Q&A: Dual vs duel

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, it's double trouble…

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about “dual” and “duel”?

A: Sure. We can also discuss “joule” – the energy unit named after 19th century English physicist James Joule, and maybe even “Jewel” – the 1990s singer.

Q: Oh, Jewel. Was she the one who sang about wiping spots off the mirror, consoling a cup of coffee and putting the cap back on the toothpaste?

A: Yes, that’s her. It was a simpler time.

Q: Indeed it was. And just for interest’s sake, was the “calorie” also named after a 19th century English physicist?

A: Nope, it was named by a 19th century French physicist Nicolas Clément after the Latin word “calor” – meaning heat. This is because calories are defined as the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of water by one degree. 

Q: All good to know. But yeah, I’m really just interested in the ones that people get wrong a lot – “dual” and “duel”. They’re separate words, yes?

A: Absolutely – both with very different meanings. But like you say, people often confuse them – even though “dual” is an adjective and “duel” is a noun and verb.

Q: So, let’s start with “dual” shall we?

A: Sure. It comes from Latin – dualis – “that contains two; two parts”. An example might be a dual carriageway – a road that is divided into two parts or a dual flush toilet. The word arrived in English in the 1600s and is also related to “duo” and of course, “duality”. 

Q: And now what about “duel”?

A: Macquarie Dictionary defines “duel” as “a prearranged combat between two persons” – such as a sword-fighting duel. It’s older – dating back to the 1400s, from an earlier Latin word, “duellum” – meaning war. This itself was a form of the Latin “bellum” – from which we can trace words like “bellicose” (warlike), “belligerent” and even “rebel”.

Q: Hmmm I can see a big reason for the confusion. One word means “two” and the other means “combat between two”.

A: Yeah, that’s true. 

Q: So in the musical Hamilton, you might say that the two main characters Hamilton and Burr have dual storylines which result in a deadly duel?

A: Haha, yes, you might say that! Hamilton was indeed killed in a duel.

Q: Hey, spoilers!

A: Seriously?

Q: Tickets are hard to get!

A: Well anyway, it can be confusing when the words sound so similar and each has an element of “two-ness”.

Q: Isn’t that the capital of Tunisia?

A: No, that’s Tunis.

Q: Right. So, any tips on remembering which one is which?

A: You only need to know one really. In this case, we’d suggest focusing on “duel” – as its meaning is very specifically combat related. Fighting is sometimes called an “engagement” – such as in the term “rules of engagement”. Engagement starts with “e”, as does duel!

Q: Oh, nice.

A: OR, if you want to be extra fancy, we’d also suggest “épée” – the name of the sharp-pointed sword actually used in a duel. Again, épée contains a lot of “e”s.

Q: Someone certainly bought a lot of vowels.

A: These days, the épée is often used in fencing.

Q: Hmmm, that seems rather expensive. Why wouldn’t French farmers use posts and wire like everyone else?

A: Ah, very clever – exploiting the “dual” meanings of the word “fencing”!

Q: Well anyway, thanks for the lesson. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to pick up a book, turn the sheets down and then put on my PJs and hop into bed.

A: Jewel again?

Q: Same old story, not much to say…


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