All About Homophones
The section on homonyms (here) introduces you to words that have the same spelling but two or more different meanings. An example is bear, which can mean a furry animal and is also a verb meaning to carry.
In this section, you'll be looking at homophones, words which look different but are pronounced in the same way. Examples are blew & blue, pain & pane. Sometimes words can be both homonyms and homophones. For example, pale can mean lack of bright colour and also a wooden post used in a fence, and a pail is a bucket.
The title of this section refers to 'pairs' but there are actually some sets of homo
Homophone comes from Greek words meaning 'same sound'. Homonym is from Greek words meaning 'same name'
Some words sound alike AND look alike.
You can have fun making puns with homophones. See here for more about puns.
The English language has been growing for about 1,500 years. Words have come from other languages, when Britain was continually invaded. Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans all had an influence over the language. Over the centuries, some words fell out of use. Others stayed. Many changed. Their pronunciation, the way they were said, also changed greatly over a long period. As you know, the same word can be spoken differently in Britain, North America and Australia. Even within those and other countries there can be different pronunciations.
Keep that in mind when you study the examples below — they might not sound exactly the same in the area where you live. For example, route rhymes with root in Britain and Australia but in parts of the USA it can rhyme with out. Another example is found in the way people in some regions roll the letter 'r' in many words. For this reason, awe and oar might not be true homophones in the USA.
The list shows you where some of the words came from. To include all the origins would make this page very long and complex to read. You can dig for more information in your dictionary, as long as it shows the etymology, the history, of each word. My notes below will show you that some words have been handed down from over 1,000 years ago (Old English). Some were added later, when the French language influenced English.
You might also be able to work out how the original words were pronounced. For instance, the word from which we get peel was probably pronounced to rhyme with 'pill' but the word from which we get peal sounded more like 'pell'. Because of the way people spoke, those two pronunciations merged into one, peel.
Some words have many meanings. Not all of them are given here. Check your dictionary.
Click to find words.
MORE ADDED JULY 2009 — IN BLUE PANELS BELOW
|board, bored||gilt, guilt||peak, peek||toe, tow|
|boy, buoy||leach, leech||raise, rays, raze||tuna, tuner|
|cellar, seller||machinery, missionary !||sign, sine||turn, tern|
|discreet, discrete||might, mite||sort, sought||vale, veil|
|fir, fur||passed. past||stake, steak||wave, waive|
altar: a table for sacrifice.
alter: to change.
ate: the past tense of 'eat'. From Old English eaten.
eight: the number 8. From Old English eahta.
bail: (1) to empty water from a boat. (2) money paid to a court to guarantee that an accused person will not abscond. (3) the small wooden rods placed at the top of wickets in the game of cricket.
bale: a large bundle.
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bear: (1) to carry. (2) a type of animal
blew: the past tense of the verb 'blow'. From Old English blawan.
blue: a colour. From 13th century French bleu.
boar: a pig or a wild pig.
bore: (1) past tense of the verb 'bear'. (2) to drill. (3) to be tedious when speaking to someone.
board: a flat piece of material such as wood. Also a committee of people who meet for a specific purpose. From Old English bord, related to an Old Norse (Viking) word meaning the side of a ship, or a table. You can see that it is related to the Swedish smorgasbord.
bored: tired of or uninteresting in something. In Old English, bore meant simply to make a hole. In the mid-1700s, it also took on the meaning of to be tiresome, to be dull and uninteresting. There is a another meaning for bore, from a quite different source: it is a tidal wave in a river or an estuary.
bough: a branch of a tree.
bow: (1) to bend. (2) a weapon for shooting arrows. (3) the forward part of a boat. (4) a fancy, decorative knot.
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boy: a male child. In the 13th and 14th centuries it meant a male servant or a young male, which is the way we now use it. Although it is a very widely used word, dictionaries tell us that it is "of uncertain origin". It might have come from very old terms implying someone who is fettered with a leather collar.
buoy: a brightly coloured float to show the position of a channel or an obstruction in the sea. It came into English in the 13th century from old German and Dutch words. It is related to the word beacon.
bread: a food made from flour. From Old English bread.
bred: the past tense of 'breed'. From Old English bredan.
buy: to purchase.
by: has many different uses as a preposition (check here for definition) or an adverb.
bye: a term used in some sports. Also short for 'Goodbye'.
cellar: the lowest part or underground part of a building. It came into English in the 13th century via Anglo-French from Latin cellarium, a food store. This is from the days when there were, of course, no fridges so it the cool area beneath a house was a fairly safe place to store food.
seller: someone who sells something. From Old English sellen, to lend, to deliver, to hand over. The word "sale" is obviously related.
council: an assembly of people who meet for a purpose.
counsel: advice or advise.
