Easily Confused Words: Prawn vs. Pawn

Prawns and pawns are easily confused words.

The spell-check application of most word processing software programs would not catch a slip-up of these two words. Spell-check is looking for words that aren’t in its dictionary, and words that resemble words in its dictionary but are possibly spelled wrong. Spell-check isn’t perfect. It doesn’t know and can’t guess what word you wanted or what word you meant, it can only judge the words on the page. If you used words that are all spelled correctly, it gives you a pass anyway.

Autocorrect suggests words that start with the same letters. It suggests what word you may want to save time, but quite often, its suggestions couldn’t be more off base and produces humorous results.

Prawn is a noun. It means small crustaceans that feed on the bottom of the ocean, like a tiny lobster. Here in the US, we call them “shrimp”, but in the UK they are called “prawns.”

UPDATE: Since originally writing this post two years ago, I also learned that prawns are freshwater creatures; they are larger and meatier than most shrimp. They may be called langostas or langostinos. Shrimp can be freshwater or saltwater creatures.

Pawn has multiple forms:

  • Pawn the verb means to sell something you own in exchange for cash. The pawn shop who buys your stuff holds it. There’s a period when you can come back when you have the money and buy it back. If you don’t come back, they can resell it to someone else.
  • Pawn the noun means pieces on a chess board. They are the smallest, lowest worth pieces on the board. They form “the front line” for each player’s pieces.
  • Pawn the noun can be used as a figure of speech. It can mean something small or low in value used in negotiations.

The following story uses both words correctly:

Paz was a gifted chess player, slicing through her opponent’s pawns with ease. Her favorite snack was prawns with cocktail sauce. 

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