Welcome to the GWN blog! Thanks for stopping by. We’ve got Michele Drier here today talking about homonyms.
A few years ago, a friend of mine set out to read The Brothers Karamazov, a book she hadn’t touched since college, some thirty years ago. I was impressed—and to tell the truth, a little chagrined—because I’d never wanted to do that.
When I ran into her a couple of weeks later I asked her how the reading was going.
“I gave it up,” she said, “too many words!”
I suspect that people who try to learn English feel the same way—we just plain have too many words!
We’ve come by a lot of it through conquest. First the Celts were taken over by the Romans. Then the Romans ceded to the Angles and the Saxons. Then the Normans showed up, bringing an early French with them.
When England was empire-building, the language absorbed words from North American tribes and Hindi and Urdu and Swahili and from other places where the sun never set. The result was a vibrant, flexible and growing language that adopted words by the bushel basket.
Today, we have more words than any other language on earth. The Oxford Dictionaries list definitions for some 230,000 words, including derivatives, but in May 2011 the Global Language Monitor estimated that there were 1,010,650 words; the one-millionth being “web 2.0”.
Whether 230,000 words or one million words, it’s clear that we have boatloads of words at our disposal.
So where does that bring us? Why, to homophones!
Homophones are those words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings, and English is rife with them.
In the last two weeks, I’ve been noting the homophones that crop up newspapers, books, flyers, ads and casual writing such as emails.
“high heals”—one assumes that the writer meant tall shoes, not extraordinarily tall doctors;
“She sighted the reference”—I suppose she could have seen it, but I think the writer meant “cited” or it may have been “sited”;
“here, here”—used as an acclamation, the writer probably meant “hear, hear” not a geographic description;
“he peaked into the room”—he became the top? Or did he “peek” by quickly looking?
When I was a newspaper editor, I had one creative, inquisitive, wonderful reporter who was the Queen of the Homophones. Several times a week (weak), she’d create the most amazing word pictures. The things holding back the rivers were levys, and the city council leveed a new tax. (I also had a copy editor who thought the past tense of the verb “seek” was “Seeked”, as in the headline she wrote: “Fugitive Seeked by Police”. Not quite a homophone, but a lovely construction, all the same. Luckily, she never had to write a headline about the Sikh temple.)
I suspect that we have creeping homophones because of the English language According to Bill Gates. This is a syndrome we all fall into; relying on spell check, grammar check and autocorrect to proofread for us.
But anybody who’s ever looked at the site “Damn You Autocorrect,” should know that the computer uses probability theory, not linguistics or language usage, to complete a word. And though there may be many useful things that spell and grammar check picks up—beyond its annoying habit of marking every contraction and any use of the verb “to be”—there is no way it can correct for most homophones. “Take a bow,” meaning to acknowledge praise, is different from “Take a bough” meaning to take a tree branch, but either is a logical English statement.
There is comfort here. As a writer, I know that, for the nonce at least, I can’t be replaced by a computer. It’s my eye that will find the correct “write/right”, there/their”, “where/wear” or “here/hear”.
Even reading what I’ve written two or three times doesn’t always catch all the homophones, let along all the types, mispellings or wrong verb tense. (In the previous sentence, there are two typos not caught and one misspelling that was.) So read, read, read what you write and know that we, too, have too many words.
Maybe we can go visit the Brothers Karamazov by crossing the Bering Straight (one of my favorite headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle!).
Don’t get piqued when he peeks at you from the peak, just
Michele Drier was born in Santa Cruz and is a fifth generation Californian. She’s lived and worked all over the state, calling both Southern and Northern California home. During her career in journalism—as a reporter and editor at daily newspapers—she won awards for producing investigative series.
Her mystery Edited for Death, called “Riveting and much recommended” by the Midwest Book Review is on Amazon and the second book in the Amy Hobbes Newspaper mysteries, Labeled for Death, will be published in June.
Her paranormal romance series, SNAP: The Kandesky Vampire Chronicles, is available in ebook, paperback and audible at ebook retailers. All have received “must read” reviews from the Paranormal Romance Guild. SNAP: The World Unfolds, SNAP: New Talent, Plague: A Love Story and Danube: A Tale of Murder are available singly and in a boxed set at Amazon, B&N and Kobo. The fifth book, SNAP: Love for Blood rated 5 stars, is now out. She’s writing SNAP: Happily Ever After? for release in fall 2013 and a seventh book later in 2013.
Cindy here (hear) again!
Loved this post, Michele. Errors like the ones you mention make cringe when I see them in newspapers and magazines. I shake my head when I see them in corporate emails. 🙂