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 sew, here 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 to, too, two; 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
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
cannon artillery piece
canon regulation; rule; dogma
canyon deep ravine
fowl bird, especially domestic cock or hen
right entitlement; privilege
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
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 machine, repeat again, scheduled appointment, advance warning, forcible rape, personal 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:
More forthright than the inadvertent lie
When all other truths fail
A bystander inexperienced in the ways of the world
Less surprising than when it rains inside
Team version of solo cooperation
Preferable to an old innovation
Impulse that doesn’t embrace a strategic plan
Expectations unachieved in advance
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.