Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

Homonyms are words that sound the same and sometimes even have the same spelling, but they have different meanings and origins. Examples are so and sewhere and hear, and bear (the animal), bear (to tolerate), and bare (naked).

Homonyms come in two flavors:

Homophones are words that sound identical but differ in spelling and meaning, such as totootwo; and so, sow, sew.

Homographs are words identical in spelling and often with the same sound, but have different meanings. An example is well, a hole drilled in the earth to obtain water, and well, in good health.

And then there’s confusingly similar words, such as emigrant (one who leaves one’s country) and immigrant (one who comes to a country) and flamenco (the dance) and flamingo (the big, funny-looking pink bird). Confusingly similar words are the stuff that malapropisms are made of: I can’t wait to dance the flamingo in the competition!

Here are some (homonym: sum) of my favorite homonyms, homophones and confusingly similar words:

ad advertisement
add to increase; append

advert to pay heed or attention to
avert to turn away
overt open to view; manifest

blew past tense of blow
blue color

dual twofold
duel combat between two persons

filter a porous device for removing impurities
philter a magic potion or charm
The rotund receptionist was supposedly an impenetrable filter, trapping salesmen like me in the lobby as others came and went, but I had a powerful philter with me: a gift certificate to Chick-fil-A.

idle not occupied; unemployed
idol symbol of worship; false god
idyll narrative poem; romantic interlude

lade to load
laid past tense of lay (he laid down)
layed no such word!

misogamy hatred of marriage
misogyny hatred of women
The opposite of a misogynist is a philogynist, a lover of women. Someone who hates men is a  misandrist, and the opposite of that is a philandrist. A misanthrope hates’em all, both sexes.

“I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand,” says Linus in Charles Shulz’s classic comic strip Peanuts.  That about sums up my attitude, too.

spiritual pertaining to the spirit or soul
spirituel having a refined and graceful mind or wit
Grace thought watching the antics of the masked wrestlers in Lucha Libre was an almost  spiritual experience–odd for someone of such sophistication, someone with such a spirituel bent.

stanch to restrain the flow (as of blood)
staunch firm in attitude, opinion or loyalty

tern type of sea gull
turn rotation

tort wrongful act
torte kind of rich, round layer cake

The rotund receptionist’s lawyer filed a tort against the baker for irresponsibly displaying an irresistible triple-chocolate torte in his shop window, sabotaging her diet and endangering her health.

way thoroughfare
weigh to ascertain the heaviness of
whey thin part of milk

From dictionary.com…
Word of the Day for Sunday, January 23, 2011

homograph \HOM-uh-graf\, noun:

A word of the same written form as another but of different meaning, whether pronounced the same way or not.

She would pronounce the English word with a real fear, and found its close French homograph absurd, stupidly naval and military.
— Lilane Giraudon, Guy Bennett, Fur

It may help to remember the definition of the word homograph by looking at its parts.
— American Book Company, Kate McElvaney, Teresa Valentine, Maria Struder, Kent Carlisle -, Tackling the TAKS 8 in Reading

Homograph conbines the Greek roots homos, “same,” and graphos, “drawn or written.”

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

I’d love to know your favorite homographs, homophones and confusingly similar words, as well as any humorous malapropisms you’d like to share.

Flamingo dances the flamenco. With a warthog? Check out the judges!

I’ve decided I want to blog more. Rather than just thinking about doing it, I’m starting right now.  I will be posting on this blog  once a week for all of 2011. If you already read my blog, I hope you’ll encourage me with comments and likes, and good will along the way. –Steve


Favorite Quotes

Every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Each year at this time I reflect on the courage of Martin Luther King Jr. and his Dream. Reading his words, I search my own thoughts and actions.

To me, fulfilling King’s Dream begins with self-examination. Have I contributed to the struggle against racism, poverty and war, or have I been an apathetic bystander?

To honor King, I try to do as honest a self-assessment as I can. My racial and cultural biases, the times I snickered, mocked, or outright hated, when I was insensitive and hurtful, these are  shameful. They wither under the light of King’s principles of human rights and human dignity. I resolve to be a better, more tolerant human being.

This year, the King holiday is especially meaningful, coming as it does a little more than a week after the senseless tragedy in Tucson. Dr. King’s  dream of a peaceful society seems far away.

The shooting was the act of a madman, that’s all there is to it. Jared Lee Loughner is mentally ill. The only thing pulling his strings is the dysfunctional biochemical reactions in his brain, not the vitriol of our public discourse.

