Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

Homonyms are two or more words that share the same spelling, or the same pronunciation, or both, but have different meanings and origins.

Homonyms come in two basic flavors:

Homographs are words with the same sound and the same spelling but different meanings. An example is bear. You have bear as in manage to tolerate (“I can barely bear Steve’s jokes”) and bear as in the big, furry mammal (“Steve was about to tell his stupid Smokey-the-Bear joke, so I ran out of the room”). Another example is spring (the season), spring (leap suddenly), and spring (that metal coil thingy that absorbs movement).

Homophones are also words pronounced the same but that have different meanings. Unlike homographs, homophones have different spellings. The English language has many more homophones than homonyms. Just a few examples:  red/read, here/hear, there/their, write/right and  blew/blue.

If you find yourself noticing homographs, homophones, and other confusingly similar words, please leave a comment with your favorites.

Here’s a few of my favorite homophones…

canvas firmly woven cloth; a sail
canvass detailed examination; survey

chord group of musical notes
cord length of rope or stack of wood

cousin the child of your aunt or uncle
cozen to cheat; to defraud

gristle cartilage: tough elastic tissue
grizzle To make or become gray

lean lacking in fat
lean to incline or bend from a vertical position
lien legal right to a debtor’s property

sleight stratagem; dexterity (sleight of hand)
slight slim; frail; meager

timber growing trees or their wood
timbre quality given to a sound by its overtones

Let’s go back to canvas and canvass.

According to my well-thumbed copy of The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, these two words have a common ancestor… Marijuana! Read on:

“Canvas cloth is often made of hemp. Cannabis, the Latin ancestor of canvas, was the classical Latin word for hemp and is, in modern scientific Latin, the generic name for the hemp plant, or marijuana. It probably also has the same non-Indo-European ancestor as hemp.

At one time it was a popular sport or, when carried to extremes, an effective punishment to toss a person in a canvas sheet. The Duke of Gloucester, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I, threatens the Bishop of Winchester with similar treatment:

Thou that contrivedst to murther our dead lord,
Thou that giv’st whores indulgences to sin.
I’ll canvass thee in thy broad cardinal’s hat
If thou proceed in this thy insolence.

It is not difficult to see how extended senses like ‘to beat or buffet’, ‘to attack’, or ‘to thrash out or discuss’ developed from figurative use of the verb canvass. The evolution of the familiar sense ‘to solicit support’, which appeared early, is unfortunately not clear.”

So there you are: canvas and canvass, two homophones that have different meanings but a common Latin root, which happens to be pot!

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

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One thought on “Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

  1. Laura says:

    Nice list. I’m glad you didn’t restrict it to the common ones (like their/there). This is a far more interesting list than those on other sites.

    As for finding homophonic errors in the wild, I come across them every day on Yahoo, made by its writers and editors. Take a look at Terribly Write for some of the funniest (or saddest, depending on your mood) mistakes. I welcome your comments! — Laura (at http://terriblywrite.wordpress.com)

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