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 axe and actsblue and blew, and clip (fasten, as with a paper clip) and clip (detach, as with clippers).

Homonyms come in two flavors:

Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation but differ in spelling and meaning, such as totootwo; for, fore, four; and aisle (passage), I’ll (I will), and isle (island).

Homographs share the same spelling, and often the same sound, but have different meanings. An example is well, as in wishing well, and well, as in well wishes. Other examples are lead (to go first) and lead (type of metal), minute (60 seconds) and minute (very small).

And then there’s just plain confusingly similar words, such as elicit and illicit, forgo and forego, principal and principle.
Unscramble these confusingly similar words in the list below.

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

arrant  extreme arrant nonsense
errand  mission; short trip
errant  traveling; straying

creak  harsh noise
creek  small stream

die  expire
die  engraved stamp for impressing a design
die  singular of dice
dye  to color

elicit  to bring out
illicit  unlawful

flea  insect
flee  to run away
Steve has a secret potion to make fleas flee and flies fly off

forgo  do without
forego  to go before, precede

gilt  gold leaf or paint applied to a thin layer of a surface
gilt  young female pig
guilt  culpability for an offence,  crime, or wrong

gin  a type of booze
gin   a trap or snare. Verb to set up a snare; exaggerate
Gin & tonic is a gin to Steve’s common sense

gnu  animal
new  not old
knew  understood
The new gnu knew he had to fit in fast with his adopted herd –   hungry lions watch for loners

The new gnu turns on the charm in a desperate bid to fit in

mignon small & pretty
minion servile follower
The chef’s minion served Steve a filet mignon

patient  a person under medical care
patient  quietly & steadily persevering
Steve was a patient patient: he didn’t complain about the old magazines in his doctor’s waiting room nor the hour-long wait

plain  ordinary & uncomplicated
plane  flat
plane  airplane

Principal Skinner

principal  adj main, foremost; noun person who has controlling authority
principle  fundamental law, rule, doctrine, or code of conduct
The guiding principle of Principal Skinner is to bring order into chaos at Springfield Elementary; Bart Simpson’s principal principle is to bring chaos into order. 

rain  wet stuff that falls from sky
rein  to check or stop
reign  to rule

From my New Oxford American Dictionary . . . 
USAGE: The idiomatic phrase free rein, which derives from the literal meaning of using reins to control a horse, is sometimes misinterpreted and written as free reign — predictable, perhaps, in a society only vaguely familiar with the reigns of royalty or the reins of farm animals. Also confused is the related phrase rein in, sometimes written incorrectly as reign in.

ware  goods
wear  to bear or have on the person
where  at, in, or to what place

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

And please comment with your favorite homonyms . . .  OK, don’t.      I don’t care.


Writing Well

Advice I’m following to write well   

    If you’ve read my blog and thought, “Boy, that Steve is such an inept writer,” you should have read my stuff before I subscribed to Mark Nichol’s Daily Writing Tips email newsletter.

Thanks to Mark, my writing ability has risen from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the dregs.

Each day in my email inbox I get tips about writing basics,  grammar, misused words, punctuation, reviews of books about writing — just about anything I should know about putting words together to effectively communicate.

The Daily Writing Tips website is packed with resources for writers. Drop by and subscribe to Mark’s newsletter.

Here’s a recent Daily Writing Tips email newsletter you may find useful:

7 Great Websites for Writers

by Mark Nichol

From usual suspects to obscure gems, from grammar guides to usage resources, here are some websites of great value to writers:

1. Amazon.com 
You may have heard of this website — a good place, I understand, to find books (or anything else manufactured). But what I appreciate even more is the “Search inside this book” link under the image of the book cover on most pages in the Books section.
No longer does one need to own a book or go to a bookstore or a library to thumb through it in search of that name or bon mot or expression you can’t quite remember. And even if you do have access to the book in question, it’s easier to search online (assuming you have a keyword in mind that’s proximal in location or locution to your evasive prey) than to try to remember on what part of what page in what part of the book you remember seeing something last week or last month or years ago.
And then, of course, there are the site’s “Frequently Bought Together” and “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” features — but the book search can be a writer’s salvation.

