Homing in the right way

The homing pigeon is a bird bred specifically for its ability to find its way back home over extremely long distances, relying on magnetoreception. Some have been known to find their way back home over distances in excess of 1,000 miles. Such birds were used by the military on World Wars I and II to deliver important messages. Some bomber crews carried homing pigeons in their planes as a means of communication in the event of a crash or loss of radio contact. More than 30 such pigeons received awards for their bravery in saving human lives in World War II.

Aviators and sailors use a homing beacon to determine the source of a radio signal or track a ship or landing field. A missile homes in on its target. An animal that finds its way back to its birthplace is said to be homing.

When I was a kid I used to watch my father hone his straight razor. When he later switched to a safety razor, he used a hand-held device that resembled a hand-crank pencil sharpener to hone used blades whose cutting edges had become worn and dull.

The verb hone means to sharpen. To home means to move toward a goal or be guided in a direction or to a target with greater accuracy.  To most of the English-speaking world, the difference between the two verbs is obvious. But many Americans use the term hone in to indicate a focused approach to a subject, when they mean home in. Missiles home in on targets. They don’t hone in, which means to sharpen or make more acute.

Why we insist on this misuse of the language is a mystery. Maybe it’s for the same reason that we insist on calling a lectern a podium. Try standing on a lectern sometime.

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