“Homing In” and Plain “Honing”

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Kristi Landis writes:

When one wants to get more detail on something is it called “homes in” or “hones in”?

Until I researched this question, I knew of only two uses of hone as a verb: the literal meaning of “to sharpen,” as on a whetstone (also known as a “hone”), and the figurative meaning “to improve,” as in “to hone one’s skills.”

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The OED also gives these dialect meanings for hone as a verb: to delay, tarry, hesitate; to whine or pine for; to hanker after.

I’ve heard and read the expression “to hone in” used with the sense of “focus on” or “get closer to,” but always assumed that it was a mistake for “to home in.”

I’ve always assumed that the expression “to home in” originated with “homing” pigeons that return to the place they were hatched. However, in the OED examples of early use, “home” is used without the “in”:

1875 Live Stock Jrnl. 23 Apr. 57/3 Pigeons home by sight and instinct.

1899 Westm. Gaz. 12 Apr. 9/1 The first [pigeon] homed at nine o’clock.

The homing habits of pigeons may have caused aircraft technology to adopt the verb:

1920 Wireless World Mar. 728/2 The pilot can detect instantly from the signals, especially if ‘homing’ towards a beacon.

1956 Amer. Speech XXXI. 228 A good officer could even ‘home in on a bottle of whisky’ placed on the landing field.

This use of “home in on’ is used figuratively to describe other ways in which one comes closer to an object or subject of importance:

1971 New Scientist 16 Sept. 629/1 Mexico’s Professor S. F. Beltran homed in on education as a critical need.

Substituting “hone” for “home” in the expression may have begun as an eggcorn, but it has become common enough for the OED to give it its own entry:

intr. to hone in. To head directly for something; to turn one’s attention intently towards something. Usu. with “on”. Cf. HOME

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