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Fine Distinctions

Illustration by Lauren Simkin Berke

Sport vs. Game

Toward the end of the film version of Peter Gent’s corrosively sarcastic football yarn North Dallas Forty, a lineman played by real-life gridiron hero John Matuszak throws a fit upon hearing one more you’re-not-worthy upbraiding from a sniveling, corporate-minded coach. “To you it’s just a business, but to us it’s still gotta be a sport,” he shouts. “Every time I call it a game you call it a business, and every time I call it a business you call it a game!”

On Vonnegut’s Karass vs. Granfalloon

Last summer, I traveled to Northern Virginia to attend the fortieth reunion of my high-school class. As I entered the hotel ballroom and surveyed the scene, a couple of questions inevitably came to mind: “Who are all these old people?” “Where are my people?”

Raven vs. Crow

"Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’” Quoth the raven. Why not quoth the curlew? Quoth the grackle? Quoth the—well, the crow?


Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

Whereas the proto–science fiction of a century past (H. G. Wells, Octavia E. Butler, Edgar Rice Burroughs) looked to a bright if complex future, we can now scarcely imagine one that’s not irredeemably awful. 

Jelly vs. Jam

If there is an epicene, all-encompassing term for the shivering, shimmering stuff with which we adorn sandwiches, toast, and other baked goods, then it is not “jam,” not “conserves,” not “preserves,” not “fruit spread” or “spreadable fruit,” but “jelly.”

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Expulsion of Adam and Eve From the Garden of Eden, 1860.

Shame vs. Guilt

You borrow a book from a friend, knowing full well that you’ll never return it. You sleep with another friend’s spouse. You drink too much at a party, then drive home, merrily exceeding the speed limit.

Solstice vs. Equinox

When it comes to the workings of the universe, Albert Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice.” Einstein said nothing about the dreidel, however, which may explain why Earth and the other planets in our solar system spin like tops, a touch wobbly but more or less self-​correcting, whirling about in space toward whatever bang or whimper the future has in store.