It’s the finger-pointing and politicizing of the tragedy that disturbs me, as it reveals deep divisions in our society, divisions that don’t seem possible to bridge (unless you’re a real dreamer).

The real culprit in this tragic event is the inadequate mental health services in this country. The mental health system is as vital a part of the public safety network as police and fire protection–can we not see that now? If something is not done to better help the mentally ill, there will be more Jared Lee Loughners in the news. Every day there must be tens of thousands of personal tragedies involving the mentally ill across our nation.

Mental illness is a disease. Unlike people with cancer or diabetes or other diseases, the mentally ill are stigmatized and discriminated against. They are discarded, rejected, feared, made fun of. The mentally ill are far more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator.

In the spirit of Martin Luther King, we should resolve to end the stigma of mental illness. For me, King’s dream was of an inclusive society where we respect one another and care for each individual.

Join me in reflecting on the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

“I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked.

“I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison.

“I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.

“That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Martin Luther King Jr., accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Dec. 10, 1964

The kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.

[I have personal experience in caring for someone I love with mental illness. See my post I’m Walking for Lizzie and Millions Affected by Mental Illness].

Great photo essay on King’s legacy at LA Times

Las Palmas Discount Market, 5600 Broadway, Los Angeles

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.: Murals that conjure the great man, the enduring dream

Painted on the side wall of the neighborhood auto shop or the corner mom-and-pop store, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s image proclaims his place in the American pantheon.

In some neighborhoods, he looks as if he might have had a Latin ancestor, and he makes common cause with the Virgin of Guadalupe and Pancho Villa. In other neighborhoods, he’s accompanied by a stern Malcolm X or the pyramids of Egypt.

Photographer Camilo Jose Vergara has been documenting such murals in Los Angeles and other American cities since well before the United States declared a holiday in King’s name.

Talisman, memorial and declaration of principles, the murals conjure the great man, the enduring dream — and the power of the billboard.

–Photographs by Camilo Jose Vergara

Nicely Said

When I come across something I think is particularly well written or well said, or that I admire for the writer’s creative choice of words, effective syntax, and clarity of thought, I like to share them with you.

“To those who judged him by his quirky manner and his ill-fitting, wrinkled, off-the-rack uniform, the cuffs of his trousers always two or three inches above his boots, the badge sometimes missing from the peaked cap, Lawrence did not cut a soldierly figure, so most of them failed to notice the intense, ice-blue eyes and the unusually long, firm determined jaw, a facial structure more Celtic than English. It was the face of a nonreligious ascetic, capable of enduring hardship and pain beyond what most men would even want to contemplate, a true believer in other people’s causes, a curious combination of scholar and man of action, and most important of all, a dreamer.”
HERO The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda, page 6.

I love the rhythm of these two sentences as they accumulate essential information–concrete details and abstract words–about one of the most extraordinary, enigmatic, brilliant men who ever lived, T.E. Lawrence.

I’m reading Korda’s book, Hero, a gripping, detailed examination of Lawrence’s most remarkable life. Hero is an apt title; Lawrence is no mere mortal but a hero on a grand scale. David Lean’s majestic 1962 film starring Peter O’Toole only scratches the surface of the man famous throughout the world as Lawrence of Arabia.

If I were to list all T.E. Lawrence’s accomplishments (and his quirks), this post would go on far too long. Just a sampling (and I’m only half way through the book!): Lawrence was a brilliant scholar and an acclaimed writer, author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, rated  “a masterpiece of British literature” (the movie is based on this autobiographical book); he was an utterly fearless warrior and one of history’s greatest military strategist, inventor of modern guerilla warfare as still practiced by today’s insurgents, such as the Taliban; an expert archaeologist as well as a daring adventurer (Indiana Jones could be based on Lawrence’s exploits in the Arabian desert); though low ranking, he was Britain’s most influential intelligence officer of World War I and helped shape the modern Middle East (and we live with the consequences); a man of amazing  physical strength and endurance (though he was so short of stature that one British officer referred to him as a “pipsqueak”); charismatic and handsome, Lawrence repressed all sexual feelings and hated to be touched.

How do you introduce your readers to an individual of so many superlatives, someone so complex, contradictory and unconventional? Korda does a splendid job in this paragraph early on in Hero.

“For 25 years, I tried to kill my mother-in-law with kindness, but eventually realized she was never going to change.”

So starts a letter appearing in an advice column, Annie’s Mailbox, I saw in my local newspaper.  The writer, Gotta Do What You Gotta Do, then goes on to tell how she and her husband are now “living in peace and happiness together” and their quality of life has “improved 200 percent” because they put 3 thousand miles between them and her mother-in-law, with whom, she states emphatically, they no longer have any contact, and the old lady can just stew in her own miserable juices.

