While giving a recent talk about the Glamour of Grammar, I touched on the subject of homophones — words that sound alike, but are spelled differently. For newcomers, It is one of the trickier aspects of learning the English language; even many native speakers find it confusing.
As I talked, I merrily wrote some examples on the board: bear and bare; principal and principle; where and wear; and finally, idle, idol and idyll. And that’s when things fell apart.
“It’s id-yll, not eye-dyll,” said a member of my audience. “At least, that’s what I’ve always been taught.”
I froze. I had been saying eye-dyll all my life, but was that something I had learned, or was it one of those words I had read and never heard pronounced?
We moved on to other topics, but when I reached home that evening, I headed straight for the dictionary. I flipped through the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary, the Bible for Canadian journalists. Id-yll, it read. Hmmm, I thought, and plucked Webster’s New World Dictionary from the shelf. Eye-dyll, said Webster, and I felt like pumping my fist in the air. I wasn’t wrong – I was just wrong in Canada. Id-yll is the British pronunciation and the one used north of the 49th. I grew up south of the 49th parallel and learned the American pronunciation, eye-dyll.
It was a lesson in context, but one I might never have learned, because idyll isn’t a word that comes up often in conversation.
So, when are idyll and idol homophones? In the United States, but not in Canada. U.S. Customs won’t let the Canadian pronunciation cross the border!