Trump sparks debate with usage of the word ‘pour’

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg, via Getty Images

Poor President Trump. He just can’t get a break on Twitter. He tweets a solid defense for his unorthodox capitalization, and is met with an outpouring of people jumping all over him for supposedly misusing a word. And then when he corrects it, another outpouring says the corrected word is wrong.

We are talking, of course, about “pour” and “pore.”

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In his original tweet last week, Trump said:

“After having written many best selling books, and somewhat priding myself on my ability to write, it should be noted that the Fake News constantly likes to pour over my tweets looking for a mistake. I capitalize certain words only for emphasis, not b/c they should be capitalized!” (We italicized the word “pour,” resisting capitalizing it for emphasis.)

Lots of people tweeted that he had misused “pour,” and meant “pore.” Most of those tweets contain other offenses or offensiveness, so we will share only two, one from a former director of the CIA and the NSA and one from one of our favorite dictionaries (and Twitter accounts):

Trump, ever responsive to his base, deleted his tweet within a couple hours and reposted it:

And that set off another storm, of which this is among the most printable:

 

So which is it, “pour” or “pore”? Stay with us to the end.

Let’s start with the obvious: Critiquing the spelling, grammar, and capitalization of this president’s tweets is a sport for many, including us. But it’s too easy to capture a trophy collection quickly.

But this tweet seemed to strike a nerve with many people, because it wasn’t about policy: It was Trump defending his mastery of English in a tweet that contained a word that many people believed to be incorrectly used. (We’re ignoring other questionable things in that same tweet, like a dangling modifier, unhyphenated compound adjectives, whether he actually wrote those books, etc.)

Because this is a column about language, we will avoid politics and discuss the meanings of those words.

“Poor,” “pour,” and “pore” are homophones, of course.

“Poor” is the one the president did not use in this tweet. Over the years, it has been spelled “poore,” “poure,” “pour,” “puir,” “peer,” and “poyr,” among other things, the Oxford English Dictionary notes. The word’s first appearance, as a literal or figurative noun or adjective to mean a person with few or no material possessions or worth, was about 1225. Its spelling narrowed to “poore” and “pour” until the early 17th century, when most references settled on “poor.” For a few hundred years it had a verb form, to make or become poor, but we rarely see that today.

“Pour,” in the president’s original tweet, began its English life as a verb in the early 14th century, the OED says, with its own eclectic (to us) spellings like “poure,” “poore,” and “powre.” The noun “pour” didn’t show up until around 1800, the OED says, used figuratively to mean a “stream; a constant flow,” or to indicate a heavy rainfall, a “downpour.”

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It took almost a another hundred years for the act or of pouring something or its amount to become “the pour.”

Then there’s “pore.” Unlike the others, whose definitions hew close to a single meaning, “pore” has several unrelated variations. And the one at issue here, the verb “pore,” is the oldest.

Beginning about 1300, “to pore” meant “to look intently or fixedly, to gaze,” the OED says. It, too, had multiple spellings, like “poure” and “powre.” (Since “poor” and “pour” were also spelled “poure,” and “pour” was also spelled “powre,” we can only hope that context told people which word was meant. Might this have caused the president’s confusion?)

Where the verb “pore”’ came from, no one is clear, though the OED says it might come from the now-obsolete verb “pire,” meaning “to peer.” The OED says that original definition is “rare,” unless referring to someone examining, studying or intensely reading a map, book, or other written matter. Rarely, “pore” is used as a noun to mean “a careful or close examination.”

The most familiar use of “pore” as a noun is also its oldest: “An opening in the skin or body surface of an animal; esp. the opening of the duct of a sweat gland or sebaceous gland in a mammal,” as the OED puts it. That appeared late in the 14th century. Another “pore” relating to anatomy was a type of callus that forms at the site of a healing fracture, and eventually turns to bone. The OED calls that usage obsolete and rare, as it calls another usage of “pore” as a noun to mean, apparently, “a trace left by a stag.”

We say “apparently” because the OED does. That “pore,” the venerable dictionary says, was “perhaps an error forport,” a gateway.

If somebody in the 17th century can mistake a “port” for a “pore” and it makes the dictionary, maybe we should cut the president a little slack.

Besides, there’s this definition of “pour” in Merriam-Webster: “to give full expression to: vent.” Using that definition, didn’t many people “pour” over his tweet?

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Editor’s note: This post is been updated to correct another homophone, somewhat ironically. The anatomical “pore” is a “callus,” not a “callous,” as we wrote.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.