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Treebeard's Stumper Answer
2 April 1999

Silent Alphabet

The Tintin comics from Europe feature a funny pair of detectives named Thomson and Thompson. The latter introduces himself as "Thompson with a 'p' as in psychology." This suggests a tricky stumper. Try to find pairs of words that differ by the addition of just one letter, but are pronounced the same. For example, for A there is isle (island) and aisle (passageway). Can we find a pair of words for every letter of the alphabet? It's best to use standard dictionary words with different meanings. This can become an obsession!

I suppose I should thank Graybear for sending this stumper, but it's taken hours of my time! As a bonus, are there pairs of words that are opposites?


The challenge was to find pairs of words that differ by just a single letter, but are pronounced the same. We managed to find word pairs, often many, for every letter except Q, though I'm not happy that V and Z are just alternate spellings. I'm glad I learned English as a child. The list below shows why I still work at spelling! These words are a silent reminder that our English language really is a melting pot of different sources from history and the world. It's a lot like America itself, richer because of its complex origins.

This is the short list. I tried to pick familiar words with different meanings. All of these are in the Merriam-Webster OnLine dictionary except "haji" which is in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. My big list of 331 word pairs is available as a separate text file.

A    isle, aisle(island, corridor)
Bplum, plumb(fruit, vertical)
Csent, scent(dispatched, smell)
Dad, add(advertisement, combine)
Epros, prose(professionals, not poetry)
Fkafir, kaffir(sorghum grain, black African (vulgar))
Grein, reign(restrain, rule of king)
Hcord, chord(rope, music harmony)
Imaze, maize(puzzle, corn)
Jhaji, hajji(pilgramage to Mecca, one who's been there)
Knew, knew(not used, acquainted with)
Lhave, halve(possess, cut in half)
Mprimer, primmer(simple reading book, more prim)
Ncanon, cannon(belief system or music, weapon)
Oto, too(towards, also)
Psalter, psalter(one who adds salt, hymnal)
Q? 
Rcaries, carries(tooth decay, holds)
Scent, scent(money, smell)
Tbut, butt(on the contrary, what you sit on)
Umorning, mourning(before noon, feeling sorrow)
Vcivies, civvies(alt spelling: civilians and their clothes)
Whole, whole(a cavity, complete)
Xbeau, beaux(french lover: singular, plural - e.g. beaux gestes)
Ythere, they're(that place, they are)
Zpizazz, pizzazz(alt spelling: flamboyance)

Notes:

The Big List shows how compulsive I got about this stumper. I don't usually keep a dictionary in the bathroom! I searched for all silent letters, but I focused most on the hard ones and included some questionable ones, which slightly skews the list towards obscure letters.

By collecting lots of words, I can honestly report some statistics. Here's a graph showing how many word pairs I found for each letter according to the rules of the stumper.

Silent letter graph

This gets more interesting when we compare it with how often each letter is normally used in English. These normal letter frequencies are from an index of 1.5 million words in The Cambridge Encyclodedia, as reported in David Crystal's The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (p. 265).

 < more common 
Silent Letters:E H A U I W K S N T D G L R Y Z B P O F M X C J V Q
Standard English:     E A T I N O R S L H D C M U F P G B Y W V K X J Z Q

English letter graph

Here's a final graph showing just the differences. A bar above the center line means the letter is more common in my silent word list.

Silent vs. standard graph

Studying the graphs, it seems E, H, U, W, and K are more likely to be silent, and T, N, O, R, S, and C are less likely to be silent. I'm sure that every one of these letters (and word pairs) has an interesting history. The real stumper is to explain these results. I'll leave that for someone even more compulsive!

The letter pair GH works like a silent letter for this stumper. Are there other letter pairs that work?

hi, high(hello, way up)
sited, sighted(with a place, seen)
strait, straight(narrow waterway, no curves)
taut, taught(tight, past of teach)

I did find a few word pairs that are almost opposites. At least their sense is contrary:

bans, banns(forbids, marriage announcements)
braking, breaking(stopping, coming apart)
fiance, fiancee(engaged man, engaged woman)
have, halve(possess, cut in half)
hole, whole(a cavity, complete)
new, knew(not used, acquainted with)
pared, paired(cut down, doubled up)
reck, wreck(to care for, to destroy)

Here are a few more opposite homonyms that don't quite fit the rules, but are still pretty cool:

adds, adze(combines, cuts apart)
aural, oral(heard, spoken)
raise, raze(lift up, tear down)

I found one interesting word pair that differs in two silent letters. It doesn't fit the stumper rules, but it's still pretty cool and epitomizes the stumper. Both words are Greek in origin.

sycosis, psychosis(hair follicle infection, mental derangement)

I'm glad I played with this stumper for a long time before I tried a Web search. It was fun! Here are a few links for further research if you want to explore:

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Copyright © 1999 by Marc Kummel / mkummel@rain.org