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The words that went their own ways

Messing about in 'boots' - holidaymakers relax on board their vessel in Peter's native Norfolk in 1926 - Credit: Getty Images

PETER TRUDGILL on how similarly-sounding words can come to have such different meanings.

A word with two or more different meanings is technically a polyseme. An English example is wood, which can refer to wood as a material as well as to a tree-covered area of land. Neck is also polysemous: it refers to the part of the anatomy which joins the head to the rest of the body; a particular part of certain garments; a narrow isthmus of land; and the neck of a bottle.

The opposite case, where two words with different meanings sound the same, is known as homonymy. English sea and see are homonyms: they have totally different meanings but are pronounced exactly the same.

English spelling conventions had become fairly well stabilised by about 1500, and modern spellings mostly do not reflect changes in the pronunciation of the language which have take place since then, such as the simplification of kn to n in knife and knock.

Knot and not were formerly not homonyms, but they became so when English speakers stopped articulating the sound before an n.

The homonymy of sea and see is also relatively new. These words used to be pronounced with different vowels, which is why they are spelt differently; but the two vowels fell together in most English accents in the 1600s, resulting in see and sea, meet and meat becoming homonyms.

Whether words are homonyms or not, then, can vary over time – but also geographically: there are many English words which are homonyms in some regional accents but not others. Australians pronounce source and sauce the same; the Scots and Irish do not.

For millions of Americans, merry, Mary and marry are pronounced identically. In New Zealand, here and hair, beer and bear are homonymic. And – please believe me – in my Norfolk accent boot and boat, soup and soap are homonyms.

But what about mettle and metal? These two words are pronounced the same and so would seem to be homonyms.

Mettle is defined as ‘a person’s character or temperament, regarded as an indication of their character’; it is mostly heard in phrases such as to show one’s mettle. But a good case could be made for arguing that these words do not constitute a case of homonymy but of polysemy.

The fact is that an examination of the history of English shows that metal and mettle used to be the same word. The source of the word was Old French métal ‘metal, material, stuff’. In Shakespeare’s day, the two spellings were used interchangeably for both the literal sense of metallic stuff and the metaphorical ‘stuff a person is made of’.

However, during the 1700s, the different spellings were increasingly applied systematically to the literal and metaphorical meanings respectively, to the extent that we now no longer consider them even to be the same word. A single polysemous word has become two homonymous words.

The same thing happened in the case of flower and flour ­– they were originally the same word. Flower has its origins in Old French flor, ‘flower, blossom’, but it came to also mean ‘the best of its kind’, as “the flower of the nation’s youth”. The best part of the wheat – after the bran had been removed – was referred to as “the flower of the wheat”. Eventually, this meaning became divorced from the ‘blossom’ sense of flower; the two significations started being spelt differently; and they are now distinct words.

Another example of polysemy becoming homonymy is provided by the word staid, meaning ‘settled, fixed, sedate, steady, dignified’ as well as, increasingly these days, ‘too settled, too fixed, too sedate etc.’.

Staid was originally the same word as stayed, the past-tense form of to stay ‘to cease moving, to remain in one place’. During the 19th century, when used adjectivally as in “a stayed person”, it was increasingly spelt staid, showing that the psychological connection to stay was being lost. And eventually the one word turned into two. 


Kerb, the ‘edge of a street-side path’, and curb, ‘a restraint, a check on something’, were originally the same word. Americans still use the curb spelling for both meanings. From Old French courbe, Latin curvus ‘bend’, a curb was originally a strap bent round a horse’s jaw to restrain it.