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
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
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:
bear/bare
boar/bore
deer/dear
doe/dough
ewe/you
flee/flea  (you’re right: an insect, not an animal. So sue me)
fowl/foul
gnu/new
gorilla/guerilla
herd/heard
hare/hair
horse/hoarse
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)
owl/awl
tern/turn
whale/wail

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.

LittleHorse2

Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

Homonyms, homophones, and confusingly similar words are fun.

I love’m.

So much writing on the Web is boring. Blah, blah, blah. Quack, quack, quack.  Especially self-absorbed personal blogs like Steve of Upland.

A mischievous homophone can pull an unwary writer’s pants down. Hilarity results.

Take, for example, these newspaper headlines . . .
Woman Kicked By Horse Upgraded To Stable
Married Priests In Catholic Church A Long Time Coming
Child’s Stool Great For Use In Garden

If you don’t see what’s so funny about child’s stool, see homonyms for log in my list further down in this posting.

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

Examples: bow (type of knot) and bow (to incline), heal (restore to health) and heel (back part of foot), sewer (one who sews) and sewer (drain).

Homonyms come in two flavors:

Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation but differ in spelling and meaning, such as there and they’re; to, too, two; and so, sew, and sow.

 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.

A homonym you don’t often come across is the contranym. A contranym is a word that has two opposite meanings.

The word clip can mean attach to, as with a paper clip. Or clip could mean the exact opposite: cut away from. Clip this coupon and clip it to your grocery list

Contranym examples are dust (to sprinkle with something, as in dust crops) and dust (remove sprinkles from something, as in dust furniture); cleave (to cut apart) and cleave (to cling together); and pit (a hole, as in a coal pit) and pit (a solid core, as in a peach pit).

How the same word can have contradictory meanings is beyond me, but that’s the English language for you.

And then there’s just plain confusingly similar words, such as delegate and relegate, illicit and elicit, condensation and condescension.

Puns depend on homophones and confusingly similar words.

A pun, or play on words, is a cheap and easy way to get attention and (sometimes) a laugh, which is why annoying idiots like me like to use puns.

Businesses use puns to get attention and fix themselves in a customer’s memory

Such as the North Carolina window cleaning company Labor Panes.

Here are a few of my favorite business slogan puns:

Roofing company: For a hole in your roof or a whole new roof
Radiator shop: A great place to take a leak
Guns & ammo store: We aim to keep you loaded
Gynecologist: Dr Jones at your cervix
Butcher shop: Where quality meats service
Septic tank service: Your poop is our bread & butter
Plumber: A good flush beats a full house
Hair salon: We curl up and dye for you

A Call To Morrow Today Is All It Takes!

At the Sand Witch, a sandwich shop here in Upland, California, which (get it?) I visited Thursday (delicious roast beef sandwich, extremely fast & friendly service), a sign reads “Witch Parking Only, Violators Will Be Toad.”

I suspect the young ladies who run the Sand Witch Shop are witches, or Wiccans. I also suspect they’re Lebanese, if you know what I mean. Whatever. The sandwiches are devilishly good.

Rose between two thorns: The Sand Witch Shop has a gas station on one side and a recycling center on the other. It’s magic they do so well. Or maybe because the witches behind the counter are so friendly and the sandwiches so tasty.

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

air atmosphere
heir inheritor
ere  before

aye  yes
eye  the organ of sight
I  not you, me
Ay-Yi-Yi! Eileen, I have an eye on you! Aye, I do! Eye on you! 

boarder lodger
boarder one who rides a snowboard
border  the outer edge of something

cheap inexpensive; stingy
cheep to chirp
Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! All the little birdies say Steve is cheap, cheap, cheap. ‘Cause Steve buys his birdseed from the 99-Cents Only store. 

complement something that completes
compliment  flattering remark

desperate  having an urgent need; leaving little or no hope
disparate  distinct in kind; essentially different

hair of the head
hare  a rabbit

log  trunk or large limb of a felled tree
log  detailed record of a trip made by a ship or aircraft
log  long, solid mass of feces; a stool; big piece of shit
Steve looks with disgust at Ensign Pulver. “You’re sitting on the captain’s log,” says Steve acidly. Pulver jumps to his feet and exclaims, “LOG! What log? We’re shipwrecked on a bloody desert island, you fool!” Capt. Marlow furrows his brow and thinks, “Steve is cracking up. Obviously my log went down with the ship.”

mall  area set aside for shopping
maul  to beat; to handle roughly

mind  I lost mine years ago
mine
 belongs to me
mine  tunnel into the earth or buried explosive device
mined  tunneled under or laid with land mines

unwanted  not wanted
unwonted  rare; unusual
Steve thought his blog Steve of Upland creative, brilliant, so incredibly  unwonted — one of the Web’s true gems. Everyone else on the planet dismissed it as dull, derivative, and unwanted.

walk  stroll; sidewalk
wok  cooking utensil

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.

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.


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) and bear (to tolerate).

