by Margaret Watson

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I recently moved across to the east of the Pennines. Not only do I now have a garden with figs, plums and a whole host of other goodies, but I am meeting lots of new people. Last week I went into the next village as they have a library there. I saw a mother pushing a pram with a pair of tiny twins. Almost immediately behind her were a set of middle aged ladies, also twins and then across the road a pair of school girl twins followed a few minutes later by more babies. A coincidence of course, but it set me thinking. Not all twins are exactly alike. Often they don’t look exactly the same and they may have very different personalities.


It is the same with the English language. There are lots of pairs of words that are almost alike – twins of sorts. They may look similar or sound similar, yet have very different meanings. Then there are those that are spelt exactly the same, but which can have more than one meaning totally unrelated to the first one. Even native English speakers can get them wrong sometimes, but if you can master these pairs you will be well on your way to mastering the language.

I could go on and on. Why don’t you try and compile your own list?

Because I have moved so far east I have actually moved into an area where the Danes used to be in charge. The nearest city is Doncaster where the invaders actually forced the Romans to leave, having themselves travelled inland up the river we now call the Don, but originally called the Dan for Dane. People in this village sometimes talk as if all this happened only a short while ago – perhaps because the church is built on Dark Age Danish foundations and the village manor house on Roman ones. Also our house, although only built in 1910, would have been very close, probably in the garden or farmyard of the villa. The area around was subject to floods – this village street was the only way through. This probably explains why people still talk about how the Romans came along here and why they are still finding very early artefacts in their gardens – we have found several bolts, hand made nails etc and the remains of a copper beaded bracelet or anklet – now just a blue colouration on the soil. These were found underneath a recently demolished building so have been lying undisturbed for hundreds of years.

Just as the local area shows signs of all the invaders that have come, so the language shows it too. Lots of place names that are difficult to work out the pronunciation of until you realise they have a Germanic or Scandinavian origin – though that doesn’t quite explain how the river Dane became the Don or why people here say ‘while’ when they mean ‘until. They even had to change signs on the railway level crossings. They used to say ‘Do not cross WHILE the red light is showing – which according to the local dialect would mean ‘Only cross when the red light is showing.’ Or ‘Wait until the red light is showing before crossing. There were a number of accidents until the signs were changed to read ‘I f the red light is showing do not cross.’ Last week I was invited to a meeting -‘It’s from 8 while 9’. That means nothing at all further south or west, but here it means that the meeting lasts from 8 until 9.

Just remember when you are struggling with some obscure piece of English or a piece of dialect – you aren’t the only one.

More confusing words

More homophones