Bookmarks: A phobia about homophones
These nasty words cause misunderstanding and sometimes hilarity for the reader
The most frequently misused homophone is one with three meanings, such as palate (the roof of the mouth), palette (an artist’s board for mixing colours, above), and pallet, a wooden platform. Photograph: iStock
Most writers can distinguish between principal and principle, complement and compliment, and flee and flea. But many of these words, known as homophones, trip up even the most experienced wordsmith. They are nasty words that cause misunderstanding and sometimes hilarity for the reader. The English language boasts several thousand homophones that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings.
When writing my first travel book about Ireland 25 years ago, I stumbled over these words. One homophone related to a story about the Italian state electricity board wanting to buy 30 tons of sand for research purposes from the beach at Dog’s Bay near Roundstone in Galway. A county councillor said if the Italians wanted the sand, in exchange they would have to give the stones from the Colosseum to help rebuild a local pier damaged in storms.
I misspelt it as Coliseum, the name of the theatre in London, now home to English National Opera. Fortunately a gimlet-eyed editor saved my blushes.
She also corrected another homophone that referred to the hoard of tourists visiting the Aran Islands, which should have been spelt as “horde”. (The former refers to the hoard of antiques in your attic; whored – behaving like a harlot – is another more colourful variant.)
One that slipped through the net and appeared in the published book was vocal chords, when I meant vocal cords.
The most frequently misused homophone is one with three meanings, such as palate, palette or pallet. The first is the roof of the mouth, the second an artist’s board for mixing colours, the third a wooden platform. I now tread carefully on the platforms on which I write, on guard against these occupational hazards.
Be warned: your computer spellcheck is no help, since the words are spelled correctly but used in the wrong context. An old- fashioned dictionary, or the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors is still the surest way to check.
After a creative writing weekend workshop I tutored some years ago, a participant wrote to thank me. She said the workshop had helped overcome her fear of the blank page and “conker” her fear of writing; obviously, it did not help conquer her fear of homophones.
Apart from these loathsome words, the other embarrassment I suffered in print is a typo that crept into a song title. Late at night in a dark and noisy bar in Carlow, I wrote down the name of the song Shoe the Donkey, which acquired an extra letter “t”, transforming it in the printed book into Shoot the Donkey. I asked the editors to correct it for the reprint, but they felt it was so good that it should be left as it was. It has been corrected for the book’s 10th anniversary edition, although I had feared it would end up as Shoo the Donkey.
But back to homophones. Recent examples I have come across for my ever-growing collection include elicit for illicit, peddling for pedalling (pedaling in the US), birthed for berthed (in reference to a cruise ship) and a story about a waiter who did not understand the diners’ order since he spoke only “pigeon” English, leading to the surreal impression that he was cooing at them.
Many writers clearly found the word business a tough slog. In a letter to his first serious girlfriend, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Dylan Thomas wrote about being tormented by words: “There is torture in words, torture in their linking & spelling, in the snail of their course . . . ”
Paul Clements’s Wandering Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: From Banba’s Crown to World’s End is published by The Collins Press. Two of his earlier travel books, The Height of Nonsense: The Ultimate Irish Road Trip and Irish Shores: A Journey Round the Rim of Ireland, have recently been reprinted