Homophonia

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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.

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75 Comments »

  1. richardelguru said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 6:10 am

    I hope Woodger wasn't niggardly with the severance cheque!!

  2. leoboiko said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 6:54 am

    > I wonder if there is really any language that "does not have that feature" (by which I mean homophones). I'd be surprised.

    It's probably a half-truth. What they must be trying to get at is that English has an unusually indirect relationship between spelling and phonemes, and an unusually high number of words that, though written differently, are pronounced the same. This is a fact of the writing system, not of the language, but it's important to emphasize in ESL; or else the poor learners will end up like me, with spelling pronunciations all over the place (looking at the beginner's chart that the author posted, I think I might still mispronounce "flew" with an /e/ or /ə/, "reign" with an /ŋ/, "aunt" and "write" with a /w/…)

    Of course, their phrasing is wrong, and I bet most (all?) languages have homophones, and usually to an extent comparable to English (as far as I can tell, subjectively).

    [(myl) Good point. In fact, it would be interesting to try to quantify (in information-theoretic terms) a language's extent of "homophonia" in this sense: that is, the residual uncertain about spelling given pronunciation.]

  3. Josef Fruehwald said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 7:28 am

    Thank goodness he didn't blog about clitics, or Chomsky's Defective Intervention Constraint (DIC for short). That is pretty advanced stuff.

  4. Joseph F Foster said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 7:36 am

    We already have a homophonic marriage in my family. My cousin Jean's husband's name is Gene. We all call them "She Jean" and "He Gene".

  5. David L said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 8:01 am

    Now we know the real reason that Evelyn Waugh's first marriage, to Evelyn Gardner, didn't last. (I think their friends also used the He-Evelyn, She-Evelyn trick).

  6. Allan L. said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 8:35 am

    Clearly a scurrilous ad homonym attack.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 9:00 am

    To expand on richardelguru's allusion, this seems like a mix of what http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Controversies_about_the_word_%22niggardly%22 refers to as the David Howard incident with what it refers to as the Wilmington, NC incident. In I think most versions of AmEng, including my own, the "homo" in homophone is not in fact homophonous with the "homo" in homosexual, because the former has the LOT vowel in the stressed syllable but the latter the GOAT vowel. This may be why there was, come to think of it, less Beavis-and-Butthead-style wordplay about them back on my elementary-school playground than one might have otherwise expected. Is there something unusual about the Utah pronunciation that makes the two homophonous? Although if the ex-employee's offending use was in a blog post rather than in speech, that just goes to show that non-homophonous homographs can still cause confusion in some circumstances.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 9:11 am

    The homophony between homosexual and Homo sapiens, on the other hand (both with the GOAT vowel), was the basis for wordplay in the title and some of the lyrics in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosapien_(song), which was deemed too explicit/controversial for the BBC. I never heard it on a "commercial" radio station in the U.S. (but gay-taboo controversies are not necessary to explain that absence, because the guy had never previously been a star in the U.S. market anyway, in contrast to his prior band's UK commercial success), but it did get airplay circa 1982 on the late-Sunday-evening punk/underground/alternative show on WXPN, the radio station affiliated with Prof. Liberman's university.

  9. un malpaso said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 9:13 am

    This is the kind of news that makes me wonder why I even need intelligence to operate in the world of humanity. I may check myself in for a frontal lobotomy tomorrow so I can be blissfully unaware.

  10. Eric P Smith said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 9:27 am

    @J.W. Brewer

    homosexual and Homo sapiens… (both with the GOAT vowel)

    Funny, I say them both with the LOT vowel.
    On "He said Anus", some people saw a smutty joke when Queen Elizabeth II referred to 1992 as her "annus horribilis".

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 9:28 am

    Provo of course is also the site of another institution that is widely admired for its ability to quickly instruct Anglophone teenagers in the rudiments of a very wide array of foreign languages. http://www.npr.org/2014/06/07/319805068/lessons-from-the-language-boot-camp-for-mormon-missionaries. The story here fits with a pre-existing stereotype of Utah as narrow-minded and overly homogenous, as it were, but there's a certain cosmopolitanism (including in linguistic matters) that somehow co-exists with whatever grains of truth give rise to that stereotype.

  12. David B said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 9:35 am

    I just worry that people at that level of English may see the hom side of homophone and think that's how you spell home, and therefore be left with the misapprehension that Nomen language school is promoting a solid and stable home life for its students.

    (Also, there's clearly a joke to be made about the fact that the name of the school is Nomen. Beavis? Butthead? Anyone?)

