Confusing Pairs

We haven’t done these for a while, so here goes.


Over time, these have been used interchangeably to some extent, but they are now best kept separate – and more or less as follows.

Classic refers to something of recognised quality and enduring value: Mozart’s four greatest operas are classics of the repertoire.

It can also mean something like ‘typical’ or ‘characteristic’: The politician’s answer was a classic example of evasion and obfuscation.

Classical is generally used in relation to ancient Greece and Rome: Classical mythology is filled with tales of rape, incest and murder.

Or to music of the kind played by a symphony orchestra (in particular, material from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth): Mozart is among the greatest of the classical composers.


Homage (pronounced HOM-idge) is what mediaeval knights swore to their lords. Prince Philip paid it to his wife at her coronation in 1953.

Hommage, which is French (pron. o-mahzh), is a rather pretentious way in English to express indebtedness or non-feudal tribute: The director’s recent movie is an hommage to the film noir classics of the 1930s and 40s.

Don’t confuse the two (or their pronunciations).


The first means ‘incontrovertible’, ‘not capable of being disputed’: The attribution of this painting to Picasso is indisputable; it is signed and dated, there is film footage of Picasso painting it and its subsequent history is impeccably documented.

The second means just that something hasn’t been contested, although perhaps it could be: The election results are undisputed so far, but that may change if allegations of ballot-tampering come to light.


Not a common pair, but I’ve seen them confused.

To ravage is to cause destruction: The Amazonian rainforest has been ravaged by fires, clear-cutting and bull-dozers.

Ravish, on the other hand, originally meant to seize and carry away a person, usually a woman or young man, and often with sexual intent.

And since we’re on the subject, rape was also originally just the act of seizing and carrying off, with what probably followed being inferred. The related word raptor is a bird (or, apparently thanks to a 1990 book by Michael Crichton, a dinosaur) that snatches its prey; but another obsolete meaning is rapist, which the owners of a professional basketball team in Toronto may not have known.

But back to ravish, which can also mean to transport a person in a figurative and non-sexual/non-aggressive sense, frequently as a result of ecstasy or delight: She lost herself in the ravishing melodies of Mozart’s opera.


One is in straitened circumstances or dire straits if things are going badly. If things are going really badly, you might be put in a strait jacket.

These expressions derive from strait, meaning ‘tight’, ‘narrow’ or ‘confined’.

Hence also strait in the maritime sense, used to describe a narrow and perhaps difficult passage between land masses: the Strait of Gibraltar, the Strait of Georgia (although the Vancouver newspaper is The Georgia Straight, presumably because it conveys the straight goods to people on either side of the strait).

It used to be that one was on (or off) the strait and narrow, but this is now spelled straight and narrow.

Straight as an adjective is straightforward; and even if your circumstances are straitened, you can straighten something that is at an angle.

Straight, in common parlance, refers to a non-LGBTQ2S person.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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