Submitted by renegadex2 on December 31, 2006

A “homely” home - would you want to live in it?

I was watching one of those property-buying shows on television the other day, and the show’s host (/real estate agent) was having difficulties finding a house that met his client’s taste. Eventually, the client was introduced to a comfy older property.

“Oh, now this homely”, cooed the client - smiling with surprised approval and relief.

I laughed and said out loud, “Ha - they meant ‘homey’, not ‘homely’!!”

I always understood “homely” to mean “simple, plain, unattractive”, and “homey” to mean “cozy, comfortable, home-like”. However, a family member disputed my criticism saying that the word was used correctly.

I know it’s not the be-all and end-all of dictionaries, but my first online search was with Google’s dictionary, and it produced definitions which both included the description “homelike” (with a comfortable & cozy connotation). homely homey

This is an contradiction and presents a problem. Is a homely home cozy, comfortable and welcoming, or plain, ugly even - and uninviting?

I’m not so sure that I’d like to live in a homely home.. I’d much prefer a homey home.

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I grew up (in Los Angeles) with your definitions, and thought "homely" was synonymous with even more negative adjectives ("ugly", for instance), but when I moved to the UK I quickly learned that it only has one meaning here, and that is the one that is equivalent to the US "homey".

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I tend to think of homey as a shorter version of "home-slice." As in, "What's up homey?!"

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Webster says that they are essentially the same. (The definition of “homey” points to the entry for “homely”) I would guess that “homey” is actually a shortened version of “homely”, as our tongues got lazier.

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Likewise look up homely at dictionary.com to resolve your seeming contradiction. Even if it were a complete contradiction, why would that be a problem for you? Most words have many definitions, sometimes contradictory ones.

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^ such as? I can't think of any such examples off the top of my head, other than slang terms.

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OK, how about cleave? it means to stick together, to cling, to remain faithful, but also means to split or divide.

The same word can enter the language more than once with similar or different etymologies, and with sometimes similar, sometimes wildly different, and sometimes opposite meanings. Such words are called homonyms (when used in its strictest sense).

For more on this see:

http://www.kith.org/logos/words/lower/h.html

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Just off the top of my head, but I have always associated the positive use of homely as British, while Americans either use homey or another word entirely.

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I used it to compliment a girl who I thought was sweet and nice, and would make a good wife. My friend said, "Homely? You mean she's fat?".

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kari & ghoti: Yes - that's actually correct. I checked a couple of my trusty old made-in-England English dictionaries and they do state that "homely" meaning "unattractive" is an Ameriecan thing.

porsche: One problem with your comparative example ("cleave") - the two words I'm discussing ("homey" and "homely") are not homonyms.

Unlike the homonym (and auto-antonym) "cleave" (or similarly, "venery", as found within the link you provided), "homey" and "homely" not only have different spellings but they have distinctly different pronunciations.

and of course then they have the further distinction that the two words can be both synonyms and antonyms of each other.

I suppose the (distinct?) British vs American usages of the words means that natives of each should never get confused when talking amongst themselves. However, just my luck - I'm in Canada - and I'm sure you all know what that means..
:o)

Still can't think of any similar word-pairings, nor was I successful in finding a term for this 'phenomenon'.

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RenegadeX, you missed my point entirely. "Homey" and "homely" are not homonyms. "Homely" and "homely" are. Homely can mean wholesomely down to earth and attractive in a natural way, and can also mean unattractive or even ugly. That's the very dichotomy you were asking about and the very point of this post, isn't it?

The etymology is fairly obvious. Homely starts out meaning "of the home or household, domestic" (as does "homey") then "plain, unadorned, simple" then "plain-looking" and ultimately "inelegant, unrefined, course, unattractive".
Picture a middle-aged chambermaid with warts contrasted with an elegant baroness or beautiful movie star and it's pretty clear how the word evolved to mean unattractive or even ugly. Think Cinderella without the happy ending.

This is exactly the type of evolution that is a perfect example of "homonym".

See:

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=home...

or just look up "homely" at dictionary.com.

As for "homey" vs. "homely", you can form adjectives by adding a -y, or, in some cases, by adding -ly. What's so strange about that? You have two words that are synonyms, one of which has a homonym. Do we really need a word for that?

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Actually, in UK English, 'homely' can mean, if referring to a home, comfortable, pleasant, nice to live in; indeed, lived in; and this is generally used as a compliment. It could, in the mouth of someone who lives in a chic minimalist NY loft, be an insult, of course!

If referring to a person, it is more likely to have a mildly pejorative meaning: a woman who is 'homely' is comfortable, pleasant... lived in! This would generally mean a fairly plain person, who does not dress smartly, or make herself sexually attractive. It could equally be a compliment though - it may be just what you are looking for in a maternal character, for example.

I have never personally heard 'homey' used in UK English at all. I would consider it to be an entirely American English word.

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"Homely" means "ugly" in the US, "homey" in the UK. It's as simple as that.

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I just wanted to add that I grew up (in CA) with my parents (now in their 70s) using homely as a polite way of saying plain and/or unattractive. (I would add that this is gender-specific; no one ever describes a boy as homely.) Around the same time I was reading period books describing attractive girls as comely. To keep 'em straight in my head, I figured if a boy thought a girl was pretty, he would want her to come to the dance with him, and if she were not so attractive, he'd want her to go home.

Anyhow, aside from my parents, I don't really run into people using homely any more (no one is tactful these days).

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I am British and have always understood 'homely' to mean cosy etc
but it is often used sarcastically.
e.g.
Its a complete tip.
Too much chintz.
Its very small and reminiscent of a workers cottage.
This place cant have changed in 50 years.

As is well-known I think,the British frequently appear to be being polite while scoffing underneath.

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While I agree with use and use homey to describe something comfy my dictionary describes homely as unsophisticated and unpretentious as well as a person of unattractive appearance.

So I guess those two meanings are similar - because a homey home would be one that isn't all fancy and showy right?

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I have an interesting little bit to add on the subject of contradicting meanings for a word. I studied Old English for a semester in college and I learned that while we say "good, better, best" in Modern English, they said "god, beter, selest" in Old English (or something like that). The etymological connection between words like god/good, beter/better is pretty clear. They sound similar, have similar spellings etc. But what about selest/best? the -est ending is there, indicating the English superlative, but it's hard to see how selest evolved in best. Well, as my professor in college explained, it didn't. Selest later on came to carry a meaning along the lines of "holy" or "blessed" and eventually gave us the Modern English word "silly," which has a vastly different meaning from the original selest. Still, I can see how the meaning of the form evolved from 'best' to 'blessed' and then, the spiritual connotations of blessed giving the meaning of the word a nuance of unhumanness or abnormality, 'silly.' I think it's an interesting lexical history and illustrates how meanings can stay the same over the ages, but the way speakers of the language interpret those meanings (a product of the contemporary zeitgeist [haha i just said zeitgeist]) can change. Same thing I think with the homely-homely homonym pair. Same word, same meaning, different interpretations for different situations and by different people in different times and places.

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This all news to me. In Britain, 'homely' means comfortable and relaxing. I didn't realise that in American, it has a different, negative meaning. Interesting.

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It all depends on whether you speak English English or American/Canadian English!

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Fascinating that almost a year after this site was started, the show "Relocation/Relocation" should feature today that very situation from Cornwall, England. Like the originator of the thread, I live in Canada and was amused at the contradiction...enough to Google it. While I can't imagine him still returning to this thread, I'd like to supply an similar strangeness in English: "a fat chance and a slim chance amount to virtually no chance."

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