Homophones can be a nightmare. There’s (theirs?) not an English teacher in the country that hasn’t despaired over their/there/they’re and where/wear/were at one point or another, and I’ve certainly had to pause over principle/principal more than once.

But I’ve just rekindled my love of the little quirks of English that make this language so interesting through a new obsession: cryptic crosswords. These little puzzles force you to connect words together in a wholly illogical way and sometimes, these connections involve homophones. A particularly tricky one asked me to connect ‘spun’ with ‘Earth’. The answer? Whirled/World. It seems to me an apt pairing of words, which could have some kind of shared etymological root — the world does whirl itself around after all.

It got me thinking about homophones in literature, and how writers make use of them either creatively, or accidentally.

Perhaps most interesting is Charlotte Mew’s poem The Farmer’s Bride, which ends with a Victorian-era farmer lusting over his young wife sleeping upstairs, fantasising over “her hair, her hair”. This poem features in the AQA GCSE poetry anthology, but I first came across it many years ago through my Liverpudlian mother, who pronounces these final words as homophones. The result becomes even more guttural and sinister. It’s also brilliant that these patterns of sounds emerge in some regions and dialects: poetry is different in different mouths.

A striking form of homophones comes, of course, in the pun. They’re put to great use by Shakespeare in the harsh irony of Mercutio’s “grave man” and Richard III’s “sun of York”, and also in John Donne’s frequent punning with his own name.

Homophones also cause you to stop and consider roots of words. When asking Year 11 pupils to memorise high-leverage quotations, I noticed they were confusing “idle” and “idol” in two useful turns of phrase fromA Christmas Carol. It turns out that idle is a far older word in English, having emerged during the Anglo-Saxon period, whilst idol arrived during the 13thCentury from Old French. I like to think of these two words jostling for prominence through the centuries, both sharing a contribution in religious semantics.

I have a feeling that homophones will turn out to be alarmingly similarly to symbols in literature: once you start spotting them, you just can’t stop. Who nose, perhaps there’ll bee an update soon.

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