The opening sentence grabbed me. I was compelled to read on, though as I did I was a little disappointed that GDWYGD didn’t provide any examples of mother-in-law’s emotional atrocities during those 25 long years. We’re only getting the story from the wife’s point-of-view.

Wife also says, “My husband still strives for her love and will never get it.”  I can see her curling her lip as she says this, eying her husband with a fierce look that dares him to contradict her.

Perhaps the most tragic figure in this story is the husband, caught between two strong, flinty women.

Another letter starts, “My husband and I have been together for 20 years, and the spark has left our relationship.”

This is depressing, prosaic stuff, far removed from the grand, heroic, fascinating life of T.E. Lawrence.

Wasted years in relationships that end badly. Years of precious existence thrown away, imprisoned with some toxic, joyless person.

Lives spent in “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau says, curling his lip and glancing over at me.

Hey, we can’t all be Lawrence of Arabia.

Besides, I just read the part where Lawrence is buggered by Turkish soldiers. Maybe he should write Annie’s Mailbag about how to deal with that, especially as he admits in his autobiography that the beating, whipping, humiliation and anal rape he received in his brief captivity aroused some of his repressed sexual feelings.


Speaking of Thoreau, today I came across a quote from his good friend and neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which has been shown!”

It reminds me of a Navajo creation story quoted at the start of another book I just started reading: Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith and the Search for Order by George Johnson.

When all the stars were ready to be placed in the sky First Woman said, “I will use these to write the laws that are to govern mankind for all time. These laws cannot be written on the water as that is always changing its form, nor can they be written in the sand as the wind would soon erase them, but if they are written in the stars they can be read and remembered forever.”

Fire in the Mind is about the human need to see patterns in randomness, to bring order into chaos, and to make something meaningful that would otherwise be arbitrary, like the constellations we map in the night sky.

We are pattern-seekers—it’s wired into the human brain.

The constellations we see in the night sky, the patterns we imagine in random stars, only exist in the human mind

The Navajo see in the stars First Man and First Woman, a creation myth that gives their lives meaning: to keep the universe running through rituals that balance opposing spirits and maintain order. Emerson looked up at the awe inspiring heavens and saw the spiritual loss, the shrinking of the human soul,  in a society becoming more industrialized and materialistic.

And in the stars which we now study in detail, scientists see “mass-energy interacting in an arena of space and time” and theorize about dark matter  and dark energy taking up 95% of the universe.

Which means the norm in the universe ain’t us. It’s the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that maintains the order of the universe. We are just superfluous.

As humans, we have this basic drive to explain why things are as they are, the underlying truth to our existence.

The human brain can not only contemplate the universe, it can contemplate itself contemplating the universe. How did this happen? Why can we do this?

As Johnson asks, “How does life arise from the random jostling of dead molecules? How does the mind arise from the brain?”

It’s said that the scientist seeks truth, while the religious man already knows The Truth. But is the  truth in the external world the same as the truth inside our heads,  the “fire in the mind”?

Scientists are often arrogant, close-minded, and dismissive about anything smacking of the spiritual, magical or religious–of any “knowledge” acquired outside of empirical evidence [that’s my opinion, not Johnson’s].

But I think Johnson is going to show me that this arrogance and closed-mindedness  is a roadblock to exciting and profound scientific breakthroughs.

“Are there really laws governing the universe? Or is the order we see imposed by the prisms of our nervous systems, a mere artifact of the way evolution wired the brain? Do the patterns found by science hold some claim to universal truth, or would a visitor from another galaxy find them as quaint and culturally determined, as built on faith, as the world’s religions?”

“Transported to a different part of the galaxy,” Johnson writes, “we would be startled to see our constellations stretched and squeezed, distorted by a new vantage point. But how hard it is to appreciate that one person’s distortion can be another person’s reality, that we look at the world through different eyeglasses, that there are different ways of carving up the sky.”

Sometimes scientists follow along a historical path of discovery, going so far down one particular, even accidental, path that they no longer can back up and see that there are other, alternative explanations, other paths.

“… there are different ways of carving up the sky.”  Yeah, I’m having fun reading this. I read a couple of pages and then have to stop and spend two or three days thinking about it.

This may all be too complex for the human brain, that 3 pounds of jelly in our skulls, to ever comprehend. Or, there may be no explanation, no Grand Scheme of Things to find.

“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”
Umberto Eco

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.
There is another which states that this has already happened.”
Richard Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe