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.

Homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words are the stuff that malapropisms are made of.

Here’s an example from an Ohio newspaper, where the headline to a story about a woman who was injured at a county fair has a homonym that gallops off in an unintended direction: Woman kicked by horse upgraded to stable.

Some (homonym: sum) of my favorite homonyms, homophones and confusingly similar words:

ale malted beverage darker and more bitter than beer
ail to trouble or afflict; to feel unwell, as from drinking too much ale

air atmosphere
ere before (poetic)
err be incorrect or mistaken
heir one who inherits

all ready completely prepared

band musical group
band something that constricts or binds
banned prohibited

cannon artillery piece
canon regulation; rule; dogma
canyon deep ravine

foul offensive
fowl bird, especially domestic cock or hen

Cartoon by Kent Lamberson artofkent.com

right entitlement; privilege
rite ceremony
wright workman, as in millwright or playwright
write what I despair of ever doing to my satisfaction

toad tailless, leaping amphibian
toed having toes
towed past tense of tow

vain conceited
vane device showing wind direction
vein narrow channel; lode; blood vessel

Woman kicked by horse upgraded to stable

Helicopter powered by human flies

Local high school dropouts cut in half

People mean to say one thing, and end up saying something completely different, sometimes bizarre, so upside down and inside out it’s right out of Alice in Wonderland…

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 7)

I recently came across a little gem of a book in the Upland library that covers another way people trip over language: the many silly redundancies in all too common use, such as ATM machinerepeat again, scheduled appointmentadvance warning, forcible rapepersonal friend, or hot water heater (think about it).

The books title displays three such tautologies: Armed Gunmen, True Facts, and Other Ridiculous Nonsense.

Here’s a sample of author Richard Kallan’s “compiled compendium” of “repetitive redundancies,” including his witty send up of bloated absurdities in popular use:

Deliberate Lie
More forthright than the inadvertent lie

Honest Truth
When all other truths fail

Innocent Bystander
A bystander inexperienced in the ways of the world

Raining Outside
Less surprising than when it rains inside

Mutual Cooperation
Team version of solo cooperation

New Innovation
Preferable to an old innovation

Sudden Impulse
Impulse that doesn’t embrace a strategic plan

Future Expectations
Expectations unachieved in advance

Free Gift
Finally: a gift for which you’re not charged

There are hundreds of commonly used tautologies listed in Armed Gunmen, True Facts, and Other Ridiculous Nonsense. I’m guilty of using many of them, though now I catch myself—this book has me thinking about unnecessary words in my writing.

Kallan dispenses much more helpful writing advice than that of the Mad Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse I quote above, and he does it with wicked wit and biting humor.

Kallan says, tongue in cheek, that the goal of his unique and one-of-a-kind book is “to alert readers to our propensity for tautology—to present a compiled compendium of repetitive redundancies so that readers can see with their own two eyes how to remove and eliminate such excessive verbiage from their communicative language.”

This illustrated book is lots and lots of amusing fun. Ever since I completely finished reading it, I’ve got into the regular habit of carefully scrutinizing each and every written document I take pen and ink to, and I myself eliminate out every single one of the absurdly ridiculous repetitive redundancies I may perhaps find and locate.

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

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


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.



I still take home delivery of my local paper. I prefer the print edition to visiting my local paper’s website.

Call me old fashion and hopelessly twentieth century, but relaxing with the paper is what I call a nice, quiet, peaceful read, best enjoyed in my “library.”

On the printed page my eye finds few distractions. I’m not tempted to google this or click that and go off on some long odyssey, wasting an hour or two in some feverish, serendipitous quest of little value, ultimately forgettable.

Most web content I encounter on these pointless digressions passes right through me like prune juice (sorry, the reference to my “library” still lingers with me).

Unplugged, offline, and with print edition in hand, I can focus and concentrate on one thing at a time. I can chew and properly digest the news (pause while I purge my mind of all gastro-intestinal analogies. Wait! What happens if I google “gastro-intestinal analogies”? Looking up “bathroom humor” might be fun. I wonder why prune juice has that effect on me? Maybe I should google that too…   Stop, Steve, STOP!).

Anyway, one section of my local paper I always read is the letters to the editor, where readers are allowed to have their say on issues of concern, from a school crossing guard publicly pleading with drivers to slow down and watch for kids to someone’s take on President Obama’s job-creation plan.