2. Banned for Life 
Newspaper editor Tom Mangan’s site lists reader contributions of clichés and redundancies.

3. The Chicago Manual of Style Online
My review on this site of The Chicago Manual of Style notes that buying the bulky book, despite its abundance of useful information, is overkill for writers (but not editors), but editorial professionals of all kinds will benefit from the CMOS website’s Style Q&A feature, which responds authoritatively, sensibly, and often humorously to visitors’ queries.

4. GrammarBook.com 
The late Jane Straus, author of The Blue Book on Grammar and Punctuation, created this site to promote her book, but it also features many simple grammar lessons (with quizzes), as well as video lessons, an e-newsletter, and blog entries that discuss various grammar topics.

5. The Phrase Finder 
A useful key to proverbs, phrases from the Bible and Shakespeare, nautical expressions, and American idiom (the site originates in the United Kingdom), plus a feature called “Famous Last Words” and, for about $50 a year, subscription to a phrase thesaurus. (Subscribers include many well-known media companies and other businesses as well as universities.)

6. The Vocabula Review 
The Principal Web Destination for Anyone Interested in Words and Language Essays about language and usage; $25 per year by email, $35 for the print version.

7. The Word Detective 
Words and Language in a Humorous Vein on the Web Since 1995. This online version of Evan Morris’s newspaper column of the same name (some were also published in the book The Word Detective) features humorous Q&A entries about word origins.


Remember Cracked magazine?

OK, you’re way too young (above, cover to Sept. 1962 issue), but back in the day Cracked was the magazine you bought when MAD magazine was all sold out. I was so loyal to MAD that I never bought Cracked.

Well, today Cracked no longer publishes a print magazine, but they do have a hugely popular website, scoring about 300 million monthly page views.

I find Cracked consistently fun and informative. Never lets me down. Always surprises me. How many websites can you say that about? I mean, besides Steve of Upland? And Cracked is headquartered right here in Los Angeles!

“We write funny, fact-based list articles about science, history, bad-asses and pop culture,” Cracked’s senior writer Daniel O’Brien explains.

As of this writing, the Cracked website features …

  • The 5 Most Ingenious Worlds Ever Invented by Science Fiction
  • 4 Video Game Complaints We’re Just Going to Have to Get Over
  • 8 Prehistoric Creatures Ripped Directly from Your Nightmares
  • 7 Phrases That Are Great Signs It’s Time to Stop Talking

The reason I’m bringing up Cracked in my Writing Well post is that, well, Cracked is looking for writers. Cracked helps talented new writers build a portfolio and find an audience.

That could be YOU.

Here’s what they say:

We want you

You can write and make stuff for Cracked.com, today

If you are a funny/smart/creative person, Cracked.com is the single best opportunity you will ever come across in your life.

No experience necessary. We will pay you if it’s good. You talk directly to the editors — no form letter rejections.

Your work could be seen by millions of people. We need articlesphotoshopsinfographics and videos. Take your pick.

If you want to write the list-style feature articles that Cracked.com is famous for (like 26 Sexy Halloween Costumes That Shouldn’t Exist or 6 Books Everyone (Including Your English Teacher) Got Wrong) you simply need to sign up for our writer’s forum.

The only thing we require is that you’re passionate, creative, and respectful of the other writers. It takes zero effort to join.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

But before you submit something, please read Dan’s article The 4 Worst Things About Writing for the Internet. It’s a must read for any writer about to venture out into the big, bad Internet.

What’s that? Why don’t I write for Cracked?

I could, if I wanted to.

Listen, I have better things to do with my time. I have some great inventions I’m working on. Like my Briefcase Chair …


Where I go for inspiration and to learn the mechanics of writing well . . .

