“Berth,” I said to Mrs. Word Guy across the kitchen table during a recent round of our morning word games.

“B-I-R-T-H?” she asked.

“No, ‘B-E-R-T-H,’” I said. “Where you sleep on a train.”

The next word happened to be “creek.” “C-R-E-A-K?” she logically asked.

“No, ‘C-R-E-E-K,’” I replied, “a narrow body of water.”

Welcome to the world of homophones, those tricky words that sound the same but have different meanings, and sometimes spellings.


Sometimes it’s easy to tell the difference between (or among) same-sounding words, especially when playing Wordle or one of its imitators since those games require responses of five letters, no fewer, no more.

So, for example, if somebody told you that “adieu” was a good first word to use for one of those games (because it has a lot of vowels), you’d know right away that it was the French one that means “goodbye,” and not the one that’s much “ado” about nothing.

So if I said what sounded like “rain” during our Wordle game, Mrs. Word Guy would know immediately that it’s not precipitation I’m talking about nor is it a strap fastened to a horse, but rather the five-letter word “reign” meaning “royal authority.” Same goes for “whale” as opposed to “wail” or “wale.”

But as you tag-team Wordle, do watch out for such sneaky words as “beach” (land near water) and “beech” (a tree). If you type in the wrong one, it does not augur (foretell events) well for you, as opposed to “auger” (the corkscrew-shaped tool). If you’re struggling at word games, trying to alter — not “altar” — your strategy may lead you in the right direction.

Of course (not “coarse”) most homophones – or near homophones – have fewer or more than five letters, which (not “witch”) leads right to one of my biggest pet peeves. (And let’s face it, having a lot of pet peeves is an occupational hazard when you’re a word guy – or gal.)

That peeve is, obviously, when someone uses the wrong word for the right word that sounds the same or nearly the same. For instance, have you ever heard somebody say that the arrival of someone famous is “eminent”? Actually her arrival is imminent (about to take place). She no doubt attained her eminent (famous or important) status by making the most of her immanent (inherent) abilities.


While eminent and imminent sound enough alike to be easily confused, there are many other words that sound exactly alike so the potential for one word being mistaken for another is much greater. Fortunately we often have the benefit of context to guide us along, as we see below.

Even though a peek at the mountain peak piqued my interest, I still wanted to write just the right thing for the wheelwright’s rite of passage.

Or let’s say that I wanted to pare a pair of pears, for instance.

And I always eat my carrots so I can see where to put the caret (that inverted V that shows where I want to insert a letter or word) when I’m writing about 24-karat gold and two-carat diamonds.

And finally I fondly remember that Christmas when we exclaimed “Whee!” with joy even though we had only a wee bit of time to try out our new Wii. And that all brings us nearer to the end of this column — which is imminent.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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