New speakers of English may be perplexed at the fact that there are often two words for what appear to be the same thing (synonyms: rock/stone, snake/serpent), pairs of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings (homonyms: capital/capitol, night/knight, rye/wry, reed/read, red/read), double meanings for words spelled and sometimes, though not always, pronounced the same (homographs: cleave/cleave, till/till, gloss/gloss, which are also homophones, and read/read, bass/bass, which are heterophones), differently-spelled derivatives from the same root, with related but diverging meanings (doublets: chief/chef, quean/quean), alternative spellings for the same word with the same meaning (allographs: gray/grey, judgment/judgement, draftsman/draughtsman)—especially between American and British English, which also offers such semantic cleft sticks (*allosemes?) as standard-English lift (U.S.: ‘ride in someone else’s car’; U.K.: ‘elevator’) and the more treacherous slang fanny (U.S.: ‘posterior’; U.K.: ‘vulva’).

In some instances these pairings can be explained by their having come into the language by different routes: Equus, horse, and caballus are classical Latin, Germanic, and vulgar Latin words, respectively, for the same animal and give us equitation (a fancy term for riding of the sort on which one is judged at a show), its literal translation horsing (usually in conjunction with around; compare horseplay), and via French, chivalry—the code of conduct originally expected of the cavalry (i.e. mounted troops of good socioeconomic standing: In Rome members of the order of equites had to be able to spend at least five thousand gold pieces a year and keep out of trouble.) Given England’s history of conquest first by Rome and then by the Normans, it may come as no surprise, then, that the twenty-five-cent words are often latinate while the nickel ones are Germanic: osculate/kiss, ecclesiastical/church, inebriated/drunk, perambulate/walk around, copulate/bonk (or boink).

The twenty-five-cent/five-cent distinction informs euphemism as well, particularly in the medical profession, whose news is often bad for the patient and relatives and seems to cry out for swaddling in a soft fleece of latinity: myocardial infarction/heart attack, terminal/ending in death, and so on, with which may be compared such folksier substitutions for the unsettling or the taboo as kick the bucket, buy the farm, and go paws up. Of course, a notorious trouble with euphemisms, especially those applied to persons whom the former label was thought to denigrate, is the way in which popular usage overtakes the kinder, gentler term and makes that pejorative, prompting a revisionist attempt at linguistic political correctness: feeble-minded/retarded/developmentally challenged, though the flip side is also known—a cretin was originally a Christian.

Calling the same thing by different names has an analog in what musicians call enharmonic notation, a corollary of the existence of both sharps and flats. (Historically, flats came first.) Thus C# on the piano is the same note as Db: the black key to the right of C natural and to the left of D natural. It is this ambiguity that allows an augmented triad such as G-B-Eb (to take an example from Wagner’s Parzifal) to straddle two harmonic keys at once, depending on which third (B-G or Eb-Cb, Cb being B natural by a different name) is heard as the core of the triad from which the third note is the deviation. (Not surprisingly, this particular triad gets a lot of play in the music for Klingsor’s castle, for, as David Lewin points out in a chapter on Wagner in his Studies in Music with Text [Oxford University Press, 2006], “Only by voyaging to and through the magic Cb/B castle, the seam that permits an interface with the other world, can Parsifal ultimately repatriate the miraculous,” allowing the cast, as Victor Borge said in connection with another opera, to get their money and go home.)

So do C# and Db constitute a distinction without a difference? One is reminded of the routine in which Elaine May sings the Gershwin Brothers’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (“You like potato and I like potahto/You like tomato and I like tomahto,” etc.) failing to distinguish between the different pronunciations of the same words on which the lyric turns. Not so funny was the routine related in the Bible [Judges 12:4-6] involving different pronunciations of the word shibboleth. (Mod. Hebrew [šibolet/sibolet]). For the Gileadites, the initial sound was sh ([š]) while for the Ephraimites it was s ([s]). Suspected Ephraimites attempting to pass as Gileadites were asked to say the word as a test of their bona fides with dire consequences for failure. In more recent times (1937), an eerily similar test gave the “Parsley Massacre” its name, the victims this time being some 20,000-30,000 Haitians living on the border in the Dominican Republic who were tested on their ability to identify a sprig of parsley (Spanish perejil, Haitian Creole pèsi, Standard French persil) in Spanish.

But how about a difference without a distinction? For this, we turn to the Indian grammarian Panini (or, more properly, Pāṇini) who flourished in the fifth century BCE. The final statement in his monumental grammar of Sanskrit (the Aṣṭādhyāyī [‘The Eight Books’]) reads अ अ इति and is somewhat problematic to transliterate. Literally, it’s a a iti (‘a a thus’), but the sense is something like “For the whole of this treatise, I’ve been treating the difference between “short a” (अ) and “long a” (आ) as though it were simply one of duration ([a] vs. [a:]), but actually that was just a convenient fiction: “short a” is really schwa ([ə]).”