10 Sets of Doublet Nouns

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The store of nouns in English, just like that of English verbs, is enhanced by the language’s generosity in permitting adaptation of words from other tongues more than once. In the case of most of the word pairs listed below, the terms were introduced at different periods of history, hence their slight differences in spelling. (Two of the pairs demonstrate how words that are superficially similar can stem from the same Indo-European roots.)

1. Aperture/overture (Latin apertura, “opening”): Both words refer to an opening, but aperture means “a physical opening,” as for a camera lens, or applies to the diameter of such a hole, while an overture is a more figurative concept; it can be an introduction (as in music), a prelude, or a proposal.

2. Car/chariot (Latin carrus, “vehicle,” borrowed from Celtic — also the source of carry): The first word, denoting an automobile, a vehicle that rides on rails as part of a train, an elevator compartment, or an airship or balloon component for carrying passengers and cargo, is an abbreviation of carriage, in the sense of a horse-drawn vehicle, though carriage has other senses, including the figurative one of posture. A chariot is a two-wheeled vehicle formerly used in parades, races, and warfare, or, later, a type of carriage; the word is also sometimes used jocularly to refer to a car.

3. Castle/chateau (Latin, castellum, “fortress”): Castle refers to buildings or compounds formerly employed as fortified structures, or to an excessively large house or any place figuratively considered a refuge. A chateau is a French castle or a mansion or a vineyard estate.

4. Cattle/chattel (Latin, capitalis, “of the head” — also the source of capital): Cattle refers to domesticated bovine animals (or, figuratively, humans collectively as a mob easily manipulated); chattel, from which cattle is derived, denotes personal property.

5. Cave/cavern (Latin, cavus): A cave is a natural or excavated underground hole, chamber, or tunnel; cavern refers to an especially large, complex cave.

6. Chef/chief (Latin, caput, “head”): Chef, another word for “cook,” is from the phrase chef du cuisine (“head of the kitchen”), and chief means “leader,” or “the most important.”

7. Corn/kernel (Old English; related to Latin granum): Corn refers to the edible seeds of a plant originally cultivated in Mexico and to the plant itself, as well as to grains in general. The word also applies to something old-fashioned and sentimental (hence, the adjective corny). Kernel, from an Old English diminutive of corn, applies to the seed or, technically, the inner part of a seed or similar plant part. It also denotes the impetus or essential component of a phenomenon.

8. Guile/wile (distantly related: guile from Middle English gile; wile from Old English wil): Guile means “deceit or trickery”; wile is a direct synonym that also means “a stratagem or trick.” (The latter word’s adjective and plural-noun forms, wily and wiles, are more common.)

9. Hostel/hotel (Latin, hospitale, “hospice” — hospitable and hospital are also related): A hostel is an inn or a permanent residence that is part of an institution or a temporary, simple, and inexpensive one for travelers, especially younger people. A hotel is also a place of lodging, but one that is designed to provide primarily for mainstream travelers.

10. Static/status (from a common Indo-European root: static from Greek statikos, “causing to stand,” status from Latin status, “position” — state, in its various meanings, is also related): Static, from “static electricity” (the adjective means “stationary, or slow moving”), refers to noise produced by artificial or natural electrical interference, or the interference itself; it’s also used figuratively to refer to criticism or interference. Status means “condition or state.”

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5 thoughts on “10 Sets of Doublet Nouns”

  1. Don’t ever tell a chef that the word chef is another word for cook! As you said, the chef is the head of the kitchen. The cooks are the ones who take orders from the chef and do the menial work.

  2. ‘Corn’ should be differentiated from ‘maize,’ which we eat off the cob. Go to any supermarket spice section and you’ll find peppercorns. Also note that ‘corned beef’ refers to a food preparation technique.

  3. ‘Corn’ actually refers to any cereal grain.

    What we nowadays refer to simply as ‘corn’ was once referred to as “Indian corn,” i.e., the grain that was the staple of North and Central America.

    ‘Corn’ is found in English texts several centuries before Europeans reached the Americas.

  4. Great article! I like that you pointed out the difference between a hostel and a hotel; two very different things. I agree with R. E. Hunter, regarding the fact that the words “chef” and “cook” are not interchangeable. However, I do not agree with the statement that cooks “do the menial work.” That is a little derogatory.

  5. It’s “chef DE cuisine”, not “chef DU cuisine”.

    And, as has been pointed out already, “chef” does not mean “cook”. You have “chefs de chantier” who oversee construction sites, and you can rest assured that they are in no way involved with any kind of cooking whatsoever.

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