Homonyms come in two flavors:

Homophones are words that sound identical but differ in spelling and meaning, such as totootwo.

Homographs are words identical in spelling and often with the same sound, but they 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 just plain confusingly similar words, such as my favorites penal and penile, which I discussed in an earlier post. Confusingly similar words are the stuff that malapropisms are made of: He’s a wolf in cheap clothing.

Here are a few of my favorite homonyms, homophones and confusingly similar words:

beek  to bask or warm in the sunshine or before a fire.
beak  the bill of a bird

century a period of 100 years
sentry guard

gait  manner of walking
gate  opening in a wall or fence

golf  you know, game with balls and clubs; “a good walk spoiled,” according to Mark Twain
gulf  a portion of an ocean or sea partly enclosed by land; wide separation

miner  one who works in a mine
minor  one who has not attained majority

morning  before noon, the a.m., where’s my coffee?
mourning  the act of sorrowing
Is it “Mourning Becomes Electra” or “Morning Becomes Electra”?

premier  first in rank; chief; leading
premiere  to present publicly for the first time
So you would say, “The Grilled Cheese Truck is the premier gourmet food truck in Los Angeles,” not  “the premiere gourmet food truck.”

pail  bucket
pale  deficient in color

retch  to try to vomit
wretch  miserable and unhappy person; a vile person
Whenever I peer into a mirror, I see a wretch and retch

tare  the weight of a container that is deducted from the gross weight to obtain net weight
tear  to pull apart or in pieces by force
I know, tear, as in to pull apart, should really be spelled tare; let’s leave tear to “a drop of the saline, watery fluid continually secreted by the lacrimal glands between the surface of the eye.”

But that’s English for you. It’s enough to make you shed a tear and tare your hair out.

FUN WITH HOMONYMS

I love the way Spell Check blithely and shamelessly mishandles homonyms, homophones and other confusingly similar words.

I’ve seen the following Ode to Spell Check all over the web but have never figured out who originally wrote it.

Eye have a spelling chequer, it came with my pea sea. It plainly marques four my revue Miss Steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word and weight four it two say Weather eye am wrong oar write, it shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid, it nose bee fore two long And eye can put the error rite Its rare lea ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it I am shore your pleased two no Its letter perfect awl the weigh My chequer tolled me sew.

I’d love to know your favorite homographs, homophones and confusingly similar words. Please comment below.

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

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 sew, here and hear, and bear (the animal) and bear (to tolerate).

Homonyms come in two flavors:

Homophones are words that sound identical but differ in spelling and meaning, such as to, too, two.

Homographs are words identical in spelling and often with the same sound, but they have different meanings. An example is well, a hole drilled in the earth to obtain water, and well, in good health.

Written homonyms are easy to spot: as you read, your eye scans a sentence and quickly understands the context in which a homonym is used. The eye may not be fooled, but the ear can easily stumble over spoken homonyms, resulting in a thoroughly confused listener: Juan won one two-to-one, too.

If you find yourself noticing homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words, please leave a comment with your favorites.

Here are a few of my favorite homonyms and confusingly similar words:

beach shore
beech a type of tree

doe female deer
dough flour mixed with water, milk, etc. for baking into bread; slang for money

floe large mass of floating ice
flow uninterrupted movement

knight Sir Lancelot is one
night the darkness between sunset and sunrise
(Just saw an ad for a new movie called Knight & Day)

pedal (noun) foot lever; (verb) to ride a bicycle
peddle to sell or offer to sell from place to place
petal portion of a flower

penal pertaining to punishment
penile relating to or affecting the penis

From Yahoo! Answers

Is it called the penile system?

i really feel like another name for the punishment/penitentiary system is called “penile system” but i wasn’t sure so i looked it up in the dictionary and it only mentioned the male body…. which i knew, of course, but there wasn’t a secondary definition or anything.

is that what it’s called??

Best Answer – Chosen by Voters

I’m laughing so hard I wet myself!! It’s penal system.

profit gain
prophet one who predicts the future

weather state of atmosphere as to heat, cold, and so forth
whether if it be the case that

A few examples of homographs:

bass low in pitch, a bass guitar
bass the fish

dove the bird
dove plunge, submerge, descend; he dove into the deep end of the pool.

sow to scatter seed; implant, introduce or promulgate
sow adult female swine
Homophones for sow were mentioned at the start of this post: sew and so
(“sew and so,” I guess, is a homophone for the noun so-and-so, an unnamed or unspecified person, thing or action).

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

“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” is a grammatically valid sentence in the English language, used as an example of how homonyms and homophones can be used to create complicated linguistic constructs. Check it out

Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

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:

Homographs are words with the same sound and the same spelling but different meanings. An example is bear. You have bear as in manage to tolerate (“I can barely bear Steve’s jokes”) and bear as in the big, furry mammal (“Steve was about to tell his stupid Smokey-the-Bear joke, so I ran out of the room”). Another example is spring (the season), spring (leap suddenly), and spring (that metal coil thingy that absorbs movement).

