Borough, burro, burrow

A burro is a small donkey. Burrow means (1) a hole or tunnel, or (2) to dig a hole or tunnel. A third homophone is borough (sometimes shortened to boro in the U.S.), which is primarily a noun referring to administrative divisions within some towns, cities, and states. The words are homophones or … [Read more...]

Coarse vs. course

Coarse is only an adjective. Its main senses in today's English are (1) of low quality, (2) lacking refinement or vulgar, and (3) rough in texture or composed of large particles. For example, a movie regarded as obscene or lowbrow might be called coarse, as might a person who speaks in a rude or … [Read more...]

Vice vs. vise

vise

In the U.S., the word for the clamping tool comprising two jaws closed and opened by a screw or lever is spelled vise. Outside American English, the vise spelling rarely appears. The gripping tool is instead spelled vice. This word of course has several other meanings in all varieties of English, … [Read more...]

Pixelated vs. pixilated

Though pixelated is the standard spelling of the word meaning rendered with visible pixels, there’s a good reason that spell check does not catch pixilated. Pixilated is an old, seldom-used Americanism dating from the middle of the 19th century and peaking (in this use) in the middle 20th century. … [Read more...]

Scavenger, scavenge

Scavenger works as both (1) a noun referring to one who collects discarded or unused items, and (2) a verb meaning to collect discarded or unused items. In today's English, however, the verb usually gives way to the shorter scavenge, which began as a backformation from scavenger but is now a fully … [Read more...]

Retch vs. wretch

A wretch is an unhappy or unfortunate person, especially one in the depths of misery of some sort. The word has several senses extending from this one; it sometimes refers to a person who is despicable or contemptible but not necessarily unfortunate, and it's sometimes used for animals. It's also … [Read more...]

Murderers’ row

Murderers' Row (Murderers' is originally plural and possessive) was coined in 1918 to describe an especially intimidating section of the New York Yankees' batting lineup, and it was reprised in the late 1920s to describe the lineup that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Today, murderers' row is … [Read more...]

Barbecue vs. barbeque

In today's English, barbecue is the usual spelling of the word with several senses related to the cooking of food over open fire. It's the spelling that tends to appear in edited writing, and it's the one that dictionaries note first, for what that's worth (and some don't note any other spellings). … [Read more...]

Litmus test

Litmus is a substance, made of lichen-based dyes, that is absorbed in paper and used to test acidity. Blue litmus turns red when exposed to acidic materials, and red litmus turns blue when exposed to nonacidic materials. This is the origin of litmus test in its figurative sense---i.e., a test that … [Read more...]

Phial vs. vial (vs. vile)

Phial and vial are different forms of what is essentially the same word, referring to a small container for holding liquids. Both came to English in the 14th century from the same source---the French fiole, which in turn has roots in Latin---and both have appeared regularly ever since.1 Some people … [Read more...]

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