Q&A: Tortuous vs torturous

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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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