Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Homophones: Phone Home

I came across two amusing items while working on the next edition of the Word Parts Dictionary.

We’re all aware of the disconnect that exists between sound and spelling in English. If you ask someone to spell the equivalent of the sound hear/here or the sound there/their/they’re, the first thing you’re going to hear is, “which one do you mean?”

Say sigh/koll/oh/gee out loud, and to a person we will all write psychology [Gr. psukho-, mind, + -logia, area of knowledge]. But another equivalent of that sound is sycology, the study of figs [Gr. sukon-, fig, + -logia, area of knowledge]. Everyone is aware of a word that shares the same root: sycophant. Originally, a sycophant was an informant rather than today’s abject flatterer, but the OED informs us that its origin is disputed. It may be related to an obscene gesture, “showing the fig.” That consisted of pushing the thumb between two fingers and holding them up. It sounds like the same contemptuous intent embedded in thrusting the middle finger straight up in the air as a display.

The other word with a disconnect needs a little wriggle room, but it’s close. Say fill/oll/uh/gist, and most of us will write philologist [Gr. philo- love of, + -logos, word]. A close contender would be phellologist, an expert in the substance cork [Gr. phellos, cork]. Some not-so-common words using this root are phelloderm, phellogen, phellogenetic, phellogenic, and phelloplastic (a cork model or figure).


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