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Swamp or bog? Guilt or shame? Club soda or sparkling water? From food to fashion, ethics to architecture, there are thousands of words and ideas that we tend to collapse, conflate, or confuse. For hairsplitters and language lovers, Tendency contributor Eli Burnstein’s Dictionary of Fine Distinctions: Nuances, Niceties, and Subtle Shades of Meaning explores the world of the vanishingly small, offering up witty deep dives and lively illustrations by Liana Finck to help sharpen these differences and bring us clarity at last.

Today, we offer a small sample of the many important (and funny) distinctions that can be found in this important (and funny) book.

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According to maritime law, if you find flotsam, it may be claimed by its original owner, but if you find jetsam, it’s yours. Technically, the owner
gave it away.

Mnemonic: Flotsam floats away. Jetsam is jettisoned.

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Schlemiel vs. Schlimazel


With schlemiels and schlimazels, we may distinguish between two kinds of loser.

Schlemiels are clumsy, foolish, and loudly incompetent. Seinfeld’s Kramer and Broad City’s Ilana Glazer are typical schlemiels: Through inane scheming and oafish ineptitude, they bring trouble upon themselves and those around them.

In the blast radius of every schlemiel, by contrast, lies the hapless schlimazel—folks like Kramer’s George or Ilana’s Abbi. Their bad luck tends to happen to them, whether by virtue of a nearby you-know-who or because it’s simply their fate.

In short, schlemiels are active screw-ups whose idiotic plans always spell disaster, while shlimazels (literally, “bad luck” in Yiddish) are born losers who always get the short end of the stick.

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Assume and presume both mean to suppose, believe, or take for granted that something is true despite a lack of hard proof. Yet presuming is more confident because it suggests that there’s at least some good evidence for the thing believed: When the boat washed up empty, he was presumed dead. Assuming, by contrast, is based on weaker grounds for belief, or none at all, and thus lacks the swagger of presumption: You assume incorrectly—I’m Belgian.

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Eli Burnstein’s Dictionary of Fine Distinctions is available at your favorite bookseller, or online here.