Wednesday, September 15, 2010


If you aren't already afraid of homophones, you should be. They're the evil twins of language, popping up where their benign counterparts were meant to be. There (their, they're) are the usual suspects—your, you're; it's, its—and there are the less public ones that can catch a perfectly good sentence unawares.

Take this sentence from a recent article: "'Using herbs and spices expands your palette without extra calories and may decrease the amount of salt, fat and sugar you use without sacrificing flavor,' says Kate Geagan, MS, RD, author of Go Green, Get Lean: Trim Your Waistline With the Ultimate Low-Carbon Footprint Diet."

Did you spot the evil twin? That's right. It's "palette." The unknown author of this article fell into a homophone trap. She meant "palate," of course. A palette is the little board that painters daub their colors on, or, figuratively, a range of colors or color family used, say, in home decor or fashion. It means "little shovel" in French. Palate means, literally, the roof of the mouth, or figuratively, a person's taste or appreciation of food.

In my own writing, I have had the most trouble with "mantle/mantel." Every time I had to describe a display above the hearth I had to consult the dictionary to make sure I chose the right one. (It's mantel. I just looked it up.)

An increasingly common homophone confusion is "led/lead," as in "The lieutenant lead his squad into the battle." From the context, it's clear that what is meant is "led." I see this all the time. So far, I have not found any opposite errors of the "Ancient Roman cups were made of led" variety.

Like a lot of logophiles, this homophone switcheroo is a burr in my saddle. Or so I thought until last week. A recent article used that particular cliché, but spelled burr "bur." That looked really strange, but I looked it up on the off-chance it was correct. Guess what? A "bur" is a prickly seedcase or flowerhead that clings to hair and clothes. A "burr" is an accent characterized by a rough sound of the letter "r." Scots are most frequently described as speaking in a burr.

Homophones! Like those prickly burs, they'll get you when you least expect it.


  1. I have to side with Ms Geagan on "palette." I read her sentence as referring to the palette of ingredients available to a cook, similar to the palette of colors available to an artist. If it had read "expands your palate" my mind's eye would have envisioned my mouth swelling shut from the inside.

  2. Ooh. A terrible visual. Foodies speak of developing the palate, so I thought that's where she was going. But you could be right on the writer's intent. If so, I wish she had looked elsewhere for a metaphor. Life is confusing enough without developing palates with palettes.