How To Be Perfect

If I could just escape to some quiet, lonely place where I could think undisturbed, I bet I could come up with great ways to live a perfect life, as Ron Padgett does in his poem How To Be Perfect.

Excerpts from How To Be Perfect

Get some sleep.

Eat an orange every morning.

Be friendly. It will help make you happy.

Hope for everything. Expect nothing.

Take care of things close to home first. Straighten up your room
before you save the world. Then save the world.

Be nice to people before they have a chance to behave badly.

Don’t stay angry about anything for more than a week, but don’t
forget what made you angry. Hold your anger out at arm’s length
and look at it, as if it were a glass ball. Then add it to your glass
ball collection.

Wear comfortable shoes.

Do not spend too much time with large groups of people.

Plan your day so you never have to rush.

Show your appreciation to people who do things for you, even if
you have paid them, even if they do favors you don’t want.

After dinner, wash the dishes.

Calm down.

Don’t expect your children to love you, so they can, if they want

Don’t be too self-critical or too self-congratulatory.

Don’t think that progress exists. It doesn’t.

Imagine what you would like to see happen, and then don’t do
anything to make it impossible.

Forgive your country every once in a while. If that is not
possible, go to another one.

If you feel tired, rest.

Don’t be depressed about growing older. It will make you feel
even older. Which is depressing.

Do one thing at a time.

If you burn your finger, put ice on it immediately. If you bang
your finger with a hammer, hold your hand in the air for 20
minutes. you will be surprised by the curative powers of ice and

Do not inhale smoke.

Take a deep breath.

Do not smart off to a policeman.

Be good.

Be honest with yourself, diplomatic with others.

Do not go crazy a lot. It’s a waste of time.

Drink plenty of water. When asked what you would like to
drink, say, “Water, please.”

Take out the trash.

Love life.

Use exact change.

When there’s shooting in the street, don’t go near the window.

*  *  *  *  *

Well, Ron certainly covers a lot of ground. I really can’t think of anything I would add to help you be perfect . . . Oh, wait a minute! Check your urine every day to make sure you’re perfectly hydrated.

Big Parade: Downtown LA to Hollywood Sign

The Big Parade is a two-day walk through Los Angeles.

Big Parade starts at the famous Angel’s Flight funicular railway in downtown LA and works its way west through LA’s extraordinarily eclectic neighborhoods — you can sample the culture and cuisine of every country in the world without leaving LA.

Day One stops for an overnight campout at the famous Music Box Stairs in Silver Lake — named after Laurel & Hardy’s Oscar-winning 1932 short film.

Then we’ll continue through the stairways of Silver Lake, on to the Franklin Hills and Los Feliz.

We traverse Griffith Park, the nation’s largest municipal park, and finally climb to the world-famous Hollywood Sign.

Along the way there’s music, art, history, guest speakers, and lots of surprises. The Big Parade is 100% free. No donations, no sponsors, no merchandise — just a walk with friends and neighbors.

But the Big Parade is more than just a walk.

The hope is members of each community we walk through will join us. We’ll stop to visit with interesting people and groups along the way. We’ll uncover secret (and not-so-secret) historic and cultural sites.

And we’ll spread the message that Los Angeles is — not could be — a walkable city.

When does the Big Parade happen?

May 19 and 20, 2012, with a prologue walk on Friday, May 18. A full schedule is at www.bigparadela.com

The Big Parade is a two-day walk from downtown LA (top left) to the Hollywood Sign. NOTE: No public access to the sign, and please respect the property of people living near the sign.  The Other Side of Hollywood Sign (click here to enlarge) a photo by David Freid on Flickr

Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

Homonyms are words that look and/or sound identical, but — Surprise! – they have different meanings

Words that look the same
sewer (one who sews) and sewer (pipe to carry off waste matter)

Words that sound the same
(of your head) and hare (a bunny rabbit)

Words that look & sound the same
tick (recurring click, as of a clock) and tick (bloodsucking insect)

Homonyms come in two flavors:

Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation but differ in spelling and meaning, such as totootwo and their, there, they’re.

