Half and halve are not homophones, but they sound similar and their meanings are closely related.
- either of two equal or corresponding parts that together make up a whole
- the fraction equal to one divided by two
“I cut the pear in half”
- to divide something into two equal, or nearly equal, parts
- to reduce by half
“I halved the pear”
My tip is to try to remember that halve is a verb. This advice is slightly complicated by the plural form of half – “I cut the pears into halves” – but the context should help you determine which is appropriate.
Nigh and nye are homophones, and neither is particularly common. I suspect a general audience would be most familiar with nigh. Nigh is considered archaic and literary, but the usage of nye is very limited.
- close to
- almost or nearly
- a brood (or sometimes flock) of pheasants
My tip: “the end is nigh”.
Cymbal and symbol are homophones. It tends to be symbol that is used when cymbal would be appropriate rather than the other way round; I suspect that is because symbol is simply more familiar. I also find cymbal is sometimes misspelt as cymbol (I haven’t been able to find any sources that accept cymbol as a legitimate alternative spelling, but I would be interested to hear from anyone who has such a source).
- a slightly concave, round brass plate which is struck against another or with a stick to produce a sound
- a mark, shape, sign, figure or character used as a conventional representation of an object, quantity, function, process or organisation
- a thing that stands for or represents something else
My tip: cymbals are used when producing music.
It’s Wimbledon season at the moment so this week’s interesting word is tennis related. (I was lucky enough to go to Wimbledon this week – it was amazing!)
A moonball is a high lob made when playing tennis. It is often recognisable as a stroke that causes the ball to arc high into the air, often out of camera shot, and slows the pace of the game.
Its origin is simply the combination of ‘moon’ and ‘ball’. The OED lists the first use of moonball as taking place in 1975.
“Inside, on the first Monday of Wimbledon, hopes were as high as a moonball, as green as the immaculate grass.”
– The Independent, 27 June 1995
Source: The Oxford English Dictionary (online)
Sometimes spelling custody as custardy is funny in a surreal way, but most of the time it should be avoided.
- resembling or having the properties or characteristics of custard
- the act of keeping safe; care or guardianship of someone or something
- imprisonment (usually before being tried)
My tip: associate custardy with custard and custody with prison.
I’m not going to pretend I am above using the occasional choice insult. Smellfungus is an old-fashioned term, but I quite like it.
A smellfungus is an overly critical person – someone who finds fault constantly or is seemingly discontented with everything. I imagine that a grumpy, miserable person of this sort would have a facial expression akin to that of smelling something bad.
This week’s interesting word is unusual because etymologists know exactly when it was coined. Tobias Smollett published Travels through France and Italy in 1766; he was rather unpleasant to people he met on his travels and was seemingly unimpressed and contemptuous for most of the journey. His attitude was not well received by some of his peers.
Laurence Sterne, one of those peers, later wrote A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768) in which he created the character of Smelfungus, a satirical representation of Smollett:
“The learned Smelfungus travelled from Boulogne to Paris … but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass’d by was discoloured or distorted.”
The Oxford English Dictionary (online)
Many people insist that a British Union flag may only be referred to as a Union Jack when it is flown on a ship.
This is not the case. It is true that a jack is a small flag used to indicate the nationality of a ship, but the widespread use of Union Jack is legitimate. The Flag Institute explains why:
“From early in its life the Admiralty itself frequently referred to the [Union] flag as the Union Jack, whatever its use, and in 1902 an Admiralty Circular announced that Their Lordships had decided that either name could be used officially. Such use was given Parliamentary approval in 1908 when it was stated that ‘the Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag’.”
The OED states that Union Jack is now the usual term to describe the national flag of the United Kingdom.
It also is worth noting that the Union Jack has a correct way up. The wide white diagonal stripe should be above the red diagonal stripe on the half of the flag that is closest to the flagpole. (This is because the St. Andrew’s Cross takes precedence over the St. Patrick’s Cross.)
- The Flag Institute
- The Oxford English Dictionary Online
Waiver and waver are homophones, but they mean very different things. I often find that waiver is used when the writer actually means waver – I presume the mistake is made because the writer has the ay sound in mind.
- the act or an instance of giving up a claim or right
- a document recording the giving up of a claim or right
- to hesitate between possibilities; to be indecisive
- to swing from one thing to another
- to become unsteady; to falter; to become weaker
- to move back and forth or one way and another; to quiver or flicker
My tip: try to associate waiver with the giving up of a claim. It should be fairly easy to remember that waver is the spelling for everything else.
This week’s interesting word is probably familiar to film fans, but you can find a McGuffin in all sorts of narrative works.
A McGuffin (or MacGuffin) is an object, device or event that has only one true purpose: to set the plot in motion. The audience is usually initially told that the object or thing is extremely important, but the McGuffin does not often have any real importance as the plot develops. The McGuffin is the soon-to-be-stolen diamond or the missing USB drive that serves to start and drive the story.
The precise definition of a McGuffin is widely debated, but the origin is attributed to Alfred Hitchcock. The OED gives the first recorded usage as in 1939:
“In regard to the tune, we have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original.”
– Alfred Hitchcock, Lecture at Columbia University
Hitchcock suggests he took the surname MacGuffin from a humorous story involving a McGuffin-type incident. The choice of name is not thought to be related to the word guffin, meaning ‘a stupid or clumsy person’.
- The Oxford English Dictionary Online
I was fairly young when I found that the rule ‘i before e except after c’ sometimes led my spelling astray. I remember being very disappointed that adults had told me something that wasn’t completely true.
It would probably have helped if someone had told me it is spelling advice that only really applies when the combination of i and e is pronounced ee:
If the combination of i and e is pronounced ay, the rule does not apply:
The rule also does not apply if the combination is pronounced i:
Or if the i and the e are pronounced separately:
There are some words that simply do not obey the rule, and these just have to be learnt:
The simple and general explanation for the exceptions is that many of those words were formed differently (from two or more parts) or come from another language. I would have been placated by that.
- Fowler, H. W. and Butterfield, J. (2015) Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- New Hart’s rules: the handbook of style for writers and editors (2014) 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.