while a lexicologist is someone who scientifically (linguistically) studies the nature of words in the mental lexicon.  I spent about 40 years of my life doing the latter before becoming a lexicographer here at The Lexiteria. 

 

3 Responses to “Demure or Demur?”

  1. Joseph CHIARAVALLOTI Says:

    I admonished a writer, who publishes on line, about using “hone” when she meant “home” (home in on). She told me she was correct because the dictionary (most of them, it seems) listed “hone in” as acceptable and accused me of being an old fuddy-duddy, opposed to the inevitable growth of the language. I replied that “home” and “hone” had distinct meanings and that it was more useful to keep them separate than to combine them. Then I asked her about honing pigeons (they file their claws?) and honing devices (they sharpen knives?).

    She is really quite a good writer and makes few mistakes. Her reply was that if it was in a dictionary, then it was fair game. But what about, for lack of a better term, “class” differences. There are “accepted” usages that will instantly label one as literary trailer-trash* (A fool and their money are soon parted), and “hone in on” is one of them.

    I’m glad I stumbled on your site and will visit it often. I also rely on Paul Bryans’ site: http://wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html

    *Yes, I have lived in a trailer park.

  2. rbeard Says:

    One of the great disservices done us by Merriam-Webster is the tendency of their editorial board to not just collect new words, but, as I have put it before, “sweep new words from the gutters” into their sampling of English. The editors of that dictionary are responsible for legitimizing hundreds of speech errors made in the US, one of which is the confusion of ‘hone’ and ‘home’.

    Unfortunately, many writers do accept dictionaries as gospel and M-W is, of course, the most widely relied on. M-W editors, rather than contributing to the maintenance of the distinctions English offers us, take any published error as a legitimate language change and incorporate it into their collection. ‘Tis a pity they cannot rely on the best English writers and publishers for their vocabulary.

    I think M-W takes populism too far and the confusion of ‘hone’ and ‘home’, ‘comprise’ and ‘consist’, and many, many others only weaken the language and, hence, our ability to express ourselves clearly. Unfortunately, other dictionary editors usually follow their lead.

    I still make this distinction and all others that are maintained by speakers of English in places other than the US. I have written on several others in the essays stored in “Dr. Goodword’s Office” (http://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/).

  3. Glenn Groh Says:

    Are there terms and possibly nuances to describe a person who seems to be living a very honorable life, but who does or does not believe in God, and/or who does not have a prayer or church life?

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