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December 04, 2016
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Mother Tongue, Mother Lode

Photo by Ross Brinkerhoff

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.