Can we really tell ‘genuine’ from ‘authentic’?
The quiz show host opened with a round of questions on word pairs, starting with the simplest: ”What is the difference between further and farther?” Aha, I thought, turning up the volume. Maybe I can’t spout 19th-century poetry like the educated Brits on the panel, but usage distinctions —that’s my line. We use farther for literal measures of distance, further for figurative ones.
But the quizmaster of ”My Word!” — the BBC radio show broadcast from 1956 till 1990, and now airing in repeats on several public radio stations — quickly escalated the challenge. How about the difference between convince and persuade? I knew ”convince to” was frowned upon in some circles, but it was no longer a distinction that obsessed editors. Vengeance and revenge? Ummm — vengeance is more formal?
Authentic and genuine? Wait, I learned this one just last year — but wasn’t the distinction so fine that nobody could ever figure out how to apply it?
Since the questions were drawn from the venerated H.W. Fowler, whose ”Modern English Usage” appeared in 1926, it’s not surprising that the panelists and I didn’t always have pat answers. We groped around, drawing on our experience to infer what the subtle differences might be — which is, of course, how we learn most of our vocabulary. But these four fine distinctions had once rated inclusion in the 20th century’s most admired usage guide; where had they come from, I wondered, and what had become of them?
Further and farther, for starters. A mid-19th-century usage book notes that though some writers distinguish between farther and further, ”they are, in fact, the very same word: further, however, is less used than farther.” By Fowler’s time, further had taken the lead, and he expected it to prevail. That may yet happen, but we’re still resisting: ”Farther refers to physical distance,” says the AP Stylebook, ”further...to an extension of time or degree: She will look further into the mystery.”
Convince vs. persuade? Two hundred years ago, the earliest English synonym books explained that persuade had to do with emotional appeals and convince with reason and logic. You were convinced of conclusions, persuaded to actions. The New York Times style guide has the summary I remembered: ”Convince cannot be followed by a to phrase.” But the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel disagrees: In a 1996 survey, 74 percent OK’d ”I tried to convince him to chip in.”
The other two pairs don’t even rate a mention in the AP or New York Times stylebooks. In ”Garner’s Modern American Usage” (2009), Bryan Garner says, just as Fowler did, that vengeance is more likely to relate to impartial justice, revenge to personal score-settling. Fowler, however, added that the distinction was ”neither very clear nor consistently observed.” That hasn’t changed, especially since vengeance comes in handy as hyperbole: See pro wrestling (”Kane’s quest for vengeance”) and Hollywood (”Furry Vengeance”).
As for authentic and genuine, they owe their prominence to the 18th-century Bible scholars who used authentic to mean ”in accordance with facts” and genuine to mean ”not counterfeit.” This slippery distinction was doomed from the start; Fowler noted that it was ”by no means universally observed,” and Garner deems the words ”interchangeable in most sentences.”
”Interchangeable in most sentences” is not, of course, the same as ”synonymous.” Nobody denies that there are shades of meaning that make one word more appropriate for some speakers in some contexts. But between the dry land, where most people agree on farther and convince, and the ocean, where it’s mostly further and persuade, there’s a tidal zone where the boundaries are constantly shifting.
This area of uncertainty was a huge frustration to language mavens of the period we might call the Great English Tidying-Up, roughly from 1860 to 1960. A growing middle class was hungry for instruction in bettering its English, and journalists, teachers, and scholars hustled to meet the demand. The new mavens were openly competitive, scoffing at one another and insisting that their (ever finer-tuned) rules were the only right ones. If two words overlapped in sense — admission and admittance, avoid and avert, generally and usually, hurry and hasten, partially and partly — some usage adviser would come up with a rule to guide the choice.
Some usage rules survive from those days — the journalistic fetish about over and more than, the aversion to loan as a verb, the anxiety over healthy for healthful, the (theoretical) differentiation of hanged and hung. And subtle distinctions are still on offer, for those who want to adopt them: Garner has nearly 900 densely packed pages of advice.
But inventing and tweaking such semantic distinctions is no longer a major part of the language adviser’s job. For better or worse, Americans today are comfortable splashing around on their own in the tidal zones of ambiguous usage.