Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Diffuse

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language: Diffuse

Article excerpt

Credit: Dot Wordsworth

It's funny how people hardly know what they are saying. I read recently of diplomats going to Riyadh 'to diffuse tensions over anti-Islamic stickers'. Did the writer mean defuse ? Probably. He was trying to say 'reduce' tensions and just reached for the nearest dead metaphor from the shelf.

Still, it doesn't do to be too snooty about origins of words, as I have often told my husband, who responds by becoming narrower, shriller, louder and much snootier. What happens if you bother to look up diffuse in the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary ? You find the first entry quotes from old John Florio's World of Words from 1598, which spells it defuse . So do Philemon Holland (in his translation of Pliny) and the quarto edition of King Lear , with the meaning 'confuse'. So much for the spelling.

I take it that most people think of diffuse as a metaphor from physics (or chemistry, as it seems to them) referring to the dispersal of gases. E.A. Parkes, one of those great Victorian anti-cholera activists, declared: 'Every gas diffuses at a certain rate.' Who would deny it?

Yet diffuse meant first of all 'pour out', deriving from Latin diffundere . …

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