For more than 200 years, LTE was one of the few opportunities the vast majority of people had to reach a mass audience with their individual thoughts and viewpoints.

And it’s been a very narrow opportunity. Editors are the gatekeepers: they decide which letters to publish, who will be heard.

Today the tables are turned on newspaper editors. Not only do you get to read their product online for free, you can post comments to news stories as soon as they appear, you can bypass the editors to get your two cents in.

And two cents is more than a big majority of postings are worth.

With few restrictions, posters are free to rant and rave, libel and lie. Show they’re a racist, a moron, a boor, an immature jerk. That they’ve never had an original thought.

Too many posters pathetically demonstrate their limited vocabulary, can’t spell and have no clue about syntax and grammar.

And they can do it all anonymously, so no consequences. No price to pay for sharing those ugly thoughts

Some sick poster’s true identity is not associated with that cruel, racist comment to the news item I saw about a Latina grandmother who jumped off a freeway overpass, a comment I pray her grieving family never reads. Unfortunately, if they ever google that news item, they’ll see it–a stinking digital stain on the poor woman’s memory that can’t be erased.

Sitting in my library reading the print edition, I’m mercifully unaware of those anonymous posters who tag online news articles with their asinine comments.

I prefer to have my paper’s editors pick the reader comments. Their rules: no personal attacks, no obscenities, no libel, and no hiding behind anonymity.

Published letters are cleaned up, neatly typeset and appear without typos (or seldom any—editors are human, too).

I expect editors to publish letters where the author has a legitimate gripe, makes a good point, presents a sound argument, brings a fresh perspective I hadn’t considered, adds new information, or exposes an issue the newspaper hasn’t covered.

I love it when a politician is skewered by a reader–one of his or her constituents, or a good Samaritan is publicly thanked, or when charity organizers announce a successful event and express appreciation to the community. Makes me think more highly of the people where I live, forgetting for a moment the jerks I encounter daily driving around town or in the stores.

While letters to the editor in my local paper are often awkwardly written, I appreciate that someone took time to compose their thoughts as best they could. Most posters hurriedly dash off their drivel, not pausing a second to check their spelling. Writing for publication is hard work. You have to earn that space on the LTE page.

The published letter writers are just as passionate as posters, but they stand by their position by signing their name. Before publication, a responsible editor will contact the person named in the signature to see if they are really the author of the letter. (Always include your contact information when submitting a letter, or any news release, to the media).

Occasionally I find a letter to the editor that’s particularly enlightening, thought provoking, well worth my time to read.

In other words, it’s Nicely Said.

Which is why I’m leaving my library, having finished my morning read and other business, to share with you this letter to the editor that appeared in my local paper, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.

Tip of the iceberg
The article about Guillermo Reyes (“Neighborhood fixture dies home­­less,” Jan. 23) was very appropriate and very well written. I hope readers will understand that the situation written about is only the “tip of the iceberg.”

Advances in medical science have extended the life span, the results of which has been an increase in the population of older adults with prob­lems similar to those of Mr. Reyes. In the U.S., as in other countries, the baby boom generation is reaching retirement age. The number of people over the age of 65 continues to climb and along with it the number of peo­ple (like Mr. Reyes) affected by demen­tia.

Currently about 5.3 million Ameri­cans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, with several million more diagnosed with vascular dementia, frontotempo­ral dementia, or delirium due to multi­ple etiologies. These numbers are expected to double or triple in the next 40 years (Alzheimer’s Associa­tion, 2009).

Approximately 47 percent of the population between the ages of 60 and 75 can be expected to suffer some form of geriatric cognitive disorder.

To understand the nature of the geri­atric dysfunction that can occur, we can look at the role of dementia in these cognitive disorders and should investigate the ease with which advan­tage can be taken of people with these disorders, as in Mr. Reyes’ case.

The social, personal and economic impact of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias on society is pro­found and growing. Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and carries with it an annual price tag of $148 billion (Alzheimer’s Associ­ation, 2009). The burden that demen­tia imposes on caregivers reverberates through every community, leaving no neighborhood untouched.

I am a retired psychologist who volunteers at the senior center in Rancho Cucamonga. The needs of the seniors are very obvious to me as I talk to them (and learn from them) in the programs that I (with many oth­ers) volunteer for such as the dining room program, bread program and commodities program. I only wish I could do more.


Here’s the first part of the front-page story Mr. Lieberman refers to in his letter:

Neighborhood fixture dies homeless

By Wendy Leung Staff Writer

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A longtime homeowner who became homeless last year when his mental illness took its toll has died.

