11 Doppelganger Words: The Resemblance is Eerie

istock / istock

These word pairs are identical, but not twins. Like the mythical doppelgangers, they were born at different times and places. As “true homonyms” they’re both homophones (sound alikes) and homographs (look alikes). Some pairs can be traced back to the same ancestor whose meaning diverged as it followed different paths into English. Others are totally unrelated.


If you think a dog’s bow-wow and the sheath of a bough are related, you’re barking up the wrong tree. The first is from Old English beorc(noun), beorcan (verb), of Germanic origin; possibly related to break. The second is from Middle English, from Old Norse bҩrkr; perhaps related to birch.


A mondegreen is a misinterpreted song title or lyric. An example is the mishearing of a certain hymn title as “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear.” The verb bear, meaning “to carry, endure or give birth to,” comes from Old English beran, of Germanic origin, from the Indo-European root bher-. The name of the big, hairy lumbering mammal comes from Old English bera, “bear,” from Germanic *berō, meaning “the brown animal,” “bear.”

3. BOW

As Leonardo DiCaprio's character felt the rush of wind in the bow of the Titanic, he was King of the World. He would bow to no one. To bow, meaning to bend the head or upper part of the body as a sign of respect, greeting, or shame, comes from Old English būgan, “bend, stoop,” of Germanic origin. Bow, the front end of a ship, is not documented in English until the 1600s. It’s from Low German boog or Dutch boeg, “shoulder of man or beast, ship’s bow.” Bough, meaning “shoulder or tree branch,” is from the same source, but it appeared centuries earlier, in Old English.

4. BOX

If a butcher says, “I’ll box your ears,” do you duck and cover or say, “Thanks, but wrap my pigs’ knuckles separately”? The noun meaning a square container and the verb meaning to place something in such a container appeared in late Old English, probably from late Latin buxis, from Latin pyxis, “boxwood box,” or from Greek puxos. Box in the sense of a punch or to fight with the fists appeared in late Middle English in the general sense of a blow, of unknown origin.


Back in the day of a certain TV courtroom-drama series, folks would joke about having a “Perry Mason party”: You finish a case in an hour. Turns out, a court “case” and a “case” of beer are two different words. The former case, which also refers to “an instance, something that befalls someone,” entered Middle English from Old French cas, from Latin casus, or “fall,” related to cadere, “to fall.” The container kind of case arose in late Middle English from Old French casse, chasse (modern caisse “trunk, chest, cash register,” châsse “reliquary, frame”), from Latin capsa, related to capere “to hold.”


He spent most of the evening evening off the cake by cutting himself another sliver. Old English ǣfen (later even) meant the close of day. Evening originally meant the coming on of even. Later, evening replaced even. Evening, the action of making even, level, or smooth, comes from the verb even, from Old English ęfnan, æfnan, meaning to accomplish, achieve.

7. LIE

Have you ever caught yourself lying in bed? Lie, “to recline,” is from Old English licgan, of Germanic origin, from the Indo-European root legh-, and shared by Greek lektron, lekhos, and Latin lectus, meaning “bed.” Lie, “to tell a deliberate falsehood,” is from Old English lēogan, of Germanic origin.


She had a light snack: a quart of vanilla ice cream with blanched almonds and whip cream. The adjective light, the opposite of dark, has the same origin as the noun light: Old English lēoht, līht (noun and adjective), of Germanic origin, from the Indo-European root leuk-, shared by Greek leukos, “white,” and Latin lux, “light.” By the time light, the opposite of heavy, showed up in Old English, it looked the same as the other light, but by comparing the words in other languages, etymologists figured that it had a different Indo-European root: legwh-. Legwh- is also the root of lung, the light and fluffy organ.


Looking for your perfect match—one to light your fire? Match in the sense of a suitable companion (in marriage or in a sock drawer) derives from Old English gemæcca, meaning “mate, companion.” The ignitable stick takes the name match from Anglo-Norman and Middle French meche, ”wick,” perhaps from Latin myxa, “spout of a lamp,” later “lamp wick.”


This may take the prize for the longest English homonym. How did a pretty light blue or purple flower get the same name as a gastropod mollusk? The flower’s name is from 4th or 5th century post-classical Latin pervinca (in vinca pervinca). In classical Latin, it was vicapervica, which may have had its origin in a magical formula. As for the mollusk, the peri- part is of unknown origin. The second part is from Old English wincle or wincla, meaning “shellfish” (only in compounds; probably related to Old English wincel, corner, ultimately from the same Germanic base as the verb wink). But wait; there’s a third periwinkle! All right, so it’s obsolete slang, but in the 16th to 18th centuries, periwinkle was an alternate form of periwig, the highly stylized wig that was fashionable at the time.


If you’re walking in the woods and someone says, “Our quarry is just ahead,” do you think, Quiet, don’t startle it or Careful, don’t fall into it? Quarry, “an animal pursued by a hunter, hound, predatory mammal, or bird of prey,” derives from Middle English, from Old French cuiree, an alteration of couree, based on Latin cor, “heart,” influenced by cuir, meaning “leather,” and curer, “clean, disembowel.” Originally, the term denoted the parts of a deer that were placed on the hide and given as a reward to the hounds. Quarry in the sense of a pit from which stone or other materials are or have been extracted arose in Middle English from a variant of medieval Latin quareria, from Old French quarriere, based on Latin quadrum, “a square.”

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed via Los Angeles Public Library; New Oxford American Dictionary, (2nd ed.);  American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).