complacent (kəm-plā-sənt) vs. complaisant (kəm-plā-sənt)

Let’s kick off our homonym theme with a pare pair of adjectives that I find to be particularly tricky. The words complacent and complaisant are homophones as well as heterographs. As you may recall, homophones are words that sound the same, but are defined differently, while heterographs have the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings.

Both words are derived from the Latin infinitive complacere meaning to please. Complaisant means “a desire to please,” whereas complacent means “pleased with one’s self” or “self-satisfied,” and usually has a negative connotation. To make it more confusing, one of the definitions of complacent IS complaisant! However, if you use the word complacent to mean “willingness to please or oblige others”, linguists will probably label it incorrect.

Stay tuned for another tricky homonym pear pair soon!

 

 

 

homonyms (hä-mə-nims)

homonymsThe English language is full of homonyms, or more specifically homographs, homophones, heterographs, and heteronyms. This is enough to make your head spin! Such words serve to make English one of the most difficult languages to learn. They are the bane of my existence, and probably yours too.

Homonyms are words that are pronounced the same or have the same spelling but have different definitions. The word homonym comes from the Greek roots homo- meaning same and -nym meaning name.  Homographs and homophones are a subset of homonyms.

Homographs are words that have the same spelling, but have different meanings. The Greek root -graph- means to write, so homograph can be translated into “same writing.” An example would be “bat” (animal) and “bat” (baseball bat).

Heteronyms are a class of homographs. The Greek root hetero- means other or different so heteronyms are words  with “different names.” They share the same spelling, but have different pronunciations and meanings. An example is “minute” (time unit) and “minute” (pronounced mīn.yüt – meaning very small).

Homophones are words that sound the same but are defined differently. Homophones literally mean “same sound” (-phon is the Greek root for sound). If the homophones are spelled the same, they are also homographs but if they are spelled differently, they are called heterographs.

Heterographs are words that have “different writing”. They have the same pronunciation, but different spellings and definitions. “Knight” (soldier) and “night” (evening) are examples of heterographs.

For the next several posts, I’d like to delve further into this category of English words. To help me explore this topic, I’ve enlisted the help of some of my fellow National Spelling Bee participants who have volunteered to write about a pair of words that they find to be particularly irksome.

Are there any homonyms that always manage to trick you?