Defuse - diffuse

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These two words sound indistinguishable when spoken casually. But they have different meanings, and should be confused less often than they are.

  • To defuse is always a verb. Literally, it means 'to take the fuse out of [a bomb or shell or other weapon]'. So it is sometimes used figuratively meaning 'to render harmless' (Marsh and Marshall 2004) - e.g. 'They were beginning to argue, but he defused the situation by suggesting a change of subject'.
  • Diffuse can be either an adjective or a verb. To diffuse (the verb) means 'to spread around' (ibid.), or 'to pour out all round: to send out in all directions' (Chambers). The adjective diffuse, which is perhaps better used in the participial form diffused, means something like 'diluted', or 'spread out so much that it has become thin'.

(The confusion between 'defuse' and 'diffuse' is one of The Guardian's most common mistakes, according to Marsh and Marshall (2004).)