Guillermo Reyes         Daily Bulletin staff photo

Guillermo Reyes, recognized by many in the Hyssop Drive neighborhood as the kind and talkative man behind a shop­ping cart full of aluminum cans, died in a hospital on Jan. 11 from lung cancer, friends said. He was 79.

“There were a lot of people who knew him, just meeting him on the streets,” said Steve Wasden, a former neighbor of Reyes. “There’s a lot of people who cared about him. He loved to talk and he just drew me in. There was something special about him.”

A thin, fragile-looking man, Reyes exhibited a smile that belied his troubles. He was a compulsive hoarder who slipped through cracks and ended up living on the streets despite having purchased his home with cash in 1976.

His neighbors and friends say society failed him.

“I definitely feel like he’s bet­ter off now,” Wasden said.

Read full article

Mr. Lieberman’s letter has key elements that appeal to editors and make for a great LTE. He sticks to one subject, brings a unique perspective, and he uses verifiable facts, figures and statistics to make his case.

He starts by identifying the story to which he’s responding, one that got a lot of attention.  The tragic story of Guillermo Reyes ran on the front page, had strong human interest and included a compelling photo.

It didn’t hurt Lieberman’s chances of being published that he praises how “very well written” and “appropriate” the Daily Bulletin’s article is.

Lieberman quickly launches into his purpose in writing: to alert us to a growing and profound problem where Guillermo Reyes is just the “tip of the iceberg.” Longer life spans and aging baby boomers mean more and more people suffering from dementia.

Lieberman defines the problem with sobering statistics from the Alzheimer’s Associa­tion: 5.3 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, millions more with some other form of dementia, and  “These numbers are expected to double or triple in the next 40 years.” The annual price tag of Alzheimer’s is $148 billion.

One statistic especially grabbed me: “Approximately 47 percent of the population between the ages of 60 and 75 can be expected to suffer some form of geriatric cognitive disorder.” That should give many readers pause. It hits close to home for me. I think of myself, my mother, my neighbors who are seniors. Keep this in mind if ever you write an LTE: Editors like it when you can tie your issue to as many as readers as possible.

Lieberman ends on a personal note, his volunteer work at the RC senior center, where he sees first hand the need many seniors have for assistance.

I know the RC senior center, it’s in a big, new beautiful building, always has plenty of activities going on, and has wonderful, caring staff and volunteers (such as Jack, whom unfortunately I’ve never met).

If only Mr. Reyes had one day gone through the doors of the RC senior center, perhaps met Jack Lieberman, maybe he could have been saved from such a sad end. I know the center has been a lifesaver for many seniors in Rancho (an example that government, at least local government, can do some things right!).

Jack reveals that he’s a retired psychologist, which qualifies him as an expert on this subject. I kind of guessed he knew what he was talking about when he referred to “vascular dementia, frontotempo­ral dementia, or delirium due to multi­ple etiologies.” In general, I would stay away from using too many technical terms in your LTE–your readers will quickly disconnect and jump to an easier read.

The closing is memorable: “I only wish I could do more.” Jack’s empathy, humility and desire to help left me with a better appreciation of the human drama behind the statistics and the pressing need to address dementia and mental illness in a growing segment of our population.

Exactly what I think Jack Lieberman hoped to accomplish in writing his letter to the Daily Bulletin.

Read the best of recent letters published in the LA Times

Please encourage me to get off the pot and post at least once a week

What’s In A Word: Stone the crows

I look into the origin of words or phrases that catch my interest

Stone the crows

An exclamation of incredulity or annoyance.
Well, stone the crows it’s five o’clock already!

I first heard the expression stone the crows a few weeks ago in reference to the Chinese revealing a snazzy new stealth jet fighter.

Bryan Suits, host of Dark Secret Place, a weekly radio talk show (Sunday afternoons on KFI 640AM Los Angeles), used stone the crows to characterize how surprised military analysts were when China publicly unveiled its J-20 advanced jet fighter, a harbinger of China’s growing military might.

Stone the crows! China has developed its own stealth fighter jet, the J-20.

Bryan’s two-hour show covers the War on Terror, diplomacy, and all things military. It’s an incredibly informative as well as entertaining show.

