Lesson #232 (Part 1): Homographs in ‘Bleak House’: English words that are spelled the same but are not related

How familiar are you with homographs? 🤔

You might not recognise at first what a homograph means, but you have probably been using them (or at least noticing them) without even realising it!

Homographs are basically words that are spelled the same but have different meanings.

✍️ Sometimes these word pairs are related because they come from the same root word. But other times they just happen to share the same spelling even though their meanings are totally different!

In today’s Lesson in two parts, we are tackling these tricky words with the help of Charles Dickens – one of the greatest wordsmiths in English literature. His writing abounds in (is absolutely full of) colourful vocabulary. A lot of his vocabulary is quite easy to understand and use, so his writing is the perfect place from which to illustrate our Lesson today. (That said, don’t worry about trying to understand all the words he uses – if you come across a difficult section, just read on until you reach whatever part I have highlighted, and try to understand that section. This is not a reading comprehension lesson!)

Fun fact: 🙂 Dickens also loved making puns, that is, playing with the different meanings of words.

As I am currently re-reading Bleak House (1852), which is Dickens’ longest work (and also one of my favourites), I have already noticed several prominent (obvious, standing out) homograph pairs that I would like to share with you today.

In Part 1 of this Lesson we will look at homographs that share a similar origin, while in Part 2 (see next post) we will consider homographs that are dissimilar in meaning as well as in origin.

👉 Most of these are words that you really need to know as an English student because they are essential to everyday English.

Remember that some of these homographs are pronounced differently depending on their meaning. I will highlight these different pronunciations for you whenever they appear (keep an eye out for the key sign 🗝️).

#1📝 advocate

This word has both a noun and verb form.

As a noun, it can mean ‘a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause’ or ‘a policy or person who puts a case forward on someone else’s behalf’. 🗝️ This is pronounced ‘ad-voh-ket’.

It can also mean, as a verb, ‘to publicly recommend or support’. 🗝️ This is pronounced as ‘ad-voh-cAYt’.

📗 On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be sitting here— as here he is— with a foggy glory round his head, softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an interminable brief, and outwardly directing his contemplation to the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog.

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#2📝 address

You are probably already familiar with this one, or at least one of its meanings!

It most commonly appears as a noun meaning ‘the detailed information which describes where a person or organisation is situated’. It can also mean a ‘formal speech’ (this is the meaning of ‘address’ in the second quotation below). 🗝️ This is pronounced as follows: ‘add-rehs’.

It can also mean, as a verb, ‘to speak formally and directly to a person.’ 🗝️ The verb is pronounced ‘add-ress.’

📗 ‘”If you want to address our people, sir,” say Blaze and Sparkle, the jewellers— meaning by our people Lady Dedlock and the rest—” you must remember that you are not dealing with the general public; you must hit our people in their weakest place, and their weakest place is such a place.”‘

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘Leaving this address (delivered like a sepulchral message) ringing in the rafters of the roof, the very little counsel drops, and the fog knows him no more.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#3📝 balance

This can be found either as a verb or as a noun.

As a noun, it means ‘the point of equilibrium’.

As a verb, it means ‘to weigh two options or situations’, ‘to put two things in a steady position in relation to each other’, or even ‘to compare the value of one thing with another’.

🗝️ The noun is pronounced something like: ‘bal-lance’. The verb is pronounced more as ‘bal-ance’. 🗝️

📗 ‘Mr. Guppy sitting on the window-sill, nodding his head and balancing all these possibilities in his mind, continues thoughtfully to tap it, and clasp it, and measure it with his hand, until he hastily draws his hand away.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘I should have a balance in my favour anyway, but that would swell it.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#4📝 mark

Again, we have both a noun and verb interpretation of ‘mark’. As a noun, it can mean ‘a spot’, ‘a sign’, ‘a distinctive trace to help with identification’.

As a verb, it can mean ‘pay attention to’ or ‘to make a sign of/on something’.

