More of those trying English words

I recently wrote of the difficulties the English language poses with words that are similar, but have meanings that are so different. Since I do many a crossword puzzle, I come across words that remind me of this fact, but also encourage me to go find a dictionary. As I noted earlier, I like words that I actually might use or hear someone use in a conversation and am not too keen on words that only share how smart the speaker is or who would like to seem.

Here are a few more sets of words to ponder.

Divine and divine: The noun divine can mean godlike or sacred and it can also mean lovely or handsome. Yet, the verb divine means to surmise or guess the solution to a problem.

Seer, sere, sear: Homonyms anyone? Three similar words with different meanings. Seer is a prophet, while sere means dry or arid as in a desert. And, not to be outdone, sear means to char as in a steak.

Prescribe and proscribe: Another pairing where one letter changes the nature. Prescribe means to order, as in a doctor ordering a prescription. Proscribe means to forbid.

Vain, vane, vein: More homonyms. Vain conjures up a Carly Simon song meaning arrogant. Vane usually refers to a weather vane, but is a broad blade attached to a rotating axis. Vein of course is the vessel to return the blood to the heart, but could also mean a distinctive quality.

Prosaic and mosaic: The former is often confused with the latter, but prosaic means commonplace. Mosaic is not commonplace meaning artistic or painted glass placed into a stone setting.

Precede and proceed: They sound similar, but precede means to go before. Proceed means to begin. You should proceed, before someone precedes you.

That is enough confusion for one day. So, when Simon sings, “you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you,” you will know how to spell it.

Overcoming language barriers

About fifteen years ago, I had the good fortune to travel to Cannes for a global conference. Unfortunately, my company frowned on spouses coming as they wanted us to interact with our colleagues. So, I attempted to remedy this by buying my wife a couple of dresses while there.

My dilemma is outside of a few pleasantries and counting to ten, that is the extent of my French. So, in walks this big, tall American guy into a French dress shop. And, to my misfortune, the two sales women did not speak English. What I also did not fully understand is French dress sizes are different from American dress sizes. This is important facet of the story.

The French woman assisting me was lovely and very svelte. My wife is 5’6″ and is more voluptuous. Through many smiles and laughter, we found a couple of dresses that we felt my wife would like relying on gestures and what little of each other’s language we could speak. Yet, we now had arrived at the moment of reckoning, the sizing. With the sizing differences, the number sizes I was spouting were not working.

So, my funny new friend was trying to ascertain my wife’s shape in comparison to hers. Through gestures and heightened sensitivity on both our parts, she was able to understand that my wife was taller and more shapely than she is and not as thin as her model like form. We did the best we could and each walked away with a story to tell. She would likely tell others about this funny tall American man buying dresses for his wife without speaking French.

The result of our funny sales encounter was not successful on the size front. At least I shot too low, so I did not have to explain why I thought my wife was larger. My wife could barely squeeze into one, but could not wear it as it would split. The other one had no chance of getting zipped up. But, I did get some brownie points for trying and came away with a funny story, which I tell to this day. And, I am sure my funny sales person is doing the same.