I’m not going to kid you. Words and word usage can be confusing. Many words that originated in Latin come from the same root, but time and translation have changed their English meaning and usage.
One such word family comes from the Latin ludere – meaning to play, mimic, mock or deceive. In English, we’re speaking of words like allusion, illusion, delusion, and the rarely used elusion.
An allusion is an indirect reference to something. Authors often use this technique when they “borrow” a line or phrase from another work to imply or hint at something else. We may do the same in everyday language when we reference a familiar character or significant cultural person, place, or event.
EX: The new president discovered that amending the company’s dress code opened a Pandora’s box of conflict.
This is a reference to the Greek myth in which Pandora opened a container left in his care and released all kinds of problems into the world. Pandora’s box has become shorthand for a “source of great and unexpected troubles.”
In his, “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. alluded to Abraham Lincoln when he said, “Five score years ago, a great American ….” By mimicking the opening lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “Four score and seven years ago,” King he recalled another great battle for racial equality—the Civil War.
If allude is the literary version of “things aren’t really what they seem,” illusion is the visual or mental variant. Again, the original conveys the sense of mocking or jeering. An image is playing with you—it appears to be something it isn’t. In contemporary usage, illusion can be an intellectual deception as well as visual—a dream or pipe dream. Imagining yourself as a great pianist when in reality you’re loath to practice is creating an illusion.
Many years ago on a vacation in the Black Hills, our family got caught in a rain and hail storm while hiking around Sylvan Lake. We were able to find limited shelter under a rock overhang. As the hail and rain coursed down the hill beside me, my eye was drawn to a rivulet slithering past my feet. As if trying not to get pelted by ice balls wasn’t enough, now there was a snake about to crawl up my leg! But it was an illusion. The rain pushing through the dirt and hail gave the appearance through my rain-streaked glasses of something other than it was. And my family still teases me about the phantom snake.
Closely related and frequently confused is the cousin elusive or elude. Again the concepts of mockery and deception are at play but the meaning is more literal. Elusive means to avoid or escape. In a figurative sense, it is defined as baffling—not easy to understand or define.
EX: A peace treaty between North and South Korea has eluded the two countries for seventy years.
EX: While cancer research has made much progress, a cure has proved elusive.
Delusion or delude are also closely related to illusion, but the direction and impact of the deception are more significant. While an illusion is imaginary, delusions are real to the person experiencing them and may lead to harm or danger. The Oxford Dictionary explains the difference this way: “Technically, delusion is a belief, that though false, has been surrendered to and accepted by the whole mind as a truth; illusion is an impression that, though false, is entertained provisionally on the recommendations of the senses or the imagination, but awaits full acceptance and may not influence action.”
Embedded in the root of the ludere family is another term—ludicrous. The earliest sense of that word pertained to play or sport. To make sport of someone or something is to use them as a toy or source of amusement. Whenever you’re not sure about which word to use, it’s a good practice to check a dictionary. You may be teased for other things, but it’s my hope it won’t be word usage.