“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
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).
Some (homophone: sum) of my favorite homonyms, homophones and confusingly similar words:
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
immanent 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
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
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
straight having no bends, turns, or twists
strait narrow channel connecting two bodies of water
See my master list of all the homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words that I’ve posted to date.
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 hoarse. Gull 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 list 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.