Homophene

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Homophenes are words which are pronounced differently but look alike on the lips, i.e., their pronunciation involves identical movements of the speaker's lips and so they look the same to, and cannot be distinguished by, e.g., a deaf person who is lip-reading what is being said to him. Examples are: 'pair' and 'bear'; 'choir' and 'wire'; 'meat', 'beat', and 'peat'; 'dead' and 'debt'; 'might' and 'bite'; 'breast' and 'pressed'; and 'mad', 'bat', and 'pad'.

Homophenes can clearly be a source of misunderstanding and confusion in speaking to the hard of hearing or in other circumstances in which one person tries to lip-read what another is saying - a fact which has sometimes been exploited by novelists for comic effect - David Lodge's Deaf Sentence (2008) has many examples. Rather differently, in Colin Dexter's crime novel The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977, the third novel in the Inspector Morse Series; adapted for television 1987) Nicholas Quinn, a deaf man who lip-reads, mistakes two surnames which are homophenes - 'Martin' and 'Bartlett' - and thereby inadvertently brings about his own death. Quinn, who works in the Oxford Foreign Examinations Syndicate, knows that one of his colleagues must be leaking examination papers in advance to wealthy foreign candidates, but lip-reading a conversation in which the guilty colleague is named, he mistakes the name of the guilty colleague 'Martin' for that of an innocent colleague 'Bartlett'. He confides his suspicions about (the innocent) Bartlett to (the guilty) Martin, who to conceal his guilt murders Quinn.

'Homophene' is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable - HO-mo-feen, IPA: /ˈhɒm əʊ (or ə) fiːn/. The word comes from two Greek words ὁμος‚ (homos, same) and φαίνειν (phainein, 'seem', 'appear').

See also homophone - which may involve a typographical error - and homograph.