I guess it’s time to talk about more of those “soundalike” words that people continue to confuse; in the game of phonics and such, they’re called “homophones.” Let’s begin with one I just encountered (used wrongly, and by a published writer) in a Facebook post:

Peak vs. peek: If I want to say something or someone has ducked behind the sofa, or some other object, and is now lifting her head just up to eye-level, I’d say that person was “peeking up from behind the sofa.”

If I wanted to describe the action as reaching its highest point, I’d say the person was “peaking at the top of her ascent.”

The two words sound the same, but they mean entirely different things, and are just as incorrect as using “you’re” as a possessive, or “your” as the substitute for “you are.”

And now to the next item . . .

Testimonials: Here’s where two pairs of words get mixed up:

A) When you want to comment on something favorably, you don’t say, “Here, here!” That’s how you call a dog (or, on rare occasions, may even get a cat to at least respond). Instead, you say, “hear, hear”—from a rather ancient tradition, in which it’s short for: “hear, all ye good people, hear what this brilliant and eloquent speaker has to say!” (Another way of saying it might be, “let’s hear, and now applaud the words of the previous speaker!”)

Dictionary.com defines it as:

hear, hear: An expression used to express approval, as in Whenever the senator spoke, he was greeted with cries of “Hear! hear!”  This expression was originally Hear him! hear him!  and used to call attention to a speaker’s words. It gradually came to be used simply as a cheer. [Late 1600s]

Note: The wonderful political-satire group, Firesign Theater (there’s no “the” there, as some would have it), did a lovely riff on this in their immortal 1968 recording of “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him,” in which a pompous-sounding speaker is carrying on with some oration, and someone in the crowd yells out, “hear, hear” . . .  to which another responds, “there, there” . . . and a third voice asks, “where, where?” (Although this was done some 40-plus years ago, I still chuckle whenever I hear the bit; sometimes I’m too easily amused, if there is such a thing.)

In short, the statement is not defining a direction or place, it’s just exhorting listeners to actually hear (and heed?) the words just spoken, and to applaud the effort in delivering them.

B) The other confusion, somewhat related to the first, is when you’re affirming agreement with a sentiment (especially when voting for something), celebrating a victory, or just expressing positively in general. All three words are spelled differently:

  • When you’re in Congress, or a state or local legislative body — or even at a town meeting — the vote is sometimes taken by asking for “ayes and nays” (standing for “yes” and no,” respectively). An alternative form (more archaic and thus more traditional in some cases) would be to ask for the “yeas and nays,” which has exactly the same meaning.
  • When you are joyful in having won the game, or gotten a good score on a test, or in similar situations, you’d shout, “Yay! I won!”
  • When you just want to affirm some action or viewpoint, in general, you’d say, “Yeah, I agree with that!” or “Yeah, I can get that job done in time.”

The difference is mostly (at least in the latter two cases) a matter of degree: “Yay!” is an exclamation, while “yeah” is just a common statement, indicating your assent or consent to something.

So to sum up, if you’re happy and you know it, shout “Yay!” If it’s just okay with you, just say “yeah.” Meanwhile, if the vote has come in, and your side won, then “the yeas have it”  is the proper way to record the result . . . .

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