What sequence of words in the OED linked pairwise by spelling or pronunciation has the highest number of unique links?

The spelling 'read' can be pronounced at least two ways, as in "Yesterday I read a paragraph.", and "Today I will read a paragraph." The pronunciation in the former also can be spelled 'red', as in "Some roses are red.". The pronunciation in the later sentence can also be spelled 'reed', as in "Clarinets contain one reed.". Accordingly, one chain of words linked pairwise by spelling or pronunciation is "red, read, read, reed". Another chain is "reed, read, reed, read, read, red".

In this puzzle, the length of a sequence is defined to be the number of unique links. Thus "red, read, read, reed" and "reed, read, reed, read, read, red" have the same length.

What sequence of words in the OED has the highest number of unique links?

  • $\begingroup$ Recommend adding the tag open-ended if, as seems likely, there is no provably longest answer. Ps. My favorite example of a word like those in question has always been number. $\endgroup$
    – humn
    Jun 2, 2016 at 17:04
  • $\begingroup$ You're using "reed" twice in the same chain with the same pronunciation - is that a mistake? $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi
    Jun 2, 2016 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ Not necessarily. However, the second chain contains non-unique links, which do not contribute to the count. $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2016 at 17:12
  • $\begingroup$ So to be clear, every word has to either be spelled the same or pronounced the same as the word before it? $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2016 at 18:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Interestingly, there was a pop music combo that wanted to name themselves after a metal dirigible too heavy to fly. They intentionally misspelled it as "Led Zeppelin" because of the two different pronunciations of "lead". They had a few hits in the seventies. You can find them if you google the name. $\endgroup$ Jun 3, 2016 at 15:47

3 Answers 3


10 words, 6 spellings, 5 pronunciations.

  • soughs [sʌfs] n. drains or sewers
  • soughs [sauz] v. sighs, as the wind does
  • sows [sauz] n. female pigs
  • sows [souz] v. scatters on the ground
  • sews [souz] v. joins using needle and thread
  • sols [souz] n. notes that are a 5th above the tonic, in tonic sol-fa
  • sols [sɒulz] n. colloidal suspensions in liquids
  • souls [sɒulz] n. spirits
  • soles [sɒulz] n. flatfish
  • soles [solez] pl. of sol n. the monetary unit of Peru

Relies on a variant spelling for the tonic-solfa degree, also spelt "so", and an accent with the poll/pole merger.

  • $\begingroup$ Somehow I never knew the fifth in the solfege was spelled with an l. Fascinating. +1 to you! $\endgroup$
    – dpwilson
    Jun 3, 2016 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ @dpwilson So and soh are more common, but sol is a rarer variant. Indeed the French for G is sol (in French, the solfege syllables are used where we use letter-names). $\endgroup$
    – Rosie F
    Jun 3, 2016 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ According to Wikipedia, the proper spelling is sol. $\endgroup$
    – dpwilson
    Jun 3, 2016 at 13:08

Just 6 here, but there are 4 spellings, 3 pronunciations and no proper names.

  • does: 3rd-person sing. of "do" v.
  • does: female deer
  • doughs
  • doze
  • dos: pl. do, the tonic in tonic sol-fa
  • dos: pl. do, party/event; also as in "dos and don'ts"
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Followed by "dues", right? $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2016 at 19:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ And then "dews". $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2016 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ You could also jam [MS-]DOS ("doss") in there. $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2016 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ @feelinferrety DOS: If Jeremy will let us change the capitalisation & the pronunciation in one step... Then have "doss" itself as the next step. dos->dues. Yes, I suppose so, in a yod-dropping accent. $\endgroup$
    – Rosie F
    Jun 2, 2016 at 20:58

The longest one I've been able to think of so far has 8 words (7 links). It feels kind of like cheating because I just ran with a long line of heterographs and expanded from there. (Technically a string of only heterographs would satisfy the criterion of being "linked pairwise by spelling or pronunciation".)

air, err, ere, heir, Aire, are, are, ar

Here's the breakdown:

air: the stuff you breathe
err: make a mistake
ere: before
heir: successor
Aire: a river in England
are: unit of area equaling 100 square meters
are: 2nd person singular present form of "be"
ar: the letter "r"

  • $\begingroup$ Oxford online dictionary (presumably a subset of OED) includes an abbreviation that you could add at the end $\endgroup$
    – humn
    Jun 2, 2016 at 21:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I came across that on the way, but the question does specify "words". I have a hard time calling an abbreviation a word. $\endgroup$
    – dpwilson
    Jun 3, 2016 at 12:20

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