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.

And then there’s confusingly similar words, such as penal and penile and florescent and fluorescent, both of which I discuss in earlier posts. Confusingly similar words are the stuff that malapropisms are made of: Having one wife is called monotony

Here are some (homonym: sum) of my favorite homonyms, homophones and confusingly similar words:

abjure to renounce
adjure to command, as under oath
”This rough magic I do here abjure,” says Prospero in Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, but I adjure all playwrights to keep the magic coming.

amend to set right
emend to correct
Both amend and emend mean to improve by correcting or freeing from error.
Use amend when you’re talking about correcting in detail: The writers of the Constitution included a way to amend the document. Use emend when referring to critically editing a text for publication, cleaning it up: On her Word Press blog Terribly Write, Laura gleefully emends the sloppy writing on Yahoo! News—a target-rich environment—and each time she pounces, her readers appreciate the importance of clear, clean communication.

assure to give confidence to
ensure to make certain; to insure
insure to give, take or procure insurance on; to take necessary measures

baited nagged or teased; set a trap
bated restrained, reduced
The big perch exploded out of the water and  leaped over our boat… shocked, I dropped my smoke, and with bated breath and shaky hands I somehow baited my hook.

bus large motor vehicle that carries passengers
buss a kiss

cell basic structural unit of all organisms
sell to persuade someone to buy something

delusion false belief or opinion
disillusion disenchantment
dissolution act or process of dissolving

gest notable deed or exploit; pronounced JEST
jest to joke
They thought Don Quixote’s gest just one big jest.
Gest shares the same roots as jest, the Latin gerrere, “to carry on.” I wonder if that’s behind our expression, “Oh, come on!” when someone tells us an obviously tall tale.

feat notable act or achievement (hey! could be a gest!)
feet plural of foot

moue a pouting grimace; pronounced MOO
moo deep vocal sound of a cow
Bessie made a little moue of discontent, flicked her tail angrily, then gave a loud, long, indignant  moo when Farmer Brown placed his ice-cold hands on her udders.

shear to cut, as hair or wool
sheer to deviate from a course; swerve

tough strong and durable
tuft a bunch or cluster of fluffy thingies, like feathers, hair or threads

wait delay
weight heaviness

weal well-being, prosperity or happiness
weal raised mark on the surface of the body produced by a blow
wheel a circular frame or disk arranged to revolve on an axis

I’d love to know your favorite homographs, homophones and confusingly similar words. Please post to Comments, otherwise I feel like a voice crying in the digital wilderness.

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