Easily Confused Words: Serf vs. Surf

Serf and surf are easily confused words.

The spell-check application of most word processing software programs would not catch a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check is looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary, and words that resemble words in its dictionary but are possibly spelled wrong. Spell-check isn’t perfect. It doesn’t know and can’t guess what word you wanted or what word you meant, it can only judge the words on the page. If you used words that are all spelled correctly, it gives you a pass anyway.

Autocorrect suggests words that start with the same letters. It’s suggesting what word you may want to save time, but quite often, its suggestions are pretty off base. They don’t help you out, but they do make you laugh.

Serf is a noun. It means a person who lives on land they don’t own. They rarely receive payment, and they work in exchange for a small house and a plot to grow food. Being enslaved, a sharecropper, or a tenant farmer is much like being a serf. Many Irish were in this situation during the Great Famine. Once their only source of food, the Irish Lumper potato, caught a disease and refused to grow, many families were starving. Thousands died, and of those that survived, many chose to emigrate to the US.

Today, a serf can be any person stuck in a low wage job.

Surf has multiple forms.

  • Surf the verb means to ride the waves by balancing on a long, slightly curved board.
  • Surf the verb also applies to the internet. If you surf the web, you’re browsing and scanning websites for interesting content.
  • Surf the noun means the oceanfront. If you are ordering off a menu that includes a “surf and turf” platter, it’s a combo platter of beef and shrimp, crab and lamb, etc. One part of the dinner is a sea creature, the other part is a land creature.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Sergei didn’t want to drop out of high school and become a minimum wage serf. He dreamed of starting his own company, and making the time to surf the waves as possible. 


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