I could talk about the shootings over the weekend. I could tell you that polls show wide support for universal background checks, and I could give you statistics on mass shootings and gun ownership by nation. I could tell you that easy access to guns (especially weapons civilians shouldn’t have in the first place) is a bigger problem than the guns themselves.
But it would fall on deaf ears, and the same arguments we have after every such massacre would continue, with no action taken at all … except for more guns being bought. Because, you know, they’re going to be taken any day now by the government … tell me, how many did Obama confiscate?
Is it any wonder so many people are frustrated, especially considering how many shootings there have been?
Instead of dwelling on the epidemic of domestic terrorism (because that’s what it is), I’ll go back to the well that makes me happy—the one that feeds my word-nerdiness—because I think we could all use a break from violence and hate. And no, I will not tell you where the well is. It’s mine and you can’t have it. That chocolate over there is mine too. The weird rash on my neck is also mine, but that you can have.
After last week’s column about homographs and homophones, some of my fellow nerds reached out to me, and two in particular posed questions that deserve answers.
Garrett McAinsh is rapidly becoming a favorite, if just because he appears to have a bit of a wicked sense of humor. The Hendrix College professor emeritus wrote: “I very much enjoyed yesterday’s column dealing with homophones. It reminded me of a puzzle I once encountered in an airline magazine on a long, dreary flight. It pointed out that there are any number of pairs of homophones starting with different letters, such as write and right, no and know, etc. It then challenged the reader to come up with triples, that is, with sets of three words all pronounced the same, but spelled differently, starting with three different letters. The rest of the flight zipped by, and by the time we landed I had indeed come up with a triple. Over the years, in idle moments my mind has gone back to the puzzle. I have found two more triples. Do you think you could do as well? How about your readers?”
When I asked what his homophones were, his answer was: “I can’t wait to hear what you come up with in your column. Meanwhile, I take an apparently cruel opposite approach to your question by asking you to wait. Seriously, I think you will get a lot more out of this if you spend a few more days racking your brain.”
A man after my own twisted heart.
I initially thought, “Oh, this is gonna be easy.” I mean, after all, I had used two sets of triple homophones in the column—to, two and too and their, there and they’re. There are more, of course—right, write and rite; for, fore and four; way, weigh and whey; etc.
And then I re-read the email. This is why I advise letter-writers to re-read not only their own letters before they send them, but re-read whatever spurred their response, as first readings don’t always reveal everything. (You wouldn’t believe how many people misread John Brummett’s columns. Or maybe you would.) Many of us unconsciously skip over essential details … like, in this case, that the homophones must start with different letters.
Finally, I landed on one: air, heir and err. Seems a little obvious now since I had begun the exercise in error.
Then one more: I, aye and eye. And now my brain hurts.
It’s much easier to come up with double homophones beginning with different letters; think retch and wretch, and reek and wreak, two pairs that cause no end of annoyance for editors with writers who don’t know the difference. There are a lot of professional writers out there who could use a refresher course in English usage; if that happened, there’d be an awful lot of editors doing happy dances. It’s not a pretty sight, but it happens.
Ooh, one more: new, knew and gnu! And now I predict I’ll be randomly shouting out trios of homophones for a while now. Just ignore the crazy lady.
Or enable her a wee bit more by sending your homophones beginning with different letters to email@example.com or leave a comment below.
The other question came from Keith Jones, who was just about to leave for a long drive and intended to ponder it: “Is there a term for words like ‘sanction,’ which has two meanings that are virtually the opposite of each other? Or are there any other words at all like sanction?”
I couldn’t think of the answer off the top of my head, though I vaguely remembered it, so I turned to the Internet and found the answer: contronyms, also called auto-antonyms or Janus words. Auto-antonym doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. While I’m a fan of mythology, I prefer Greek to Roman, and there is no equivalent of Janus in Greek mythology. Therefore, I’ll stick to contronym which, Grammarly says, “evokes contradictory or reverse meanings depending on the context. Specifically, a contronym is a word with a homonym (another word with the same spelling but different meaning) that is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning).”
Sanction, for example, can mean to permit or grant approval, or it can mean to condemn or penalize. Other contronyms include dust, which can mean to remove dust or to sprinkle dust or other substance … like powdered sugar on French toast. Buckle can mean to fasten or secure with a buckle, or to bend, warp or collapse under pressure.
Like me around French toast. I really shouldn’t write when I’m hungry.
I think I still have some brioche …