Both of these words came into English via French, from the same Latin word: consillium, assembly.
caught: past tense of 'catch',
court: (a) an area of ground surrounded by walls. (b) a sitting of legal officials to administer justice.
cent, sent, scent
cent: a coin.
sent: past tense of 'send'.
scent: smell, aroma.
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cereal: a grain such as wheat or corn used as food. Many kinds of breakfast cereal contain too much sugar, too.
serial: occurring in several sections or episodes over a period of time.
These two words were adapted from Latin cerealis and series as recently as the 19th century. They're pretty new!
course: a track or series of activities to be followed.
currant: a small, dried, seedless grape. From 16th century 'rayson of Corrante', raisin of Corinth.
current: (1) in progress, happening now. (2) flow of water or electricity. From 13th century French corant.
die: (1) to cease to live. (2) a cube, incorrectly called a dice, which is the plural. (3) a tool used to shape something.
dye: a substance used to colour or stain something, especially cloth.
discreet: careful, tactful. It came into English in the 14th century, originally from Latin discernere, to discern.
discrete: separate or distinct. It came into English in the 14th century. From Latin discretus, separate. Often confused with discreet.
doe: a mature female deer.
dough: (1) a thick mixture of flour read for bread-making. (2) slang for 'money'.
do, when it is said to rhyme with these two words, is the name of a musical note.
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fair: (1) travelling amusement show, carnival, fête. (2) not showing favouritism.
fare: (1) food and drink. (2) The fee you pay on, e.g., public transport.
fate: of an event or events which seem as if they are inevitable (bound to happen).
fête: a gala, entertainment, or bazaar, sometimes to raise money for charity.
father: a male parent. From Old English fædor related to Old Norse fathir, Latin pater, Greek pater, Sanskrit pitri.
farther: at a greater distance. Adapted from Old English feorr, far.
feat: a notable or remarkable accomplishment or action. 14th century French fait from Latin factum, deed.
feet: plural of foot. (1) The things at the end of your legs. (2) Units of measurement in the old Imperial system. From Old English fot. It was used for the part of the body before it was used as a unit of measurement.
fir: a type of tree. From Old English furh which was used in the word furhwode, meaning pine-wood. Similar words to furh/fir in other European languages mean pine.
fur: the hairy coat of, e.g., a mammal. A14th century word. Related to various words in Old English and other languages.
flea: a bloodsucking insect that leaps.
flee: to run away quickly.
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flaw: an imperfection or fault in design. From 14th century Swedish flaga, chip, flake, flaw.
floor: the flat thing you walk on inside a building, of course! From Old English flor.
flour: the powder made by grinding grain.
flower: the blossom of a plant.
for: a preposition with many uses. From Old English for.
fore: to the front of. From Old English fora.
four: the number 4. From Old English feower.
gilt: a coating of gold or something that looks golden. Related to gild, which comes from Old English gyldan and gold.
guilt: the state of having done something wrong, or feeling remorse for doing it. From Old English gylt.
grate: (1) a frame with iron bars. (2) part of a fireplace. (3) to reduce something to small pieces by scraping it against a rough or sharp surface. (4) to annoy (figurative).
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hail: (1) a type of frozen rain. (2) to greet someone enthusiastically.
hale: healthy, hearty.
hair: the untidy looking stuff that grows on your head, of course. From Old English hær.
hare: a small animal like a rabbit. From Old English hara.
heal: to cure, make better.
heel: (1) the lower back part of your foot. (2) (slang) an unpleasant, unlikeable person.
hole: an opening or empty space. The inside of your skull, maybe?
whole: total, all, complete.
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know: to be aware of something.
no: (1) the opposite of 'yes'. (2) (adjective) complete lack of, absence of.
knight: in olden times, a man of noble birth. From Old English cniht meaning servant.
night: the dark time after a day. From Old English niht.
law: a rule or set of rules. From Old English lagu, 'things laid down', i.e., rules.
lore: traditional wisdom or knowledge. From Old English lar related to leornian, to learn.
