‘For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs, – I declare by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.’
Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, 1761.
The gentleman in Tristram Shandy may be fairly certain of his nose, but words and their meanings can be pretty tricky to pin down at times. For example, does our gentleman above mean the nose on his face or is he talking about having a good nose around or into somebody else’s business? Out of context it’s not entirely clear, is it?
One of the sly ways in which words can trip us up is by having two completely opposite meanings at the same time. These contronyms or Janus words (Janus being the Roman god with two faces) can be relatively common words such as ‘weather’ (‘the boat weathered (withstood) the storm, narrowly missing being dashed against the rocks weathered (changed or worn) by time’), ‘fast’ (to move quickly or solid and immovable), or ‘trim’ (‘she trimmed (cut away) the rough edges of the pocket, then trimmed (added to) it with a pretty silk ribbon’). By the way, ‘fast’ also falls into the homonym category – words which are spelled and sound the same, but have different meanings – think ‘fast’, as in not eating. What a star!
Next on the confusion list are homographs: words that are spelled the same, but have different pronunciations and meanings. For example, ‘lead’ (as in down the garden path or what you walk your dog with) and ‘lead’ (the stuff you put on your roof).
But the real celebrities in the world of confusing words are the homophones – those awkward blighters that sound the same, but have completely different spellings and meanings. This category contains such everyday bamboozling classics as ‘to’, ‘two’ and ‘too’; ‘their’ and ‘there’; ‘principal’ and principle’; ‘stationery’ and ‘stationary’, and, of course, every author’s favourites – ‘write’ and ‘right’. Rite? Grate, glad we’re all singing from the same him sheet. Otherwise it wood bee such a waist!
Yes, the sad truth is that these sneaky saboteurs of clarity can fool spellchecks and intelligent beings alike. No-one is safe, but a stout dictionary of any nature (physical or virtual) and/or a good copy editor can go a long way to keeping them at bay. If in doubt, check it out. The truth (or at least the correct spelling) is out their. Oooops…