Watch your step! 6 more word groups that can easily trip you up.
Understand the difference between these groups of homophones for clearer thinking and writing.
Homophones have nothing to do with objections to same sex attraction: ‘homophone’ simply means ‘same sounding’ – which is why they are so easily confused.
1 Defuse vs Diffuse
In a time of heightened concern about terrorism, it’s a good idea to be clear on the different meanings of these two words. Terrorists use bombs to kill and maim people. Bombs need to be defused. If they are not defused, they explode. The bomb fragments, and sadly, the bodies and limbs of people nearby, are diffused (spread out) throughout the the area.
Another way to think about diffused is to picture a bottle of dye being poured into a fish tank. The water changes colour as the dye diffuses through it.
!REMEMBER: If the bomb is not defused, people may become diffused.
2 Elicit vs Illicit
Another tricky homophone pair whose meanings are completely different. Elicit is a verb, meaning ‘to draw out’ or ‘bring out’, a process that could involve some effort. A synonym of elicit could be ‘extract’. Eg: The police questioned the suspect rigorously to elicit details of her crime.
If the suspect had, in fact, committed a crime, she would be guilty of illicit behaviour. The adjective illicit is a synonym for illegal.
!REMEMBER: To elicit = to extract, while illicit behaviour is always illegal.
3 Elusive vs Illusive vs Allusive
These homophones are tricky little beasts, aren’t they? Unless you were taught at school “to enunciate clearly” as the girls at my school were (also known as “speaking like a lady”), these three adjectives all sound much the same. English is full of homophones, and our natural tendency to sound vowels in a neutral way makes them sound like the same word. But their meanings are very different!
Elusive is the adjective of the verb Elude: to hide from or evade someone or something. So if you’re being elusive, you’re being hard to find. You might not be evasive, as in lying or not telling the whole truth, but you are evading being found.
Illusive derives from the noun Illusion: a false impression, a deceptive image. A person or thing being illusive is deliberately creating a false impression. Animals are very good at illusive behaviour: think of chameleons changing colour to match their surroundings, insects mimicking leaves and twigs, the spots and stripes of giraffes and tigers creating the illusion of shade patterns.
Allusive: While elusive and illusive share similar meanings about avoiding being discovered, allusive is about pointing something out. However, there is still a hint of hiding, of not being obvious. Allusive is the adjective of the verb allude: to refer to casually or indirectly. Allusion often occurs in poetry and fiction, especially as an indirect reference to another author’s work. It also crops up in general conversation. Eg, if someone doesn’t want to actually accuse a politician of greed, they might allude to politician’s use of perks, such as helicopter rides to meetings. It’s like coming at the person or thing from an angle.
!REMEMBER: To be elusive is to evade discovery; to be illusive is to create a false image; while being allusive is referring to someone or thing from an angle.
4 Fazed vs Phased
These two are often confused, but strangely, generally only in one direction. It’s quite common to see phased for fazed, especially in people’s Facebook comments, but it is rare to see fazed for phased. Fazed is a variation of a very old word ‘feeze’, according to Macquarie Dictionary, meaning to disturb or worry. Some time in the early 1980s fazed slipped back into general speech (but not formal writing). Eg: ‘As an editor and word nerd, I’m not fazed about people saying they’re fazed, but I would be disturbed to read fazed in an academic paper.’
Phased is the past tense of the verb to phase. It is generally a technical or scientific term with very explicit definitions depending on how each specialty uses the term. Very broadly it refers to stages of development or forms. Eg: ‘The new syllabus was gradually phased in(introduced in gradual stages). ‘The use of the term ‘chairman’ was phased out when the non-gender-specific ‘chairperson’ or ‘chair’ was adopted.’
!REMEMBER: To be fazed is to be upset or disturbed, maybe even frazzled.
5 Peak vs Peek vs Pique
Another trio of sound-alikes! The same sounds but three different meanings. No wonder people get confused. And Spellcheck or similar very often doesn’t pick them up. So let’s take a peek at peak, peek and pique.
Peak: this is actually the easiest. I think very few people have difficulty spelling peak. We know it’s the top of the mountain, and athletes and racehorses have peak performances. Packs of frozen vegetables tell us they’re ‘picked at their peak’. It’s peek and pique that faze many people.
Peek: You may have spotted I used peek a couple of sentences back, and that should have given you a clue. Peek is just an older form of ‘peep’ or ‘peer’, used mainly in ‘peek-a-boo’, the game all mothers play with their babies, and by those of us with some Scottish blood. Like peep, peek suggests a quick look.
Pique comes from the Fench verb ‘piquer’ to prick or sting. Originally it referred to causing anger, resentment or hurt pride, and people in novels would flounce off “in a fit of pique”. Now it’s become a popular term with politicians as an in-word or buzz phrase. Just as they always used to say “I don’t resile from that (view/decision/statement)”, now they claim the excuse “that didn’t pique my interest.” Incidentally, piquant, an agreeably pungent or sharp flavour, also derives from ‘piquer’. I doubt that any politician could be described as ‘piquant’ !
!REMEMBER: If something piques you interest, you may be tempted to peek at it, especially if it’s a peak performance.
6 Wave vs Waive
Our final two homophones. Like peak, most people are familiar with wave. How could we not be, when surfing is so popular all around the country? Everyone loves catching waves. And waving to friends and family. It’s the other waive that knocks people off their feet. Waive is the shark in the water. Waive is another old French word that crept into the English language after the Normans conquered Britain 950 years ago. Originally a legal term meaning to intentionally relinquish a right, it gradually came into more general use in the sense of deferring or putting aside for a while, or even dismissing. Eg, ‘The judge waived my attempt to explain my actions.’ It’s most commonly met as a waiver, which Macquarie Dictionary defines as “an intentional relinquishment of some right or interest”.
!REMEMBER: If a shark is spotted in the water, you should waive your right to go surfing today.
You can find helpful pointers on the use of grammar and punctuation in the Commonwealth of Australia Style Manual, and Mark Tredinnick’s Little Green Grammar Book. The Macquarie Dictionary is a great resource for spelling and definitions of Australian words and phrases, including slang.
Until next time,