Separated by just one pesky letter, these two similar-sounding adjectives can be torturous to keep straight. Or is it tortuous? Let’s take a look at the definitions and applications of each.
Both of these terms come from the Latin verb torquēre meaning “to twist.” This derivation is easy to detect in the meaning of tortuous, defined as “full of twists, turns, or bends.” Expanding on this foundation, tortuous can also mean “not direct or straightforward, as in procedure or speech,” or “deceitfully indirect or morally crooked.”
The theme of twisting takes a takes a grim turn in the word torturous, which means “pertaining to, involving, or causing torture or suffering.”
The differences between these two terms may seem straightforward, but the issue gets muddied when we encounter instances in which both words can be effectively applied. A very long and winding road, for instance, might be described as tortuous for its twists and turns. The same road might also be hyperbolically described as torturous for the discomfort or fatigue it causes those who travel it.
To complicate matters, there’s also tortious, an adjective from the legal lexicon that means “of the nature of or pertaining to a tort.” This term can also be traced back to the Latin torquēre by way of the word tort, which is “a wrongful act that results in injury to another’s person, property, reputation, or the like, and for which the injured party is entitled to compensation.”