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leach: top remove soluble substances by percolating in a liquid, such as water. (To percolate is to drip through, drain through.) Originally letch, from Old English leccan, to water. It is related to leak.
leech: a type of blood-sucking worm. From Old English læce.
leak: lose fluid through an opening or hole. 15th century from Scandinavian languages, related to Old Norse leka, to drip.
leek: a type of vegetable. Old English leac.
load: something to be carried, or the weight of it. From Old English läd, course. The early meaning related to carrying, transporting, but in about the 13th century the meaning shifted to mean the burden which was being carried.
lode: a deposit of a valuable ore such as magnetite in rocks. From the same source as load. Lode-stone meant "guiding stone" (a magnet) because it had magnetic properties.
loan: to lend, an amount of money given to someone for later repayment.
lone: alone, by oneself, unaccompanied.
loot: money or goods obtained illegally.
lute: an ancient stringed instrument like a harp (stringed instruments are also known as chordophones).
These two words can be confused when spoken aloud by someone whose first language is not English. The emphasis in the first should be on the second syllable, said like "shin". The emphasis in the second should be on the first syllable, said like "mish".
made: manufacture, created; related to the verb 'make'.
maid: a woman or girl who serves someone else.
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mail: (1) items sent by the postal service. (2) in the Middle Ages, armour made from linked metal rings.
male: masculine, man or boy.
meat, meet, mete
meat: the flesh of an animal used as food.
meet: to encounter.
mete: to measure out.
might: as a noun, it means strength, power; as a verb it is related to "may". The noun comes from Old English miht. The verb comes from Old English mæg.
mite: can mean a type of very small insect and also a very small particle or amount. The original word comes from Old English mite. The adapted meaning came into English later.
miner: someone who works in, e.g., a coal mine, a gold mine. Mine came from 13th century Old French. It might be related to Celtic words: Welsh mwyn, Irish mein.
minor: lesser. Latin, meaning less or smaller.
mynah: a type of bird (sometimes written as miner). From 18th century Hindi maina.
nave: the main central area inside a traditional church building. From 17th century Latin navis, ship, because of the shape.
knave: (1) in past times, a rogue, scoundrel. (2) one of the picture cards in a pack of playing cards. From Old English cnafa, boy. The German word for boy is Knaben.
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nor: 'and not', usually used in a sentence with 'neither'.
gnaw: to chew something with your teeth, but it's usually your dog that does it.
one, won, wan
one: the smallest whole number, 1.
won: past tense of win.
wan: pale, dim, sickly.
oar: a wooden paddle used to propel a small boat. From Old English ar.
or: indicating that there is a choice of at least two; sometimes used in sentences with 'either'. This is a 13th century contraction of the Old English word oththe, other.
ore: rock from which minerals are extracted. Old English ora.
awe: fear, but now used to mean wonder. Awesome is a cliché (click here to find out what that means). From 13th century Old Norse agi, fear.
pail: a bucket, especially one made of wood.
pale: (1) lacking brightness of colour. (2) a wooden post used upright as part of a fence.
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pain: (1) the sensation of physical hurt, acute discomfort. (2) figuratively, a nuisance.
pane: a sheet of glass in a window or door.
pair, pare, pear
pair: a couple, two of something. From 13th century Old French paire, from Latin para, equal.
pare: to reduce the size of something slowly by shaving parts of it off. 13th century Old French parer, to adorn, from Latin parare, to prepare.
pear: a type of fruit. From Old English pere.
passed: comes from pass, meaning to go by, through or across. It came into English in the 13th century from Old French passer, to pass or surpass, which came from the Latin passus, step or pace.
past: completed, finished, the time that has elapsed. It is related to the same origins as pass/passed.
paw: the clawed foot of an animal.
poor: lacking, especially lacking money.
pore: a tiny opening on your skin.
pause: temporary stop, rest, interval.
paws: several of the things I've just defined above.
peace: absence of war; absence of anxiety; quietness.
piece: a portion or part.
peak: the absolute top of something, the highest point. Scholars are not completely sure where the word came from.
peek: a quick and perhaps secret look. In the 14th century, it was "pike".
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peal: the sound of bells ringing. Can also be used for a roll of thunder. From 14th century pele, appeal.
peel: the surface skin of a fruit. From Old English pillian, to strip the outer layer
pray: to call upon someone for help, especially God.
prey: verb and noun, related to hunting down an animal.
cue: a hint which provides information about what to do next.
queue: a line of people waiting, e.g., in a shop, in a bank.
rain: water falling in drops from clouds; precipitation. From Old English regn.
reign: verb and noun, to do with the rule of a monarch over people. From 13th century Old French reigne, from Latin regnum, king.
raise: verb, to move to a higher point. From Old Norse (the language of the Vikings) reisa. In the history of words, related to both rise and rear (to rise up). In the USA, a raise (noun) can mean a rise, an increase in salary.
rays: the plural of ray, a beam of light. which came into English in the 14th century from Old French rai, from Latin radius, meaning spoke (of a wheel).
raze: to demolish completely, to destroy down to ground level. It came into English in the 16th century from French raser, which is from Latin radere, to scrape.
real: actual, not imaginary.
reel: a roll of something or the item around/within which it is rolled.
