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Whether it's sullied or soiled, it's definitely dirty

There are many things in life worth keeping unsullied or unsoiled.

From our good name to our best dress shirt, it's preferable to keep things safe from both literal and figurative sullying or soiling.

It would seem that "sully" and "soil" have a lot in common. So much so that a listener recently asked if they're related.

In fact, they are.

Sully comes from the French verb "souiller" which means to pollute or stain. That's the same meaning it had when it came into English in 1615, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Early on, "sully" takes on both physical and metaphorical meanings. 

One fun thing about the history of "sully" is that Shakespeare really liked to use it in his writing, in the both physical and metaphorical sense. Most of the first citations in the OED are from Shakespearean works, including A Winter's Tale, Henry IV, Henry VI, and Hamlet

The verb "soil" comes from the same French root word as "sully," though it comes into English much earlier, in the 13th century. From early on, it also could be both physical and metaphorical. For example, mud might soil one's clothing, but sin could soil one's soul.

There are some words that tend to show up alongside "sully" and "soil" more often than others do. Linguists like Professor Anne Curzan call this type of combination a "collocation."

When it comes to sully, we found that "reputation" was one of the first words that came to mind. For example, "His reputation was permanently sullied after the scandal." For "soil," all we could think about were diapers. Dirty, soiled diapers.

Do you have strong collocations for either of these words? 


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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