September 05, 2005

Illuding memory

Well, it happened again. I found another unexpected word in a book I'd read before. Last time, I relearned the tules from Ross Macdonald's Black Money. This time, it happened on p. 5 of his 1946 novel Trouble Follows Me.

The point of view is that of Sam Drake, a Navy lieutenant on leave in Honolulu during WWII:

I got some ice at the bar and went back to the table where the bottles were. I made a little celibate ceremony out of mixing and drinking a double highball. I concentrated on the good sharp clean taste of the whiskey and soda, the feel of the ice against my teeth, the cold wet glass in the circle of my fingers. Then the small expanding glow in my stomach, spreading from there through my body like a blob of dye in a beaker of water, finally working into my brain, warming and coloring my perceptions.

The first stages of drunkenness are delicate, illusive and altruistic, like the first stages of love. I became very pleased with the bright disorderly room, the merry drunken laughter, the sweet chiding clink of ice in glasses, the confusion of shoptalk and woman-talk, war and love.

Illusive, I thought. Is that a word? Well, yes, according to the dictionaries: it means "illusory", just as the context suggests. How did I miss this one up to now? Worse, Google has 441,000 hits for illusive, compared to 777,00 for illusory, so it looks like illusive is alive and well, and I just haven't been paying attention.

However, in this case the counts are misleading. Many of the top-ranked hits for illusive are parts of trade names like Illusive Entertainment, Illusive Records, Illusive Rapsody Studios, Illusive Media, and so on. In the case of such names, it's hard to tell whether the namer intends the "illusory" meaning, or a non-standard spelling of elusive, or both at once. And most of the other hits seem to be misspellings or misunderstandings of elusive, such as these headlines:

China's Illusive Billion Customers
Metroid film remain illusive
What Makes a Problem Real: Stalking the Illusive Meaning of Qualitative Differences in Gifted Education.
Liberia's Illusive Dream of Democracy
DNA Search for Illusive Iberian Lynx
Camera Catches Illusive Thief In Act
Further Carnage On the Road to Illusive Peace
Why Peace Remains Illusive in Mindanao
The Illusive "Higgs"

In fact, it's hard to find any web examples where illusive is used as the dictionaries say it should be. I had to look through more than 200 examples to find the title "Fibromyalgia: Elusive But Not Illusive", and another 120 to find "Are Scale Economies in Banking Elusive or Illusive?" (The elusive/illusive contrast in these examples is not what I was looking for -- I just wanted any reasonably clear example of illusive meaning "illusory".)

Still, it's obvious that I must have come across illusive a number of times, in Trouble Follows Me if nowhere else. I guess that some sort of inhibitory effect from elusive must have suppressed it.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 5, 2005 09:59 AM