Defuse before it can Diffuse

Homonyms are common in English.  Words that sound alike but have different meanings catch us all.

So, what do you want to do, sew or sow?  Do you want to elude pursuit, illude your opponent, or allude to something else? Would you rather go then than going later?

Often, sound-alike words sound similar because of vowel shifts.  E, I, O and A can easily blur.  We write what we hear; we say what we think we know.  And sometimes we just use the wrong word.

The other night, my spouse and I were cuing up a TVo recording and observed that the main character was charged with diffusing a situation.  We laughed with each other, knowing that diffuse is to spread something out, while defuse is to remove the cause of an explosion — or calm a situation getting out of control.

But we write what we hear as much as we say what we think we know.  And we hear all of those vowels as pretty much the same sound.  Which makes me wonder – do we say all of those vowels basically the same?  Some folks blame our inability to differentiate A from E on vocal laziness; others on a standard, predictable shift in vowel sounds.  (See the Wikipedia article on the great vowel shift in English from the 14th to the 18th centuries.  Or read this interesting one about an ongoing vowel shift in our region.  Or even this article on the reason vowels shift, from

I took Latin and learned more about prefixes and suffixes than I had in English.  In my idle time I have – over the last umpty-ump years – read about dipthongs and digraphs and r-controlled vowels. (A dipthong creates a new sound that combines both vowel sounds, such as the sounds in now, boy, and koi.  A digraph combines two consonant sounds, such as those in cheddar, thong, and which.  R-controlled vowes all sound pretty much alike, and are ruled by that ‘r’ — such as the sounds in sir, her and fur.) [I could maybe make a good story out of sir, her and fur, but not today.]

But as someone who tries – nearly every time – to make certain I’ve used affect or effect correctly, and who worries about that apostrophe in it’s (and not in its), I still enjoy the occasional homonym error.  For a list of common homonyms, here’s one by Alan Cooper.

I’ll go deal with food.  And I hope you like your chard charred.  (Maybe I should bury those berries.)

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