Q&A: Loath vs loathe

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 all about fear and loathing…

Q: Hi AWC, can I talk to you about loath and loathe?

A: Sure. What would you like to know?

Q: Are they the same?

A: Nope, the second one has an “e” on the end.

Q: Oh haha. I mean, do they mean the same thing?

A: Actually, they don’t at ALL. It’s amazing what having a little “e” will do.

Q: I’ve heard that same thing said at music festivals.

A: So let’s start with “loath”. It’s an adjective that Macquarie Dictionary describes as “reluctant, averse, unwilling”.

Q: Example?

A: “She was loath to leave the music festival so soon.”

Q: I would be too. Especially if the major acts hadn’t come on stage yet.

A: Sure.

Q: Maybe she didn’t bring gumboots and it was just too muddy?

A: We really have no idea why the fictional woman left the fictional music festival in our example.

Q: Got it. She hated camping and had misheard that the festival was going to be an “intense” experience, when it was in fact an “in tents” experience.

A: Yes, that must be it. Shall we continue?

Q: Please do. “Loathe”?

A: “Loathe” is a verb that Macquarie defines as “to feel hatred, disgust, or intense aversion for”. You can also be “loathing” something, or have “loathed” something. For example, “She loathed camping so much that she left early”.

Q: I called it. I told you that was why!

A: Um. Okay, good for you.

Q: Any other examples?

A: Yes. Often you may see it written like this: “You did well, as much as it loathes me to say.” Usually more for dramatic effect than being common usage.

Q: I’m a little confused about “loathsome” – does this mean that someone is extremely reluctant?

A: Actually – loathsome is related to “loathe” not “loath”. It's an adjective that means “repulsive”.

Q: I’m loath to say this, but I really loathe English sometimes.

A: We feel your pain. You see, waaaay back in the 13th century, “loath” originally meant “hateful, hostile or repulsive”. Over the following few centuries it weakened and faded from use until being rebooted as the family-friendly “loath 2.0” in the 1800s – with the modern, non-hateful definition.

Q: So did “loathe” evolve from the original version of “loath” then?

A: Bing bing bing – get this contestant a big cuddly toy. Correct. Both “loathe” and “loathsome” arrived on the scene within a century of the original “loath”. And they would have got away with it if it weren’t for the meddling of loath 2.0 and its rebooted meaning – resulting in the confusion we have today.

Q: So any tips on remembering all this?

A: “Loath” is unwilling/reluctant to add the “e”.

Q: Nice. And “loathe” adds an “e” for “ewwwww”?

A: Yes, that works. Also remember that “loathsome” doesn’t include the middle “e” – despite being more similar in definition to “loathe” than “loath”!

Q: Yes, that really is a trap. So, where’s my cuddly toy?

A: What cuddly toy?

Q: The one you said I won earlier.

A: Sorry, we’re loath to give that to you.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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