Q&A: “Amend” vs “emend”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're on the mend…

Q: Hi AWC, is there a difference between “amend” and “emend”?

A: Well, they begin with different letters.

Q: You’re such a comedian. I’m referring to meaning – I see them both occupying a similar space, definition wise, and you usually have all the answers.

A: Amen to that.

Q: Or emen to that, maybe?

A: Haha. On the surface, they might seem interchangeable, however they do have subtle differences in meaning, even if they sound the same.

Q: I’m assuming they both came from the word “mend”, right?

A: Actually, “amend” came first, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary – with “mend” being a shortened offspring, both arriving in the early 1200s.

Q: I guess there were a lot of things that needed fixing back then.

A: Indeed. The word “amend”, like many words of that era, came from the Old French – “amender” – meaning “correct, make better or improve”. This was itself from the Latin “emendare”, to be “free from fault” – which, via a roundabout route, also gave us “emerge”.

Q: I assume it also gave us “emend”?

A: Yes, that link is clear, although that word itself wouldn’t arrive in English until the 1400s. Once again, “emend” had a similar meaning, to “remove faults, alter for the better”.

Q: So how have two almost identical words, with almost identical meanings, coexisted for the past 600 years?

A: They never go to bed angry.

Q: Huh?

A: Never mind. It certainly is curious. But one clue may stem from something else that came along in the 1400s.

Q: Christopher Columbus and his masterclass on plundering native populations?

A: No, not that.

Q: Joan of Arc's questionable tips on how to build a roaring fire?

A: Nope.

Q: The War of the Roses, which surprisingly had nothing to do with cranky florists?

A: Also not relevant. In fact, it was the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in Germany in the 1440s. 

Q: Please explain. 

A: The emergence of printing and text is where the subtle difference comes in. “Emend” has persisted in English largely with regards to what Macquarie Dictionary says is “to amend a text by removing errors“. This is backed up by America’s Merriam-Webster, which lists the verb asto correct usually by textual alterations.

Q: It’s like that Marvin Gaye song!

A: Ummmm. What one?

Q: “When I get that feeling, I want textual healing…”

A: Haha. Anyway, as you can see, even in the definitions there is some overlap – however to “amend” something typically applies to more than just text – and even figurative things such as amending one’s attitude.

Q: Does “emend” have a noun form?

A: Yes, it’s “emendation” – and once again, there is overlap, with Merriam-Webster listing the main definition of “amend” as “to make emendations in something”.

Q: So, it’s like a second “amendment”?

A: Ooooh, you may wish to emend that wording – for in America, an “amendment” is also a specific change to their Constitution.

Q: Do bears even HAVE arms?

A: No comment. 

Q: So, to recap, while the two words are quite similar, “emend” is kind of like a synonym for “edit” – relating mainly to fixing text. Whereas, “amend” is more widespread and can fix all manner of things.

A: That’s it! Yeah, “emend” is fairly uncommon these days – popular mainly with crossword setters.

Q: I hope that doesn’t get them 2 down.

A: Haha.

Q: And where does the saying “to make amends” come into all this?

A: That’s quite different – as the plural word “amends” had a separate French origin, “amendes” meaning “fines, penalties or reparations“. So, to “make amends” is to make up for something, with this plural form only surviving in English as part of this phrase.

Q: Case closed. I have nothing to amend. Or emend. Or mend. Amen.

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