  13. Joe said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 9:51 am

    @richardelguru & @j.w. brewer:

    I propose a new meaning for "homophone": a word that sounds bad but isn't. "Niggardly", as pointed out, is a homophone in this sense (while almost a homophone in the original sense).

    A friend objected to the use of "guttural" while describing Arabic – she equated the word with ugliness rather than a particular phonetic feature. In this new meaning, "guttural" would be a hompophone.

  14. Martin Ball said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 9:59 am

    humpophone?

  15. GeorgeW said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 10:10 am

    At least he wasn't also accused of being a morpheme addict.

  16. Brett said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 10:22 am

    @J.W. Brewer: I definitely pronounce the first two syllable in both "homophone" and "homosexual" with the GOAT vowel. Saying "homophone" with the LOT vowel sounds very odd (although I probably hear the pronunciation often and don't even notice it). In order to pull it off, I find myself lessening the stress on the first syllable, so that I can basically reduce the vowel to something more like LOT. On the other hand, "homophonous" has a LOT vowel (and stress on the second syllable).

    In any case, there is good reason to believe that my pronunciation of "homophone" should be anything but typical. After I was first introduced to the word in third grade, I developed an strong aversion to it. That went away after a few years, but for much of elementary school, I hated the sound of "homophone." ("Moist," on the other hand, has always sounded wonderful to me.)

  17. Clay said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 10:42 am

    This has to be a spoof.

  18. Alex said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 11:03 am

    Even advanced ESL speakers get tripped up by homophones, though I don't think the concept of a homophone itself is particularly advanced. I was in a graduate seminar on human origins with an international student who definitely could have benefited from a study of homophones. In a discussion on whether it was appropriate to split the genus Homo into distinct species (and, if so, on what criteria), he said, very earnestly, "But we are all homos, are we not?" He was very confused by the silence and suppressed laughter this provoked. Those of us who are homos had a quiet word with him after class to clue him in.

    Though nothing can approach the level of consternation caused by a gender studies professor from Europe who was fond of using the "finger in the dike" metaphor. Particularly inappropriate in discussions where sexuality and gender are salient. It was an undergrad class, and the students were about 75% queer women. Half of us had a crush on her, and no one felt brave enough to let her know that she was committing unintentional innuendo. So she kept doing it. It was mortifying, and we all talked about it when she wasn't around. I hope someone has told her by now.

  19. J. Otto Pohl said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    I remember learning about homophones and yes the word homophone was used in early grammar school in the 1970s/

  20. Brian said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 11:13 am

    I'm more shocked that this guy had to look up the damn word. We learned the word in 4th grade for crying out loud.

  21. Rodger C said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 11:17 am

    Well, we're still all homines. That's the grits of the matter.

  22. Jeff Carney said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 11:33 am

    I doubt it's a spoof. Paul Rolly is the Tribune's designated whistle blower, and he goes after this kind of stuff all the time.

  23. Steve said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    To make the obvious joke, this strikes me as a rather meta example of "homophobia": an irrational fear of (and/or aversion to) the prefix "homo-" itself. It would be funnier if it weren't so sad, in so many different ways.

  24. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 11:49 am

    The best part is where Woodger calls Torkildson a loose cannon who can't be trusted with any task that requires a brain — but he'll be happy to provide a good reference. I'm surprised he didn't finish with "Have a nice day!"

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    Slight difference is that "niggardly" presents the problem that the word it gets confused with is taboo/pejorative in close to all contexts, whereas "gutter" is a perfectly fine word for describing its literal referent (and if rainwater doesn't drain properly from your roof or your street because the gutters are clogged, you will come to appreciate the value of a well-functioning gutter) – it's only pejorative when used in various metaphorical extensions (although I guess "guttural" is used only in contexts where the core/literal meaning of "gutter" would make no sense, so any gutter-derived word would have to involve a pejorative metaphorical extension).

  26. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

    Should have added to prior comment that whether words with the homo- prefix are more akin to niggardly or to guttural is left as an exercise for the reader . . .

    Perhaps Brett is right that pronunciations of "homophone" vary (and/or that it's a sufficiently technical/learned word that a lot of people don't use it naturally and thus don't have a very strong or reliable intuition as to the right pronunciation). I would predict comparatively few people find "homosexual" and "homogenized" sufficiently similar to even form a plausible basis for course/jocular wordplay. There, the stress pattern and reduced first-syllable vowel in "homogenized" (plus probably more widespread use of the word outside a classroom setting, even if only in the context of milk) creates even greater phonological distance, and you'd have to be a weirdo who knows a lot about etymology and/or Greek to know that the spelling similarity is not just a chance coincidence.

