May 8, 2008

word nerd

Posted by Mary |

I like it when people make me think. Driving home last night, Robin and I started musing over the difference between “oblige” and “obligate.” How can you not love a man who will discuss etymology with you? *swoon*

The dictionary, though usually my friend (OK, usually read by me and my friends at parties. Seriously.), was not help with this one. The definitions (of the transitive verbs only):

Oblige: {OFr obligier, obligare to bind, oblige < ob + ligare, to bind} vt 1) to compel by moral, legal or physical force; constrain; 2) to make indebted for a favor or kindness done; do a favor for;

Obligate: {L obligatus, pp of obligare} vt to bind by a contract, promise, sense of duty, etc.; put under obligation

Not so different, eh? Both words essentially mean to make someone feel like they have to do something. In common usage, though, I tend to think that “oblige” implies more of a voluntary act. Is this simply because we most commonly hear the intransitive form of the verb? “Much obliged” is a stand-in for “thank you” in some parts of the country, seeming to give the feeling that to “oblige” someone is to be accommodating to them, not to force them to your will. Conversely, “obligate” implies a forced or compelled act.

However, further investigation has shown that perhaps this understanding of the difference between the two words comes down to my nationality. We do not speak the Queen’s English in America. Rather, we have an English all our own. Don’t believe me? Try reading The Economist’s Style Guide section on Americanisms.

While The Economist simply states that it is oblige, not obligate, I found further explanation from an Aussie. As it turns out, “obligate” as a verb is an American construct not necessarily found in other forms of English. For example, Australians would say “Though the watch was meant as a birthday gift, he felt obliged to get her something expensive in return.” Americans would use “obligate” in that instance.

The moral of the story? Well, you can use “oblige” and “obligate” somewhat interchangeably, but it will mark you as an American. And if someone does you a favor, I would not recommend saying you are “much obligated.” And, more importantly, when you start talking words with me, I like you more.


Coldfoot said...

For what it's worth:

Here's the one I often ponder.

Sign. Signature.

Design. Desingnate.


Note how the "g" is either silent or not in this series of words.