Paul Rolly, "Blogger fired from language school over 'homophonia'", The Salt Lake Tribune, 7:29/2014:
Homophones, as any English grammarian can tell you, are words that sound the same but have different meanings and often different spellings — such as be and bee, through and threw, which and witch, their and there.
This concept is taught early on to foreign students learning English because it can be confusing to someone whose native language does not have that feature.
But when the social-media specialist for a private Provo-based English language learning center wrote a blog explaining homophones, he was let go for creating the perception that the school promoted a gay agenda.
The fired teacher is Tim Torkildson, and he wrote a blog post about the experience — "The Homophones Got Me! A Record of a Recent Firing", 7/24/2014:
This week I was fired for writing a blog about homophones for an educational website.
“I’m letting you go because I can’t trust you” said Clarke Woodger, my boss and the owner of Nomen Global Language Center. “This blog about homophones was the last straw. Now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality.”
I said nothing, stunned into silence.
“I had to look up the word” he continued, “because I didn’t know what the hell you were talking about. We don’t teach this kind of advanced stuff to our students, and it’s extremely inappropriate. Can you have your desk cleaned out by eleven this morning? I’ll have your check ready.”
I nodded, mute.
“Good. You’ve done a good job on most things, but you’re just not reliable enough. I never have any idea what you’re going to do next. I can’t run my business that way. You’d probably make a great college professor, but since you don’t have a degree you’ll never get that kind of work. I would advise you to try something clerical, where you’ll be closely supervised and have immediate goals at all times. That’s the only kind of job you’ll ever succeed at. I’ll be happy to give you a good reference. Good-bye, and good luck.”
The Salt Lake Tribune article quotes Mr. Woodger's public position on the affair:
Woodger says his reaction to Torkildson’s blog has nothing to do with homosexuality but that Torkildson had caused him concern because he would "go off on tangents" in his blogs that would be confusing and sometimes could be considered offensive.
Nomen is Utah’s largest private English as a Second Language school and caters mostly to foreign students seeking admission to U.S. colleges and universities. Woodger says his school has taught 6,500 students from 58 countries during the past 15 years. Most of them, he says, are at basic levels of English and are not ready for the more complicated concepts such as homophones.
"People at this level of English," Woodger says, " … may see the ‘homo’ side and think it has something to do with gay sex."
It's depressing to think that "foreign students seeking admission to U.S. colleges and universities" are not generally "ready for the more complicated concepts such as homophones" — what will they do when they get to one of those colleges and universities, and are confronted with homogenization, homomorphisms, homotopy, Homo sapiens, or (FSM help us) Homo erectus?
In fact, the opportunities for this kind of misunderstanding can even be trans-lexical:
Returning to Mr. Rolly's Salt Lake Tribune article, I wonder if there is really any language that "does not have that feature" (by which I mean homophones). I'd be surprised.
[h/t Mark Dras]
Update — incisive commentary by Dale Carpenter at the Volokh Conspiracy — "The Homophone Menace":
“Our hour has come,” proclaim the militant homophones. “We are discrete but no longer discreet.” They threaten to uproot heteronymativity.
This leaves many to suspect the real homophone addenda. They want same-pronunciation marriage. The possibility is much discussed and elicits much disgust. “They have no right to that rite,” writes Wright. “Chris will marry Chris, Pat will wed Pat, and Dale betroth Dale. What’s next, polynomial marriage?”
Since intelligent people are not a protected group under U.S. employment law, Mr. Woodger was apparently on solid legal ground in firing Torkildson. But presumably concern about this issue explains the apparently contradiction between Woodger's assertion that "his reaction to Torkildson’s blog has nothing to do with homosexuality" and his observation that "People at this level of English … may see the ‘homo’ side and think it has something to do with gay sex."
Update #2 — Arika Okrent, "35 Kinds of Hot, Sexy Homophone Action", Mental Floss 7/31/2014.