Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Lead, Led, and Lead: Past Tense or Pencil?

Don’t confuse the past tense of lead, which is led, with lead, which sounds like led but is spelled like lead. Clear?

Of course not. Like a Dickens character, the English language has a convoluted and improbable past. Which is why we have a verb like lead, whose past tense (led) sounds like another word spelled exactly the same as its present tense (lead).

Photograph of Paris catacombs
Our sinister guide led us down into the catacombs but gave no promise to lead us out again.

To clarify:

Lead (rhymes with bead): verb. To show the way

Led (rhymes with bed): verb. Past tense of lead

Lead (rhymes with dead): noun. A kind of metal, or the graphite core of a pencil

According to Word Origins by John Ayto, the verb comes from a Germanic word meaning “journey,” while the noun is probably derived from an Indo-European word for “flow” (because the metal is quick to melt). As for pencil leads, when graphite was first discovered, people mistakenly thought it was a kind of lead, and a pencil’s core has been referred to as a “lead” ever since.

  • “Lead on, Macduff” is a misquotation of Macbeth.
  • Agnes’s practical joke went over like a lead balloon.
  • Joachim’s leading lady led him astray.
  • “No, chewing on your pencil won’t give you lead poisoning,” said Hélène, “but it’s gross.”
  • Our sinister guide led us down into the catacombs but made no promise to lead us out again.

Mandragora, Tacuinum sanitatis, Rhineland 15th century
Agnes’s practical joke went over like a lead balloon.




No comments:

Post a comment