Lesson #232 (Part 2): Homographs in ‘Bleak House’: English words that are spelled the same but are not related

Welcome to Part 2 of our Lesson on homographs!

In Part 1 we already looked at what homographs mean (quick reminder: they are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and often different pronunciations). We also covered some key homographs in the English language, starting with those word pairs that share the same word origin and so have similar meanings.

✍️ In this section we are going to consider homographs that do not share the same word origin and are therefore very different!

As mentioned before, we are drawing on Charles Dickens’ longest work, Bleak House (1852), a book that is full of interesting word play! 📗

✏️ We will finish with a couple of suggested exercises so that you can practice and add at least 3 homographs to your vocabulary.

#1📝 bark

As a noun, this word has two possible meanings. Firstly, it is ‘the explosive sound or cry that a dog makes’. It can also refer to the ‘tough skin or outer layer of a tree’. (There is a third meaning which Dickens does not refer to, that of ‘a ship or boat’).

The verb ‘to bark’ therefore reflects the two main meanings described above. ‘To bark’ can mean either ‘to make a cry like a dog’ or ‘to remove the outer skin layer of a tree’.

📗 ‘We had one favourite spot, deep in moss and last year’s leaves, where there were some felled trees from which the bark was all stripped off.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘Turn that dog’s descendants wild, like Jo, and in a very few years they will so degenerate that they will lose even their bark— but not their bite.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

✏️ NOTE: There is a common saying in English that refers to the first meaning of ‘bark’: we might say of someone who is noisy, opinionated, or even threatening that they are ‘all bark and no bite’, meaning that in spite of their loud personality they are neither cruel nor likely to cause harm.

#2📝 chest

The two meanings of this noun are as follows: 1) ‘the front part of a person or animal’s body between the neck and the stomach’, or 2) ‘a large storage or transport box’.

📗 ‘I could have fancied that all the rusty keys, of which there must have been hundreds huddled together as old iron, had once belonged to doors of rooms or strong chests in lawyers’ offices.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘”Pretty good, sir,” he replied, folding his arms upon his broad chest and looking very large.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#3📝 content

‘Content’ can refer either to a noun or an adjective. Sometimes in its noun form it is written in the plural – ‘contents’. This means ‘whatever is included or held within something else’. 🗝️ It is pronounced as ‘kohn-tent’.

The adjective, 🗝️ pronounced as ‘kohn-tent’, describes the feeling of ‘being at peace, happy, and satisfied with a situation, etc’.

📗 ‘Mr. George, slowly putting down his saucer without tasting its contents, is laughingly beginning, “Why, what the deuce, Phil—” when he stops, seeing that Phil is counting on his dirty fingers.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘Sir Leicester is content enough that the ironmaster should feel that there is no hurry there …’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#4📝 grave

Like ‘content’, ‘grave’ is also found either in noun or in adjective form. As a noun, it refers to ‘a hole or hollow space in the ground for burying a coffin or dead body’.

As an adjective, it means ‘serious, solemn’.

📗 ‘She was always grave and strict.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘I had never been shown my mama’s grave.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#5📝 minute

Here is another adjective/noun word!

🗝️ ‘Minute’ as an adjective is pronounced as ‘mai-nyut’. It means ‘extremely small’.

‘Minute’ as a noun refers to ‘a unit of 60 seconds, of which there are 60 in an hour’. 🗝️ This is pronounced as ‘mihn-it’.

📗 ‘Nature, through all the minute details of every wonderful leaf, had been more wakeful than usual for the glory of that day.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘But in a minute he came after us down the street without any hat, and with his long hair all blown about, and stopped us, saying fervently, “Miss Summerson, upon my honour and soul, you may depend upon me!”‘

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#6📝 present

‘Present’ as a noun refers to ‘a gift’. It can also refer to ‘the period of time that is occurring now’. 🗝️ It is pronounced as ‘pres-uhnt’.

‘Present’ as an adjective is related to the second meaning of ‘present’ the noun: it can mean ‘relating to the period of time occurring now’ or ‘in the presence (state of being present) of someone’. 🗝️ This is pronounced as ‘pres-ent’.

📗 ‘”If you please, miss, I’m a present to you, with Mr. Jarndyce’s love.”‘

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘”We have, at the present moment, one hundred and seventy families, Miss Summerson, averaging five persons in each, either gone or going to the left bank of the Niger.”‘

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#7📝 refuse

This word has noun and verb versions to it. As a noun, it means ‘rubbish or thrash that is thrown away as worthless’. 🗝️ This is pronounced as ‘rehf-yoose’.

The noun means ‘to show that you are not ready to do, say, or receive something’. 🗝️ It is pronounced as ‘rih-fyooze’.

📗 ‘… the extraordinary creatures in rags secretly groping among the swept-out rubbish for pins and other refuse.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 ‘Our legs would refuse to bear us, our knees would double up, our ankles would turn over, and we should come to the ground.’

