Some words are frequently mistaken in writing, and some are more frequently used incorrectly in speech. When this happens, I’m not sure if I heard the word being used incorrectly or if I’m just hearing it incorrectly. My brain wants it to be correct, so it automatically replaces the incorrect version and insists on the correct one. But I still feel like maybe something’s a little off, so I have to ask the person talking to repeat the word, and then they look at me as if I am a toddler or slightly deaf or really stupid and say it again, at which point I’m pretty damn sure the word is wrong but I’m not sure if the person simply doesn’t know the right word and they’re saying the wrong word or if they’re saying the correct word, but incorrectly.
Such is the case with “wary” vs. “weary”
Often, I will hear someone say they were weary (very tired) in a situation that called for them to be wary (very cautious and prepared for possible dangers). I find this concerning because if you are in a situation that calls for wariness, weariness is the last thing you should be exhibiting. If dangers abound, your senses are heightened and your entire being must be high alert. This is no time for a nap, my friend. Time to prop up those eyelids and be on your guard for the possible dangers.
I never understood why these two words got mixed up, because in spite of being similar in spelling and sound, they are total opposites. However, the answer become clear to me recently as I was discussing the issue among like-minded folk on one of my favorite Facebook groups for people who enjoy grammar education and enforcement.
It’s the leery factor. (Not to be confused with the O’Reilly Factor, which we should all be leery of, given recent circumstances.)
See, when there are two words that mean similar things In this case, poor little “weary” hasn’t a chance in the world because there are two other similar-sounding words that compete with it (“wary” and “leery”) and they both have similar meanings. Not the same meaning, mind you, because there is a thing called nuance, but similar enough to confuse people. If you would like to delve deeper into this phenomenon, it’s called an “eggcorn” or an “oronym” and you can look up examples of it here if you have decided that you don’t need to be productive in any way for the rest of the day.
When a person is speaking and their brain is searching for whether to say “wary” or “leery” and they can’t decide which one is the right one, their brain says, “Let’s just split the difference” and supplies “weary.”
Now you know. Don’t be weary when you should be wary, or even leery. Stay alert. Keep your wits about you. As Tolkien said, “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door.”