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 adverse and averse, delusion and illusion, and prostate and prostrate.

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

close proximity to
close  shut, not open

ewe  female sheep
yew  tree
you  pronoun

groan  deep sigh
grown  increased in size

holy  pure, sacred
wholly  completely

idol  image
idle  unemployed
idyll  poem

literal  true to fact; not exaggerated
littoral  of or pertaining to the shore of a lake, sea, or ocean

peak  the pointed top of a mountain – or tip-top of anything, really
peek   to look furtively; to peer through a crack or hole or from a place of concealment

refuse  no! I don’t want it!
refuse  trash, garbage
Steve of Upland is the Internet’s refuse, many browsers refuse it

toe  one of the digits on your foot
tow  pull along with a rope, chain, or tow bar

way  thoroughfare
weigh  to ascertain the heaviness of
whey  thin part of milk

weak  lacking strength
week  seven days

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

The Homonym Name Game

an indefinite article:  the form of a before an initial vowel sound

bob make a quick, short movement up and down

drew past tense of draw

flow to move along in a stream

frank open, honest, and direct in speech or writing

gale  a very strong wind

grace  simple elegance or refinement of movement; courteous goodwill

hairy  covered with hair

hew  to uphold, follow closely, or conform
hew  to make, shape, smooth, etc., with cutting blows 

john a toilet or bathroom

joy emotion of great delight or happiness

loo water closet — a toilet

may  the verb may expresses possibility — It may rain, and also denotes opportunity or permission:  You may enter.

mic microphone

nick  make a notch in, indent; just catch in time

pat  touch quickly and gently with the palm of the hand

patty a thin, round piece of ground or minced food: a hamburger patty.

fill  to put into as much as can be held: to fill a jar with water

fillip  something that adds stimulation or enjoyment

randy sexually aroused; lustful; lecherous.

sally to rush out suddenly

sandy containing or covered with sand

stew a dish of meat and vegetables cooked slowly in their own juices

sue bring a civil action against

tony fashionable among wealthy or stylish people.

I know there must be many more names for my Homonym Name Game list. Can you think of any? Maybe your name is a homonym. Leave a comment!

Hey! I just thought of another one:
brandy strong alcoholic spirit distilled from wine.

Reality Bites, History Sucks, Part I

My wife Lizzie is schizophrenic.

Lizzie is a real sweetheart (sometimes …  sometimes Lizzie’s mean, angry and demanding).

Taking care of her – bathing, dressing, feeding Lizzie– can be a royal pain-in-the-ass. “What a life I’m having,” I tell myself, with maximum self-pity, as I’m scrubbing Lizzie’s rear end and she farts into my hand.

“Ain’t life grand?” Lizzie says as she smiles up at me, ignoring the fact that I’m applying Preparation H to her hemorrhoids, after treating her psoriasis, injecting her with insulin, and making sure she’s taken a handful of prescription drugs.

I can easily make Lizzie laugh. She finds joy in the smallest things.

This time of year, I clip a California golden poppy from our backyard and place the flower in a vase by her bed. Lizzie, because of her disabilities, spends most of her time in bed.

At night the poppy closes up tight, dies. But in the morning, as the sun pours into the bedroom, the poppy opens, springs back to life. Spreads its vibrant, buttery-orange petals.

Each morning, Lizzie is full of wonder. “God’s glory,” Lizzie says. “The flower’s smiling at me. God is smiling at me.”

But when Lizzie is in a schizophrenic episode (as she is today), when the meds don’t work, her life is torture.

The poppy shuts down; God’s glory ceases.

Lizzie can’t control her thoughts. She hears voices. The voices constantly criticize and taunt her.

She can’t tell me exactly what the voices say.

I can’t imagine what goes on inside Lizzie’s head, but I know it’s bad.

