Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more     nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass 

Humpty-and-alice (1)

The purpose of language is to convey meanings.

We depend on words to carry a thought from our head and deliver it to someone else’s head.

But sometimes words fail: they don’t communicate the meaning we had in mind.

When words fail, either we misused a word or a word misused us.

Mr. Dumpty misuses words; the words he chooses to express his thoughts only confuse Alice.

I don’t know what you mean by “glory,” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously.  ‘Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’       from Chapter 6, Through the Looking-Glass

On the other hand, the English language is as idiosyncratic and illogical as Humpty Dumpty. Many words in our quirky language delight in deceiving us, delivering an entirely different meaning than the one we intended.  These trickster words are called homonyms.

Homonyms are two or more words that share the same spelling, or the same pronunciation, or both, but have different meanings and origins.

So a word can look like duck, sound like duck, but not mean a web-footed swimming bird but something you do to dodge a blow or avoid an unpleasant task.

Mischievous homonyms can pull the pants down of the unwary writer, as seen in these newspaper headlines:
Prostitutes Appeal To Pope
Chicago Checking on Elderly in Heat
‘Bare Children in Mind’ Plea to Drivers [Sign seen on restaurant door: No Bear Feet Allowed]
Here’s How You Can Lick Doberman’s Leg Sores

Homonyms come in two flavors:

Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation but differ in meaning, such as ceiling and sealing, hours and ours, way and weigh.

Homographs share the same spelling, and sometimes the same sound, but have different meanings. Examples are close (to be near) and close (to shut), incense (a burnt aromatic) and incense (to make angry), and refuse (to deny) and refuse (garbage).

And then there’s just plain confusingly similar words, such as biannual and biennial, immanent and imminent, insolate and insulate.
I straighten out these tangled words for you in the list below.

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

allowed  permitted
aloud  in a spoken voice; not silently
Steve protested that reading aloud is not allowed in the library

altar  raised platform for worship or sacrifice
alter  to change

biannual  twice a year
biennial  once every two years
Steve’s curio shop, Bizarre Bazaar, has a biannual clearance sale and a biennial going-out-of-business sale

bole  stem or trunk of a tree
bowl  deep, round dish or basin
bowl  participate in a game of bowling

eminent  high in station or rank; prominent; distinguished
internal or inherent
imminent  likely to occur at any moment

faces  have a difficult event or situation in prospect: the defendant faces a maximum sentence of ten years
feces  waste matter eliminated from the bowels; excrement
Following the dog feces fracas, Steve faces eviction

gull  to deceive or trick
gull  seabird
Steve tried to gull the gull with a plastic minnow

insolate  exposure to the sun’s rays
insulate  using various materials to prevent the leakage of heat
Insolate to get warm and insulate to stay warm

quail  lose heart or courage in difficulty or danger
quail  bird
quail TimBentz

shoe-in  common misspelling of word below
shoo-in  a candidate, competitor, etc., regarded as certain to win

soar  to fly aloft or about; to rise to heights
sore  painful

straight  having no bends, turns, or twists
strait  narrow channel connecting two bodies of water

wine  fermented grape juice
whine  to cry in distress, or in a high-pitched, complaining manner
Wine, wine, wine the night; whine, whine, whine the morning
wine flu

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

Animal Homophones

I have two bird words in my selection of favorite homonyms, homophones & confusingly similar words: gull and quail.

I’m working on a list of words for animals that are homophones, such as horse and hoarseGull and quail don’t count because they’re homographs — they have the same spelling as the words I pair them with. I just brought up gull and quail because they’re animal words and remind me of this Nelsonlist I’m working on, a list of animal homophones (same sound, different spelling). It’s a very interesting list and I’m having fun putting it together and …

Oh, you’re laughing at me. I know what you’re thinking: Dude, what a life you’re having!

Hey, what are you working on, a cure for cancer?

Anyway, here’s my work-in-progress list of animal homophones:
flee/flea  (you’re right: an insect, not an animal. So sue me)
leech/leach  (leeches are worms, worms are animals, not insects)
lion/lyin’  (OK, I’m cheating a little bit here)
minks/minx  (a minx is a flirtatious girl; minks have beautiful fur)

Do any animal homophones occur to you? I’d appreciate suggestions, just use the comment box. Oh, the rule is, you can’t do a Google search. Has to come straight out of your own little head. Builds brain muscles that way, so you won’t get Al’s hemorrhoids when you’re old.



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 so and sewhere 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 totootwo; 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

air atmosphere
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
banned prohibited

cannon artillery piece
canon regulation; rule; dogma
canyon deep ravine

foul offensive
fowl bird, especially domestic cock or hen

Cartoon by Kent Lamberson artofkent.com

right entitlement; privilege
rite ceremony
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

vain conceited
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 machinerepeat again, scheduled appointmentadvance warning, forcible rapepersonal 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:

Deliberate Lie
More forthright than the inadvertent lie

Honest Truth
When all other truths fail

Innocent Bystander
A bystander inexperienced in the ways of the world

Raining Outside
Less surprising than when it rains inside

Mutual Cooperation
Team version of solo cooperation

New Innovation
Preferable to an old innovation

Sudden Impulse
Impulse that doesn’t embrace a strategic plan

Future Expectations
Expectations unachieved in advance

Free Gift
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.