Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

Homonyms are words that sound the same and often have the same spelling, but they have different meanings and origins. Examples: ate and eighthere and hear, and bear (the animal), bear (to tolerate), and bare (naked).

Homonyms come in two flavors:

Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation but differ in spelling and meaning, such as totootwo; and so, sew, and sow.

Homographs share the same spelling, and sometimes the same sound, but have different meanings. Sow, a female adult pig (pronounced sou), and sow, to scatter seed (pronounced soh), are homographs. Another example is well, as in wishing well, and well, as in well wishes.

And then there’s just plain confusingly similar words, such as elusive and illusive, entropy and atrophy, and my personal favorites penal and penile, which I discussed in an earlier post.

Homonyms, homophones, and confusingly similar words are the stuff that malapropisms are made of. A malapropism is the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one of similar sound, with humorous results.

Teachers come across the best malapropisms:

  • If it is less than 90 degrees, it is a cute angel.
  • Crabs and creatures like them all belong to a family of crushed Asians.
  • In Scandinavia, the Danish people come from Denmark, the Norwegians come from Norway, and the Lapdancers come from Lapland.

I got these examples from Ed in the Clouds, a wonderful blog by British educator Mark Adams. 

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

acclamation applause
acclimation used to climate

colon a punctuation mark ( : ) used after a word introducing a series or an example or an explanation 
 your poop chute

chute a channel, trough or shaft for conveying something to a lower level
chute short for parachute
shoot to discharge a missile from a weapon: to shoot a bullet
shoot euphemism for the slang interjection shit.
Oh, shoot! I forgot my chute!

In French, chute means fall. The word “parachute” comes from the French para, meaning “to protect against,” and chute, “fall.” Parachute literally means “that which protects against a fall.”

The word parachute was coined by the eighteenth-century French physicist Louis-Sébastien Lenormand.

Lenormand made the first recorded parachute descent in 1783. As a large crowd watched, Lenormand jumped from a tall tower in Paris. His invention, a pyramid-shaped parachute, worked: he landed unharmed. I wonder what Lenormand’s mom thought of her son’s bold experiment?

Lenormand intended his parachute as a fire escape for people trapped in tall buildings.

Fortunately for aviation pioneers, his invention came along just as French aeronauts were experimenting with hot air balloons, ascending thousands of feet over Paris.

We associate parachutes with airplanes and think they’re a modern invention. Remarkably, the history of the parachute goes back a thousand years.

elegy a sorrowful song or poem
eulogy a speech of praise

epigram any witty, ingenious, or pointed saying tersely expressed: Life imitates art far more than art imitates life  Oscar Wilde
epitaph a phrase or statement written in memory of a person who has died, as on a tombstone: “That’s All Folks” reads the epitaph for Mel Blanc, the voice of Porky Pig and dozens of other Warner Bros. cartoon characters.
epithet any word or phrase expressing a quality or characteristic of the person or thing mentioned: Man of a Thousand Voices is Mel Blanc’s epithet.  Another meaning of epithet is an abusive or contemptuous word or phrase: Steve screamed epithets at the telemarketer who called during dinner.

Epitaph and epithet on Mel Blanc’s headstone

gibe  to utter taunting words
jibe  to be in accord; (nautical) to shift suddenly

lo look, see
low not high, mean
Lo, how low Steve can go with his blog!

palpate to examine by touch
palpitate to beat rapidly; to throb
”Where were you wounded?” she asked the old vet with a Purple Heart medal pinned to his lapel. “Madam, give me your hand!” he exclaimed. “You shall palpate the very spot!” And his heart — along with another organ — began to palpitate in anticipation.

queen king’s wife
quean impudent woman; shrew; hussy

reek give off a strong, unpleasant smell
wreak to inflict, as in wreak havoc

resume to get, take, or occupy again
résumé a fruitless document associated with frustrated jobseekers

roes  eggs, deer
rows  things arranged in adjacent lines, rows of eager faces turned toward me
rows  uses oars
rose  flower
rose  get up

which a question word
witch a woman who does magic

Which witch am I? Jesus, Dorothy!

Dorothy looked from one to the other: ”Good Witch of the West? Bad Witch of the East? Which witch is which?” Boy, is Dorothy dense! Even Toto can tell the difference — the nice white witch is good, the grouchy green witch, bad.


See my master list of homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words.

And please comment with your favorite homonyms … You don’t have any favorite homonyms? … No? Not any? … Are you thinking real hard? … Not even a they’re, their, there? … That’s okay, you don’t have to comment. You kind of suck at this, don’t you?
Jake the dog