Thursday, January 19, 2012

Word peeve: "home in" versus "hone in"

This one's a little more insidious. It can't be blamed solely upon the Internet, and we can only blame TV for its spread, not its origin. I don't even know where it originated, but I've heard some respected and intelligent people making this mistake.

You've heard of homing pigeons, right? You can take them hundreds of miles from their home, release them, and after enough time, you can find them back at their home.

In the 20th century, air forces invented a type of missile called a "homing missile" - you know, like a "homing pigeon." Just as a homing pigeon could find its way to its destination without guidance, so a homing missile could find its way to a target without any guidance from the pilot who fired the missile. The Sidewinder heat-seeking missile is the most well-known example of a homing missile.

A homing missile finds its target, and then "locks on" to the target, getting progressively closer to it until it hits it. This is called "homing in." A related metaphor is "zeroing in."

Somewhere along the line, someone substituted an "n" for the "m", and "honing in" was born. The reverse etymology for this term referred to honing as the act of putting a sharper edge on a knife or an axe, so that it could penetrate difficult material better.

But "homing in" with an "m" is the act of focusing on something and steering ever closer to it, ignoring any distractions or obstacles, and the metaphor of the homing missile makes sense. Trying to use "honing in" with an "n" in the same way makes no sense at all. In fact, it sounds stupid.

I'll bet people that say "honing in" also say "NOOK-you-ler" instead of "NOO-clear."

And with those last two sentences, I'm sure I've offended somebody. I'm sorry. And now I'm done.

No comments: