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Mind your language

Mind your language

Dot Wordsworth takes some convincing

15 April 2009

12:00 AM

15 April 2009

12:00 AM

Coley (not a fish but Veronica’s dog, which we were looking after) yelped, from surprise rather than pain, when my husband threw down the paper on the spot where the poor dog was taking his rest. ‘What’s he mean, “convince”?’

The culprit was a writer on the sports pages who had referred to Tom Hicks ‘trying to convince the banks to renegotiate the structure of the loans’. This encroachment by convince on to the territory of persuade has been going on for most of my life. It happens all the time now, but I do not feel moved to frighten the dog each time I detect it. My husband, I am sorry to say, has adopted the attitude of Betsey Trotwood to donkeys’ trespassing on the piece of green outside her house. Instead of crying, ‘Janet! Donkeys!’ he shouts, ‘What’s he mean, “convince”?’

The donkey sense of convince seems to have come from America. A periodical called Word Study noted in 1958 that the use of convince for ‘persuade’ was ‘becoming frequent in Pennsylvania and New York’.


One can see the overlap. When someone is trying to persuade you to go hunting because it will be fun, you might reply. ‘I’m not convinced.’ The lack of conviction is of the possibility of fun. In practice it is made to refer to the whole package of persuasion. Similarly, persuade and convince can be employed interchangeably in a perfectly proper way: ‘Lewis Hamilton tried to convince/persuade them of his innocence.’

Convince has drifted in its meaning before. The OED marks as obsolete a usage found in the Bible and in Milton, meaning ‘confuted’. There’s a nice text from the Acts of the Apostles, which in the translation of Rheims (1582) says that the eloquent Apollos ‘with vehemencie convinced the Iewes’. The version of 1611 retained the word convinced, but the revision of 1881 replaced it with confuted. The Jews might have lost the argument, but perhaps they were still not convinced.

If you are convinced, you gain conviction, and convince has in the past also meant ‘convict’. When some old book says that the godly may ‘convince us to be sinners’ it does not mean ‘persuade us’ but ‘prove us’.

Over the years a pretty tangle of persuade, convince, convict, confute, rebut, refute has been knotted on to the line of meaning. The last of those, refute, as we all know, means ‘disprove’, not ‘deny’. But politicians and officials will not be taught, and keep using it on the radio in the wrong sense. ‘Coley! Kill the radio!’


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