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home or hone?

November 28, 2013

 On the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 yesterday,Vine was interviewing Richard Dawkins , and, enquiring about his university days as a zoology undergraduate, asked: “Did you find yourself honing in on anything in particular?”

I had always thought that hone in was a malapropism for home in, and it seems that Dawkins agrees with me, because in his answer he said, “Yes, I homed in on…”

It seems obvious to me that home makes the better sense. The word hone means to sharpen; whereas home, as a verb, means to approach home, which seems more like what we want in this context. On the other hand, I have just googled the definition of hone in and several online dictionaries give it. The Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines hone in on as ‘to move toward or focus attention on an objective’.

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, however, does not give hone in. But it does give home in, in this sense: ‘Of a vessel, aircraft, missile etc; to be set, or guided, to its target or destination, by use of a landmark or radio beam, etc. Also fig. Freq const. in or in on.’

So given that the OED is probably a more traditionalist dictionary than Merriam-Webster, it looks as if home in is the original form, and hone in is a departure from that. But it’s now so widely used that perhaps it’s not fair to call it a malapropism any more. It’s just an alternative form (and possibly the more common form). I still don’t like it, though.

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  1. egyoung permalink

    Locally (southern New Brunswick, Canada) we use both expressions it seems, it slightly different contexts at least some of the time… homing in to a location ( or a beacon), and honing in, ie focusing very more sharply on a specific objective or task or action. Each sounds wrong when used in the wrong context.

  2. Jams O'Donnell permalink

    Synchronicity strikes. Just read this, with surprise at the possible legitimisation of honing in, turned on the telly to watch the Heineken Cup rugby, and the firs thing I hear is about one side “honing in on half-time”!

    • both forms are legit but with somewhat different meanings or contexts as one would expect from the root words ‘home’ (to return to a base) and hone (to sharpen).

  3. Jonathan Williams permalink

    The term “hone in” is born of a mistake and has no value in the English language. However, never mind the etymology, the psychology is fascinating. There are dumb folk who use “hone in” for obvious reasons. Then there are smarter folks who, when made aware of their silly error, construct convoluted, vaguely absurd arguments to justify their mistake. These invariably rely on very narrow and subtle definitions of this term which in no way relate to everyday usage. Better yet, they use the simplistic and usually disingenuous, “English is a living language and this represents an evolution…..” argument (or excuse). A classic example of intelligent people using clever argument to support an opinion that they formed by other than intellectual means.

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