Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Language of Confusion: Rites for Writers, Right?

I just wanted to use all three in one sentence that kind of makes sense.

To the point: right, rite and write are three words that can be confusing if you use them in conversation, but are easy to tell apart on paper. And the latter is probably because of the former. So what is the origin for these homophones?

For more information on right (all uses of the word) go waaaaay back to almost the beginning of my etymology blatherings. To sum it up, “right” in the correct sense of the word ended up being the opposite of left because left was considered bad and evil. To our ancestors, it made sense that the “correct” hand to use and all that shared the same designation as “moral, true, correct.” The origin words for right (all forms) are the Old English riht and the classical Latin rectus, among others.

Rite comes from a different word, the classical Latin ritus, meaning a religious custom. Not much surprise there. I suppose English just shortened the Latin version and even though there was already a word with the same pronunciation (right showed up in the twelfth century, rite in the fourteenth), they kept it.

Like right, write is Old English in origin, coming from writan. Initially, writan meant “outline, draw.” Then later, it evolved to “set down in writing.” Since Old English was gone by the twelfth century, it’s probably safe to say this write is the oldest. But still, no one thought it might be confusing.

One thing we have to remember: while words are a part of language, each one evolves on its own, and it is based on what the speakers like to use. You know how each year, the Oxford English Dictionary makes a big deal about adding words? That’s language-volution. So until someone events a time machine and we go tell our ancestors to think up some new pronunciations for stuff, we’re stuck telling each other “No, I meant you were correct, it was a left turn, and now we’re stuck on the highway for another two miles.”

Thanks Online Etymology Dictionary! And the English Club for their page on the English Language.

NOTE: I’ve updated the Specials page again. Go check out some of these coolnesses and tell me if you know of any others out there. 


  1. Ah homophones. How I hate thee!

    It's funny--with a lot of homophones, I know which one to use and the meaning for each, but when I'm 'in the zone' and drafting, I'll often misuse them and have to edit it later. The worst one is the whole its it's. I know the difference, but my brain almost always writes it's.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  2. A write rite is all right, right?

    Just kidding. Great post!

  3. It amazes me that anyone can manage to learn English.

  4. So, there's a cute little poem... can't remember how it starts, but it finishes with a little girl and a teacher:

    "Wright has not written rite right, I say."
    "Right! Wright, write rite right, right away!"



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