So you’re telling me you think grammar is gross. You’re allergic to the idea of sentence diagramming. Actually paying attention to the English Language sounds kind of icky. Okay, sure, that’s not my opinion, but you knew that. And if it’s yours, that’s okay. I get it.
But you know what is icky to me? Lots of the creatures that seem to be coming out this time of year, and the problem is that the words we use about them often cause as much confusion as anything else.
This is episode 10, the final episode of season 2 of the “Words You Should Know” podcast. Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess. Let’s dive in.
Season 2, Episode 10: Nervous “Tics” & Nervous “Ticks,” plus other Things that Make you Squirm (Besides Grammar)
I have good news for you. Contrary to what you might have heard, there’s no such thing as a “poisonous” snake. (Well, almost no such thing. We’ll get back to this.*)
But here’s the bad news, this doesn’t make your next romp through leaf piles in the woods any safer.
- “Poisonous” means something that causes illness or death if eaten, touched, or inhaled.
- “Venomous” means something that injects venom into another creature, most commonly through a bite or a sting.
The key difference here is that idea of injection. Snakes aren’t poisonous to the touch, if eaten (um… yikes?), or if inhaled (yeah, no clue why you’re sniffing snakes). It’s their venom that is dangerous. Hence, snakes can be venomous, not generally poisonous.
Admittedly, only ten percent of snakes are venomous, so maybe we all shouldn’t be as nervous around the slithering, fork-tongued creatures as we often are—though, if you ask me, I’ll still be steering clear of any that come across my path—whether or not they’re poisonous, whether or not they’re venomous, whether or not they’re offering apples, whether or not their bites are actually exacting (or extracting?) revenge. Too far? Honestly, I’m not sure you can convince me otherwise.
***Update: It’s been brought to my attention that there are indeed a rare few species of snake in the world (perhaps 2 or 3 total) that are indeed “poisonous.” These species, such as the Red Necked Keelback native to Asia, consume poisonous animals such as frogs and toads to obtain the poison for themselves and then secrete the poison from their skin. Gross? Perhaps. Fascinating? Absolutely. Now to keep things complicated, the Red Necked Keelback is also venomous (though rear-fanged). Just Mother Nature keeping us on our linguistic toes, I suppose! (Thank you to the reader who informed me of the few species who break this venomous/poisonous distinction!)***
But these aren’t the only warm-weather creatures we need to be aware of—and yes, I’m still talking about word choice. Unfortunately, you’ll need your first aid advice elsewhere.
When the exterminator comes around, you might have a “nervous tick,” but if you’re referring to a sudden muscle spasm, you need the word “tic.” There are a few definitions to be aware of with these homonyms actually.
Specifically, a “tick” (noun) can be:
- a bloodsucking arachnid (related to spiders, who knew?),
- a recurring beat or click (as in a clock),
- a small dot or check (perhaps marking something off of a list), or
- a movement in the price of a stock on the Stock Exchange.
On the other hand, a “tic” (noun) can be:
- a sudden muscle contraction (as noted above) or
- a personal quirk.
I know this seems complicated. Clocks “tick-tock,” and you can play “tic-tac-toe”; where Rikki-Tikki-Tavi falls in the midst of this, I don’t know.
One little letter can make all the difference. Make sure you know what you’re doing.
So, I want to return to the conversation about nervous ticks and nervous tics. One might have a nervous tic when there are too many insects about, but a tick might be nervous if there is use of repellents/repellants.
But that begs the question:
How do you spell repellent/repellant? Repellant with an A? Repellent with an E?
Answer: “repellent”—with an “e.”
But before you confidently walk away from this “repellant” vs. “repellent” conundrum, let’s pause for a moment, because the other spelling isn’t completely incorrect.
What we have here is a case of preferred spelling versus accepted spelling. Both “repellant” and “repellent” are indeed words. Both have been used for over three hundred years. When I dug a bit deeper and looked into the Google Books Ngram Tool, it was confirmed that “repellent” is and almost always has been the more common spelling, with the exception of a strange outlier moment in history between 1722 and 1727 where “repellant” jumped ahead. What happened in these five years that almost but not quite changed the fate of this spelling, I have no clue.
“Repellent” and “repellant” trace back to the Latin word repellere, meaning to drive back. You can use insect repellent or have repellent behavior. I’d suggest being cautious with both, but at least you can feel confident in your spelling.
Getting your words right isn’t something that should make you shudder. Venomous snakes, ticks, mosquitoes that require repellent, sure. But words, no.
The whole idea of grammar police is a bit laughable. There are no red pens ready to circle your spoken words. Persnickety editors have their roles—I should know, I am one—but if you are someone working to better yourself, maybe what you eat, maybe how you exercise—why not how you use the English language?
If you ask me, words can change the world. A powerful story can stick into the wrinkles of your brain, lodging itself there and sinking in, giving you something to return to again and again. This is why people have told stories around campfires long before there were roasted marshmallows and s’mores involved.
Even before there were cave paintings, there were stories. There were words. This is how we connect. Let’s keep at it. And let’s do it well.
Who’s with me?
I’ll be back for season 3 in a few months, folks.
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