Have you ever read the expression “in sooth” in a fantasy novel or perhaps in something by Shakespeare?
Antonio, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice uses that expression:
“In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me; you say it wearies you.”
“To tell the truth, I don’t know why I’m so sad.
It tires me; you say you’re tired of it, too.”
Shakespeare died 505 years ago, so you can imagine that the English language of the late 1500s was quite different from what it is today.
“Sooth” is one of those archaic words that we simply don’t use anymore – except perhaps in a fantasy novel based on times so long ago, where the author uses old English terms to lend authenticity to a world of his or her own creation.
So why do I mention “sooth”? It’s because I see it misused in modern English when the author really meant to say “soothe” (to calm or make one feel better).
First, let’s get the pronunciation right. The old-fashioned term for truth is “sooth” and it rhymes with “truth.” That should make it easy to remember.
In sooth, she is long in the tooth. (In truth, she’s old.)
“Soothe” has a softer “th” sound and rhymes with “smooth.” I know that’s not helpful for the spelling but the meaning is similar.
I’ll speak softly to her and soothe her as I smooth out her wrinkled forehead.
Now you will also be able to guess what a soothsayer is. It is someone who tells the truth, but in days of old, the term was used for people who foretold the future (and people assumed he told the truth).
Here are some other troublesome words that change meaning when “e” is added.
We can feel out of breath, or take a big breath, but when the air is coming in and out of our lungs, we breathe.
The letter goes inside an envelope (rhymes with cantelope). But when something is wrapped up, like in someone’s arms, we envelop it. Envelop rhymes with develop.
The large woman can envelop her child in a hug.
The cavalry’s job was to envelop the group of archers.
Loath is the adjective. Loathe is the verb.
I was loath to do the dishes because I loathe that job.
*** I might point out that while we might still use the word loathe, it would be rare to hear someone say they are loath to do something.
I see the above words misused very often when I’m copy-editing. If you are aware of the differences in these similar words, you will misuse them less often.
An easy way to check for these words is to use “Find” in your Word file, and type in the word you are searching for. Then check to see if you have the right word in each case.
A little tip: if you type in the word without the “e,” all the ones with “e” will also show up.
For example: Type in breath and all cases of breath will come up as well as all cases of breathe, and then you can check them all at once.