Monday 2 June 2008

On tolerating

A correspondent writes: 'What, if any, is the difference between tolerance and toleration? As far as I know, tolerance is the commoner word. Are they synonymous?'

Tolerance is certainly the commoner word - try a Google search and you'll see it's about forty times as common. But that's not the issue. There are certainly meaning differences. Tolerance is the broader concept. It is used in a variety of settings, some quite specialized, especially in engineering (where people talk of tolerances, meaning a permitted deviation from a specified norm), biology (where it means the ability of an organism to withstand a particular environmental condition), and in medicine (where people talk of a tolerance for a certain drug, say). In its most general sense, it expresses a sympathetic willingness to accept views or behaviour other than one's own.

You also find tolerance quite often used as part of a compound expression, as in tolerance dose, tolerance level, and tolerance limit. A 2007 proposed addition to the OED notes tolerance zone - a designated area in which prostitution is tolerated by the local authority. That's a 20th-century usage.

Toleration is usually used when someone wants to talk about a specific instance of tolerance - a particular act of allowing something. In history, there are some famous cases of this kind, as reflected in such government names as Act of Toleration and Toleration Bill. It also has a much stronger suggestion of limits, and sometimes even a sense of reluctance. Tolerance has more positive connotations (a desire to accept) than toleration, which can mean 'we have to put up with this'. Compare the phrase religious tolerance with religious toleration. The country which practises the former is more likely to be enthusiastically supporting religious diversity than the latter.

During the history of these two words, there have certainly been occasions when their meanings have overlapped. But they seem to be pretty distinct today. Note that both have the same opposite: intolerance. There is no intoleration.


KateGladstone said...

"Tolerance" and "toleration" have not only the same antonym ("intolerance") but the same related verb.

"Tolerate" can mean either "feel tolerance" or "grudgingly practice toleration" — with the second meaning more common, as in the famous line from Tom Lehrer's song NATIONAL BROTHERHOOD WEEK satirizing USA government efforts at creating tolerance by enforcing toleration : "You can tolerate them [ethnic or religious minorities] if you try!"

KateGladstone said...

Re "intoleration" — I've just tested its alleged non-existence. Google claims "about 10,700" instances of the word "intoleration" — on Google's first page of "intoleration" results, the instances include several dictionary definitions of the word.

DC said...

Yes, but there's a problem here, which surfaces with low-level Google results like this one. Online dictionaries are notorious for the way they steal from each other, and you can see this clearly in the present instance where a single old dictionary (Webster 1913) has a single instance, and this is repeated incessantly by other sites. It's always a worrying sign, in a Google search, when the vast majority of the hits on the first few pages are from dictionary-type sites. With 'real words' you get lots of genuine usages turning up quickly.

Interesting, also, that some of the hits for 'intoleration' are people actually querying whether the word exists. These have to be discounted as well.

There are certainly signs of this formation being around a century or more ago, but is it in real use today? Only a corpus-based historical lexicographic approach can determine the real answer. And moreover one which distinguishes native-speaker from non-native-speaker use. This is always a big problem with Google-type searches, because one can't tell the difference. It may be that the majority of 'intolerations' on Google are from English language learners who think that this is the correct form - and it is, indeed, a perfectly possible form, in some ways more natural than the alternative. so it's not really surprising to find it being given some use. It may, accordingly, be developing a standard use in lingua franca English.

Maggie said...

What a mine of inspiration!
Love all your books especially the two grammar books, the encyclopaedia, and 'Words, Words, Words'.
My own small offerings to word roots / origins include:
Maggie Harnew

KateGladstone said...

Yes, relying entirely on Google can oddly skew a corpus of evidence. If I recall correctly, one recent book on the English language (by an author whose name fails, at the moment, to come to mind) claimed "pagatowr" as a currently known English word for 'maize' on the strength of a Google result reading, in part: "My mother ... makes bread out of pagatowr." Searching Google for "makes bread out of pagatowr" led me to its occurrence in context: a piece of historical fiction for children, written as if by a Native American child of the early 17th century, representing the child as talking to settlers' children and using many words of her own language ("pagatowr," "okindgier," and many others like them, perhaps intended as some sort of language lesson because the web-page helpfully translates each one into English via clickable links to a glossary. "Pagatowr" for 'maize' has not entered present-day English any more than "okindgier" for 'beans' or any of the other Native American words the author uses and defines.)

DC said...

Nice presentations!

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff about tolerance vs. toleration. I was wondering whether you could shed some light on this one:

empathic vs. empathetic

I'd always believed that only the latter (viz. empathetic) was standard, but recently I heard the former and did a check and found that it exists. Are there any subtle differences along the lines of the "tolerance" vs "toleration" distinction? Or are they entirely synonymous?

