Printable Version
Pronunciation: êr, er (US) Hear it!

Part of Speech: Verb, intransitive

Meaning: 1. To make an error or mistake. 2. To break a moral standard, to sin, to transgress, to wander off the straight-and-narrow.

Notes: The pronunciation of today's Good Word remains in dispute. The traditional pronunciation is [êr] but, since speakers have long ago made the association with error, most US dictionaries now accept [er]. The only noun for this verb is, in fact, error. The adjective is, oddly, erroneous with its adverb, erroneously.

In Play: The most popular use of err today is the Alexander Pope quotation, "To err is human; to forgive, divine." An alternative is: "To err is human; to cover it up, risky." Otherwise, most Americans, myself included, find today's word—whichever way it is pronounced—a bit weird: "You err, sir, in your claim that your motorcycle is faster than mine!" I'm not sure why this is: the confusion over pronunciation?

Word History: Err is a reduction of French errer "go astray, transgress". from Latin errare "wander, go astray, err". The Latin word comes from the Proto-Indo-European root ers- "to wander around", from which emerged Sanskrit arsati "flows", Old English ierre "angry, straying", Old Frisian ire "angry", Old High German irri "angry". The Germanic words reflect the notion of anger as a straying from normal composure. It is possible that metathesis occurred somewhere along the way in Germanic languages (the R and the vowel traded places), so that the same root could have ultimately emerged in English as race. (Let us not now err by forgetting to thank Norman Holler, of Whitehorse, Yukon, for suggesting today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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