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Know Your Homonyms! Leak vs. Leek, Lean vs. Lien, & More

In the latest edition of Know Your Homonyms, I cover seven sets of homophones that start with "L." Keep reading to learn about the differences between these similar-sounding word pairs: lay & lei, lea & lee, leak & leek, lean & lien, liken & lichen, loathe & loath, and loot & lute.

Lay vs. Lei

These words are pronounced with a long "a" (rhyming with "stay"). You likely know at least a few of the meanings of the common word lay; it has a lot, so here is a quick list of its most common uses (mostly as a verb):

  • "to put (something) down, typically with care" (She lays her hand on my shoulder.)

  • "to cover (with something)" (Lay the cloth over the table.)

  • "to prepare (a trap)" (He laid a trap for the gopher.)

  • "to present an idea for consideration by (someone)" (I lay this plan before you.)

  • "to produce (an egg)" (The chicken lays an egg every day.)

  • "the general appearance of something" (Let's get the lay of the land.)

Lei, on the other hand, refers to a wreath or necklace of flowers. It is a Hawaiian word, and it is indeed usually used when talking about Hawaii, though leis can of course occur in other contexts, particularly when a group wants to evoke feelings of "the beach" (since Hawaii is famous for its beaches).

Here are some examples of these homophones in action:

Please lay your papers on my desk when you are done. The gardeners laid the yard with new rolls of sod. The police laid a trap for the burglars by leaving diamonds in plain sight behind the window. Please lay out your ideas for the committee to consider. All of the eggs that my chickens lay are unfertilized, so they are safe to eat.
First, I got the lay of the situation; then, I created a new plan.

Lea vs. Lee

These words are pronounced with a long "e" (rhyming with "three"). Neither word is very common these days, but you can certainly run across them when reading older or specialized texts. A lea is basically a meadow—an open, grassy space. The lee area of something is the area that is protected, particularly from the wind; most commonly, this refers to ships, where the lee side is opposite the side that is facing the wind. More generally, lee refers to any protected area.

Here are some sample sentences:

The deer pranced playfully across the lea, unaware of the predators lurking in the trees.
The captain steered the ship toward the lee side to keep it from tipping over.

I keep these words straight by remembering that a lea has grass and that lee relates to a breeze.

Leak vs. Leek

You are no doubt familiar with the common word leak, which refers to a slow, usually unintentional release of something, such as water from a sealed pipe or air from a balloon; this can be either a verb or a noun. There is also a more specific usage that refers to the release of information that is meant to be confidential; such leaks are usually intentional on the part of the person doing the leaking, who usually remains anonymous.

A leek is a leafy vegetable; it is from the same family as onions and, indeed, is known for its onion-like taste. It consists of many layers of green leaves that spread out from a white base:

Here are example sentences with each word:

The tire had sprung a leak, so Jo had to stop to add air to it every few miles. Edward Snowden is famous for leaking information about the CIA's shady practices.
Leeks are excellent when sliced and roasted with potatoes and herbs.

I remember the proper spelling of the vegetable leek by focusing on the fact that it grows from a seed.

Lean vs. Lien

These have long "e" vowel sounds (they both rhyme with "green"). There are two distinct words spelled "lean": a verb/noun and an adjective. They come from distinct Germanic roots, though their exact etymologies are unknown.

The common verb lean refers to the act of slanting (or moving into a slanted position); by extension, to lean on or against something is to rest against it in such a slanted position. This word is also a noun that refers to such a slanted position. Metaphorically, to lean on someone is to rely on them for support—or, quite differently, to apply pressure to them to get them to act in a certain way.

The adjective lean means "with little fat," and it can refer to a person's body type or to a cut of meat. It can also refer to an organization or process that has little excess (e.g., a lean operation, with only 3 employees). By extension, it can also refer to something that offers or leads to meager sustenance (e.g., a lean winter)—in other words, something that causes one to become lean.

A lien is a right to take possession of a property until and unless a debt is repaid. Most commonly, a bank will take out a lien on a home when the homeowner falls behind on their mortgage, but liens can occur for various reasons. Its origins are the same as those for "ligament"; the root means "bond," which in this case refers to the bond between entities who sign a contract. If one party fails to uphold their end of the bond (e.g., by not paying their mortgage), then the other party has the right to take out a lien (e.g., to take possession of the house).