In your mind, in your mind 
One foot on Jacob’s ladder 
And one foot in the fire 
And it all goes down in your mind 
In Your Mind lyrics, sung by Johnny Cash

Lizzie is paranoid, anxious, angry — every minute of every day the episode lasts.

All I can do is hold Lizzie and tell her I love her. “I know … I know,” I whisper in her ear, even though I really don’t know.

Holding Lizzie doesn’t help her much (well, maybe it helps me).

Lizzie’s schizophrenic world is ugly, brutal, threatening. No rest. No peace. No safe, quiet place.

The not-so-funny thing is, this may be the way the world really is

I sometimes think the mentally ill see life stripped of illusion. They’ve lost that buffer the sane have against stark, cold reality.

Without that buffer, reality hits heads on.

It’s a train wreck.

No wonder Lizzie is anxious, angry, disturbed.

On that happy note, let me say something about Truth:

I don’t like it.

I’m comfortable with my illusions, my fantasies, my myths.

I think we have religion, God, a Higher Power to help us deal with Reality, deal with Death, deal with uncomfortable Truth.

After a couple of days, the poppy petals fall off and I toss them in the trash.

Where is God’s smile now?

Where are the snows of yester-year? Things come and go. Death takes all.

Why is Lizzie mentally ill? How does her cruel mental illness fit God’s Grand Plan?

Lizzie has no free will. Her mind is not her own. In an episode, Lizzie can’t make responsible decisions. If there is an afterlife, how will Lizzie be judged? What does her life mean if there is no responsibility?

I myself struggle with decisions. My thoughts may not be my own. Am I under the influence of illusions, delusions – the protective barrier I keep against hard, cold reality?

Is illusion what I need to survive, to stay sane? Is this what our species needs to not simply give up in despair, to continue on so we can pass our genes from one generation to the next?

Is God anthropological or real?

A struggle between faith and what my senses tell me. A struggle between the human and the divine. A struggle between hemorrhoids and poetry. What does it all mean?

Which is why I’m so upset with Lucretius, a poet and philosopher who lived more than two thousand years ago.

Lucretius strips God’s smile from Lizzie’s poppy. What are we left with?

The Roman philosopher Lucretius explains the whole enchilada of existence in an exquisitely beautiful poem written a few decades before the birth of Christ. The manuscript, after a thousand years of neglect, resurfaces in the 15th century, and changes the course of human thought.

I came across Lucretius in a book I’m reading, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. This is from the book’s preface:

The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction.

There is no escape from this process.

When you look up at the night sky and, feeling unaccountably moved, marvel at the numberless stars, you are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere detached from our transient world.

You are seeing the same material world of which you are a part and from whose elements you are made.

There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.

All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time.

The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection.

That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time: those that are not so well suited die off quickly.

But nothing – from our own species to the planet on which we live to the sun that lights our days – lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal.

For Lucretius, this bare-bones understanding of the world we live in opens new, exciting possibilities.

Lucretius thinks his epicurean philosophy is liberating.

Wonder did not depend on the dream of an afterlife; in Lucretius it welled up out of a recognition that we are made of the same matter as the stars and the oceans and all things else. And this recognition was the basis for the way he thought we should live—not in fear of the gods but in pursuit of pleasure, in avoidance of pain.
Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve

The meaning of life, says Lucretius, is to pursue happiness. Happiness found during our short time on earth not in the struggle for power and wealth but in friendship and the tranquility that comes from contemplating a universe where no miracles or gods exist, only the immutable laws of nature.

Imagine there’s no heaven, above us only sky
John Lennon

Lucretius’ poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), was lost for more than a thousand years.

When the manuscript of On the Nature of Things was discovered and circulated in 1417, Lucretius’ provocative ideas helped spur the Renaissance, jumpstart scientific inquiry, and shape the modern world.

That’s what Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is all about, how Lucretius’ poem was found in a remote monastery in southern Germany and how On the Nature of Things, a radically secular poem, influenced great thinkers through the subsequent centuries.

