Q&A: ‘Sliver’ vs ‘slither’

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, a slice of the action…

Q: Hey AWC, can we talk about cake?

A: We’re always happy to discuss cake.

Q: The other day there was cake in the break room, and my friend said to just cut them a small “slither”. But, it’s “sliver” isn’t it?

A: You’re right! But these two words get confused a LOT, despite one being a slippery verb and the other is usually a thinly sliced noun.

Q: Can you elaborate?

A: Of course. According to our friends at the Macquarie Dictionary, the main meaning of “sliver” is a slender piece, as of wood, split, broken, or cut off, usually lengthwise or with the grain.”

Q: So, specifically wood?

A: That’s how it started out – from the Old English word toslifan”, meaning to split or cleave, appearing first around the late 14th century. The word “splinter” was literally the name of a sliver of wood.

Q: Oh, I HATE getting splinters.

A: They can be very painful – including politically. The term “splinter group” originated in 1935 and is defined by Merriam Webster asa group of people that has separated from a larger group (such as a political party)”.

Q: Can you also sliver something?

A: You sure can – although the verb didn’t come along till later, about the 1600s. And it simply means to cut into slivers. Of course, while a sliver started out as a piece of wood, today it’s any thin slice – wood, bone, cake. It can even be used to describe “a sliver of moonlight” or figuratively, such as “a sliver of hope”.

Q: A sliver of silver moonlight, haha.

A: Yeah, that is a little confusing.

Q: But at least it’s not WRONG like a “slither of moonlight”, right?

A: Right. You don’t want anything slithering near your slice of cake. Most commonly, “slither” is defined as a verb: to slide down or along a surface, especially unsteadily or with more or less friction or noise.’ And the most common thing that slithers is?

Q: A politician?

A: No.

Q: A used-car salesman?

A: Try again.

Q: Insurance broker!

A: The answer we were looking for was a snake.

Q: Ah yep, that also works. 

A: The word comes from the Old English “slidrian” – entering the dictionary during the 15th century first as “slidder” and originally simply meaning to slip or slide. 

Q: Ohh – like a Middle Ages water theme park!

A: Not exactly. It was during the 16th century that Middle English underwent a widespread phonetic shift as spelling caught up to changes in pronunciation from “d” sounds to a “th” sound. Many English words including “mother”, “father”, “weather”, “gather” and “slither” underwent this change. Curiously, the word wouldn’t be applied to reptiles such as snakes until the 1840s – quite late in the piece.

Q: And what about “slidder” – is that still a word?

A: Yes and no. You’ll find it in some dictionaries – but not all. It still retains its originally slippery meaning, but is probably a word to avoid as people might think you’ve got it wrong.

Q: Okay sure, I’m gonna let that one slide.

A: Incidentally, the phrase “to let something slide” (as in to not consider or ignore) might sound quite modern, but actually dates all the way back to 14th century Chaucer and later appears in Shakespeare’s works.

Q: Fascinating. But WHY do so many people get “sliver” and “slither” confused? They’re clearly two different words!

A: The answer appears to be a mix of factors – the main one being the obvious similar “th” and “v” sounds. There’s also the fact that they’re words that aren’t used a lot. “Sliver” is especially uncommon – which may explain why people will more commonly use “slither” incorrectly than the other way around.

Q: So basically, it’s ignorance?

A: Yep. And it’s common too – with even newspapers guilty of reporting that a sports team only has “a slither of hope”. There’s also been a trend to people pronouncing things like “smooth” as “smoove” – further mashing the two sounds together. But that’s no excuse here.

Q: It really is just a sliding scale of poor usage.

A: It really is. By the way, the term “sliding scale” came to English in 1842, initially in reference to payments – but now can refer to all manner of things.

Q: So any tips on remembering which word to use?

A: Sure. Think of the “V” in “sliver” like the shape of a slice of cake (or wood, or moonlight!). And the “TH” is like “python” – something that slithers!

Q: I like it. That tip most definitely takes the cake!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

 

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