Here are some sample sentences:

I left the map leaning against the books on my desk. Michaela leaned against the wall as she caught her breath. Lean on me when you're not strong, and I'll be your friend; I'll help you carry on. The mobsters leaned on local business owners to fund a dubious "protection" service. For this recipe, be sure to purchase a lean meat such as chicken breast. The company survived several lean years following the 2008 financial crisis.
To remove the lien on your house, you will need to pay $3000 to the lender.

To keep these words straight, I think of how liens are indications of liabilities.

Liken vs. Lichen

The verb liken is based on the preposition "like" (not the verb—it's used for comparison, not appreciation); to liken is to compare the similarities of two things (as in likening the party to a funeral).

A lichen, on the other hand, is a unique type of organism that is a combination of a fungus and algae (or cyanobacteria). These organisms form a mutually beneficial relationship, and the combined organism has properties distinct from either of its components. If you've wandered through a forest, you've likely seen a lichen or two:

Here are some example sentences:

The candidate likened her opponent's plan to a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.
The tree was covered with three different colors of lichen: white, blue, and green.

To remember that the spelling of lichen uses "ch", think of the fact that a lichen often grows on a branch.(For the spelling of liken, just remember that it is based on "like.")

Loathe vs. Loath

These related words are often confused, but they aren't quite homophones, to be technical; the verb loathe ("to dislike strongly") ends with a hard "th" sound (much like "breathe" and "clothe"), whereas the adjective loath ("reluctant or unwilling") ends with a soft "th" sound (much like "breath" and "cloth")*. The adjective loath is always used with the preposition "to."

* Yes, these are both patterns in English. First, if a word ends in "the," it has a hard "th" sound, but if it ends in just "th," it has a soft "th" sound.

Second, the words with "the" endings are usually verbs, and the words with "th" endings are usually nouns or adjectives. You can use this pattern to remember the difference between these words. Other examples of "the" verbs include "soothe," "bathe," "teethe," "writhe," and "wreathe" (though watch out for exceptions such as the adjective "lithe"). Other examples of "th" adjectives/nouns include "earth," "faith," "health," "worth," "warmth," "strength," "bath," "teeth," and "wreath" (though consider exceptions such as the preposition "with" and the old-timey verbs "hath" and "saith").

You can see the relationship in these words from their meanings—a person who loathes an activity will likely be loath to do it. Here are examples to illustrate the different uses:

Renee absolutely loathes doing the laundry, so she pays a service to wash her clothes.
Though Martin is only an assistant manager, he is loath to ask his boss for assistance.

Loot vs. Lute

The word loot is both a verb (meaning "to steal, often during war or a riot") and a collective noun (referring to things stolen in this way). In the verb usage, the stealing must have occurred during a chaotic event; you wouldn't say, for instance, "A thief looted our TV while we were on vacation" (unless a riot occurred in your area and the thief took only your TV for some reason). However, the noun loot has been expanded to refer more generally to any goods that were acquired for free—even legally. For instance, you'll often hear about prizes, presents, or even Halloween candy referred to as loot.

A lute is an old-fashioned plucked stringed instrument; a predecessor of the modern guitar, the lute has a neck and a large, rounded body. The first lute was created at least 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia (indeed, the word lute is Arabic in origin), and they were common through the Renaissance. These instruments are not often used today, as guitars have largely replaced them, but you've probably seen them in medieval-set films or at Renaissance fairs and the like. Here is what a lute looks like:

Here are some example sentences:

Despite claims of looting, the overwhelming majority of the Black Lives Matter protestors were peaceful and well-behaved; most of the violence was committed by law enforcement. After unwrapping their presents on Christmas morning, the kids gathered up their loot.
The singer performed a ballad while plucking his lute.

If you are unsure over which spelling to use, just remember that loot shares vowels with "goods" (i.e., what you steal when you loot) and that a lute is used to play "music."

That's all for this edition of Know Your Homonyms! Please let me know if you need any additional explanation, or if you have suggestions for other homonyms to cover in this series. You can leave a comment below or email me at Thank you for reading, and please visit the next time you need high-quality editing services.

Black lives matter.



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