Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: tantalize.

“Tantalize” = to torment by sight or promise of a desired thing kept just out of reach. The verb “tantalize” is derived from the Greek myth about Tantalus, the son of Zeus and the nymph Pluto. After becoming the king of Lydia, he offended the gods by divulging their secrets to mortals. Because the father of Tantalus was divine, Tantalus (though not a god) was himself immortal and thus could not be executed for his crime. Instead, as an eternal punishment, he was plunged into a river of Hades, up to his chin, while overhead boughs of edible fruit hung temptingly near. Whenever he dipped to drink, the water receded; whenever he stretched to eat, a wind blew the laden boughs out of reach. Through slipshod extension, “tantalize” is now gradually being stretched to mean “to stimulate desire or the senses” — e.g.: “They’re currently scrambling to raise big money for TV ads, because they rightfully fear that Romney will have the money to saturate the airwaves with upbeat imagery and tantalizing sound bites.” Dick Polman, “GOP Outsider Charms Mass.,” Phil. Inquirer, 30 May 2002, at A4. For the time being, careful writers will probably resist this extension — but it may inevitably become a legitimate sense. Although it’s sometimes hard to be sure from the context, “tantalize” often seems to be misused for “titillate” (= to excite sensually) — e.g.: “Kama Sutra tells the truth about eros: that no matter how tantalizing [read ‘titillating’?] sex can be, without love, it is unruly, destructive and lonesome-making.” Rod Dreher, “Lush ‘Kama Sutra’ Sensual, Not Sexy,” Sun-Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale), 7 Mar. 1997, Showtime §, at 6. Language-Change Index: “tantalize” misused for “titillate”: Stage 1. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Good speech shows an easy consonance and harmony between form and meaning, expression and content, manner and matter.” Simeon Potter, Modern Linguistics 166 (2d ed. 1967).
Scroll to Top