Homophones are also words pronounced the same but that have different meanings. Unlike homographs, homophones have different spellings. The English language has many more homophones than homonyms. Just a few examples:  red/read, here/hear, there/their, write/right and  blew/blue.

If you find yourself noticing homographs, homophones, and other confusingly similar words, please leave a comment with your favorites.

Here’s a few of my favorite homophones…

canvas firmly woven cloth; a sail
canvass detailed examination; survey

chord group of musical notes
cord length of rope or stack of wood

cousin the child of your aunt or uncle
cozen to cheat; to defraud

gristle cartilage: tough elastic tissue
grizzle To make or become gray

lean lacking in fat
lean to incline or bend from a vertical position
lien legal right to a debtor’s property

sleight stratagem; dexterity (sleight of hand)
slight slim; frail; meager

timber growing trees or their wood
timbre quality given to a sound by its overtones

Let’s go back to canvas and canvass.

According to my well-thumbed copy of The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, these two words have a common ancestor… Marijuana! Read on:

“Canvas cloth is often made of hemp. Cannabis, the Latin ancestor of canvas, was the classical Latin word for hemp and is, in modern scientific Latin, the generic name for the hemp plant, or marijuana. It probably also has the same non-Indo-European ancestor as hemp.

At one time it was a popular sport or, when carried to extremes, an effective punishment to toss a person in a canvas sheet. The Duke of Gloucester, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I, threatens the Bishop of Winchester with similar treatment:

Thou that contrivedst to murther our dead lord,
Thou that giv’st whores indulgences to sin.
I’ll canvass thee in thy broad cardinal’s hat
If thou proceed in this thy insolence.

It is not difficult to see how extended senses like ‘to beat or buffet’, ‘to attack’, or ‘to thrash out or discuss’ developed from figurative use of the verb canvass. The evolution of the familiar sense ‘to solicit support’, which appeared early, is unfortunately not clear.”

So there you are: canvas and canvass, two homophones that have different meanings but a common Latin root, which happens to be pot!

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

Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

censer (noun) covered incense burner
censor (verb) to inspect conduct, morals, documents
censure (verb) to criticize or reproach in a harsh or vehement manner

inequity (noun) injustice, unfairness
iniquity (noun) gross injustice or wickedness

lickerish (adjective) greedy, lascivious
licorice (noun) a candy flavored with licorice root

lighted, lit
According to Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors, either is correct. Lighted, however, is more usual when the word is being used as an adjective (“a lighted torch”).

palate (anatomy) roof of mouth
palate (noun) the sense of taste: a dinner to delight the palate
palate (noun) intellectual or aesthetic taste; mental appreciation
palette (noun) thin board on which a painter mixes pigment
pallet (noun) small temporary bed; portable platform

further, farther
I was taught that “farther” should designate distance and “further” is for quantity or degree.

But my Merriam Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage has muddied the waters for me. Seems further is taking over meanings that used to belong exclusively to farther.

The folks at MWCDEU track present-day usage trends of commonly confused and disputed words and phrases. They’ve had their eye on farther and further for quite some time (I saw references going back to the 1920’s).

Farther as an adjective, the MWCDEU says, is now limited to instances where literal or figurative distance is involved. And further competes even in this function: “It was the furthest thing from everyone’s mind.”

“So for the adjective we can see that further has squeezed farther out of the additional sense and is giving it pressure in the more distant sense.”

I was beginning to feel sorry for farther, but then read that, used as an adverb, farther still dominates “when spatial, temporal, or metaphorical distance is involved.” Such as, “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

I was farther and farther, or is it further and further?,  from understanding when to furt and when to fart, as it were.

For clarification, I turned again to my expert of choice, Bill Bryson:
“Insofar as the two are distinguished, farther usually appears in contexts involving literal distance (‘New York is farther from Syney than from London’) and further in contexts involving figurative distance (‘I can take this plan no further’).”

Which explains why there’s a “furthermore” but not a “farthermore.”

And another great word arrived in my email from Dictionary.com:

fugacious \fyoo-GAY-shuhs\, adjective:

Lasting but a short time; fleeting.

When he proposed the tax in May, Altman thought it would follow the fugacious nature of some flowers: bloom quickly and die just as fast.
— Will Rodgers, “Parks proposal falls on 3-2 vote”, Tampa Tribune, June 27, 2001
[What an extremely erudite and poetic newspaper report on such a mundane topic. The headline is hardly compelling: “Parks proposal falls on 3-2 vote”]

Fugacious is derived from Latin fugax, fugac-, “ready to flee, flying; hence, fleeting, transitory,” from fugere, “to flee, to take flight.” Other words derived from the same root include fugitive, one who flees, especially from the law; refuge, a place to which to flee back (re-, “back”), and hence to safety; and fugue, literally a musical “flight.”

Reminds me of the wise guys’ favorite word: “Fuggedaboutit!”

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