Do Any Languages Besides English Have Homophones?


Does any language besides English have homophones?

Ben Waggoner:

There’s the old joke about the Spaniard who had invited an American to his home, but his English wasn’t very good, so he quickly looked up the English equivalents for the Spanish words that he wanted to say. . . and when his guest came through the door, the Spaniard smiled and said, “Between, and drink a chair!”

The joke is that the poor Spanish gent meant to say, “Come in, and have a seat!”—¡Entre, y tome una silla!—but he mixed up the homophones entre, meaning "between," and entre, the polite, third person singular imperative of entrar, which means "to enter.” (The other part of the joke is that tomar can mean either “to take” or “to drink”; that’s not so much a homophone as a word with a bit of a lexical spread.)

A bit of Wiktionary work to refresh my memory of Russian yielded мой, moj, which means either “my [masc.]” or “wash!” [2nd person sg. imperative of мыть]. From the same stem we get мыло, mylo, which means either “soap” or “it [neut.] washed” [neuter sg. past of мыть]. And then there’s мат, mat, which can mean either “checkmate” or “curse words; obscenities”—the first is borrowed from Persian (as is “checkmate”, from shah mat, “the king is dead”), while the second comes from the almost-but-not-quite-homophone мать, “mother.” The idiom for “to use profanity” (ругаться матом) etymologically means “to say obscene things about someone’s mother.”

Then there’s the most famous Russian homophone, мир, mir, meaning “peace” or “world.” They were distinguished in spelling before 1920, with the word for “world” spelled мір, but the Soviet spelling reforms made them indistinguishable, as in Мир миру, mir miru, “peace to the world!,” a common Soviet slogan. (Purely to pad this answer out, I might add that мир in the sense of “peace” may go back to the Indo-Iranian god of contracts and social order, Mithra. Or so some have argued. I’ve also seen it said that both мир and Mithra come from a PIE root meaning “to bind”, *mei-.)

Finally, I looked up a few homophones in Old Norse, with which I have a passing familiarity:

  • afl: “strength” or “hearth of a forge”
  • fastr: “firm; fixed” or “prey that a bear drags back to its den”
  • mál: “language; speech” (also “a matter for discussion”) or “measurement; interval of time” OR “decorative metal inlay”
  • nema: “except; unless” or “to take; to learn”
  • reiða: “to carry” or “outfit; equipment”
  • valr: “hawk” or “those killed in battle”
  • veita: “to give; to offer” or “to dig a ditch; to make a watercourse”

This could be a plot point in Vikings. Imagine Ragnar shouting “Damn it, Floki, I told you that what we had to discuss was offering the battle-slain to Odin by taking them and carrying them firmly! Why the hell are you waiting for an interval to learn to dig a water-ditch for a hawk’s outfit in a bear’s den?”

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Are Mugshots Made Public Before a Suspect is Convicted by the Court?

Jennifer Ellis:

Several reasons.

1. Mugshots can help find people when they have absconded, or warn people when someone is out and dangerous. So there is a good reason to share some mugshots.

2. Our legal system requires openness as per the federal constitution, and I imagine most if not all state constitutions. As such, this sort of information is not considered private and can be shared. Any effort to keep mugshots private would result in lawsuits by the press and lay people. This would be under the First and Sixth Amendments as well as the various Freedom of Information Acts. However, in 2016 a federal court ruled [PDF] that federal mugshots are no longer routinely available under the federal FOIA.

This is partially in recognition of the damage that mugshots can do online. In its opinion, the court noted that “[a] disclosed booking photo casts a long, damaging shadow over the depicted individual.” The court specifically mentions websites that put mugshots online, in its analysis. “In fact, mugshot websites collect and display booking photos from decades-old arrests: BustedMugshots and JustMugshots, to name a couple.” Some states have passed or are looking to pass laws to prevent release of mugshots prior to conviction. New Jersey is one example.

a) As the federal court recognizes, and as we all know, the reality is that if your picture in a mugshot is out there, regardless of whether you were convicted, it can have an unfortunate impact on your life. In the old days, this wasn’t too much of a problem because it really wasn’t easy to find mugshots. Now, with companies allegedly seeking to extort people into paying to get their images off the web, it has become a serious problem. Those companies may get in trouble if it can be proved that they are working in concert, getting paid to take the picture off one site and then putting it on another. But that is rare. In most cases, the picture is just public data to which there is no right of privacy under the law.

b) The underlying purpose of publicity is to avoid the government charging people and abusing the authority to do so. It was believed that the publicity would help protect people. And it does when you have a country that likes to hide what it is up to. But, it also can cause harm in a modern society like ours, where such things end up on the web and can cause permanent damage. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a catch-22. We have the right to know issues and free speech rights smack up against privacy rights and serious damage of reputation for people who have not been convicted of a crime. The law will no doubt continue to shake out over the next few years as it struggles to catch up with the technology.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What Happens When You Flush an Airplane Toilet?

For millions of people, summer means an opportunity to hop on a plane and experience new and exciting sights, cultures, and food. It also means getting packed into a giant commercial aircraft and then wondering if you can make it to your next layover without submitting to the anxiety of using the onboard bathroom.

Roughly the size of an apartment pantry, these narrow facilities barely accommodate your outstretched knees; turbulence can make expelling waste a harrowing nightmare. Once you’ve successfully managed to complete the task and flush, what happens next?

Unlike our home toilets, planes can’t rely on water tanks to create passive suction to draw waste from the bowl. In addition to the expense of hauling hundreds of gallons of water, it’s impractical to leave standing water in an environment that shakes its contents like a snow globe. Originally, planes used an electronic pump system that moved waste along with a deodorizing liquid called Anotec. That method worked, but carrying the Anotec was undesirable for the same reasons as storing water: It raised fuel costs and added weight to the aircraft that could have been allocated for passengers. (Not surprisingly, airlines prefer to transport paying customers over blobs of poop.)

Beginning in the 1980s, planes used a pneumatic vacuum to suck liquids and solids down and away from the fixture. Once you hit the flush button, a valve at the bottom of the toilet opens, allowing the vacuum to siphon the contents out. (A nonstick coating similar to Teflon reduces the odds of any residue.) It travels to a storage tank near the back of the plane at high speeds, ready for ground crews to drain it once the airplane lands. The tank is then flushed out using a disinfectant.

If you’re also curious about timing your bathroom visit to avoid people waiting in line while you void, flight attendants say the best time to go is right after the captain turns off the seat belt sign and before drink service begins.

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