Q&A: Tortuous vs torturous

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 has been torturous leading up to the holiday season.

Q: Phew, what a day. What. A. Day.

A: Repeating it in separate sentences. Nice. Effect. There.

Q: Thanks, but seriously, you would not believe the torturous shopping expedition I just went on. Absolute torture! Plus, because my GPS stopped working, the route I ended up taking was also long and torturous.

A: Hmmm.

Q: What’s more, I got into a torturous argument with a shopkeeper about their intricate returns policy.

A: That’s a lot of torture.

Q: Yes, as I said – a torturous day.

A: We’re just wondering if you might be needing a different word for some of those.

Q: Well, torture means “painful” so I think I used it correctly.

A: That may be so, and sure, you definitely meant “torturous” on some of those. It’s a 15th century adjective derived from the Anglo-French noun “torture”.

Q: So it’s okay to describe my day as torturous then?

A: Yes, certainly. It clearly inflicted pain on you. But there’s another adjective that people often forget about – “tortuous”. This one means either “full of twists and turns” OR “excessively lengthy or complex”.

Q: Okay, interesting.

A: So, usually a journey would be described as “long and TORTUOUS”, not tortuRous. Because it had many twists and turns, rather than pain.

Q: Hmmm. And my argument?

A: It’s likely that your argument with the shopkeeper was more about their complicated returns policy – excessively complex – than it was actually painful.

Q: So, it was a “tortuous argument” instead?

A: Yes. We’d suggest it was in this context.

Q: But if I were chained to a stretching rack and not happy with the way my hands were bound, then that might be a “torturous argument”, yes?

A: Sure. English likes to keep us on our toes.

Q: Oh, don’t even get me started on torturous ballet shoes…

A: It sounds like it would be a tortuous explanation…

Q: Okay, time out. So, at least tell me that these words are somehow related to each other – because they look and act very similar.

A: Sorry – English gets to torture us again here. Because, the word “tortuous” is completely unrelated to “torturous” or any torture whatsoever.

Q: Of COURSE it’s unrelated…

A: It actually dates back to Latin “tortus” and before that Latin “torquere” – both meaning “to twist”.

Q: So, it took many centuries, but “tortus” got here in the end.

A: Hilarious.

Q: So “torquere” must be where the word “torque” comes from. Please tell me it is?

A: Yes indeed, as that’s all about rotation; twisting.

Q: My aunt Grace was going out with a mechanic for a while this year. He kept promising her things, but she realised in the end that he was all torque.

A: Very funny.

Q: I’m just surprised “torture” didn’t originate from when they used to burn witches at the stake. “Torch her! Torch her!” – see what I did there?

A: This conversation was tortuous but it’s now starting to border on torturous…

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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