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Homophones, Homographs, and Homonyms

How a homophone mix up led to Judi Dench bread jokes. Homographs and homonyms wouldn't cause that kind of problem.

By
Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #605

The Screen Actors Guild Awards were a couple of nights ago—they’re more commonly called the SAG Awards—and they had a doozy of an error on Judi Dench’s name card. She was nominated for an award called Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role for her work in the movie “Victoria & Abdul,” but instead of spelling it R-O-L-E for “role,” they spelled it R-O-L-L, like the bread.

I’m a sucker for silly jokes, so I loved all the tweets that followed. These are just a few:

Ethan J. Sacks tweeted, “Once again, she’s the toast of Hollywood.” Andy Orrock tweeted, “Finally, payoff for all those upper-crust portrayals.” Jeff, who goes by @musicpsych, gets extra points for using references to bread in two languages by tweeting, “Don’t pan her performance--she really rose to the occasion.” (“Pan” is “bread” in Spanish.) And finally, Mike Davidson capped it off with the quip, “Bread jokes get so stale.”

Homophones

Words like R-O-L-E and R-O-L-L, which are spelled differently but sound the same are called homophones. The “homo-” root means “same,” and the “-phone” root means “sound.” Homophones are words that sound the same. 

Other examples of homophones are “flower” (the pretty kind with petals) and “flour” (the ground up grain you use in baking), “need” (like “want” or “must have”) and “knead” (as in “to work dough”), and “doe” (the deer) and “dough” (the unbaked bread or cake or so on). You know I had to work in bread examples!

There are two other kinds of words that sound the same but don’t cause as many problems: homographs and homonyms.

Homographs

The “-graph”  root means “write,” so homographs are words that are written the same way (in other words spelled the same way). They can be pronounced the same way, like “match” (the thing you strike to start a fire) or “match” (meaning to pair two things together), or “can” (the verb that means to be able to do something--“Squiggly can bring confetti to the party”) and “can” (which is often a container for soda or energy drinks); or homographs can be pronounced differently, like  “tears” (the liquid that seeps from your eyes) and “tears” (the act of ripping something apart), or “minute” (meaning tiny) and “minute” (meaning 60 seconds). 

 

Homographs often have different origins. For example, “can” (the verb) comes from and Old English word that meant “to know,” and “can” (the noun) comes from a Late Latin word that meant “vessel or container”; and “match” (the verb) comes from an Old English word that means “equal” or “mate,” and “match” (the noun) comes from a Greek word that meant “lamp wick”: “myxa.” But “match” (the noun) is great—Etymology Online traces it back farther and says “myxa” was 

“originally ‘mucus,’ based on [the] notion of [a] wick dangling from the spout of a lamp like snot from a nostril.”

You never know what you’re going to get when you start looking at word origins, and sometimes it’s a gross, fantastic surprise like “snot.” You and I will never look at a match the same way again. They say the word is ultimately from a proto-indo-European root that meant "slimy and slippery," and the Oxford English Dictionary also says that in Middle English, "snot" was used to mean the snuff of a candle or the burnt part of a candle wick, along with, well, you know. 

Homonyms

The “-onym” root means “name.” Homonyms are often described as words that sound the same and are spelled the same, like “pen” (a writing instrument) and “pen” (an area enclosed by a fence), but what makes it tricky is that some definitions also say that they can include homographs and homophones, so it’s almost like homonyms are a big set of all the different kinds of words that sound the same or are spelled the same or both.

a venn diagram of homophone, homographs, and homonyms with examples

It would be easier to say homonyms are the third type of similar sounding words that are also spelled the same, like “pen” and “pen,” and some people do categorize them that way, but unfortunately, I can’t say that’s the only definition. 

Proofreading

The good thing is that homonyms and homographs won’t cause embarrassing errors like the kind on the Judi Dench name card because they’re spelled the same, but spellcheck will not save you from homophone mix-ups like “roll” (R-O-L-L) and “role” (R-O-L-E). 

I’m sure it’s chaotic behind the scenes at awards shows like these, but if you’re responsible for high-profile slides, try to have a second set of eyes look over your text. Otherwise, your slide might end up on Twitter as the inspiration for a hundred jokes.

Homophones, Homographs, and Homonyms Quiz

Knighthood: ‘Dame’ and ‘Sir’

Finally, I’ve always wondered why Dench is often called “Dame Judi Dench,” and it’s because she was knighted.

It turns out being knighted or invested as a dame isn’t as straightforward as I had imagined. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, there are five classes of knighthood in the Order of the British Empire (and it’s actually even more complicated than that because there are other knight-related orders too, but we’ll just stick with the Order of the British Empire). 

In 1970, Dench was given the title Officer of the Order of the British Empire (the third of the five levels), and then in 1988, she advanced to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (the fourth level), which qualified her to be called “Dame” in the same way that a man who had been knighted could be called “Sir.” The only level higher is the Dame Grand Cross.

I can’t find a verb to describe making a woman a dame. Men are knighted, and every definition of the the verb “knighted” specifies that it is something that’s done to a man, but there doesn’t appear to be a verb “to dame” that is parallel to the verb “to knight.” I declare that “to dame” should be a verb. Other women who have been damed include Julie Andrews, Joan Collins, Angelina Jolie, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Angela Lansbury, and Elizabeth Taylor. Here’s to the dames!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.