Language police blotter: “loath” and “loathe”

“They would be loathe to admit it” is gibberish.

“Loath” is an adjective meaning “reluctant.”
“Loathe” is a verb meaning “abhor.”

Therefore a phrase such as “They would be loathe to admit it” is gibberish. Any given instance could be a mere typo, such as I constantly make in this space. And it’s a typo the spell-checker won’t catch, since “loathe” is a perfectly good word. But I detect a trend of substituting “loathe” for “loath,” which would be a shame.

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:

33 thoughts on “Language police blotter: “loath” and “loathe””

      1. but the chances that one wants to use either of these are a good deal slimmer than either of the ‘loath/loathe’ pair (unless one is an astronomer, in which case one probably knows which is which.) I doubt that I’ve ever wanted to say ‘cosmogony’ in my life.

  1. I suspect a sufficiently advanced spellchecker could catch it, if it were programmed to recognize common mistaken uses that consisted of properly spelled words.

    These things happn. The would-be grump in me suspects such slips will become more likely as even the more educated people read less and absorb more from audio and video – but I suppose every generation has found some reason to bemoan the debased standards of their day.

    1. I agree, this problem is that people may not be reading enough to remember how the words are supposed to look, and/or, they are typing things on mobile gizmos with tiny screens and they just can’t be bothered to spell correctly anymore, and/or they can’t even see well enough to know that they spelled something wrong. It’s a problem. But I agree that I think a lot of it comes from learning words from how other people use them, which is dangerous. One of my favorite malapropisms was when I heard someone say … “fade into Bolivian…” which was extra funny to me because I have a good friend who’s Bolivian. I wonder if the person even knew it is a country. My guess, no.

      On the positive side, we can still hope that most people mean to say what they are saying, if that makes sense. And I shouldn’t talk because my grammar is atrocious. (Fixing which is on my to-do list. Anybody know a shortcut?)

  2. Can’t agree: to me either word would make sense in that sentence depending on the context.


    1. They could be loath to admit it, or they could loathe admitting it; but grammatically they couldn’t be loathe to admit it, because loathe is not an adjective.

      Of course, being Republican politicians, they could be loathsome, but that’s a different matter.

  3. But I detect a trend of substituting “loathe” for “loath,” which would be a shame.

    But is it a shame that you loathe, or is it only one that you would be loath to commit? … that you would commit only loathfully?

    (I’m tempted to go on in another vein: Would you, could you for a fox, would you, could you for some lox?)

    Maybe I should stop, um, digging.

        1. Ding! Ding! Give that man (or madam) a kewpie doll, for correctly finding the most mis-used non-word in the English language.

          However, you didn’t earn the Giant Kewpie Doll because you failed to unearth the second faux pas……..the most commonly made, erroneous juxtaposition……….”inferring” should have been “implying.”

          Sorry, play again? Only 50 cents.

          1. Not necessarily. It depends on whether the question about inferring/implying is asked of the reader (who infers meaning) or to the writer (who implies meaning).

  4. I blame Matt Yglesias. Do a google search on yglesias “loathe to” and you’ll see what I mean.

    Incidentally, the OED gives “loth” as a modern spelling (in the header to the entry), although I think the “loath, loth” article was written in 1903 or earlier.

  5. Great to see William Safire is alive and well.

    Sumbich had his head on crooked, but lordy, he sure could write.

  6. I had to bite my tongue last week when my manager told me she was going to take an outline and “flush out the plan.”

  7. Within a few decades, this distinction will no longer exist (just like “flout” and “flaunt”). And since language is the ultimate democratic institution, and words eventually mean whatever the general public wants them to mean (and not what not-as-smart-as-they-think-they-are English teachers and language scolds want them to mean), this will be all to the good.

    1. Grunt.
      You caught my meaning, of course. Nobody needs no steenkin ten-dollar distinctions.

    2. Hmm. No. I think we need more language police and they need to be ticketing way more bad drivers. But only in print, I think. Correcting people in person is so hostile.

      Or were you guys kidding?

    3. but in the intervening decades, some word usages will be like fingernails on a blackboard to a lot of people (others, of course, have no recollection of what a blackboard is), and other usages will be skunked, i.e. impossible for a careful speaker/writer to use, because it will be impossible to be sure that both user and audience know whether the old, ‘correct’ meaning was intended or the new ‘wrong’ meaning. ‘Fulsome’ is almost out the other side of the skunk zone (no one really uses it to mean cloyingly excessive any more; the people who know that that was the traditional meaning just wince when it is used to mean ‘full’); ‘fortuituous’ is almost as far, unfortunately…; ‘inflammable’ is still in the zone and is rumoured to be dead.

      That assumes that the intention of speaking or writing is accurate communication. There may be other purposes to utterances.

  8. From the bowels of the usenet archive:

    Eye halve a spelling chequer,
    It runs on my pea sea.
    It plainly marques four my revue
    Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
    I strike a quay and type a word
    And weight for it too say
    Weather eye am wrong or write
    It shews me strait aweigh.
    As soon as a mist ache is maid
    It nose bee four two long
    And eye can putt the error rite
    It’s rare lee ever wrong
    Eyes run this poem threw it
    I’m shore your please two no
    It’s letter perfect all the weigh
    My chequer tolled me sew!


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