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right: (1) correct. (2) used in the plural, rights are what different groups of people feel is due to them from society, government, the law, etc. From Old English riht & reoht.
rite: a ceremony, usually of the sort traditionally practised in a church. From 14th century Latin ritus, religious ceremony.
write: to put words on paper with a pen or pencil. (Using a computer keyboard has made people rather lazy with their writing, hasn't it?) From Old English writan, which originally meant to scratch runes on a piece of tree bark.
role: a part played by an actor when representing someone else.
roll: turn over and over. Many other meanings including a small loaf of bread for one person,
root: the part of the plant which grows underground. Also used figuratively for the origin of other things.
route: the choice of roads taken to reach a particular place.
rough: coarse, not smooth; not well behaved.
ruff: a type of pleated collar worn in past centuries.
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sail: a sheet of material on the mast of a ship to enable it to be propelled by the wind. From Old English segl.
sale: the exchange of something for money. From Old English sala, which was related to sellan, to lend, to deliver.
sauce: a liquid or semi-liquid preparation used on food to enhance the flavour. Ketchup is sauce but gravy is not sauce.
source: the origin of something; can be used for many things ranging from a river to a rumour.
saw: (1) past tense of 'see'. (2) a tool for cutting and slicing timber. (3) an old word for a wise saying, and adage. (1) is from Old English seon. (2) is from Old English sagu. (3) is from another Old English word also spelt sagu in modern English, from which we also get 'saga'.
soar: to fly up quickly. 14th century from Old French essorer.
sore: hurting, or an area of the skin which hurts. From Old English sar.
sea: ocean, the water between continents.
see: to observe or watch something.
see: the diocese (region) governed by an Anglican bishop. This version comes from 13th century Latin sedes, a seat, as it refers to the place where a bishop had his seat.
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seam: (1) the line where two pieces of material are joined together. (2) a stratum or layer of coal or mineral ore between rocks.
seem: appear to be.
seed: a small hard fruit, the part of a plant from which other plants can grow. The bit that gets stuck between your teeth and then you must use dental floss.
cede: to give over or surrender something.
shear: to cut something off by running a blade through it, e.g., sheep shearing removes the wool. From Old English sceran, to cut.
sheer: without any restriction; steep. From Old English scir, related to words meaning 'sky''
shore: (1) the land along the edge of a body of water. (2) a post or prop used as support against a wall, more often used as a verb 'to shore something up' meaning to support it.
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sight: the ability to see.
site: the location of something, such as a building site.
cite: to quote, to make reference to.
sign: an indication of something which might not be immediately visible; a written message. It came into English in the 13th century from French and Latin words with the same meaning.
sine: a mathematical term, used in trigonometry. It came into English in the 16th century from Latin sinus, a bend.
sort: noun, a class, group or kind; verb, to sort into class, group of kind. The word came into English in the 14th century from Old French but the earlier Latin word also meant fate.
sought: the past tense of the verb to seek, meaning being looked for. From Old English secan, to seek. Other old Germanic forms of the word show how the ee changed to ou in seek/sought.
son: the male child of parents. From Old English sunu.
sun: that big hot thing in the sky which burns your skin if you don't take precautions. From Old English sunne.
stake: a wooden or metal bar driven into the ground as a marker. The word has several other uses (check your dictionaries!) From Old English staca, pin. You can see also that the word is related to "stick" in the sense of a piece of wood.
steak: a slice of meat from the fleshy part of an animal. It came into English in the 15th century from an old Norse word steik, roast, which was related to steikja, to roast on a spit. A spit is a skewer for holding meat. Steak and stick are historically related words.
steal: to take something illegally. For example, copying something from a website without asking for permission or, in some cases, paying the required fee.
steel: an alloy of iron with carbon.
stele: sometimes pronounced the same way. An ancient upright stone slab bearing inscriptions.
tail: the part of a dog that wags, and its equivalent on other animals. To tail someone is to follow them. From Old English tægel, related to words meaning hair, horse's tail.
tale: story; sometimes a trivial lie, a piece of gossip. From Old English talu, meaning list.
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tea: a drink made by steeping the leaves of a tea bush in boiling water. The tea bush belongs to the camellia family of bushes.
tee: the starting place for a hole in a game of golf; the little wooden peg used for that purpose.
