Word Choice: Tortuous vs. Torturous
  • 2-minute read
  • 23rd November 2016

Word Choice: Tortuous vs. Torturous

The way that language evolves is fascinating to word nerds like us, especially how different words develop from the same origins. “Tortuous” and “torturous,” for example, can both be traced back to the Latin term torquēre, which means “to twist.”

This shared root is why these words are similarly spelled. However, “tortuous” and “torturous” also have importantly distinct meanings, so you need to know how each is used.

Tortuous (Twisting or Complicated)

The literal meaning of “tortuous” is fairly close to its Latin origins, since it means “full of twists.” We might use this term to describe a long and twisting route, for instance:

They followed the tortuous road up the mountain.

"Are we nearly there yet?" (Photo: Srdjan Marincic/wikimedia)
“Are we nearly there yet?”
(Photo: Srdjan Marincic/wikimedia)

However, “tortuous” can also mean “excessively complicated,” such as in the following:

It was difficult to follow his tortuous speech and the audience left the hall confused.

The important thing to remember is that “tortuous” mean “twisting” or “complicated.”

Torturous (Involving Torture or Suffering)

“Torture” refers to inflicting pain as punishment or to gain information (e.g., “the confession was given under torture”). It can also mean “extreme pain or suffering.”

The term “torturous” therefore means “related to or involving torture”:

Prolonged solitary confinement is considered a torturous punishment.

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More generally, we sometimes use “torturous” to describe something that is very unpleasant:

Professor Jones’ lectures were torturously dull.

These uses might seem a long way from the root of “twist,” but they make more sense if you imagine someone writhing and twisting in pain while being tortured!

We're not entirely sure what's happening here, but it definitely looks torturous.
We’re not sure what’s happening here, but it definitely looks torturous.

Tortuous or Torturous?

“Tortuous” and “torturous” are often confused because something “tortuous” (i.e., complicated) could also be considered “torturous” (i.e., unpleasant). For example:

G. W. F. Hegel’s tortuous writing is torturous to read.

Going by this picture, Hegel doesn't seem like the most fun-loving dude.
Possibly not a fun-loving dude.

Nevertheless, since these terms have very distinct meanings when used literally, you should always make sure you’ve picked the right word for what you’re describing. Remember:

Tortuous = Twisting or complicated

Torturous = Involving torture or suffering

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