Homonyms (also called homophones) are words that sound alike but have different meanings, such as their/there/they’re. These kinds of words can be confusing. Sometimes people honestly don’t know the difference between sound-alike words. Sometimes they do know the difference, but the brain makes its own substitution between cranium and keyboard and the wrong word ends up on the screen.
Recently, I’ve been contemplating another cause of homonyms gone awry: advertising.
Dodge is currently running an ad for its Ram trucks with the tagline:
Test Our Metal
It’s a play on words, of course. “Mettle” refers to the stuff one is made of, the qualities and character of a person. “Metal” is steel and iron and so forth.
Dodge’s tagline is clever and memorable and appropriate to their product. But the downside of wordplay in mass media is that misused words and turns of phrase, repeated often enough, will eventually make their way into common usage even if that usage is incorrect. Think of Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd” and how it's often misstated as “far from the maddening crowd.” Or how people say, “I could care less” when they really mean “I couldn’t care less.”
Always choose your words wisely. The results could affect language for years to come.