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#8📝 sink

‘Sink’ as a noun refers to ‘a fixed basin, usually in a kitchen, bathroom, or bedroom, with a water supply and a pipe to remove waste water’.

The verb ‘to sink’ means ‘to drop downwards or else down below the surface of something, usually because of being heavier than the surrounding matter’.

The adjective, ‘sinking’, which you will find in the quotation below, comes from the verb and its meaning. It simply means something that is in gradually going downwards, either because of sadness, discouragement, or just from being heavy.

📗 Guster, really aged three or four and twenty, but looking a round ten years older, goes cheap with this unaccountable drawback of fits, and is so apprehensive of being returned on the hands of her patron saint that except when she is found with her head in the pail, or the sink, or the copper, or the dinner, or anything else that happens to be near her at the time of her seizure, she is always at work.

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

📗 For which reason, with a sinking heart and with that hang-dog sense of guilt upon him which dread and watching enfolded in the Sol’s Arms have produced, the young man of the name of Guppy presents himself at the town mansion at about seven o’clock in the evening and requests to see her ladyship.

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#9📝 wind

Here is another noun / verb word.

As a noun, it refers to ‘the moving, forceful current of air’ that we have all experienced someplace or another (the adjective ‘windy’ comes from this meaning). 🗝️ It is pronounced as ‘wihnd’.

As a verb, ‘to wind’ is pronounced differently again – 🗝️ more like ‘wai-nd’. It means ‘to move something in a twisting or spiral movement’, often for the purposes of tidying up a long string of something or else for helping a machine to operate correctly (e.g. ‘wind up the clock’).

📗 Ada and I agreed, as we talked together for a little while upstairs, that this caprice about the wind was a fiction and that he used the pretence to account for any disappointment he could not conceal, rather than he would blame the real cause of it or disparage or depreciate any one.

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#10📝 suit

You have probably seen me use the verb ‘to suit’ before, meaning to ‘be acceptable to’ or else ‘to match and adapt pleasingly to another person’s taste or needs’.

But in Dickens’ quotation below – which happens to be the one that inspired me to write this Lesson 😊 – we see two nouns with the same sound and spelling.

‘Suit’ can mean 1) ‘a set of (usually formal) clothes that are meant to be worn together’, or, 2) ‘a lawsuit, that is, a claim or dispute that is brought to a law court to be decided there’. Dickens is clearly playing on the similarity of these words in his line below, as spoken by the character Richard Carstone:

📗 “I was born into this unfinished contention with all its chances and changes, and it began to unsettle me before I quite knew the difference between a suit at law and a suit of clothes; and it has gone on unsettling me ever since; and here I am now, conscious sometimes that I am but a worthless fellow to love my confiding cousin Ada.”

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (emphasis mine)

#11📝 back – As a noun, it refers to ‘the end or rear part of something, the part we cannot see’. As a verb it means ‘to support (someone)’.

#12📝 bow – There are two nouns with this spelling. One refers to a weapon that has an arc-shaped frame with string attached to the ends, from which an arrow can be shot. The other noun ‘bow’ means ‘an act of bending the front part of the body to show reverence or respect for someone.’ The verb ‘to bow’ refers to doing this action of bending one’s body out of respect for someone.

#13📝 object – ‘An object’ (noun) can have several meanings. It can mean ‘a material thing that can be seen and touched’ or ‘a person or thing to which a specified action or feeling is directed’. As a verb, ‘to object’ means ‘to have or express disagreement with something; to oppose’. As for pronunciation, the noun’s first syllable is the one stressed, whereas with the verb, the last syllable is the one stressed.

#14📝 plain – As a noun, ‘a plain’ means ‘a vast, flat and level area of grassland’, such as a prairie. As an adjective, it means ‘without adornment, not pretty, ordinary’.

#15📝 scale – The noun means ‘an instrument to weight different materials’. The verb ‘to scale’ usually refers to the action of climbing, either up a literal physical mountain (e.g. ‘they scaled the mountain on its south side’) or up a metaphorical one (e.g. ‘she scaled up the career ladder to become manager at a young age’).

✍️ Remember: With regarding pronunciation, most of the differences between how homograph nouns and verbs are pronounced have to do with which syllable is stressed.

Generally speaking, the noun’s first syllable is stressed, while the verb’s second syllable is stressed.

This has been another long Lesson to start the week off with, but I trust it has been helpful!

If you have come across 3 words here that were new for you in one way or another, try to memorise them and use them in a sample sentence. Try as well to read the sentence aloud using the pronunciation guidelines I have given you. You can send me your sample sentences for me to look over through the contact form’s query box (scroll down to the bottom of the page) – I will personally respond to every person who sends me their sample sentences by June 10th. 😊

by J. E. Gibbons

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