📗 ‘”Your woman’s wit hits the mark. He is a child— an absolute child. I told you he was a child, you know, when I first mentioned him.”‘

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘”Mark my words, Mrs. Perkins, ma’am, and don’t you be surprised, Lord bless you, if that young man comes in at last for old Krook’s money!”‘

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#5📝 mind

When we see ‘mind’ as a noun, we know it refers to the ‘centre of understanding’, and is often treated as meaning ‘the brain’ or ‘intellect’.

On the other hand, the verb ‘to mind’ means ‘to care about [something]’ or ‘to pay attention to’.

✒️ For example, if you have ever travelled in London on the underground Tube, you will probably have heard the warning ‘mind the gap between the train and the platform’ – in other words, pay attention to the gap between the train and the platform.

📗 ‘What a load off my mind! It was so delightful to know that she could confide in me and like me! It was so good of her, and so encouraging to me!’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘At present, I don’t mind confessing to the wards in Jarndyce (in strict confidence) that I sometimes find it difficult to keep up a genteel appearance.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine).

#6📝 record

‘Record’ as a noun means ‘a written account of something’, often historical, medical, or official in some capacity. 🗝️ It is pronounced as ‘reh-cord.’

The verb ‘to record’ means ‘to take written or mental note of something’. 🗝️ It is pronounced as ‘reh-kord.’

📗 “There never was such an infernal cauldron as that Chancery on the face of the earth!” said Mr. Boythorn. “Nothing but a mine below it on a busy day in term time, with all its records, rules, and precedents collected in it and every functionary belonging to it also, high and low, upward and downward, from its son the Accountant-General to its father the Devil, and the whole blown to atoms with ten thousand hundredweight of gunpowder, would reform it in the least!”

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 Sir Leicester is content enough that the ironmaster should feel that there is no hurry there; there, in that ancient house, rooted in that quiet park, where the ivy and the moss have had time to mature, and the gnarled and warted elms and the umbrageous oaks stand deep in the fern and leaves of a hundred years; and where the sun-dial on the terrace has dumbly recorded for centuries that time which was as much the property of every Dedlock— while he lasted— as the house and lands.

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#7📝 survey

The noun and verb forms of ‘survey’ are closely related.

The noun means ‘a visual study of something’, often expansive or even official. If you take a survey of a painting, like Mr Guppy did in the description below, it means that you look at it from one end to another. On the other hand, an engineer might take a survey of a property – that is, make an official study and report on the extent of the land or property. 🗝️ It is pronounced as ‘suhr-vey.’

The verb means simply ‘to make a visual study of something’ or ‘to glance over something from one end to another’. 🗝️ This is pronounced more like ‘suhr-vey’.

📗 Mr. Guppy affects to smile, and with the view of changing the conversation, looks with an admiration, real or pretended, round the room at the Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty, terminating his survey with the portrait of Lady Dedlock over the mantelshelf, in which she is represented on a terrace, with a pedestal upon the terrace, and a vase upon the pedestal, and her shawl upon the vase, and a prodigious piece of fur upon the shawl, and her arm on the prodigious piece of fur, and a bracelet on her arm.

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘Krook, with his bottle under his arm (he never gets beyond a certain point of either drunkenness or sobriety), takes time to survey his proposed lodger and seems to approve of him.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

Here are five extra homographs, in which both of their meanings are somewhat connected:

#8📝dear – It can either mean ‘beloved’ / ‘respected’, or ‘expensive’

#9📝finance – This refers either (as a noun) to ‘the management of large amounts of money’, or it can also mean (as a verb) ‘to support [someone/something] financially’

#10📝 incline – It can mean (as a verb) ‘to bend towards’, ‘to tend to be influenced by’, or (as a noun) it can mean ‘a sloping (steep) side of a hill’.

#11📝 interchange – It can mean either ‘to exchange things with another person(s)’ (as a verb), or it can mean as a noun ‘the exchange or alternation between different things’.

#12📝 right – This is an adjective often seen as synonymous with ‘that which is correct and just’. As a verb, it means ‘to put in order, especially in a just or morally sound order’.

👉 Let’s head over to the second part of this Lesson (here) where we look at some more such word pairs – this time homographs that are not related to each other and so have very different meanings!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)