Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Foundering or Floundering?

The difference between a founder (one who establishes or begins to build something) and a flounder (a weirdish fish) is apparent to everyone. Not so clearly discernible are the verb forms. To founder and to flounder mean the same thing, in the minds of countless speakers and writers. Both verbs suggest dire situations, it’s true, but of a substantially different nature.

The Titanic foundered. It did not flounder. The Latin fundere meant to found, or cast; it also meant to slay, or lay low. (In a sense, it could mean both to build and to destroy.) The Middle English foundren meant to collapse to the foundation, to fall, or—its most common usage in modern times—to sink.

Etymologists believe flounder may have derived from founder, but it suggests a different type of problem. It means to thrash wildly, to move about awkwardly, or to attempt impulsive, desperate schemes and solutions, all of them futile. If you’re floundering, you’re basically lost or helpless, struggling to find your way.

The Titanic, by contrast, was driven purposefully, straight and haughty, through the North Atlantic on a cold, moonless night. It grazed an iceberg accidentally, came to a dead halt, settled gradually for two-and-a-half hours, then plunged to the bottom. While its passengers and crew floundered in the frigid sea, praying for rescue, the ship itself foundered into the depths.