  27. rpsms said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

    "Niggardly" is never confused for the wrong word. It is used as a substitute for the real thing. It is used in the same manner that causes words like "civilized" to be offensive. When someone asks if your daily commute on the El is "civilized" they don't mean "tea."

    Those who think "niggardly" is a confused homophone have missed the point of the criticism of its usage.

  28. Shadow-Slider said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

    Here is something to help that guy learn about homophones. Between the Lions: Homophones

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

    There are also what you might call phantom homophones that can cause difficulty. I'm thinking of the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen's character misunderstands "d'you" (as elided/contracted "did you" in contexts like "did you eat yet") as "Jew" and accordingly misinterprets a perfectly benign statement as anti-Semitic. (NB: telling jokes about Jews who perceive anti-Semitism when none is actually present is of course a more prudent strategy for comedians who, like Allen, are themselves Jewish.)

  30. Ray Girvan said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

    I somehow feel they're going to be held to considerably higher standards from now on.

    Their blog page Would You Like to Dig for Dinosaurs? – "Would you like to dig for dinosaurs [sic] bones … ?" – mentions that "many people find pleasure in spending their weekends camping out in the desert".

  31. Ned Danison said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

    I stand with Teacher Torkildson all the way, but I have to say after reading his blogs (lots of imagery), I wasn't sure where he was going, either!

  32. Alan Gunn said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

    I wonder about the accuracy of this account. He doesn't give a link to the blog post he says he wrote, and we have only his version. So I'd put this in the interesting-if-true bin. Like Clay, I took this as a spoof, or at least a wild exaggeration, at first.

  33. DWalker said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

    Nomen's Web page has a section labeled "STUDENTS HIGHLIGHTS". Someone at that school should learn English as she is spoke (and written).

  34. Martha said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

    A fired person's account isn't necessarily the most accurate. However, if you go here: https://plus.google.com/103485923279537292928/posts
    you will see two posts about homophones, dated July 2 and July 3, that begin in a straightforward manner, e.g.,

    "Help with Homophones. #1. Help with Homophones. In English a homophone is a word that has several different meanings and spellings, but always sounds the same. The best way to learn these tricky words is to memorize them little by little. Today we will begin with homophones that s…"

    Clicking on these posts brings you to a blog page that says, "Sorry, the page you were looking for in this blog does not exist." Other posts seem to load just fine (though I didn't click all of them).

    If this man's firing were unrelated to the homophone posts, why wouldn't the homophone posts still be accessible?

  35. tudza said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

    You can see the blog post in Google Cache ( not cash )

    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:kvBQPW_wGYEJ:nomenglobaltoday.blogspot.com/2014/07/help-with-homophones-1.html+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

  36. richardelguru said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

    Alex,
    "fond of using the "finger in the dike" metaphor"
    An embarrassing incident from my own history that you've just dragged from my repressed memory syndrome:
    "Very early in my American period I was teaching Maths at a certain high school and we got on to the subject of calendars and the seasons and I was desperately looking around for some visual teaching aids when I noticed my hands, so without a second’s thought I balled my right hand into a representation of the Sun and held it up for the class to see. Then I did the same with my left hand to represent the Earth orbiting around it and (and I thought that this bit was inspired genius) I demonstrated the season-bringing tilted axis of the Earth by the obvious step of raising my middle finger. I even did little spirally motions of my Earth hand to show the Earth’s diurnal rotation as I moved it round my Sun hand. I was so proud of this bit of inspired teaching: that I could achieve so much with so little!!

    …You know that weird feeling you get when something is obviously wrong, but you don’t quite know what it is …yet. Well my class was having hysterics, I had them rolling in the aisles. If I hadn’t dropped my hands to my sides in surprise some of them would probably have ended up in the nurse’s office or perhaps even the ER.
    That was the first time I realised that your rude gestures might not be exactly the same as ours.
    Of course now I know all about the one fingered salute; the giving of the finger; the flipping of the bird and how obscene it is and how hedged with taboo. "

  37. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

    I am advised that it has been claimed elsewhere on the internet that the fired teacher is a "registered pedagogue." (I haven't fact-checked my source both because I trust him and because fact-checking would apparently involve voluntarily scrolling through a comment thread on gawker.com and why would you want to do that.)

  38. David Morris said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

    If I was talking about homophones in class, or writing a blog post for students to read, I would refer to 'words that sound exactly the same' and 'words that sound very similar', and maybe say/write right at the end 'The official word for this is 'homophones".

