From the language-police blotter: “loath” and “loathe”

“Loath” means reluctant; “loathe” means detest.

“Loath” (sometimes “loth”) is an adjective meaning “reluctant.” It rhymes with “both.”
“Loathe” is a verb, meaning “detest.” It rhymes with “clothe.”

This is a useful distinction, and in danger of being lost.

The often-heard formula “X is loathe to do Y” is a ticketable offense.  If caught, you will get two points on your poetic license and will have to go to language school.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “From the language-police blotter: “loath” and “loathe””

  1. Another distinction: "loath" is pronounced with an unvoiced "th" (thus rhyming with "both"), "loathe" with voiced "th" (thus rhyming with "clothe").

    [Thanks, Gary! Updated. MK]

  2. While you are at it, do you think you can do anything about the rapidly spreading practice of ending a clause with "as well" that already had an "also" in it? I hear cable newspeople doing this constantly of late, and I wonder if they ever listen to themselves–oh, wait….

  3. Why object to this? It seems like what we're looking at is just a tendency to regularize the spelling and pronunciation of the words. Since one is an adjective, and the other a verb, why would you worry the distinction is in danger of being lost? We could use 'loathe' /ˈloÊŠð/ for both senses just as easily we use 'light', 'rock', and 'ring' with multiple unrelated senses today.

  4. Lots of linguistic distinctions are "useful". That doesn't mean that people have any obligation to preserve them.

    The wonderful thing about language is that it is wonderfully libertarian– people can complain about it's "misuse" all they want, but vox populi always prevails in the long term. And we are actually so much for the richer for it, both because popular usage is a good determinant of which distinctions are REALLY useful to the public, and also because expressions embraced by the public which drove the language police crazy have made our language so much richer.

    So if people are loath to maintain a distinction, or they simply loathe it, good for them! And the language police should turn in their badges and worry about things they can actually do something about.

  5. Parroting Ali and Dilan Esper, there's not a whole lot to be done about this, and I think we're going to see this one go the way of the slowly morphing "champing at the bit."

    Although I have to admit, I didn't realize there was a distinction. Embarrassing!

  6. And one for the idiom-police blotter: To "beg the question" is to make an assertion that presumes the answer to the question at hand, not to prompt, or raise, a question. And people misuse "myself" all the time (it should only appear in reflexive constructions, I think, so "John and myself went to the bar" is verboten).

    The lexicographers will argue about descriptivism vs. prescriptivism. And it's certainly the case that the meaning of language is mostly determined by its use. That's undeniable (and it's also the foundational insight of a lot of Wittgenstein's most interesting philosophy).

    But understanding the actual etymology of words and idioms is both 1) just a lot of fun and 2) educational, in that it helps us build new connections between different words and ideas. And I suspect that the smart people complaining about the perhaps nitpicky nature of the loath/loathe distinction above will actually be sure to use the right word in the future.

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