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April 24, 2014
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Mother Tongue, Mother Lode

Photo by Ross Brinkerhoff


Whenever I asked my mother how to spell a word, she would invariably tell me to look it up — a strategy that instilled in me a lifelong love of language.

I also owe a debt to Mad Libs. “What’s an adjective?” I demanded whenever my sisters and I played the fill-in-the-blanks word game, which required familiarity with the parts of speech. I had a firm grasp of nouns and verbs, but adjectives were still beyond me.

My eldest sister couldn’t be bothered with explaining, or maybe my mind boggled at a word that modifies a noun. In any event, she’d simply say, “Just name a color.” And so a suitor’s letter to his paramour’s father would begin, “I am in love with your GREEN daughter,” and close with “I promise to make her PURPLE .”

But Mad Libs never had players come up with prepositions, which perhaps explains the sorry state in which we find them today. I first noticed it in the corporate world, where my boss would say things like, “Let’s gather employee feedback around diversity.”

“Whatever happened to about?” I grumbled to myself. But the plague quickly spread, and using “around” instead of “about” became endemic throughout the company.

A promotion to editor further heightened my sensitivity. The hapless writers in my bailiwick constantly struggled with prepositions — although perhaps “were blissfully ignorant” would be a more accurate description, since “struggling” implies consciousness of one’s predicament. (It’s not just corporate hacks who don’t know when to use which preposition. Every day, I encounter errors in such reputable news outlets as NPR and The New York Times—even The River Reporter.)

I also exhorted my writing team to use short Anglo-Saxon words instead of Latinate ones ending in -tion. Such words tend to be polysyllabic — a fact I first registered, if unconsciously, in fourth grade. We were supposed to go home and ask our parents to teach us 10 new words ending in -ation. Naturally, by the time my parents got home from work, I’d long since forgotten the assignment.

The next day, when our teacher asked us to write down the new words we’d learned, my initial response was panic. Then I pondered and came up with 10 words that had the requisite ending — utterly mortified that Mrs. Haycock would think I hadn’t already known the word “transportation.”

Now I wonder what my parents would have come up with if I’d remembered to ask. Would they have played it straight, or would they have had fun with the assignment? I’m sure my father, who loved to hold forth at the dinner table, would have taught me communication — and then, in a flash of insight, might have described what he was doing as pontification.

Ever one to enjoy playful banter with the opposite sex, would he have taught me flirtation or titillation? No doubt my mother would have supplied aggravation.

Other word endings have provided me with countless hours of entertainment. I am on an endless quest for trios of homophones — words that sound the same, but are spelled differently. It all began with the talk my husband gives to potential tai chi students.

“The chi in ‘tai chi’ is not the same as the chi meaning ‘energy’ or ‘life force’,” he intones. “It’s like where, wear and ware.”

We learned about where and wear in Mrs. Haycock’s class. But nobody actually says ware; we always use it in the plural. So for years I’ve been on the lookout for better examples of three-word homophones — a harmless and engaging occupation that has deepened my respect for our rich crazy quilt of a language.

One of my best early finds was rain, rein and reign. That was soon followed by pour, poor and pore (my mother always cringed whenever she came across pouring over a book). This approach relies heavily on dumb luck: you have to just happen to notice that we have three words that are spelled differently, but pronounced the same way.

Over time, my technique became more systematic. Now, when a word catches my attention, I mentally run through the alphabet to find all the different ways its ending can be pronounced.

Take -ough. Right at the very beginning of the alphabet, it is sounded three different ways: bough, cough and dough. Amazing, right? Continuing on, you find rough and through — five different sounds from one four-letter combo.

Next you mine each pronunciation for homophones: bough, bow [v.]; dough, doe; rough, ruff; through, threw; and tough, tuff. Alas, no trios, but the exploration is fascinating in and of itself. It also sheds light on why my employer’s former CFO used to talk about a truff in the business cycle — and why my husband insists on calling the town that is home to Vassar puff-KEEP-see.

But a more haphazard approach can also yield gems. One of my all-time favorite finds is peek, peak and pique (and recently I was in quite a pique when I read a book set in the Rockies that confused the first two). Another copyediting error highlighted a homophone pair that let me locate a trio. My jaw dropped when I spotted idol, idle and idyll.

Pity the poor adults who learn English as a second language. How can they possibly hope to master all the inconsistent spellings and pronunciations our language throws at them? It was hard enough for me, a native speaker, when we were studying homophones. I asked how you could tell whether the speaker meant where or wear.

And Mrs. Haycock simply replied, “Context.” A fine Middle English word.