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Language Arts

Levee vs Levy



Do you know the difference between "levy" and "levee"? Keep reading to learn the definition of both "levy" and "levee." This article also contains information on distinguishing the easily confused words "levee"and "levy."

The state of Iowa had to levy funds to repair levees damaged by flooding due to heavy rains. The two words levee and levy are so particular to very narrow situations, that for those who do not deal with these words often, they can be easily confused. This article will help fix them more firmly in your mind by explaining each one in detail.

Levee

Levee is two separate nouns, as well as a transitive verb (one that takes an object). By two separate nouns, I mean something different than a noun with multiple meanings. The two nouns have separate, though related etymologies, and came into English at distinctly different times. The may also be pronounced differently.

The more familiar of the two nouns levee is from the French word levee from an Old French word that means “the act of raising.” It entered English in the early eighteenth century as a word meaning either “an embankment created to prevent flooding,” “a landing place or pier on a river,” or a dike for confining irrigation on flooded land.” Here are several examples:

We need to add more sandbags to the levee to make it hold!

If you dock your boat at the third levee on your left, there’s a great picnic spot.

Gates are used to control the flow of waters across irrigation levees.

This word is pronounced /LEH vee/.

Levee is also a transitive verb with a related meaning and identical pronunciation: “to provide with a levee.”

We leveed the river to protect our land from flooding.

The second noun levee comes through the French verb lever from Middle French and refers to the act of arising, so a slightly different sense than for the first noun levee. This noun refers to a reception or assembly, and has two specific uses and one general use.

Specifically, a levee can be either a reception held by someone of rank when they rise from bed or an afternoon assembly for men only, held by the sovereign of Britain or his or her representative. More generally, it can be used to denote any reception to honor some person, but even this use is rather rare. The New York Times used levee in a headline on June 3, 1865

“Honors to Gen. Sherman: He Holds a Levee . . . “

to refer to General Sherman’s tour of New York City on the previous day, during which crowds gathered to greet him. Most references in this sense seem to come from the nineteenth century or earlier.

This word levee has three different pronunciations, the second two tending towards the French pronunciation: /LEH vee/, identical to the other noun levee; /luh VEE/, with the accent on the second syllable and a different initial vowel; and /luh VAY/, which is  closest to French.

Levy

Levy is a transitive verb (one that takes an object), an intransitive verb (one that functions without an object), and a noun. Like levee, it comes from a form of lever, meaning “to raise,”  but in this case it comes through a Middle English form leve which meant “tax.” The connection is that tax is something we speak of as being “raised.”

As a transitive verb, levy can mean “to impose or collect a tax,” “to draft for service in the military,” or “to declare and carry on a war.” Here are example sentences:

Congress levied an increased gas tax to support highway maintenance.

The ruler has levied a draft for more troops to support his policy of expansion.

The accusation said that King Charles I had “levied war” on Parliament, and he was found guilty in 1649 at a trial at Westminster Hall.

The intransitive meaning of levy has to do with seizing property pursuant to a judgment at law, as in this example:

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sends a notice before they levy.

The noun levy is used to refer to the results created by the action of the verb. Thus levy as a noun can refer to the act of raising tax by levy, as well as the tax collected as a result. It can refer to the army created by the levy of a draft or the act of conscripting the soldiers.

It can also refer to the property that has been seized by levy.

Distinguishing Levee and Levy

A mnemonic for levee and levy would be hard-pressed to account for every one of their various meanings, but here is one for the most common uses:

People generally have a more positive feeling about protecting people’s homes and property with a levee than they do about a levy to increase taxes or draft people into the armed forces. If most people were called to help build a levee to save their town, they would likely rush to help. If they were called upon to support a levy for additional taxes or troops, they would more likely stop and ask, “Why?” If you can connect this why with the homophonic y at the end of levy, it will help you associate the group of meanings with the proper spelling.