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Home in on

Q From T J Wentzel: For most of my life, the common usage here in the USA was to home in on something. Recently however, I increasingly notice the usage of hone in on instead. I know that English usage changes over time, but it seems that the latter phrase has almost completely replaced the former in a short while. I would appreciate your views on the subject.

A It’s an interesting shift, one so far largely confined to the US, but one we’re actually able to watch as it happens.

The original is from early aeronautics. Pilots were guided to their destinations and back to their home bases by radio beacons. In the jargon of the time — the early 1920s — they were said to home on the beacons. This was clearly taken from the somewhat older expression homing pigeons. In later years, beacons were fitted to aircraft so one could home on another. By this time — around 1940 — home had lost much of its literal association with going home and had taken on the figurative idea of “guiding an aircraft to its target or destination by means of a radio signal”.

The exact expression to home in on began to appear during World War Two. American researcher Ben Zimmer has discovered the earliest known example in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1944: “The Oahu radio was coming in strong. They had left the station on all night so we could ‘home in’ on its frequency.” After the war, people began to use it in the current figurative sense of focusing one’s attention on a single matter.

That’s now the only situation in which most people encounter it. It’s hardly obvious to somebody who hasn’t come across it before or who doesn’t know the background. Why home? This lack of context makes it easy for speakers to change the word into something that seems to be more appropriate or make more sense. Hone in on is a classic example of the type of word shift that has become known in recent years among linguists as an eggcorn: a change in word form due to error or misunderstanding.

In this case, it seems to be the figurative sense of the verb to hone, meaning to sharpen a tool, that has led to the change, since it’s widely used to mean making something work better, for example when we say somebody is “honing her skills”. If you are honing in on a topic, you can imagine people thinking, then you’re improving your understanding of it.

It came to public attention and gained some notoriety when George Bush used it in the presidential campaign of 1980 — he spoke of “honing in on the issues”. He wasn’t the earliest user: George Plimpton wrote about his time with the Detroit Lions football team in Paper Lion, published in 1965; in that book he described a player “looking back for the ball honing in to intercept his line of sight”.

You’re correct in your comment that the shift from home to hone has now gone so far that the latter is on the verge of becoming the usual form, at least in the USA. Some people even assume that the home form is a misprint. There seems little doubt that hone will eventually take over, though it’s impossible to say whether it will spread to other English-speaking countries.

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Page created 21 Apr 2007