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shameless pleading

Weary / Wary

Or maybe the crooks just all became government contractors.

Dear Word Detective:  As I understand it, “weary” means “tired” and “wary” means “not trusting.” Increasingly, it seems I’m seeing people use the former for the latter in a way that would pass the grammatical test, but changes the meaning, e.g., “By the late 1990s, the numbers indicated crime had indeed dropped in New York City. While Giuliani and other supporters of broken windows have long cited it as the reason behind the decline, critics have been weary for some time.” Merriam-Webster seems to indicate that this usage is incorrect, and notes that the etymology comes from different Middle English words, “wery” vs. “war/ware,” but I also know that spelling changes can happen, c.f. “insure” vs. “ensure” where we tend to assume different meanings these days. So, is there any tie between “weary” and “wary”? Or are they just plain wrong? Or alternately, are they just tired? — Sean Duggan.

Good question. Speaking of crime in New York City, I find it odd that it dropped precipitously at just about the time I left. Perhaps my departure (and consequent un-muggability) robbed the city’s malefactors of the ultimate incentive, the brass ring on the merry-go-round of crime, that gave them the will to go on.

Had I been the editor charged with smoothing your example sentence (which seems to come from a website called Urbanful.org), I would have changed “weary” into “wary,” stared into space for a moment, and then changed it to “dubious.” “Wary” is a bit too emotive; the critics are doubtful, not fearful.

“Wary,” is an adjective meaning “cautious, on one’s guard, suspicious, circumspect” (“After several bad experiences on eBay, Bob was wary of the seller offering a MacBook Pro for $49″). “Wary” first appeared in English in the 16th century, drawn from the Old English “waer,” meaning “careful” and “aware,” which in turn came from the Germanic root “waraz” (“attentive”), from which we also developed “aware.”

“Weary” is both an adjective, meaning “intensely tired or fatigued,” and a verb, meaning both “to become fatigued” or “to cause to become fatigued” (“By drawing out the War in length, they might think to weary and disorder the Enemy.” 1657). To “become weary” or “to weary” another person tends to imply a long, tedious ordeal; one might be “tired” after a fast game of ping-pong; one is “wearied” by a protracted lawsuit.

So there’s no etymological or sense connection between “weary” and “wary,” only a strong resemblance in spelling. Given that the arguments over the “broken windows” theory of policing (suggesting that strictly enforcing “quality of life” laws cuts serious crime) have been going on for years, everyone involved must be “weary.” But the logic of the sentence makes “wary” more appropriate, and I think we can chalk that “weary” up to a typographical error. As for the other uses of “weary” for “wary” that you’ve encountered, I think it’s a case of simple confusion based on the similarity in spelling, a close resemblance in sound, and, perhaps, a limited vocabulary.

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