  39. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 3:45 pm

    The appropriate pedagogical approach might perhaps vary as between younger native speakers and older ESL learners, but both of my kids had been taught homophone/homonym/homograph as terms of art used in English class by no later than 3rd or 4th grade. And they have used them (mostly accurately) with me in discussing the occasional homework assignment etc from which I infer that there is probably no taboo/embarrassment/Beavis&Butthead factor going on within their peer-group speech community.

  40. Bobbie said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

    Their may bee too sides two this argument, but rite now I em to down caste to Carrie awn.

  41. John Lawler said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

    Homophone marriage is the next hurdle.

    Why can't Mary marry Merry?

  42. TonyK said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 6:00 pm

    Here's a homophone:
    http://www.cafepress.de/+backyard_shower_shed_iphone_4_slider_case,1001276272
    But is it pronounced the same? Not in my speech (BrE).

  43. Bruce said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 6:16 pm

    The animus towards gay people in certain quarters remains so great that the mere prefix "homo", no matter what the context, is treated like profane language, and the above-cited prosaic scientific terms with that prefix are well outside the vocabulary of such people. Hence we come to the sad but inevitable conclusion that there is a sort of ridiculous logic in the thinking of such people.

  44. quixote said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

    Torkildson is a pedagogue too? Oh my Flying Spaghetti. Say it taint so.

  45. Jim said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

    At some coffee shops in Vancouver, BC, the tins of milk products include ones labeled "Homo Milk". Since I usually see these in the gay village area, I inevitably giggle.

  46. David Marjanović said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 8:05 pm

    This has to be a spoof.

    You wish.

    would apparently involve voluntarily scrolling through a comment thread on gawker.com

    Does Ctrl+F help?

  47. bks said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 9:28 pm

    Is there a language with no word for homophone?

  48. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 9:44 pm

    Ray Girvan: I take it you're thinking of a British meaning of "camp" in "many people find pleasure in spending their weekends camping out in the desert". I don't believe that would occur to many Americans reading that sentence.

  49. Joe Mc Kay said,

    July 31, 2014 @ 10:49 pm

    Once when I introduced homophones to my "Crazy About Words" (also the title of my new book!) adult learning class by asking, "Who remembers what a homophone is? The first response was "a new iPhone for gays?"

    We had more fun later on introducing "wether," a castrated ram….
    "The poor ram had no vote on whether or not he'd become a wether."

    Joe Mc Kay

  50. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 12:00 am

    I was recently characterized by someone as a local homeowner. While it IS true, I now feel very offended.

  51. Mar Rojo said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 1:22 am

    Don't blog about quasi-modals. You might rile those who are sensitive to disability labelling.

  52. John Walden said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 1:36 am

    Is there a language with 50 words for homophone? Ideally, each with a different spelling but all pronounced the same.

    Are we making jokes about this because the alternative is a collective facepalm?

  53. Y said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 2:07 am

    Letter to the editor, San Francisco Chronicle, May 20, 1994:
    "Editor—Political correctness reigns! Scrabble lovers of the world, unite! Let's not let a day go by while these niggardly people try to spook us, cripple our creativity and queer our game with their fairy tales. We'll put our finger in the dike, seal the chinks in the armor, and have everything spic and span in no time. They'll be so fagged out they'll think they've seen a Chinese fire drill.

    Then we'll have lunch—fruit and crackers—and go out honky-tonking. Wanna go dutch? P.S.—Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes.

    CYNTHIA WOO
    San Francisco"

  54. Ray Girvan said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 5:09 am

    @Jerry Friedman: I don't believe that would occur to many Americans reading that sentence.

    I'm unsure; I thought "camp" was reasonably known in the USA – but perhaps more in the aesthetic-kitschy sense than the UK specifically gay sense.

  55. Brett said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 6:15 am

    @Y: That would be funnier, were it not for the fact that the letter's "Chinese fire drill" and "dutch" are, in fact, directly derived from ethnic slurs.

    @Ray Girvan: "Camp" is well known in America, although the gay sense may be less common now. However "camp," in that sense, is not used as a verb in American English.

  56. Jennifer Alexandra said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 11:36 am

    I distinctly remember learning about homophones in the third grade (in the '80s, at a religious school no less). Is it possible Mr. Woodger still has work to do in second grade?

  57. David B said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

    John Walden said,

    Are we making jokes about this because the alternative is a collective facepalm?

    Pretty much yes, I fear.

    And my experience (also at a conservative religious elementary school) precisely parallels Jennifer Alexandra's. Pure speculation: It makes me wonder if the firing had been planned for a while, and the discussion of homophones finally gave Mr. Woodger (what he somehow thought would be totally uncontroversial) grounds for it.