But, stone the crows, I’m drifting away from my main subject. Let’s see if I can get back on track:

To discover the meaning of this peculiar phrase, I went directly to The Phrase Finder, an indispensable website for anyone interested in the meaning and origin of phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions. Here’s what I found:

Origin of Stone the crows
”There have been a few attempts to explain the origin of this odd phrase,” says Gary Martin, creator of the Phrase Finder.  “A croze is the groove at the end of a wooden barrel that holds the end plate in place. It has been suggested that the expression was previously stow the croze, i.e. break open the barrel. I can find no supporting evidence for that idea though and have to consign it to the realms of folk-etymology. The more prosaic suggestion – that it alludes to the practice of throwing stones at crows – is much more likely.

“Crows were unwelcome guests at sheep farms as, given the chance, they will kill and eat newborn lambs, so the association with annoyance isn’t hard to see. The link in meaning to surprise isn’t obvious, but then there’s no particular reason to expect to find one. Stoning crows was a commonplace enough activity and calling it up into a phrase could have been done for no reason other than that the person who coined it just liked the sound of it.

“There are other expressions of surprise or annoyance like I’ll go to the foot of our stairs, strike me pink, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle or if that don’t take the rag off the bush. None of these have any sensible literal meaning and stone the crows is another to add to that list.”

That bit about crows killing and eating newborn lambs really rang a bell.

In a recent interview on NPR, author and humorist David Sedaris talked with host Steve Inskeep about his book, Squirrel Meets Chipmunk, a collection of short stories in which Sedaris uses animals to point out, in a hilariously dark and biting way, familiar human foibles and personality traits.

One part of the interview really stuck with me. Here’s a transcript:

“You know, we have a farmer across the road from us in Normandy,” says Sedaris, who lives part time in that French province. “And he told me years ago that you always want your lambs to be born in the lambing shed, because when they’re born in the field, crows will come and pluck out the eyes of the newborn babies.”

Even Sedaris seems momentarily sobered by that mental picture. And then:

“So I wrote a story about that, because to pluck out the eyes of a baby lamb — I mean, that’s cold.

Sedaris goes on to relate a bit of the story in which a mama crow strikes up a conversation with a mama sheep about her newborn lamb.

A snippet of The Crow and the Lamb:

After circling a few times, the crow landed in the pasture and pretended to pick at something in the grass. The old ewe looked her over for a moment, then returned her attention to the newborn, who was receiving the first and probably the only bath of its life.

“Cute kid,” the crow called out. “Is it a boy or a girl?”

The ewe sighed in the way of all parents who expect their baby’s sex to be obvious. “He’s a boy. My second.” Normally she was more sociable, but something about birds put her off—their uselessness, she supposed.

“Well, he’s an absolute lamb, if you don’t mind my saying so,” the crow said, and she hopped a bit closer. “Tell me, was it a natural childbirth?”

The ewe had wanted to remain aloof, but what with the subject matter—that is to say, herself—she found it impossible to hold out for more than a few seconds. “Oh, yes,” she said. “A hundred percent natural, but then again, that’s just my way. It makes it more ‘real’, if you know what I mean.”

The crow nodded. “And the placenta?”

“Oh,” the ewe said, “I ate it. Tasted like the devil, but I think it’s important for, you know, the bonding process.”

“Definitely,” the crow agreed, and she lowered her head to scowl into the grass. Nothing irritated her more than these high-and-mighty vegetarians who ate meat sometimes and then decided that it didn’t really count.

This story ends badly. And horrifically. Get the book to learn the grisly (and illustrated!) details. Also read the story Hello Kitty for the best send up I’ve ever read of the personalities and tired aphorisms encountered at any AA meeting.

Listen to the David Sidaris interview on NPR  here.

Pharoah: Stone the crows, Joseph!

I found these lyrics to a song titled “Stone the Crows” from the musical Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat by Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Well stone the crows
This Joseph is a clever kid
Who’d have thought that 14 cows
Could mean the things
He said they did
Joseph, you must help me further
I have got a job for you
You will help me through this crisis
You shall be my number two

Hear a podcast of Bryan Suit’s Dark Secret Place radio show. Bryan’s military experience (wounded in Iraq), his self-described “jaw-dropping brilliance,” the in-depth research and knowledge he brings to each subject he covers on his show, Bryan’s stories about combat and military life, even his acerbic wit and twisted sense of humor, open up new perspectives. I get insights into world events, especially in the Middle East, that I just don’t find in mainstream media.

Facebook: The Dark Secret Place on KFI Los Angeles