Thursday, 30 January 2014

homogenous or homogeneous?

The correct spelling of this word, meaning ‘of the same kind, nature or character’, is homogeneous.  The variant spelling homogenous is labelled erroneous by the OED, although it does cite numerous instances dating back to 1956.  The OED entry suggests that the incorrect spelling is the result of the common tendency to pronounce the word this way, perhaps owing to the influence of the verb homogenize; another possible influence is the pronunciation of words like dangerous and ludicrous.
That explanation may seem nice and straightforward, but it isn’t quite so simple since there is a separate word which is legitimately spelled homogenous, meaning ‘sharing a common descent or origin’.  This word was first used in the 1870s in the field of evolutionary biology and remains a technical term in comparative anatomy.  It was used by Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species, but that doesn’t mean much since Darwin was a terrible speller.  He wrote an entire essay on the Coral Islands, and managed to misspell them as the Corall Islands throughout.
An article in The Guardian reporting Kevin McCloud’s ‘antidote to homogenous housing’ prompted a number of readers to write in, pointing out that the correct spelling of this word should be homogeneousThe Guardian defended its spelling, explaining that it was taken directly from the press release, and citing its inclusion in the Collins dictionary.  The editor’s certainty didn’t last long.  Shortly afterwards, the headline was changed to read ‘homogeneous housing’, and the comments miraculously disappeared.  This doesn’t mean that the paper has learned from the lesson – the erroneous  spelling appeared in Tuesday’s Comment is Free column.  None of the 719 comments pointed out the mistake, but perhaps this would contravene the ethos of the column.  But, since some of the comments were censored, it may be that The Guardian editors suppressed them to spare their blushes. 
            Many people, confused as to which is the correct spelling of this word, seek clarification from online discussion forums.  But the answers they get are often incorrect or inconsistent.  One reply claims that homogeneous is British and homogenous American, comparing aluminium/aluminum and speciality/specialty.  Another response disputes this explanation, insisting that both are acceptable in British English, with no distinction of meaning.  If you want to spell this word correctly, the rule is simple: unless you’re an evolutionary biologist, always spell it homogeneous.
Spelling Trouble relaxes after a tough day in the lab

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