Thanks, Christine, for suggesting some homonyms in your comments to last week’s post. We’ll start off with a homonym that takes its multiple-meaning status seriously.
Almost all forms of dessert/desert came to English through French. Dessert came to English in the 1500s in reference to the last course of a meal. The French word it came from is deservir, which (because serving the last course involved clearing the table of the previous courses) translates literally to un-serve, with des- meaning undo & servir meaning to serve. The wasteland meaning of desert came to English in the 1200s from Old French, which came from the Late Latin word desertum, which meant thing abandoned. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the meaning a waterless, treeless region eclipsed the wasteland meaning. The desert which means suitable reward or punishment (as in getting one’s just deserts) came through French from the Latin word deservir (not to be confused with the French word deservir). It meant to serve well. I suppose one is served well by getting what one deserves. But so much for nouns – the verb desert came through the Old French deserter in the 1300s from the Latin desertare (closely related to desertum), which meant to abandon. This particular desert is built of the word parts de-, meaning opposite or undo, & serere, meaning to put in a row. Serere also gave birth to the word series.
Christine’s comment also included the near-homonym pairs form/from & definitely/defiantly. In my humble opinion, the from & form confusion is a matter of typing more than a homonym issue. We just get typing away & muck it up. The confusion between definitely & defiantly, however, is another matter altogether. I’ve been grading English papers since the 1970s, & in my experience, these two words were never confused before computers. The confusion didn’t even exist with the first raft of word processors. I call this phenomenon a spellcheck-induced error. It occurs because many of us type definAtely instead of definItely. Our spell-checker “reads” our intentions & comes up with defiantly (which contributes to some hysterical sentences).
We’ll finish this post with a homonym trio I find intriguing: by, bye & buy.
By has been around since Old English was born & came from a Proto-Germanic word meaning about, near, or around. Though we pronounce it differently today, we find by’s sister (with the same meaning) at the end of place names that end in –by. In Yorkshire alone there are over 210 place names ending this way (Wetherby & Selby, for instance). Our modern word buy, came from another Proto-Germanic source, the word bugjan, meaning to pay for. When it first entered English, the soft g sound remained at the end of the word, & is one of the reasons the past tense, bought includes the letter g. The completely unrelated word bye is a shortening of good-bye, which in the 1570s was spelled godbwye and was interestingly a shortening of something else -- the term God be with ye.
Thanks for joining me for another Wordmonger post. Please leave any comments on all this in the comments section. And please check out the orange KEBF note to the right.