Which Word Wednesday: Flounder vs. Founder

By July 25, 2012 language No Comments

Some dear friends of ours have twin girls. They look alike, for sure—they are twins, siblings—but because I know them well, I see the differences, however slight. I can tell them apart, and I know which name goes with which girl.

Words twins are the same. They look alike, with the same letters, the same sounds. But when you know them well enough, you can quickly tell the difference between them and use them properly. Today’s Which Word Wednesday twins are flounder and founder. Let’s start with definitions from The Oxford American Dictionary:

flounder :: verb
struggle or stagger helplessly or clumsily in water or mud

founder :: verb
(of a ship) fill with water and sink; (of a plan or undertaking) fail or break down, typically as a result of a particular problem or setback

As with human twins, it’s not a matter of merely seeing the differences—you need to associate the differences with the right twin to really know them. Dave Dowling explains it like this in The Wrong Word Dictionary:

“Flounder means to behave awkwardly or move in a clumsy way. Founder means to sink or collapse.”1

What memory hooks can we gain from this? People flounder (struggle, stagger), but ships and plans founder (collapse, sink). For example:

People often flounder (struggling) to know the differences between flounder and founder. I do hope my assistance is not foundering (failing)!

What’s my WWW verdict? If you can know one word in a twin set, you can know them both. I tell flounder from founder with this memory hook: People flounder, like a flounder out of water.

What’s your verdict? Does this twin set confuse you? Do you get flounder confused with founder? Do share in the comments.


Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Dave Dowling, The Wrong Word Dictionary (Oak Park, IL: Marion Street Press, 2005).

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