Words easily confused #7

Another entry in an irregular series.

skirl and swirl. Possibly because it sounds a little like swirl and a little like skirt, a lot of people apparently think skirl means roughly the same thing as swirl. But skirl actually specifically means the sound that the chanter of a bagpipe makes. To skirl is to emit such a sound; to skirl a tune is to play it on a bagpipe.

While I'm here, another word that I always used to be unclear on the meaning of: erstwhile. It doesn't mean the same thing as esteemed; it means former. This is a word that I picked up from context; I assumed that "my erstwhile colleague" (the phrase I usually heard the word in) meant "my esteemed colleague," but it really means "my former colleague." I wasn't alone in this misunderstanding; many people misuse this word.

2 Responses to “Words easily confused #7”

  1. Vardibidian

    You can also use skirl to mean any shrill (and therefore bagpipe-like) sound, as in the skirl of a police-siren, or even “Stop your skirling, woman, I’m not dead.” Also, according to everybody’s friend the OED, the use of skirl to mean swirl is venerable itself.

    As for erstwhile, it appears to mean the same thing as whilom, which is even better and more obscure. James Earl Carter, whilom President, …

    Redintegro Iraq,

  2. Nao

    I always misunderstood erstwhile to mean something like ersatz until sometime in the last 5 years or so; the contexts in which I’d read it were never clear. When I finally looked it up, I was quite perplexed. How funny if some people tried to make it mean “esteemed” when I took it to mean “imitation”!

    In your easily confused words series, have you brought up flout and flaunt yet? Hearing someone say that someone else flaunted the law always makese me giggle.

    Oooh.. whilom! isn’t that a great word?


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