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Monday, September 16, 2013

Homophonia: Not/Knot/Naught

Recently my husband and I worked on something together, and it didn't turn out the way we'd hoped. My husband forwarded me the rejection letter, and added, "I guess all that was for not."

Amazing, the power of email! It delivered a crushing blow and pointed out a common homophone trap.

Few people seem to have trouble with the obvious homophone pair not/knot. I remember being introduced to "silent K" in grade school, and it was weird enough for even the most slapdash speller to remember. (Or maybe it only struck me because the K in my last name is ferociously NOT silent. Even at a young age I'd had to correct adults numerous times on its pronunciation and bear the brunt of awe, annoyance, or condescension over it.)

Without the K, it's a necessary grammatical element of negation, and with the K, it's the result of tying things.

The word my husband was looking for, however, was "naught." It comes from the Old English, so it's about 1500 years old and still going. A composite of "no" and "thing," we witness its origin in the phrase "not a whit." It and its variant "nought" are still used widely in non-American Anglophone locations. For us Yanks, it's been relegated to phrases and situations like the one my husband was describing: Tons of effort and expectation that end up coming to naught.

And yes, "naught" is where we get "naughty." Something to do with zero moral value, perhaps?