Lucretius was a favorite of Machiavelli, Montaigne, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Jefferson, who had five copies of Lucretius in his library. That’s why, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote the famous phrase, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

I see the spirit of Lucretius in the video of physicist Richard Feynman explaining the transcendental beauty of science and the natural world. (View this incredibly moving video here).

Lizzie in the arms of Jesus

Someone else, who also lived two thousand years ago, gives far more meaning to Lizzie’s life (and mine) than Lucretius does.
“Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh death, is your sting?”
1Corinthians 15:55
…a triumphant view which bursts upon the soul as it contemplates the fact that the work of the second Adam has repaired the ruins of the first, and man redeemed; his body will be raised; not another human being should die, and the work of death should be ended. Barnes Notes on Bible

The poppy will flower again, when the sun fills the room.


History Sucks

History is the trick
Played by the 
Living on the Dead

What is history
but a lie agreed upon?

I’m getting to be an old man. I get uneasy when myths I’ve cherished since childhood are shattered.

And that’s why another book I recently read also shook me up.

Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy

Freedom From Fear is a comprehensive and colorful account of the most convulsive period in American history, excepting only the Civil War – a period that formed the crucible in which modern America was created.

But you’ll have to wait for Reality Bites, History Sucks, Part II, to learn more – and I guarantee a Big Surprise.

I thought World War II was the Good War, heroically won by the Greatest Generation. I also thought there was a God, who so loved people He sacrificed His only Son so that we could find redemption and life everlasting.

I’ve got to stop reading books like Freedom From Fear and The Swerve, if I want to preserve the myths.

What’s In A Word: Bratburger

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

Definition of bratburger: an obnoxious, out-of-control kid you see running around the supermarket pulling things off the shelves, bumping into you, yelling and screaming

Steve saw the snot-nosed bratburger grab an apple, take a bite, and put the apple back with the others, laughing demonically — the little bastard knew what he was doing.


Mmmm, fresh bratburger. There’s nothing like it!

When you’re in the supermarket and encounter some bawling, brawling, super-annoying, rude and totally offensive child, here’s what you do:

Approach the frazzled, embarrassed mom and say, “Can I have that kid?”

“Please… take it! TAKE IT!” she begs you.

Then you take the kid home and cut its head off.

Gut it and grind the meat up. Fire up and the barbecue and make fresh bratburgers.

Delicious! And you’re doing society a favor, eating that brat. You know the kid would have grown up to be just as crappy as his parents. And gone on to reproduce, creating more and more crappy people.

I say eat them when they’re young & tender! Nip it in the bud!

At least that’s my fantasy.

Anyway, thinking about bratburgers calms me down whenever I come across extremely unruly children and their shameless parents, oblivious to the discomfort their brat’s behavior causes others.

Instead of my usual poopy face — the scrunched up grimace we old folks affect in public, as if we’ve just had a whiff of dog shit (not to be confused with a baby’s poopy-face, that consternated look prior to off-loading into a diaper) – instead of scowling and getting all stressed out over the kid’s offensive antics, I just smile and think …

Mmmm, fresh bratburger. There’s nothing like it!

W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields’ Taste for Children

“Madam, there’s no such thing as a tough child – if you parboil them first for seven hours, they always come out tender.”

“Don’t you like children?” To which Fields replies, “Only if they are properly cooked.”

“I have the heart of a child,” says novelist and screenwriter Robert Bloch. “ I keep it in a jar on my shelf.”
Bloch created the psychopathic killer Norman Bates in his novel Pyscho (1959).

Brat Bans: “No Children Allowed” Movement Growing

There’s a small but growing movement to ban kids at restaurants, theaters, and airplanes. Fans of “brat bans” say screaming children can ruin a night out for others, but many parents have cried foul.

Sometimes old folks can behave like bratburgers, but they’re too tough and stringy to eat