When you hate something, say it

Posted on Tue 31 May 2011 @ 2.06pm HKT


MANY PEOPLE ARE IN CONFUSION with these two words — even well-educated native English speakers are fallen. Usually the problem is the use of one where the other is more appropriate.

loath (adj)

‘Loath’ is a rather formal adjective meaning ‘unwilling’ or ‘reluctant’ to do something. It is usually followed by ‘to’ (as in loath to) — ‘to’ being the trick marker that it’s an adjective. It is pronounced with a hard ‘th’ sound as /ləʊθ/ (UK RP: rhymes with ‘beau’) or /loʊθ/ (US: like ‘row’).

“American publishers these days are loath to publish collections and micellanies except by ‘brand-name’ authors.”
(The New Yorker, 22 June 2009, page 87)

But why use ‘loath’ when you have the plain old-fashioned ‘unwilling,’ which is clearer and more readily understood by the most number of people? Your mission is to let others know you’re unwilling, why piss it away with a word nobody uses?

Being reluctant or unwilling isn’t the same as to hate doing something — you just don’t like doing something. Now, you could rationalise things with logic by saying, logically speaking, you’ve got to hate doing something in order to be unwilling. Could be. But the real world doesn’t operate in that blunt way.

loathe (vt)

‘Loathe’ (with an ‘e’) is a transitive verb (one that takes a direct object) meaning ‘to hate intensely’ or ‘to feel intense dislike or disgust for. It is pronounced with a soft ‘th’ sound as /ˈləʊð/ (UK RP: rhymes with ‘smooth’) or /ˈloʊð/ (US: like ‘breathe’).


Most Englishmen (as well as other English-speaking people) are much more likely to say ‘hate and detest’ rather than ‘loathe’ (v). ‘Loathe’ is actually a rather pretentious word to the English ear. If you hate something bad enough, the natural human reaction is to say what you mean — therefore, ‘hate and detest.’

If you hate and detest something that much, why hide behind a piss-poor word like ‘loathe’? If you don’t want to come on strong, then just say “Do not want” or “Do not like.” If you use ‘loathe,’ you might as well use ‘hate and detest’ to put your point across. Otherwise, fut the shuck up.


Old schoolboy trick:
To love, to hate and to loathe all end in ‘e

Remember it the English way:
“Love it or loathe it”

Textbook vs. real-life examples

IRL = in real life (and if you want to sound like a native English speaker)

(1) I was loath to leave. (adj: I was unwilling to leave.)
IRL: I [really] didn’t want to leave.

(2) He was loath to admit that he was included in the deal. (adj: He was unwilling.)
IRL: He [really] didn’t want to admit…

(3) Alex loathes spiders. (vt: Hates them intensely.)
IRL: Alex hates and detests spiders.
IRL: Alex hates spiders [in a bad way / really badly / like f*ck / intensely].

(4) Kenji is loath to go to the conference because he loathes volcanos. (adj, vt)
IRL: Kenji hates to go to the conference because he couldn’t stand volcanos.

Plain English

Which one is easier to understand on first reading?

(5) While I am sure that states loathe losing their ability to regulate insurance plans, I think it is fair to say that they were more loath to do so.

(6) While I am sure that states detest losing their ability to regulate insurance plans, I think it is fair to say that they were more unwilling to do so.

If you had to explain to others who hates what and who’s unwilling, which sentence is going to help you more? Think about this the next time you use these two words.

REALITY CHECK: The only possible reason to use ‘loath’ or ‘loathe’ is really to show off how mightily educated you want others to think you are. Trouble is, most normal people loathe douchebags who use words like ‘loathe’ because you’re effectively putting them down as the loathsome hoi-polloi. Not a way to win friends and influence people.

Misuse (tl;dr)

Misusing ‘loath’ (being unwilling) and ‘loathe’ (to hate and detest) is actually a misspelling matter by people who don’t know which is which, mainly because of the near-same spellings and pronunciations of the two words.

It doesn’t matter a great deal to those of us who don’t know or don’t care (mainly because authentic English speakers don’t use ‘loath’ or ‘loathe’ much anyway). To the pedantic, mixing up ‘loath’ and ‘loathe’ is an almighty irritation to them. Then you suffer for it. Of course, you can misuse the two words on purpose just to wind them up for kicks.

Also confusing things further for us is the unprepossessing (even annoying) tendency of grammarians, linguists (as in linguistics) and other pedantic people to display soloing techniques (i.e. show off) at the mere sight of these ‘big’ words. In the process, they tell us (wrongly) that ‘loath’ and ‘loathe’ are substitutions (not!) or misspellings (arguably yes!) or sometimes even misidentifying them as eggcorns (not!).

(Eggcorn is a linguistics term coined by Scottish/American linguist Geoffrey Pullum in 2003 to mean a word or phrase that replaces another, both with the same or similar sound in the speaker’s dialect. The replacement or substitution is done in an idiosyncratic or eccentric or peculiar way so that the new phrase introduces a different meaning from the original, but remaining believable in the same context, e.g. old-timers’ disease for Alzheimer’s disease. In short, an eggcorn is a new replacement expression that sounds nearly like the original expression, but with a somewhat different meaning that also keeps some of the original expression’s context. The opposite of an eggcorn is a malapropism, where the substitution creates a nonsensical phrase.)

‘Loath’ and ‘loathe’ are not eggcorns. There is no indication of a reinterpretation of one sense for the other here. Naturally, many of us have substitutions or misspellings we find annoying (e.g. lose vs. loose), but those who are in the business of teaching generation upon generation of incoming youngsters should know better.

The strange thing is that most eggcorns are in fact made by linguists themselves, who bloody well should know better. You will see this pattern if you look through enough of the examples in The Eggcorn Database.

Related words

loathing (n)

Means extreme disgust or detestationHunter S. Thompson made the word famous with his novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” (1971, Random House). ‘Loathing’ is not a gerund; it’s a noun in its own right. Derp.

loathsome (adj)

Describes something as ‘causing feelings of loathing,’ so that it means disgusting, revolting or repulsive — e.g. a loathsome skin disease (= a disgusting skin disease). It doesn’t mean ‘with some unwillingness’ or ‘with some dislike’ — which nearly every Asian seems to think whenever they see -some words. (It’s kind of a mindf*cksome way of looking at English usage.)

loathful (adj)

Not a common adjective. The standard British English meaning is the same as loathsome, which is how Englishmen understand it. It doesn’t mean ‘full of unwillingness (loath)’ — which nearly every Asian thinks whenever they see -ful words. (It’s kind of a mindf*ckful way of using English.)

The Scottish meaning is ‘bashful’ or ‘reluctant’ (therefore akin to the adjective ‘loath’: unwilling) — not usefully worth remembering unless you’re Scottish or plan on speaking Scottish English on a daily basis.

© Learn English or Starve, 2011.

Images via Zazzle (loathe heart) and Food2 (fruitcake).

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Posted in: Colour Section