Why You "Whet Your Appetite" but "Wet Your Whistle," and Other Historical Homophones

Friday, June 94 min read

Homophones are words that have the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings. Some pairings are obvious ("new"/"knew" and "bear"/"bare"), but there are also trickier homophones that have been baffling writers for centuries. For example, why do we "make do" instead of "make due," or wait with "bated breath" rather than "baited breath"? The answers lie in the origins of these historical homophones.

Make Do

Incorrect: Make due

To "make do" with something is to get along with what is available, as in, "He needs to make do with his brother's hand-me-down uniforms." In this sense, "do" refers to something serving a specific purpose. "Do" has many definitions, but it is often used casually to mean something that is adequate or sufficient, as in, "'We're out of tea — is coffee OK?' 'Yes, that'll do!'"

The adjective "make-do" means "makeshift." It was first used this way in the 1920s, as in, "They used their blanket as a make-do shelter from the rain."

Historically, "make do" is the correct use of this idiom, but the homonym "due" is often incorrectly used instead. "Due" has a definition meaning "satisfying or capable of satisfying a need" or "adequate," so it makes sense that it's mixed up with "do." One place it does belong is in the phrase "in due time" (meaning "eventually, at an appropriate time").

With Bated Breath

Incorrect: With baited breath

"With bated breath" means "with anticipation," as in, "They watched the finish line with bated breath." It literally means "to hold one's breath," coming from the definition of "bated": "to reduce the force or intensity of." The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first usage of the idiom to Shakepeare's The Merchant of Venice: "Shall I bend low and in a bondman's key / With bated breath and whispering humbleness…"

The homonym "baited" is often misused for "bated," especially in this idiom. Even J.K. Rowling confused the two in the line, "The whole common room listened with baited breath" (in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). This usage is incorrect because "baited" means "to lure, harass, attack, persecute, or entice" — none of which is the intended meaning of "baited breath."

Anchors Aweigh

Incorrect: Anchors away

"Anchors aweigh" is a maritime phrase that is used when a ship is about to leave (or pull up its anchor), so it’s no wonder that it's so often confused with "anchors away," which could technically be used in the same way. "Aweigh" means "raised just clear of the bottom," and is almost always used to refer to an anchor. The confusion lies in the homonym "away," which is an adverb that can refer to moving from or in another direction from a certain place.

"Aweigh" was first used as a nautical term in the 1620s and is later seen in an 1867 maritime dictionary called The Sailor's Word-Book, written by naval officer William Henry Smyth: "The anchor is a-trip, or a-weigh, where the purchase has just made it break ground, or raised it clear." One of the most famous instances of this phrase comes from the official song of the U.S. Navy, "Anchors Aweigh," written by Naval Academy Midshipman Alfred H. Miles in 1906.

Without Further Ado

Incorrect: Without further adieu

The correct phrase — meaning "without further delay" or "without much fuss" — is "without further ado." It's a playful quip often used to introduce performances or speakers. "Ado" itself can mean "heightened fuss or concern," "time-wasting bother," or "trouble," and it first appeared around the 14th century. Shakespeare popularized the word in his play Much Ado About Nothing, which was first performed in 1612.

The commonly confused homonym "adieu" is a French word meaning "farewell," as in, "I bid you adieu." It was pulled into Middle English from the French phrase a dieu, meaning literally "to God." "Adieu" was a popular expression of well wishes in the 15th century, around the same time that "ado" was gaining popularity, which resulted in this case of jumbled homonyms.

Whet Your Appetite

Incorrect: Wet your appetite

"Whet" comes from the Old English hwettan, meaning "to sharpen." In the popular phrase "whet your appetite," the word means "to make keen" or "stimulate." It has nothing to do with its homonym "wet," but they are commonly confused because "wet" is much more familiar than "whet."

To make things more confusing, the similar phrase "wet your whistle," meaning "to have a drink," does use the homonym "wet" — beverages are liquids, after all. "Whistle" has been used metaphorically to refer to the mouth or throat since the 14th century, as can be seen in The Canterbury Tales by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer: "As any jay she light was and jolly; / So was her jolly whistle well wet."

This homonym duo has been misused in both instances for centuries. There is evidence of "whetting one's whistle" as far back as the 17th century, and "wetting one's appetite" is still a popular (albeit incorrect) phrase today. Try to remember that "wet" applies to quenching thirst, and the more unfamiliar "whet" is left to apply to the appetite.

Rein In

Incorrect: Reign in

To "rein in" means "to limit or control," both literally (with animals, especially horses) and figuratively. It comes from the act of pulling on the reins of a horse to control it. One of the earliest metaphorical uses of the phrase can be seen in Shakespeare's 1609 play about the Trojan War, Troilus and Cressida, in the line, "Spur them to ruthful work, rein them from ruth!"

However, to "reign in" could also make sense, which is where the confusion stems from. "Reign" refers to a royal authority, as well as a sense of control. So not only does "reign" sound like "rein," but it can also have a similar meaning, as in, "The king was well respected during his 50-year reign." However, the correct use of the phrase "rein in" is solely rooted in equestrian jargon.

Featured image credit: Popartic/ iStock

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