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Wordplay for the First of May

April 30, 2020

By Jim Rhodes

Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean … nothing more nor less.”

Alice: “The question is whether you can make words mean different things.”

Humpty Dumpty: “The question is which is to be master … that’s all.”


Have pity on the unfortunate non-native speaker striving to master the English language. It must be baffling to make sense out of an exchange that sounds something like this in a local pub.

“High. Watt wood yew lack?”

“A point of eel few police.”

“Hear yar.”

“Thin cue fairy march.”

“Yore wall comb.”

English is unique for its thousands of words with multiple meanings, spellings and pronunciations.  These fall into two broad categories.

Homophones, from the Latin root words homo (meaning alike or same} and phone (sound), are words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have a different meaning – as in see and sea, fold and foaled, hare and hair.

Homonyms, from Latin homo and nym (word or name), are words that have the same spelling but different pronunciation and meanings, as in the verb sow (to plant) and the noun sow (a female pig).

One source, Roger’s Reference, claims to have catalogued 9,370 homonyms and homophones, of which a large proportion are said to have three or more meanings. But being unwilling to part with the $2.99 subscription fee for the online version, I cannot verify.

There is another class of lookalike words called homographs, from Latin homo and graph (writing).  Homographs are two words that are spelled alike and pronounced the same but have different and totally unrelated meanings – as in pitcher (a baseball player) and pitcher (a liquid container), or bowl (a container found in the kitchen) and bowl (to roll a ball down a lane to knock over pins). Or consider the humble word can, which as a verb means to be able and as a noun refers to a metal container. To complicate things even more, there’s another verb form of can, which means the act of putting something in a sealed container for preservation, and another very different verb form which means to be fired from your job.

I believe I am safe in saying this phenomenon is peculiar to English, and no other modern language has so many homonyms, homophones and homographs.

Why is this so?

My theory is that it has to do with the many different linguistic roots that over the centuries coalesced to create the English language as we know it today.

As you may know, the British Isles were occupied by successive waves of invaders, including Indo-Europeans (3500 BC), Celts (1500 BC), Romans (55 BC), Anglo Saxons and Picts (450 AD), Vikings (800 AD) and Norman French (1066 AD). Each of them brought their own language.

Remember too, that English is not just the national tongue of Britain. It is an international phenomenon, spoken in America, the West Indies, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan and many others. It has become the universal language of world trade, commerce, diplomacy and governance.  Everywhere it landed, the English language absorbed new words and usages from the indigenous populations. The American melting pot alone contributed hundreds of them from Irish, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Yiddish and French Canadian, as well as West African slaves and native tribes. The world of sports has also been a rich vein of colorful expressions.

Returning to my original premise, I have compiled a list — off the top of my head — of homophones for words beginning with every letter in the alphabet except Z, although I’ll concede my choice for X was a stretch. I also added a handful of homonyms.

I’m sure you can add plenty of others – if yew poot yore mine two it.

In fact, you might find this to be a fun little parlor game to play with your family while sequestered at home from the COVID virus.


Ale         Ail

Bate       Bait

Cue        Queue

Do          Dew

Earn       Urn

Feet       Feat

Gate      Gait

Heal       Heel

I’ll           Aisle

Jeans     Genes

Knight   Night

Lyre       Liar

Mist       Missed

Not        Knot

Or           Ore

Pare       Pear

Quart    Court

Roil         Royal

Steal      Steel

Tare       Tear

Use        Ewes

Vale       Veil

Ware     Wear

Excel      Egg Cell

Yew       You

Z ???




Court (of law)                    Court (to woo)

Fine (to feel ok)                 Fine (a payment assessed by the court)

Scrap (morsel)                   Scrap (fight)

Leaves (departs)              Leaves (on trees)