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Playing With Words

Homophones, Homonyms—some of my favourites

It comes as no surprise to those who know me that I love playing with words. My dictionary is falling apart and decorated with Post-It notes of words that would make great titles, names, or just ones I love the sound or shape of. Looking up anything always takes me longer than I expect because I get very easily side-tracked. I collect weird meanings and derivations of unusual words and phrases.

But it’s not just unusual words that fascinate me. I love common words with unusual meanings, or slight difference in spellings that change everything. (A while ago, I was sent an email imploring me to sign a partition.) When I started making a note of some words that caught my eye for this post, I quickly filled pages of notes, and then had to force myself to stop. Here are some of my favourites, in no particular order.

Homophones
In UK English, we have both practice and practise—noun and verb. So, you could be practising your backhand during tennis practice.

And although in UK English we would ask someone to use their best judgement when making a decision, if the context referred to British legal proceedings, the spelling would be judgment, as in US English.

One that often seems to cause confusion is callous, meaning to be insensitive or to have a cruel disregard for others, and can also mean hardened and thickened, but callus particularly means a thickening, or a hard thickened area, of skin or bark. So, someone might have either callous hands, or callused hands—or even callous, callused hands—but the meanings would be very different!

While androgynous means having both male and female characteristics, androgenous means having only male offspring.

Everyone knows what angry means, but angary is a legal term meaning a belligerent’s right to seize and use neutral or other property, subject to compensation.

Pursue means to harass or persecute—or, in Scots law, to prosecute—and Spenser spelt it pursew with the same meaning. But written persue, it is not only another alternative spelling, but also means a track of blood. (Spenser again) from the act of piercing.

Consent might be to agree or comply, but concent is a harmony of sounds or voices.

The meaning of blanket is familiar, but blanquet is a variety of pear, blanquette is a ragout of chicken or veal made with a white sauce, and bloncket means grey. (That bloke Spenser gets everywhere.)

A lake is not only a body of water, but also a small stream or channel, or a reddish pigment made from combining a dye with metallic hydroxide to give the colour carmine. Spell it laik and it becomes a Northern English term meaning to sport or play, or be unemployed, and lakh means the number 100,000 in India and Pakistan, especially when referring to rupees, or an infinitely vast number.

While a block is a mass of stone or wood, a bloc is a combination of parties, nations, or other units to achieve a common purpose.

One that always used to confuse me as a kid was the difference between demure, meaning chaste or modest, and demur meaning to object or hesitate.

And I know for a fact I’ve accidentally mixed up defuse, to take the fuse out of a bomb or, according to Shakespeare (and what did he know?) to disorder, with diffuse, meaning widely spread or wordy, or also to pour out all around; to scatter.

A clue might be anything that points to the solution to a mystery, but it’s derived from clew, being the ball of thread that guided Ariadne through the labyrinth, as well as being the lower corner of a sail, or one of the cords by which a hammock is suspended.

To be discreet means to be careful of intentionally unobtrusive, but discrete means distinct or unconnected.

Another I keep coming across in my recent reading is reign, meaning to rule, being used in the context of somebody being given a free hand to do as they like. I can see how this might seem logical, but it should relate to horse riding rather than the monarchy, as in to be given free rein. Not to be confused with wet rain falling from the clouds, or the US gender-neutral name Rayne, meaning abundant blessings from above.

And this is before we get to the words with one spelling but lots of different meanings…

Homonyms
To smirkle means to assume a facial expression somewhere between pleasure and sarcasm, followed by laughter; an emotional response to an idiotic question; a dance move in Revenge of the Nerds; a gag reflex to a noxious odour, and also to pilfer or steal.

Swanky can be used as a compliment for something that’s strikingly fashionable or luxurious, but it can also mean to be overly ostentatious, or using one’s wealth, knowledge or achievements to try to impress others. In Scots, swanky means an active or clever young fellow, one who is tall but lank, or to be empty or hungry. Whereas swank is a Scots word meaning slender, pliant, agile, or supple.

Pernicious means both destructive and highly injurious, but also (according to Milton) swift, ready and prompt.

A tent could be a portable canvas shelter, an embroidery or tapestry frame, a plug or roll of soft material for dilating a wound, or the Scots word for taking heed or notice of.

A rabble could be a disorderly mob, but also a device for stirring molten iron etc in a furnace.

To cleave is both to split apart and to join together.

A race is the descendants of a common ancestor, a fixed course or track over which anything runs, the white streak down an animal’s face, a rootstock of ginger (Shakespeare) to raze or erase, or to tear away or snatch. (Both Spenser. He just made them up as he felt like it, didn’t he?)

One of my pet hates is the word feisty, used to mean tough, independent, or spirited—usually about a heroine. It can also mean lively and aggressive. However, originally feisty mean either a small, excitable, yappy dog, or to be flatulent. Not the kind of characteristic I particularly want to be associated with Charlie Fox

Anyway, there are LOTS of others, so what are your favourites, folks? And what’s the best accidental misuse of a word you’ve ever come across?

No Word of the Week this week. I think I’ve used quite enough, don’t you?

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