  58. Alex said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 1:58 pm

    @Alan Gunn The employer directly confirmed the account to the Salt Lake Tribune. "People at this level of English," Woodger told the Tribune, "may see the 'homo' side and think it has something to do with gay sex." Which seems like a good argument that they need to learn about homophones.

  59. Terry Collmann said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 2:45 pm

    ""Niggardly" is never confused for the wrong word. It is used as a substitute for the real thing."

    Eh?

  60. Joe said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

    @jw brewer: "…the fired teacher is a 'registered pedagogue.'…"

    If that's the case, then I agree with the termination. We don't want any child molesters teaching our kids! About homophones, no less!

  61. Joe said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

    @terry coleman: "eh?"

    I believe it means that folks who wield "niggardly" have enough of a vocabulary to choose a more familiar symonym (eg, "miserly") yet selected the less familiar word as racial bait.

    If you're familiar with the SNL job interview "word association" sketch with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase, then you see exactly this effect: the interviewer claims to be innocently objective while becoming increasingly racially offensive.

  62. Ray Dillinger said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 3:46 pm

    I would like to believe that some of the more worthwhile employers take pride in hiring anyone fired for failure to be an idiot.

    Unfortunately I do not believe it.

  63. GH said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

    @Joe (and indirectly, @rpsms)

    I would bet most people who use "niggardly" do so out of obstinate refusal to let an unrelated slur taint a perfectly good word, perhaps even with the hope of rescuing it from guilt-by-association oblivion.

    If most of the world followed Clark Woodger's example and grew afraid of "homophone," would you be ready to give it up?

  64. Joyce Melton said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 7:38 pm

    The guy got fired for making it look like the school promotes … what? A perfectly legal behavior that actually wasn't relevant or involved? Meanwhile the supervisor proves the school promotes ignorant jackasses to positions of authority.

  65. Karl Weber said,

    August 1, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

    Re J.W. Brewer's comment about the fired teacher being a "registered pedagogue": In this context, I'm reminded of the old joke about the politician claiming his election opponent "Is not only an avowed thespian, but she has even performed the act on stage in front of a paying audience!"

  66. Yuval said,

    August 2, 2014 @ 3:00 am

    No uproar about using "blog" to mean "blog post"?

  67. parse said,

    August 2, 2014 @ 9:41 am

    @GH

    One might say that "niggardly" is a very good word, but it is not perfectly good because it carries the risk of offending readers or listeners due to its similarity to a racial slur.

    If most of the world were afraid of "homophone," even based on a misunderstanding, I would only hesitate to give it up because I don't know another word that means the same thing.

  68. Bloix said,

    August 2, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

    A decade or so ago I was involved in a legal proceeding concerning the pricing of public school milk (the half-pint servings that kids drink). These are the subject of competitive bidding, margins are small, and in rural areas where there are few competitors, the temptation to engage in price-fixing is strong. The products at issue were referred to, in the business, as "homo," "choco," and "skim," pronounced as you would guess.

  69. lolPhonology said,

    August 3, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

    Ironically, the language learning center is in Utah, so they're OK with polysemy.

  70. Chas Belov said,

    August 3, 2014 @ 9:30 pm

    @Brett: I've used and seen "camp" as a verb in the gay sense in the US, as in "camped it up."

  71. Nathan said,

    August 4, 2014 @ 10:27 am

    I'm from Utah. I remember discussions of homophones (by name) in at least first, second, fourth, fifth, seventh, and eighth grades.
    But this is a common problem in education. How many adults remember what the word logarithm means?

  72. enki2 said,

    August 4, 2014 @ 11:32 am

    I'm aware of some languages that lack homophones, but they are all constructed/auxiliarly languages that were designed explicitly to lack homophones. I suspect that as languages pick up in use they attract more homophones — does anyone know of homophones in esperanto?

    It seems like homophones should be more common in languages with more limited sets of sounds — for instance, japanese seems like it would have more than french.

  73. Elonkareon said,

    August 4, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

    Nathan: Even those of us who don't remember what it means specifically still probably recall that it has something to do with math.

    parse: You're welcome to that position, however, I prefer having a wealth of synonyms to use at any given moment. One must never use the same load-bearing word twice after all.

  74. BobInChina said,

    August 5, 2014 @ 3:13 am

    You can't say logarithm – it's promoting gay sex between lumberjacks.

  75. Bill said,

    August 7, 2014 @ 10:55 pm

    I suppose there just can't be the slightest doubt that the observations attributed to Woodger represent exactly what he said. Hell, they are on a Blog on the Internet, and Blogers — like police officers in court — never lie or fib, are never mistaken, and never mishear anything.

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