I don't like the sound of "empathic" and muc prefer "empathetic" (perhaps because of the analogy with "sympathetic" - sympathy(n) - sympathetic(a) - empathy(n) - empathetic(a) ). But I found that even "sympathic" exists! Surely that one is non-standard, and "sympathetic" the better choice?

DC said...

The OED has empathy from 1904, as a translation. The analogy with sympathy is made very early on in the recorded examples in the OED. And in the same way as sympathic (which did once exist) lost out to sympathetic in the 17th century (except in a technical use in medicine), the same thing is happening here. The general use (insofar as this is a widely used term at all!) is empathetic, therefore, with empathic staying on in restricted settings. There is no difference in meaning.

Anonymous said...

Along the lines of "tolerance" vs. "toleration" and "empathic" vs. "empathetic" , what about "approval" vs. "approvement"? Or is this last a bogus alternative?

It's just that I overheard the other day (someone in the street) saying:

"he was nodding in approvement"

or something like that, and I thought it should be "approval". But maybe you can tell me if there is a subtle distinction like the "tolerance" vs "toleration" one

DC said...

I've never heard approvement in this sense in modern English. It did exist in the language once: there are examples from the early 16th century, but the usage seems to have died away by the 19th. It does still exist in restricted legal meanings.

Anonymous said...

Hi, the other day I heard a word (in my CELTA - i.e. TEFL - course) that reminded me of this tolerance/toleration; empathic/empathetic; approval/approvement post. Wonder if you can help me out.

The word I heard was "appropriacy". I thought to myself "appropria -cy?" That doesn't sound right. I looked for it in the big OED, and couldn't find it. So I concluded that it doesn't exist.

But then I did a search online and found it in a few EFL/TESOL posts/pages.

Perhaps EFL teachers have coined it?

But why don't they just use the recognized word: "appropriateness"? Is it because it doesn't sound that great?

DC said...

It exists, alright. I've heard it used for years. I used to get comments about it in the 1980s when I did radio programmes on usage. But it's never made much headway against appropriateness in general usage, and you're right, it hasn't been recognized in the big dictionaries. My impression is that it's more frequent in relation to certain types of subject-matter. It's achieved some status in educational language studies, for example, because of the analogy with literacy and oracy. Appropriacy in those settings would be trying to capture a technical stylistic notion of suitability of language to situation (e.g. formal English in formal situations). But even there I think appropriateness is more common, and I would be surprised to see the -cy version in general conversation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. What interests me is the idea that a word like "appropriacy" can be said to exist even though the most comprehensive dictionary of the English Language (the large OED) doesn't include it

I understand that the OED won't contain certain new words (especially, perhaps, those from informal register). But I never thought that it could omit a cognate of a common "formalish" word

May I ask a general question? (Although this may be one of those questions which, as you say in one of your posts, would require a journal article or even a whole book!)

What are the criteria for determining whether a word is a genuine word (i.e. whether it "exists")? I mean obviously it's not enough if one or two people use it(suppose someone said "toleratious" instead of "tolerant". They'd be bringing a word into existence in one sense, but in another important sense they'd be using a word that doesn't exist).

So is it necessary (and sufficient) that a fairly large NUMBER of people use a word for it to be reocgnizable as a "real word"?

Obviously if its in the OED, it exists. But it follows from your post that a word can exist EVEN IF it's not listed in the OED.

I'd be really interested to know what criteria you use in determining whether a word "exists".

Thanks again for the answer. It's very useful to know what you think!

DC said...

Never treat dictionaries as infallible. No dictionary has ever been a complete record of a language. There are hundreds of specialized technical terms and senses from linguistics, for example, that are not in any dictionary I know of, and the same applies to any subject.

To see the limitations of dictionaries, all one has to do is compare two of them of a similar size. Compare alphabetical samples from the big OED and Webster, say, as I did in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, and you'll immediately see the selectivity that's involved.

A word exists as soon as someone uses it. There is no other criterion. Number of users has nothing to do with it, as is clear from the many single usages found in Shakespeare, all of which are accepted as valid words.

Why a word catches on and eventually becomes part of the standard language is a mysterious business. Dictionaries as a rule won't recognize the existence of a word until it is used in print. I don't know of any algorithm which states how many times a word has to be instantiated before it is included in a dictionary. Practice varies greatly among lexicographers, and I suspect decisions are often intuitive.

bobbomo said...

If I might revive this string, particularly the part on empathic vs empathetic:

The term empathetic appears to be the one commonly used in experimental psychology, social neuroscience, and cognitive science. Perhaps because empathic may have been preempted by clinical psychology as well as popular psychology, often with a special emphasis on picking up another's moods and feelings. It is also used to characterize people who are especially good at such things. In contrast, empathetic would typically cover a variety of responses and capacities, unconscious as well as conscious, involved in the perception of other people. These include the ordinary everyday capacity to interpret another's behavior unconsciously by internally mirroring it (via mirror neurons).

DC said...

Mark Lieberman has some excellent additional data and comment on the empathetic issue here.