A tee-shirt, or T-shirt, gets its name simply because of its T shape. Nothing to do with drinking tea or playing golf.
team: a group of people working together.
teem: to pour down, as with rain; to be prolific, as with crowds of people.
tear: rip, pull apart.
tare: several uses involving weight, such as the weight of the container in which something is delivered.
tear: that which falls from your eye when you weep.
tier: one of a set or rows, e.g., of seats, placed on a slope above each other. (Do not confuse this with another pair of homophones, tier, someone who ties, and tire, to become tired, or with tire, the USA spelling of tyre.)
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throw: the act of sending something through the air, with a quick movement of the arm and hand.
throe: a pang or pain arising from labour. This is usually used in the plural and sometimes figuratively, e.g., the throes of revolution.
time: How on Earth do I write a simple definition in a few words? Oh, look at your clock!
thyme: the name of a herb used in cookery.
to, too, two
to: many uses, including preposition for 'towards'.
two: the second number, 2.
toe: one of the digits of the foot. From Old English ta and related to words in other Germanic languages.
tow: to haul something or drag it with a rope. From Old English togian which is related to similar words in several other old Germanic languages. Tow as a noun can also mean fibres of hemp or jute. That word comes from a completely different origin, Old English tou, related to words in other Germanic languages.
tuna: a tunny, which is a type of fish. The same word is used for a Jamaican prickly pear.
tuner: the same word can be used from someone who tunes a musical instrument such as a piano, and for the part of a radio or TV receiver which tunes in to signals.
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turn: verb meaning to change direction, noun meaning where someone plays a part in an agreed sequence. Check your dictionary for many other uses. The word comes from Old English tynian, to turn.
tern: a sea-bird, a type of gull. The word came into English in the 18th century from Scandinavian languages.
urn: a large vase; a large container for making tea, the drink; a container for the ashes of a deceased person. For goodness sake, don't get them mixed up at tea time!
earn: receive payment for work.
erne: another name for a European sea eagle.
vain, vane, vein
vain: conceited, with false pride, but 'in vain' means 'without any result'.
vane: a flat surface, sometimes in a propeller, that pushes against water or air. A weather vane shows you which way the wind is blowing.
vein: a blood vessel or channel that carries blood around the body. Also used to denote a vein of ore or rock.
vale: another word for valley. Both came from and Old French word valee which came from Latin vallis.
veil: a garment that covers the head and the face. As a verb, it means to cover or conceal something. It came into English in the 13th century from Old French veile which came from Latin vela, sails, (of a ship) which is the plural of velum, a covering
waist: the middle of you which will get too fat if you eat junk food.
waste: to use carelessly or thoughtfully; the material you throw away because you don't want it. Example: the unnecessary wrapping of junk food.
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wave: as a verb, to move something or cause it to move to and fro. as a noun, a rising ridge of water in the sea. Check your dictionary for other uses. The word is related to Old English wæg, which meant motion, and also to Old English wafian which meant to weave.
waive: to waive something is to do without it or set it aside. The word comes from 13th century Old Northern French weyver, to relinquish.
way: (1) how something happens, the manner if which something is done. (2) The path or route to somewhere.
weigh: measure the mass of an object.
whey: the watery part of milk which is taken out when curd is separated for making cheese.
weak: feeble, not strong.
week: seven days, Sunday to Saturday.
weather: the combination of temperature, cloud, rainfall, sunshine, etc., in a particular place from day to day. Not the same as 'climate'. From Old English weder.
wether: a male sheep. From Old English hwæther.
whether: introduces two alternatives, usually in a question. Old English hwether.
wear, where, ware
wear: (1) use an item of clothing to cover part of your body. (2) erode, as rocks erode due to weather.
where: in what place?
ware: denotes articles of the same kind of material, e.g., silverware. Hardware used to mean metal tools and implements until computer people borrowed it.
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weal: a raised mark on the skin, the result of an allergy or a wound.
wheel: the round thing that keeps your bicycle moving until you fall off.
witch: a person, usually female, who was believed to have magical powers. In olden times, a female sorcerer. It was all complete fantasy, of course.
which: used in questions asking for preference, choice, identification.
you: not me or them, but you, the person reading this.
ewe: a female sheep.
yew: a type of tree.
yore, your, yaw
yore: a long time ago. Now used only in 'the days of yore'.
your: belonging to you. Your is NOT a short version of you are. The short version of you are is you're. This is a very common error made by people who can't be bothered to write correctly.
yaw: a particular type of movement of a ship or aeroplane.
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