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Can you find a set of 5 words in English which all differ by just one vowel? This is easiest to explain with an example:

Batter. Better. Bitter. Botter. Butter

Close, but "botter" isn't a real word.

There's no upper or lower limit on word length.

I'd like the words to be in fairly common usage - we shouldn't need to run to the dictionary to verify your claim. It can be done, I have a few sets already, but I'm sure you can find more. I will mark as the answer the one with most sets/best sets/least obscure words.

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I've actually been asked this question before: so I wrote a script to find all the answers!

import re

def read_dictionary(filename):
    dict = set()
    with open(filename, 'r') as f:
        for w in f:
            dict.update([w.rstrip().lower()])
    return dict

def find_omnivocalics(dict, vowels="aeiou"):
    assert len(vowels) >= 2
    omnivocalics = []
    for w in dict:
        for m in re.finditer(vowels[0], w):
            omnivocalic = True
            for v in vowels[1:]:
                if w[:m.start()] + v + w[m.end():] not in dict:
                    omnivocalic = False
                    break
            if omnivocalic:
                omnivocalics.append(w[:m.start()] + '*' + w[m.end():])
    omnivocalics.sort(key=lambda item: (len(item), item))
    print(", ".join(omnivocalics))

Using the TWL Scrabble word list returns the following 84 word sets (sorted by length):

*n, *s, m*, b*d, b*g, b*s, b*t, d*n, f*n, f*r, g*t, h*p, h*t, m*d, m*g, n*b, p*p, p*t, r*m, t*n, t*t, b*ds, b*gs, b*ll, b*nd, b*ts, c*re, c*te, d*ns, d*re, f*ns, h*ck, h*ed, h*ts, l*st, m*ds, m*gs, m*ll, m*re, m*ss, m*te, n*bs, p*ck, p*le, p*ns, p*ps, p*ts, r*ck, r*ms, t*le, t*ns, t*ts, b*lls, b*nds, c*res, c*tes, d*lly, h*cks, h*llo, m*lls, m*res, m*ssy, m*tes, p*cks, p*les, r*cks, t*les, b*lled, d*cker, h*llos, m*ssed, m*sses, p*tted, r*cked, b*gging, b*lling, bl*nder, d*ckers, h*lloed, h*lloes, m*ssing, p*tting, r*cking and h*lloing.

Obviously, some of the words used are obscure. The best examples, in my opinion, are:

* blander/blender/blinder/blonder/blunder
* patting/petting/pitting/potting/putting
* masses/messes/misses/mosses/musses
* packs/pecks/picks/pocks/pucks
* last/lest/list/lost/lust
* bag/beg/big/bog/bug

Three of the examples above also allow the letter y, but use obscure words: m*, b*s and h*p. Turns out this sort of thing is charmingly called 'vowel movements'. See Vowel cascades, vowel movements and di-odes for an article about this with more examples.

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    $\begingroup$ Eheh, computers always beat the human mind in this kind of tasks eheh $\endgroup$ – leoll2 Mar 21 '15 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ @leoll2: I've added spoiler alerts for anyone who wants to solve this the more fun ('old-fashioned') way :-) $\endgroup$ – Uri Zarfaty Mar 21 '15 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ Wow, I never knew this concept existed, made it up myself years ago. Most of the sets you have found wouldn't qualify under my "obscure" rule, but you have found some good ones that I never thought of. "Vowel Movements" - like it. Also like "tts , blls"! $\endgroup$ – Lefty Mar 21 '15 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ @UriZarfaty I've just noticed that your program missed one of my sets - "d*ne" - I guess due to "Dane"...? $\endgroup$ – Lefty Mar 21 '15 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ @smci: you can run the script above to find many more such near-misses with the vowels not in second position: e.g. [aiou]nions, cl[aiou]cking, virtuos[aeio]. $\endgroup$ – Uri Zarfaty Mar 22 '15 at 6:15
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Pat (a name, also a verb)
Pet (domestic animal)
Pit (hole)
Pot (the container)
Put (verb)

Also:

Bat (the animal)
Bet (verb related to gambling)
Bit (A little)
Bot (the larva of a parassite)
But (conjunction)

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent, the first set I ever found and for a long while the ONLY set I could find. $\endgroup$ – Lefty Mar 21 '15 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ I added another set eheh! $\endgroup$ – leoll2 Mar 21 '15 at 20:09
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    $\begingroup$ pat is also a verb - "he pat him on the head" or a noun "he gave him a pat on the head", usually better for these types of puzzles than proper names $\endgroup$ – Duncan Mar 21 '15 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ It's also a noun, as in a pat of butter. $\endgroup$ – wchargin Mar 21 '15 at 21:53
6
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Bag
Beg
Big
Bog
Bug

A more dubious example would be

Hat
Het (as in "don't get all het up")
Hit
Hot
Hut

Or even something which just occurred to me (which I see was hidden in a previous answer as l*st)

Last
Lest
List
Lost
Lust
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  • $\begingroup$ +1, but this already appears in Uri Zarfaty's answer. $\endgroup$ – Rand al'Thor Mar 22 '15 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't see that because his answers are obscured. $\endgroup$ – Noam Mar 22 '15 at 14:02
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There are additional solutions if you consider only pronunciation and not spelling. The largest set I've ever found consists of eleven (11) such words. It might depend a bit on your locale or accent, but these only differ by the internal vowel sound (IPA in brackets)

  • teak [tik]
  • tick [tɪk]
  • take [tek]
  • tech [tɛk]
  • tack [tæk]
  • toque [tuk]
  • took [tʊk]
  • toke [tok]
  • talk [tɔk]
  • tock [tɑk]
  • tuck [tʌk]

...and you thought English only had 5 vowels. These are all distinctively different for me (a Canadian born in Britain).

From the comments I'm adding two more.

  • turk [tɚk]
  • torque [tɔ˞k]
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure why or how I ended up on a puzzle that was posted 4+ years ago. $\endgroup$ – Octopus Aug 22 at 21:11
  • $\begingroup$ It tends to happen here. Still a mighty fine answer though. $\endgroup$ – Belhenix Aug 23 at 0:14
  • $\begingroup$ Would "toque" and "toke" sound different? They would be the same for me. What about "torque" and "turk"? For those of us that don't sound our r's, the r just modifies the vowel sound. There must be a definitive list of the vowel/dipthong/tripthong sounds we have in English, mustn't there...? Anyway, it's an interesting idea - worthy of a question of its own - and, presumably, more difficult for someone to solve using a program! $\endgroup$ – Lefty Aug 23 at 8:18
  • $\begingroup$ I've just looked it up and apparently there are 20 vowel sounds in English. So, there's the new challenge, 20 words with only one vowel sound difference! $\endgroup$ – Lefty Aug 23 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Lefty, well I come from a Linguistics background and 11 is about the limit for phonemic differences. There may be 20ish allophones which basically means the flavour of the sound may change by context, but you wouldn't find minimal pairs for an allophonic difference. Diphthongs and triphthongs would technically count as 2 and 3 sounds respectively.Toque sounds more like tuke, torque sounds like tork, but that's just me. Your pronunciation might be different. I agree you could put turk, torque in the list, because arguably the vowel is one sound with a bit of an 'r' flavour to it. $\endgroup$ – Octopus Aug 23 at 17:20
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Paddle: A short pole with a broad blade at one or both ends.

Peddle: Try to sell something by going from house to house or place to place.

Piddle: To spend time in a wasteful, trifling, or ineffective way.

Poddle: To move or travel in a leisurely manner.

Puddle: A small pool of liquid, especially of rainwater, on the ground.

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