Idol - idle - idyll

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idle, idol and idyll form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these.

They all sound, at least in some pronunciations, like 'EYE-d'l', IPA: /ˈaɪ dəl/, although idyll presents problems.

  • The adjective idle means 'lazy' or 'not working'. It may be applied to people (a schoolchild may be called idle where homework is not completed, and "able but idle" is a damning phrase used by school teachers in reports) or things (factory plant that is not being used is said to be idle, as is money that is not invested). OED adds (meaning 2.) "Of actions, feelings, thoughts, words, etc.: Void of any real worth, usefulness, or significance; leading to no solid result; hence, ineffective, worthless, of no value, vain, frivolous, trifling. Also said of persons in respect of their actions, etc." 'Idle words' is a phrase equivalent to 'empty rhetoric'.
    • The verb 'to idle' means, in a general sense, 'to behave in an idle way', and is used more specifically of engines and motors to mean 'to run while doing no useful work'. A car may idle while standing at a red traffic light.
  • The noun idol means 'an image of a deity', used as the object of worship. To worship an idol is regarded by the Abrahamic faiths as false religion (the most usual phrase in the Authorized Version is "false idols" often referring to "graven images"): idolatry is forbidden in the Old Testament (see Ten Commandments) and the Qur'an, and although some Christian churches, notably the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, often display pictures and statues of saints and so on, they are careful to point out that these are representations, not actual deities that are worshipped.
    • Figuratively, idol is commonly used to mean any person who has attracted adulation or extreme celebrity, such as successful pop and film stars. Such people may be idolized by their fans.
  • The noun idyll (sometimes less well spelled with a single '-l-', idyl) means, in its strictest sense, 'a short descriptive poem, usually of peaceful country life'. Such scenes are presented as happy, innocent and carefree, giving the adjective idyllic, used to mean 'perfect', 'peaceful', 'happy'. (Its meaning may have been influenced by the similar-sounding 'ideal'.)
    • The majority pronunciation of the word idyll is now 'IDD-el', IPA: /ˈɪd ə (or ɪ) l/, although 'EYE-d'l', IPA: /ˈaɪ dəl/ has been commonly heard, at least since 1926, when Fowler observed that the OED of his date "recognizes only one pronunciation, /aɪ/], not /ɪ/; on this, however, there is room for difference of opinion. (1) It is certain that many people say /ˈɪd ɪl/; (2) with idol and idle, both commoner words, ready to confuse the hearer, a separate pronunciation is all to the good ...; & (3) it has been pointed out in [Fowler's] article on FALSE QUANTITY that the length of the first syllable in the Greek is nothing against it being shortened in the English word."


Etymological note: the root of idyll, referred to in Fowler's note, is εἰδύλλιον, ('eye-DOO-li-on'), diminutive of εἰδος 'a form', 'a picture', and, in poetry, 'a little scene', 'a vignette'. It is an etymological oddity that εἰδος is also the root of idol.