Holey vs. holy

Holey means full of holes. It is a perfectly good word, no matter what spell check says. Its more common homophone holy has several definitions: 1. sacred, or associated with a deity; 2. worthy of worship; 3. saintly; 4. deserving reverence.

Both words are old. Holy has roots in Old English and in the sources of Old English, and holey has been around at least since the 14th century (the earliest example listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1398). Each was spelled several ways in early use, but the modern spellings were settled by the 19th century, and the words are not considered variants of each other.

There is a third homophone: wholly, meaning completely or in every way. But it is not commonly confused with the other words.


Combine the holey socks with scuffed-up shoes, and you’re in real trouble. [Letitia Baldrige’s New Manners for New Times]

Jerusalem came under rocket attack from Gaza for the first time today as Hamas militants targeted the holy city. [Mirror]

Refashion Co-Op’s Resweater shows us a great technique for machine-stitched monster-patches for your holey jeans. [Boing Boing]

The holy month is a magnet for sectarian attacks. [Independent Online]

3 thoughts on “Holey vs. holy”

  1. The Hindu festival of Holi is celebrated at the end of February or early March. It celebrates the triumph of good over evil. On this day, people hug and wish each other ‘Happy Holi’. As the spring-blossoming trees that once supplied the colors used to celebrate Holi have become more rare, chemically produced industrial dyes have been used to take their place. In 2001, a fact sheet was published by the groups Toxics link and Vatavaran based in Delhi on the chemical dyes used in the festival. They found safety issues with all three forms in which the Holi colors are produced: pastes, dry colors and water colors.

  2. I find this interesting. Holey refers to the hole(s) especially in the ground, wells were considered sacred sites, and this sacred virtue came to be called ‘holy’.

    So the hole in the ground, the feeling evoked by holy, wholly – complete or sated – happy, these to me have the same root in substance. Also the hole from which children emerge is an analogue to the well in the ground from which clean water emerges. Both are life.


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