[Ads-l] home in on (1940)

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Sat Aug 31 04:28:00 UTC 2019

Back in 2005, I found what was then the earliest known example of "home in
on" from 1944:

Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 7, 1944, p. 15, col. 2
The Oahu radio was coming in strong. They had left the station on all night
so we could "home in" on its frequency.

Mentioned here:

That date can now be pushed back to 1940:

Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Ind.), May 18, 1940, p. 1, col. 5
All American radio stations will be shut down in events of war, General H.
H. Arnold, army air corps chief, was disclosed today as having told a
senate appropriations subcommittee.
Arnold stated: "We would have to make a lot of changes if war ever comes to
our shores. Just one small item -- all of the radio stations over the
United States, in time of war, every one of them, would have to be shut
down, because they are an invitation to some other hostile plane to home in
on the radio station at a particular point, to our disadvantage."

That's a wire story from the International News Service. The United Press
wire story the next day quotes Gen. Arnold with slightly different phrasing
(and puts "home in" in quotation marks).

Akron Beacon Journal, May 19, 1940, p. 1, col. 6
Maj. Gen. H. H. Arnold, chief of the air corps, told a senate
appropriations subcommittee considering the big defense bill: "If war comes
to our shores, all the radio stations over the United States, every one of
them, would have to shut down because they are an invitation to some
hostile plane to 'home in' on the radio station at a particular point, to
our disadvantage."

OED3 includes "home in on" under sense 5a of "home" (v.): "Of a vessel,
aircraft, missile, etc.: to move or be guided to a target or destination by
use of a landmark or by means of a radio signal, detection of a heat
signature, etc. Usually with _in on_, or less commonly _on_, _on to_, or
_towards_." The first cite given is from 1920, as "home towards," followed
by "home on" from 1940. (The earliest given for "home in on" is from 1968.)

As for the eggcorn "hone in (on)," I haven't seen anything earlier than
1965, as in the example given in the OED3 entry for "hone" from George
Plimpton's _Paper Lion_: "Then he'd fly on past or off at an angle, his
hands splayed out wide, looking back for the ball honing in to intercept
his line of flight." Here are two more from 1965 with the same sense (OED3:
"to head directly for something; to turn one's attention intently towards
something. Usually with _on_"):

Boston Sunday Advertiser, May 30, 1965, p. 13 (caption) [GenealogyBank]
Drawing depicts how rendezvous will be attempted by U.S. spaceman. Capsule
(left) slowed to let astronaut swing out, hone in on second stage.
Globe and Mail (Toronto), Oct. 27, 1965, p. B2, col. 2 [ProQuest]
"He'll hone in on every industry with a microscope and his wage-price
guidelines are going to be reinforced," Dr. Renfret said.

There are, however, earlier examples of the phrase "hone in on" with a
different meaning, used as a variant of "horn in on." I gave one such
example from 1945 here:


I've found other uses of "hone in on" evidently meaning "horn in on" going
back to 1914. These two examples come from the syndicated series "The Jarr
Family" by Roy L. McCardell:

New York Evening World, May 18, 1914, p. 16, col. 4
And now, such is the work of reformers, if one of the fleet floats into a
burg, even during the big show day or Elks' street carnival week, with
anything stronger than a punch board or a poodle dog wheel, the main
squeeze with a banner on his benny marked "Marshall," will hone in on the
New York Evening World, July 23, 1914, p. 14, col. 4
So that's why I say, if your friends are getting up a dancing class, hone
in on it.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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