Hazardous Homonyms

Homonyms are accidents waiting to happen: words that sound exactly the same yet differ in their spelling and have meanings that are miles apart. Such mix-ups are so common these days it sometimes seems as if half the population doesn’t quite understand that, when writing, we go over there but stay out of their way; like your style but think you’re too picky; dress with flair but ignite a flarepore over a book but pour a glass of water; try to rein in a horse but reign over a kingdom (or, say, a competitor); and wait with bated breath to see if we’ve been baited by a too-good-to-be-true advertisement.

Worse, legions of copyeditors and proofreaders have ridden off into the sunset and left even our leading publications peppered with misspellings. A decade ago, would the New York Times have allowed such lapses to make their way into the paper? Not likely. But in the past year or so, the misspellings below were among the several that appeared in the online edition and will stay put in print editions for the long haul. (On the other hand, to my knowledge no newspaper goes to greater lengths to correct errors both typographical and factual than the Times, and in a timely manner.)

  • gate  for gait
  • palette for palate
  • mettle for metal*

Other homonym mix-ups pop up like weeds in a vacant lot, among them discreet for discrete; phase for faze; capital for capitol; principle for principal; compliment for complement; and hair for hare. I’d like to think that many people simply slip up and then fail to double-check their scribblings… but how many bother in a day when spelling and grammar take a back seat to speed? Also, the more some misspellings appear, the more likely they are to be seen as correct – worrisome for Wordies but apparently not that big a deal for the average Joe or Jane.

Sound-alike Snags

Keeping company with hazardous homonyms are similar-sounding terms just waiting to be confused. Too often heard and seen are the likes of elude for the correct allude; squash for quashjive with for jibe withhurdle for hurtlewreck havoc for wreak havocdribble for drivelbold-faced lie for bald-faced lie; conscious for conscience; could of for could have; theirselves for themselves; and cachet (ca- as in “cat” plus SHAY) for cache (pronounced CASH). Then there’s the wholly off-base flushed out for fleshed out. An all the more woeful mix-up is hone in for home in, and the TV talking head who gets this phrase right is a rare bird. My jaw dropped when I heard one cable regular refer to a homing pigeon (a pigeon able to find its way home over vast distances) as a honing pigeon (a pigeon trained to sharpen blades?)

Does your jaw occasionally drop too? Or do you see mix-ups of this ilk as no cause for alarm? Way in (oops! Weigh in) if you please, as we mull over this burning question.

*See Metal vs. Mettle.

5 Responses to Hazardous Homonyms

  • Bill M. says:

    anyone who says honing in either doesn’t know the meaning of hone or doesn’t think about what they’re saying. drives me nuts too.

  • Dave S. says:

    Man, when people say “Cut the mustard” rather than “Cut the muster,” it really gets my goad (or is it “goat?”).

  • Fred says:

    Surely you jest, Dave. Or maybe not. A quick Internet search told me that the military-sounding “cut the muster” was mistakenly proposed as the original phrase and held sway for years before it was discounted. “Cut the mustard” was first seen in print in O’Henry’s 1907 short story “Heart of the West” and remains in its original form to this day.

    As for goat/goad, I wouldn’t be surprised to see or hear this mix-up at some point. If “honing pigeon” can make it onto national TV, why can’t “gets my goad”?

  • Erik Kowal says:

    One I’ve frequently encountered in the USA is ‘Calvary’ instead of ‘cavalry’.

    I hesitate to point the finger too readily at the influence of organized Christianity, as simple educational mediocrity is just as plausible (though admittedly, they often occur together).

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