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.
What does tortuous mean?
Both torturous and tortuous 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.”
You might say, The tortuous path led us farther and farther away from the coast and into the jungle. Or you could use tortuous to describe someone’s demeanor or speech: We couldn’t follow his tortuous logic, and he refused to answer any follow-up questions.
What does torturous mean?
Torturous refers specifically to what involves or causes pain or suffering: prisoners working in the torturous heat; torturous memories of past injustice.
For example: The patient described his torturous battle with a rare brain condition and his subsequent recovery. Or, I’m not exaggerating when I say watching that movie was a torturous experience!
How to use the two
The differences between torturous and tortuous 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.” But its use is quite different (and you’re less likely to encounter it casually), such as one technical example from Texas Law Review: “International organizations may be subject to jurisdiction for claims arising out of their commercial activities, tortious actions, or violations of international law.”
In the end, it may help to remember torturous sounds like torture, and means “pertaining to suffering,” whereas tortuous relates to twists and turns.
Escape the trap of torturous behavior by kicking these annoying phrases to the side and opting for something more direct.
And if you’re looking for the nexus of all things tortuous and torturous, look no further than your workout. Learn about your trainer’s most excruciating exercises here.