A homophone for the masses

I was recently corrected after using the wrong word (homophone) in a public posting. Oops! But I’ll forgive myself, because there’s a fairly subtle difference between the meanings of the two words in question, and they’re relatively obscure in their usage. Well, that’s my excuse, anyway…

I wrote “before the hoards arrive”.¬† A quick Google search of that expression turns up about four and a half million results. So I’m in good company. Of course what I should have written was ‘before the hordes arrive’.

Used as a noun,  hoard means a hidden fund or supply stored for future use; a cache. As an intransitive verb it means to gather or accumulate a hoard; transitively, the verb hoard means to accumulate a hoard of, or to keep hidden or private.

The noun horde refers to a large group, multitude, number, etc.; a mass or crowd. It also describes a tribe or troop of nomads (often of Asiatic origin, but applicable to any nomadic group), or a teeming pack or swarm of animals or insects. Used less commonly as a verb (intransitive), it means to gather in a horde.

What probably leads to much of the confusion between the homophones¬† is not just the similarity in meanings (as they share a sense of collection and quantity), but there’s usually a derogatory or undesirable quality implied by both words. The furtiveness and secrecy of a hoard suggests either greed and selfishness or a questionable ulterior motive for the stash. Members of a horde are often savage or uncivilized (hence its common usage as a collective noun for tourists), and more often than not the horde represents a large number of unwelcome and uninvited guests (add mosquitoes to tourists). And yet it could be argued that the words mean just the opposite of each other: whereas one describes a hidden and deliberate collection whose value lies largely in the secrecy of its existence, the other is about as public and overt as you can get, with its strength lying in its number, its pervasiveness, and the fact that it’s distinctly unwelcome.