Easily Confused Words: Middens vs. Mittens

Middens and mittens 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.

Mittens is a noun. Mittens are woven handcoverings people wear in winter. Mittens have two “lobes”: a large one for the hand and the four fingers, and a smaller lobe for the thumb. Wardrobe cousins to mittens are oven mitts (which cooks wear to avoid burned skin) and catcher’s mitts (which are worn to catch a fast flying baseball or softballs.)

Middens is a noun. It means piles of ashes, dung, or trash. Kitchen middens are shell, bone, and other remains that indicate where ancient hunter-gatherers consumed food.  In a figurative sense, middens can mean evidence left behind of an event.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Mitali was out snowshoeing when she stepped on something unusual. She started pushing back layers of snow, then dirt. She tore off her mittens. She had found what appeared to be an ancient carved chiminea with a pile of middens and remains nearby. What a find for an archaeology student at Helena College.

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