Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words


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?

Click to enlarge

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

Doesn’t look particularly abominable, but he’s definitely not an abdominal snowman

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

poor  indigent
pore  to gaze at intently
pore  small opening, as in the pores of your skin
pour  to cause to flow in a stream

That’s what the beaver said!

pussy  cat
pussy  vulgar, slang: female genitalia

Here’s a heteronym of the above two words:
  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
wound  injury

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.

Read the complete article here

Ha! Ha!

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


Nicely Said

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

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.

Douglas Adams
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

We come from nothing, we are going back to nothing  — In the end what have we lost? Nothing!
Monty Python’s Graham Chapman

This is my new philosophy of life. I think it also explains the backend of the Big Bang theory.

Magnetism is one of the six fundamental forces in nature, the other five being gravity, duct tape, whining, remote control, and the force that pulls dogs towards the groins of strangers.
Humorist Dave Barry

Dave Barry has been making me laugh for years. He’s my favorite Boomer, proud to have him in my generation.

Here, Barry pokes fun at the crap you read on the Internet.

God knows how many people read Barry’s comment on the Net and take it as gospel. How many high school and college papers have Barry’s Six Fundamental Forces already appeared in?

I came across something that reinforces Barry’s point: “The trouble with quotes on the Internet is it’s hard to know if they’re real.” Abraham Lincoln

So true, Mr President. I’ve printed your quote on a bookmark that I keep in my Bible, the one I bought on e-Bay for a pretty penny, autographed by Jesus Christ.

Ninety percent of everything is crap.

This adage is commonly known as Sturgeon’s Law.

In 1951, science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon defended the Sci-Fi genre by stating, “Ninety percent of [science fiction] is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.”

This was at a time, the 1950s – squaresville to the tenth power — when it was uncool to be a nerd. Now, more than a 100,000 people show up for Comic-Con in San Diego, a celebration of science fiction and fantasy literature.

Sturgeon’s statement has morphed into the all-encompassing ninety percent of everything is crap.

A truism for teenagers but a belief most of us grow out of. Unless you look at social media, blogs (like this one),  and just about anything you see on the Internet (see Dave Barry and Abe Lincoln above).

Maybe Sturgeon’s Law should be amended to read: Ninety percent of everything on the Internet is crap.

I myself go by the 80/20 rule (the Pareto principle).

In any organization, twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the work. Twenty percent of customers account for eighty percent of revenue. Staying in shape is eighty percent watching what you eat and twenty percent exercise. Eighty percent of traffic accidents are caused by twenty percent of drivers. And on and on. See for yourself how true the 80/20 rule is.


Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher & theologian (1813-1855)

Life’s big dilemma: We make decisions based on what we’ve learned from the past. But we can’t live in the past, we must move forward, to new experiences. It’s a bitch.

Kierkegaard’s observation is especially true of history. We don’t know where we are in the story. Oh, sure: we understand history after the fact — hindsight is 20/20. But what’s happening now is a puzzle piece we don’t know where will fit in.

Okay, this is just a cheap attempt to bump up visitors to Steve of Upland. Here’s the most popular Nicely Said post that ever appeared on my blog:

Copyright © The National Human Genome Research Institute

Something we learned from the Human Genome Project is that the entire 6 billion-member human species goes back 7,000 generations to an original population of about 60,000 people. Our species has only a modest amount of genetic variation — the DNA of any two humans is 99.9 percent identical.
Garrison Keillor, The Writer’s Almanac for June 26, 2010
“It was on this date that rival scientific teams completed the first rough map of the human genome. ”

What profound information is packed into those two sentences! Only one-tenth of one percent of my DNA makes me a distinct individual; in every other way, down to the smallest detail, I am identical (or at least my DNA is) to any other human being. When I read that, I’m reminded of Matthew Arnold’s “The same heart beats in every human breast.”

And 7,000 generations! Think of all the life stories that have happened as generation after generation unfolds, “struts and frets its hour upon the stage,” and then makes way for a new generation and new stories.

And who were these 60,000 original people?

And, most important, what’s the point? Are we just vehicles for our genes?

Just found this:

“Researchers at London’s Kew Gardens said Thursday they’d discovered that the Paris japonica has a genetic code 50 times longer than that of a human being. The length of that code easily beats its nearest competitor, a long-bodied muck dweller known as the marbled lungfish.”
Claim: White flower has world’s longest genome

This speaks to the marvelous efficiency of the human genome. Think of the early computers that would fill a room and weigh several tons, while today you can hold a computer in the palm of your hand that is thousands of times more powerful.

I’m reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. That illustration of a cell with its DNA pulled out? It could represent a normal cell in your body, or one that spells your doom:

“A cancer cell is an astonishing perversion of the normal cell. Cancer is a phenomenally successful invader and colonizer in part because it exploits the very features that make us successful as a species or as an organism.

“Like the normal cell, the cancer cell relies on growth in the most basic elemental sense: the division of one cell to form two. In normal tissues, this process is exquisitely regulated, such that growth is stimulated by specific signals and arrested by other signals.

“In cancer, unbridled growth gives rise to generation upon generation of cells.

“Biologists use the term clone to describe cells that share a common genetic ancestor. Cancer, we now know, is a clonal disease. Nearly every known cancer originates from one ancestral cell that, having acquired the capacity of limitless cell division and survival, gives rise to limitless numbers of descendants…

“But cancer is not simply a clonal disease; it’s a clonally evolving disease.  If growth occurred without evolution, cancer cells would not be imbued with their potent capacity to invade, survive, and metastasize. Every generation of cancer cells creates a small number of cells that is genetically different from its parents.”

The cure to cancer, the secret of immortality, may result from unlocking the human genome.

“And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.'”
Genesis 3:22