Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ten Homophones You Didn't Know Existed

If you rely too much on those little squiggly red lines in Microsoft Word to correct your spelling for you, you've probably found yourself wondering how spellcheck missed a seemingly obvious error (and subsequently lowered your grade on a paper, caused you to get passed over for a promotion, or gave millions of Twitterers something to tease you about).

The problem may have been that your misspelling was actually a perfectly normal homophone, just one you didn't know existed. The following ten uncommon homophones might have caused a crack in your otherwise rock-solid plan for letting spellcheck be your proofreader.

(Accents and dialects being what they are, these might not all be perfect homophones the way they're pronounced in your hometown. Nonetheless, they are homophones somewhere in the English-speaking world.)


No faux-Medieval movie or TV series would be complete without some monarch or backstabbing noble sealing an important letter by pressing a signet ring into a blob of warm red wax.

A cygnet, on the other hand, is more likely to appear either in a shot of the luxurious royal gardens . . . or on the table at a royal feast. A cygnet is a young swan — the swan equivalent of a duckling.

In fact, the story "The Ugly Duckling" is [spoiler alert] all about a misplaced cygnet.


If you've had it up to here with neutral colors, you're done with dun. Dun, in one sense, is a drab, neutral, grayish-brown color. Or, if you prefer, brownish-gray.

Dun is also a verb meaning to persistently demand payment. People in collections are in the dunning business. (And I, for one, am done with them, too.)


If you've ever heard someone say "nice rock," they might not have been saying what you thought. Gneiss, which is pronounced "nice," is a particular kind of rock. Unless you're a geologist, the dictionary offers little help in distinguishing this rock from something not-so-gneiss. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, gneiss is "a foliated metamorphic rock corresponding in composition to a feldspathic plutonic rock (as granite)." Somehow this definition involves neither falling leaves nor the dwarf planet Pluto.
Gneiss, a foliated metamorphic rock.
Nice gneiss. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For us non-geologists, gneiss is simply a kind of rock. There's a picture of it here.

Two things of note for logophiles:
  • Gneiss is German in origin, which is probably why it breaks the old spelling "rule" of i before e except after c.
  • One of the nice things about gneiss is that it comes with a collection of adjective forms; gneissic, gneissoid, and gneissose are all attributed.


This is the least likely word on this list to be a true homophone for many of my readers. Merriam-Webster lists three pronunciations, but the first is literally identical to "literal."

Littoral is an adjective that refers to the area on or near a seashore. One might use it to describe plants growing along the edge of the sea, piles of driftwood, or the morass of medical waste washed up on your favorite beach.

It is also used as a noun to refer to the seashore itself, specifically the zone between the high and low watermarks. Most beaches, then, are literally littoral.


A quire, pronounced like "choir," is one twentieth of a ream of paper.

"The choir invisible" is a euphemism for the afterlife, which we generally try to avoid for as long as possible. But who hasn't felt the frustration of frantically searching for "the quire invisible" when the printer is out of paper and a deadline looms?


If you bring a skull into a Venetian gondola, you're either reenacting a scene from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice or you're an extremely morbid (if not sinister) type of person. However, if you bring a scull onto the same gondola, you're probably just the driver.

A scull is an oar used at the stern of a boat (or, as I like to call it, the boat-butt) to propel it forward by moving the scull in a side-to-side motion. It is also one of a pair of oars that are controlled by a single oarsman. Professional rowing competitions are also called scullery competitions, and the oars they use are called sculls.


A tung tree, or just a tung, isn't a plant that knows what you taste like. It's a primarily Asian tree of the splurge family whose seeds produce tung oil, which is used as for waterproofing wood.

When I started writing this section of the blog post, I had a really good pun to introduce here, but I seem to have forgotten it. It's so frustrating, too, because it's right there, on the tip of my tung.


As any screaming cetacean* knows, a gunwale is the upper edge of a boat's side, where pirates and privateers once attached guns and where competitive rowers now attach their sculls. The more general wale is either a horizontal construction member used for bracing vertical members (like a gunwale) or a narrow, raised surface.

In British dialect, wale is also both a noun and verb meaning a choice or choosing, two definitions my American readers may wale to ignore.

wite and wight

Wite is a chiefly Scottish word that, as a noun, means "blame, responsibility" and, as a (transitive) verb, means "to blame." That's why the brand-name correction fluid Wite-Out isn't just another one of those annoying, intentionally misspelled brand names. Instead, it's an annoying, moderately clever Scottish pun.

In Middle English, wight simply meant a sentient creature — more often than not, a human being. More recently, though, fantasy writers have latched on to this word to describe undead creatures. You might wite JRR Tolkien for this change; his "barrow wights" were quite the height of the wight plight, and with wights running rampant on Game of Thrones, it may never be set aright.
John Snow, losing to a wight, wishes for some wight-out.

* That is, a wailing whale.