Shades of meaning

1. Which is the safer place to be during a cyclone: in a cellar or a basement?

2. If a friend wears a smile most of the time, is your friend's expression typical or usual?

3. If your well goes dry, is it now void or devoid of water?

4. Are you more likely to buy or purchase a quart of milk?

5. Are the backyard birds that eat out of your hand tame or domesticated?


(1) Go to the cellar. "Basement," coined in 1793, means the lowest story of a building wholly or partly below ground. "Cellar" is a much older word and structure. A cellar is fully underground. It was originally used for the storage of food and coal.

(2) The smile is usual if it is "habitual, customary, or common" for it to appear. That which is "typical" conforms to a class or group. If a smiling person comes from a family that usually smiles, that smile may be usual. But it is also typical of the person's family.

(3) "Void" means empty. "Devoid" also means empty, but implies that something has been removed. A void in the galaxy means an empty space, not one that has been emptied of something. Devoid means it's gone or no longer there; void means it was never filled. The well is devoid of water.

(4) Language historian Bergen Evans makes a distinction between "buy" and "purchase." He claims that we reserve "purchase" for high-ticket items like cars, boats, and houses. (Remember the Louisiana Purchase?) "Buy," he asserts, is used for more common items like bread, butter, and milk.

(5) The birds are tame. Same for deer, raccoons, or any other creatures you can teach to eat from your hand. Tame animals are still wild. Domesticated animals, like cats and dogs, have lost their wildness from having lived with humans for generations.

SOURCES: 'Comfortable Words,' by Bergen Evans; Webster's Dictionary;

The World Book Dictionary.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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