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Robshaw’s Rule

April 20, 2016

A football report in The Times yesterday spoke of Stoke City’s “febrile defence”. What can the reporter have meant? “Febrile” is a synonym for “feverish”. Did he mean that Stoke’s defenders were all running a fever? No, I don’t think so: I think he meant feeble. He was tempted by a word that sounded similar but more impressive and didn’t bother to check the meaning. This is further proof of what I think I shall call Robshaw’s Law: Where two words sound similar and occupy roughly the same semantic area, writers will tend to choose the more impressive-sounding word over the more accurate one.

That’s not a very snappy rule. But I think it’s right. It explains why people consistently and wrongly choose fortuitous over fortunate, simplistic over simple, and however over but.

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One Comment
  1. Oholibamah permalink

    I disagree with this one. It’s possible to use the word “feverish” — and by extension, febrile — outside the narrow meaning of “having a fever.” Off the top of my head, I’d put the figurative meaning as something close to, “involved in a lot of excitable action.” Example” “We worked feverishly to tidy the room before her arrival…”

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