Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

Homonyms are words with the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins, or spelling.

A few examples: flea (insect) / flee (to run away)
cymbal (musical instrument) / symbol (sign)
doe (female dear) / dough (unbaked bread)

Homonyms that are pronounced the same but spelled differently are called homophones. The examples above are homophones.

Homonyms that are spelled the same are called homographs.
bear (animal) / bear (carry)
well (in good health) / well (source of water)
lean (not fat) / lean (to slant)

Synonyms are words that mean exactly or nearly the same as another word in the same language — homonym and homophone, for example!

Antonyms are words that mean exactly the opposite as another word in the same language. Common antonyms are hot and cold, male and female, Steve and genius.

If, like me, you’re tuned into homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words, please leave a comment with your favorites.

Here’s my latest batch of homophones & confusingly similar words…

arrant extreme  Steve’s blog is arrant nonsense
errand mission; short trip
errant traveling; short trip

boar male hog
boor rude or insensitive person — Hey, what are you looking at me for?
bore a dull, tiresome, or uncongenial person — Cut that out!
bore to pierce or drill into; force an opening

The word “boar” reminds me of “oar” — a favorite homophone of mine:
oar long pole for propelling a boat
o’er over (poetic)
or conjunction suggesting an alternative
ore mineral containing valuable metal

Why is “oar” a personal favorite? It conjures up memories of a bar in Santa Monica called the Oar House, which I’ll tell you about here, if you’re interested in learning about what was in its time (the Sixties & Seventies) the greatest bar in Southern California.

cache hiding place; something hidden
cash ready money

throes pangs; spasms
throws tosses
“Steve throws like a girl!” Frank managed to say between throes of laughter 

Here’s two homophones  interestingly related:
aural relating to the ear or sense of hearing
oral spoken; having to do with the mouth

Homophones are created orally and detected aurally.

And that brings up the whole issue of oral vs. verbal

From the Merriam Webster Usage Dictionary
The use of verbal to mean “spoken rather than written” occurs commonly and unambiguously with such words as agreement, commitment, and contract. Very often it is contrasted with the adjective written in contexts that make its meaning unmistakable:

“I would not consent to your being charged with any written answer, but perhaps you will take a verbal one?”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

I’ve often heard verbal agreement and verbal contract, as well as verbal instructions. The only oral I can think of is oral exams and oral literature.

There’s also oral sex and oral fixation, but that’s more to oral also meaning “of or relating to the mouth.”


In a previous post of Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words I mentioned and promised to explore malapropisms, often hilarious verbal gaffes where the mind confuses words that sound similar.

“Having one wife is called monotony” (matrimony)

“Dogs and cats protect our yards from  rats, squirrels, golfers and other vermin” (gophers)

“Listen to the blabbing brook” (babbling) Norm Crosby

Malapropisms as defined by Sharon on dailywritingtips.com

Sheridan’s 18th century play, The Rivals, featured a hilarious character called Mrs Malaprop, who was apt to drop a verbal clanger whenever she opened her mouth. That’s where we get the word malapropism from, though its real origin is in the French phrase mal à propos, meaning inopportune or not to the purpose.

When someone uses a malapropism, it’s because:

  • they’ve used a word that was not what they intended, given the context
  • the word used sounds similar to the one intended
  • the word used actually means something different (in other words, it’s not a made up word)

Malapropisms are often the same part of speech, begin or end in the same way or have the same rhythm when spoken.

A few malapropisms courtesy of Pres. George W. Bush

“It will take time to restore chaos and order.”

“They have miscalculated me as a leader.”

“We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.”

“I am mindful not only of preserving executive powers for myself, but for predecessors as well.”

“We are making steadfast progress.”

See my master list of all the homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words I’ve posted to date.


What’s In a Word: Ducks In a Row

I last used this odd saying to my tax adviser. Something about getting my ducks in a row on the deduction for all my medical costs.

I meant that we make sure all is in order, point-by-point. That we have all the receipts, the math correct, each detail addressed.

I survived IRS scrutiny, because all my ducks were in a row.

For English-language learners, hearing someone say they’re getting their ducks in a row must cause terrible confusion. What’s this person do for a living — herd ducks?

Just as confusing must be the expression “it’s raining cats and dogs!” I’ll have to look into that one in another What’s In a Word posting. Someone want to comment on it now?

Getting my ducks in a row

A little tripping around the web turned up the following at wisegeek.com:

“To get one’s ducks in a row essentially means to ensure all of the small details or elements are accounted for and in their proper positions before embarking on a new project. A defense attorney, for example, may spend much of his or her time making sure all of the evidence and witnesses are presented in a precise, effective order.

“When a person is fully prepared for any eventuality and has every element in place, he or she can indeed be said to have his or her ducks in a row.”

To which someone with an amazing amount of knowledge about the phrase ducks in a row posted the following:

Etymologically speaking, your guess as to the origins of this saying is about as good as any other.

There are at least three plausible theories surrounding the origin of “get your ducks in a row,” plus some others which, at least, put up an interesting argument.

Some sources suggest the phrase was not even used in print until the late 1970s, although a magazine article from 1932 did suggest “getting our economic ducks in a row.”

The most popular theory suggests that “ducks in a row” came from the world of sports, specifically bowling. Early bowling pins were often shorter and thicker than modern pins, which lead to the nickname ducks. Before the advent of automatic resetting machines, these “duck pins” would be manually put back into place between bowling rounds.

Therefore, having one’s ducks in a row would be a metaphor for having all of the bowling pins organized and properly placed before sending the next ball down the lane.

Many bowling alleys still offer “duck pin” lanes with smaller bowling balls and shorter pins.

Another theory comes from the world of nature. Mother ducks often corral their young offspring into manageable straight lines before traveling over land or water. Any stragglers or escapees would be noticed as long as the integrity of this line is maintained.

The idea of getting all of one’s ideas or ingredients or team members in one organized line would be similar to a mother duck getting all of her literal ducks in a row.

One concern with this theory is the use of the word ducks, since baby ducks are more correctly identified as ducklings or even chicks. The common expression suggests adult ducks, not necessarily younger ducklings.

There are also sources which argue the “ducks in a row” element refers to a carnival game or two. One popular carnival game involves the player using a small caliber rifle or air gun to knock down moving targets.

Quite often these targets are in the shape of ducks, and a conveyor belt system makes sure the duck targets are aligned in a consistent row.

It is possible that the expression came from the benefit of having all of the targets (ducks) arrive in a predictable and organized order.

A different carnival game uses plastic ducks which float in a water-filled track as players attempt to select the ones with high-value prize codes hidden underneath. These plastic ducks are generally presented in a moving row for easier selection by the players.


My final thought: Mama Duck  inspires us to get everything in order, everyone in his or her proper place, to go confidently out into the world. Not realizing we are all just sitting ducks in a cosmic carnival game.