Heal - heel

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Do not confuse the homophones heal and heel.

  • The verb 'to heal' means 'to make better', 'to cure', 'to restore to health, or make healthy' (both of these words are cognates, as are hale (as in 'hale and hearty') and 'whole', in the sense of 'healthy', 'intact', 'uninjured'). It can be used both transitively and intransitively: a doctor can heal a patient, and the patient's wounds can heal spontaneously, with no medical attention.
    • There is also a verb 'to heal', a variant spelling of 'to hele' (obsolete in both spellings). It meant 'to hide' or 'conceal'.
  • The noun 'a heel' has several meanings:
    • the part of a human (and other) foot projecting towards the rear, at the other end from the toes;
      • the equivalent part of any garment worn on the foot, such as a shoe or sock;
        • this gives rise to the phrases down at heel, used literally of unrepaired shoes, whose heels are worn down, and figuratively of any form of slovenliness or poverty, and out at heel of socks with holes at the heel, both of which show poverty - in contrast to well-heeled, which means 'well-off', 'having [a good amount of] money';
      • by extension, when this is applied to horses, the 'heel' is the part of the rider's body used to encourage, or control, speed in the animal;
      • an obedient dog walks at heel (close behind its owner). Heel! is the command used to get the dog to 'come to heel', or walk closely to the handler;
      • the heel of a golf club is the back part of the head where it joins the shaft, while the heel of the bow of a stringed instrument such as a violin is the end at which it is held, the other end being called the point;
      • in rugby football, a 'quick heel' is the speedy delivery of the ball from a scrum or ruck, being kicked out by the backwards movement of a player's foot;
      • toe-and-heel is the name of a technique in organ-playing: it enables the organist to play adjacent notes legato on the pedal board by the alternate use of the toe and heel of the same foot. (Do not confuse toe-and-heel with the expression 'to heel and toe it', for which see below.)
    • the leaning of a ship (particularly a sailing ship) in response to the wind;
    • (originally in criminal slang, but now more general) 'a rotter' (OED), 'a person who cannot be trusted', 'one who cheats or betrays his accomplices'. This has become a term in American professional wrestling for a villainous-seeming contestant in a bout, who is expected to be booed while his face ('hero') or opponent is cheered.
  • As a verb, 'to heel' may mean:
    • various forms of using the heel of the foot, including:
      • of a dog, 'to nip at the backs of the legs of animals being herded, or hunted';
      • cobblers heel a shoe by repairing or replacing it;
      • gardeners may heel a plant into the ground by treading firmly on the soil around it with the heel (although this was originally 'to hele it in', that is 'to conceal' or 'to cover' it);
      • to kick the ball out of a scrum at rugby by using the back of the foot; and
      • 'to heel it' (or 'to heel and toe it') is an old-fashioned informal way of saying 'to dance'.
    • When ships (particularly sailing ships) heel, they lean laterally in response to the wind - or because they are unevenly loaded. This is best used of more temporary states than the more permanent 'list'.