Everyone knows that English spelling is a mess. Homophones, or words that sound the same but are spelled differently, are a particular source of trouble. Many people struggle with homophones, but for the most part it’s just an unfortunate coincidence that these words sound alike.
There are several pairs of homophones in English, however, that started life as one word. These words look and sound alike because they have a common origin. Think of them like identical twins; one word split into two early on, and it can be difficult to tell them apart unless you know them really well, like passed with an -ed and past with a -t, or compliment with an i and complement with an e. These words are especially tricky because in many cases the meanings are still similar. So how did they get this way? Two reasons: polysemy and spelling variation.
Polysemy means the capacity for a word to have more than one meaning. Many words are polysemous; for example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary records 36 main senses for the verb set, including both transitive and intransitive uses. Polysemy is a natural feature of language and is not something to worry about, because context almost always tells us which sense is intended. But in the examples we’ll discuss, polysemy was a force for creating new words when it combined with spelling variation. In each case, one word with multiple meanings and multiple spellings split into two words with different spellings and meanings.
For most of the history of English, spelling was not standardized. Standardization started in the 1400s but continued through the 1800s. When there was no one right way to spell a word, variants abounded. Most words eventually settled on just one standard spelling. Others, though, settled on one spelling for one meaning and another spelling for another meaning. For example, discrete originally meant both “separate” and “prudent” and could be spelled either -eet or -ete. Eventually, though, we settled on the -eet spelling for “prudent” and the -ete spelling for “separate.”
Sometimes these variations arose from slight changes in pronunciation.