Homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words trick unwary writers into hilarious bloopers, embarrassing errors, and the outright idiocy you see in print and on the Web.
How about this question on Yahoo! Answers:
Does allowing a dog to catch rats, squirrels, golfers and other vermin and eating them pose an unreasonable risk?
Or newspaper headlines that trip over homonyms …
Escaped Leopard Believed Spotted
Models May Underestimate Climate Swings
Helicopter Powered By Human Flies
Woman Kicked By Horse Upgraded To Stable
Police Find Crack In Man’s Buttocks
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:
Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation but differ in meaning, such as right and write, flee and flea, see and sea.
Homographs share the same spelling but have different meanings. An example is bear, meaning to hold, and bear, the big, furry mammal: Steve couldn’t bear to see the bear chained to a tree.
We also have heteronyms, words that share the same spelling but have different pronunciations. Heteronyms are homographs that are not homophones: Steve, you can either go bass fishing or play your bass guitar, which is it?
A really cool graph by Will Heltsley shows at a glance how words related by pronunciation, spelling, or meaning are categorized: Homograph Homophone Venn Diagram.
And then there’s just plain confusingly similar words, such as conscious and conscience, lightening and lightning, and of course, penal and penile.
Steve said it was “penile-related crime” that landed him in a penal institution.
Some (homophone: sum) of my favorite homonyms, homophones and confusingly similar words:
abdominal having to do with your belly abdominal pains
abominable detestable; loathsome an abominable crime
baloney foolish or exaggerated talk
bologna the lunch meat
Steve says it’s baloney that all he eats is bologna sandwiches
flour powder made by grinding cereal grains
flower the pretty part of a plant that houses reproductive structures
pore to gaze at intently
pore small opening, as in the pores of your skin
pour to cause to flow in a stream
pussy vulgar, slang: female genitalia
Here’s a heteronym of the above two words:
pussy medical: containing or resembling pus
Same spelling but different pronunciation — rhymes with fussy.
quiver carrying case for arrows
quiver shake or tremble
real actual; genuine
reel revolving device on which something flexible is wound
wound past tense of wind – to coil about something; bend; turn; meander
Chinese takes the gold in homonyms
I love the hilarious mischief, awful puns, and silly wordplay the English language’s many homonyms, homophones & confusingly similar words make possible.
But if I really want to have fun with words, maybe I should learn Chinese.
The Chinese language has far more homonyms than English. Nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones.
And with half-a-billion Chinese on the Internet texting and blogging, the Chinese have become world champs in puns and wordplay, both for amusement and to avoid censorship.
That’s what I learned in a fascinating article by Nina Porzucki posted on the world in words, a WordPress blog I enjoy from public radio reporter Patrick Cox. Here’s an excerpt …
How Technology is Changing Chinese, One Pun at a Time
When Sabrina Zhang and Jack Wang took their high school writing exam in China they remember a funny new rule written at the bottom of the test.
“You can’t use Internet words in the writing,” remembers Zhang. But, says Wang, “It’s just natural right when we use it. It’s the youth way of expressing ourselves.”
What might seem like the petty irritation of an old-fashioned professor might actually be something bigger.
The Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language
There are now more than 500 million people online in China. They are microblogging, instant messaging, texting. The result is changing the Chinese language says David Moser, an American linguist living in Beijing.
According to Moser, the Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language. Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture.
Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.
Forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word
“Because there are so many homophones there’s sort of a fetish about them,” says Moser. “As far as the culture goes back you have cases of homophone usage and homophone humor.” Many times forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word.
4 = Death, 8 = Prosperity
A good example of this is the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death and the number eight, which sounds like the word for prosperity. Moser has a Chinese aunt who used to work for the phone company and she could make money selling phone numbers. People would beg her for a phone number with a lot of eights. “People would actually give her gifts or bribes for an auspicious phone number,” says Moser.
The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors
Today, wordplay online has less to do with getting auspicious numbers and more to do with getting around censorship. Moser cites an example of a recent phrase he saw online mentioning the Tiananmen Square incident – only the netizen didn’t use the words “Tiananmen Square” or even 6/4, which refers to the date the incident took place. Tiananmen Square and 6/4 are both censored online. Instead the netizen referred to the “eight times eight incident.” Moser was confused when he first saw the reference. “And then I figured out, eight times eight is 64,” says Moser.
The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors. However, censorship is just one reason netizens play with words online. Another is the very technology that enables people today to input Chinese characters onto their cell phones and computers.
See my master list of all the homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words I’ve posted to date.