Word pairs to approach with care:
- Premier/Premiere: In French, both words mean "first" (masculine and feminine, respectively). But they're not interchangeable in English. Premier the adjective means "first in rank": our premier ["very best"] jewelry collection. Premier the noun means a prime minister or chief administrative officer. Premiere can be a noun--"the first public performance"--or a verb--"to present the first performance." Only snobs and New Yorker editors put the accent grave in première when they're writing in English.
- Carat/Karat: Another pair that originated in a single word, Arabic qr, "the weight of four grains," from Greek kertion. But spelled with a c the word refers only to diamond weight (remember the diamond industry's "four C's" mnemonic: cut, color, clarity, carat). With a k it refers only to the proportion of pure gold in an alloy: one karat equals 1/24 part. Gold that is 50 percent pure is 12 karat, usually expressed 12k.
- Cavalry/Calvary: I sometimes wish the cavalry would ride in and lasso the copy editors who get this one wrong, as in this article in Lucky magazine cited by one of my favorite fashion bloggers, Wardrobe 911. "Calvary" pockets? Uh-uh. Calvary is the hill on which Jesus was crucified; it's an Anglicization of Aramaic gulguta, "the place of the skull," sometimes transcribed as Golgotha. Cavalry is a horse of a different color: it comes to us from Middle French cavalerie, which is related to modern French cheval, meaning "horse." A cavalry is an army on horseback, and its uniform--coats, boots, and pants--is cut cavalry style.
- Advise/Advice: The first is a verb; the second is a noun. Take my advice and don't confuse them. The origin of both words was the French phrase ce m'est à vis ("it seems to me"). Both words were originally spelled avis in English; the d was added in the fifteenth century to make them look more Latin-y, and the c was substituted for s in the noun form (a) to distinguish the two words (nice try) and (b) to more closely represent the word's pronunciation. Advise is pronounced as though the s were a z.
- Vise/Vice: Not only are these words unrelated to each other, they're not related to advise/advice, either. (Ain't English grand?) A vise is a device (not a devise) that clamps two objects together; it comes from Latin vitis, the tendril of a vine. A vice is an immoral practice or habit; it comes from Latin vitium, an offense or blemish. Vicious derives from vice, and vice squad made its first appearance in 1905.
- Cache/Cachet: The first is pronounced cash, the second is pronounced cashay (rhymes with sashay). Both come from French cacher, but only cache reflects the modern French meaning "to hide." A cache is a hiding place or the goods stored therein. Cachet comes from an older meaning, "to press," and means "a mark of distinction or quality"--from the seal of authenticity that was pressed into a document. Confusion between the two words leads to slightly surreal exchanges such as the one I heard on NPR between an American GI and a BBC reporter in Baghdad (paraphrased here): BBC: And did you find anything? GI: Yeah, we found a cachet of weapons. BBC: So you discovered a cache of weapons, did you? GI: Yeah, a cachet.