There’s a lot of talk about home over the holidays—about travel, about roots, about family. Add the tendency of family gatherings to conjure emotional arguments about nothing, and you have the makings of a homing/honing debate. It was at a family gathering, about a quarter century ago, that I was informed that my idea of “honing in on” a new idea for a book was nonsense because the proper phrase was “homing in on.” After a lot of bluster and a trip to some dictionary or other, I corrected my speech. But it’s nagged at me since, and to forestall any such arguments at your homes, I’ll indulge in a little etymology here.
For birds, “to home” has a mid-length history, having been used first in the mid-19th century as an intransitive verb with “from,” “at,” or “to,” depending on where the bird is in its flight or at rest. In 1920, as aviation allowed us to believe we could behave like birds, the verb found its use for aircraft, and by 1940, with World War II under way, the word had acquired a new preposition to create the phrasal verb “home on”—the object being, in most cases, the target of a bomb. (Note, please, that no one is going home in this latter coinage, except possibly in the religious sense.)
Only in 1968 does the phrasal verb acquire two prepositions, such that Galaxy Magazine reports that a ship would “home in on” a target. The phrase still echoes flight, or movement, but its contours are the ones familiar to my scolding family of 1986.
Meanwhile, back at the coinage ranch, we have the transitive verb “hone,” which requires only the dexterous movement of sharpening something. Like “home,” the verb’s history goes back to the 19th century (the noun, like “home,” being of older vintage). Moreover, the phrasal “hone in on” emerges at almost exactly the same moment as “home in on”—a year earlier, if we believe the OED—and has close to the same meaning. Since no pigeons have ever honed, many language sticklers believe “hone in on” to be an eggcorn, per my fellow blogger Geoffrey Pullum’s neologism, and some get quite exercised about it. One commenter on Lynne Gaertner-Johnston’s Business Writing blog makes “home” into a virtual sand castle: “‘Hone in on’ makes no sense whatsoever. It is a dismal picture that in the name of sands of language, it is being reduced to rubble. And further, sorry, but I am not going to take such things lying down. If the sands have to shift, then it has to have some consensus. Just because some laggard misspelt it … I am not going to accept such utter nonsense.”
Others see value in the metaphorical shading available between “homing” and “honing”—that is, regardless of the verb’s origin (and as soon as you add “in on,” that origin becomes quite recent), seeking solid, familiar ground differs from whittling away what’s unnecessary to achieve a sharper result. Mulling these differences over suggests that, were we to accept both versions, we might find ourselves correcting one use to the other, as we do, say, with “jealousy” and “envy.” As we bemoan the loss of range in our daily vocabulary, perhaps we ought to celebrate a way in which the range has become expanded.
Finally, as a coda to the homing/honing debate, I offer the uncontroversial “zero in on,” which originated about the same time—mid-20th century—and derived from the use of the camera. Like “home in” and “hone in,” “zero in” has expanded to connote any action, process, or argument that approaches its core subject or goal. Books zero in; committees zero in; artillery zeroes in; even birds, those long-lost home seekers, can zero in. But it’s just not the same as homing in, is it? No, no, no, cry the pigeons with their long-range vision and their sharp claws, it’s not the same at all.
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