by Henry Lane Hull
As long-term readers know, I enjoy studying the usage of words. In that arena among my favorites are homonyms and heterographs. The former are words that are spelled alike, but have different meanings, whereas the latter are words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and have different meanings as well. These dichotomies are more apparent in the written word than in conversation.
Recently, a friend who enjoys preparing gourmet meals asked at the grocery store for chia seeds. The clerk sent her to the cracker and snack section, having thought “chia seeds” sounded like “Cheez-Its.” In a similar vein, in our family we are devotees of the delectable small French pickles, cornichons. When I noted their absence from their usual place on the shelf, I inquired and was told that the stock was in good supply, my “cornichons” having sounded like “Cornish hens.”
During the Great Recession friends invited us to come for a swim in their spacious pool. We readily accepted and when we arrived we found the host and hostess already in the water. She said, “We are taking a bath.” I replied, “I know what you mean. The stock market has tanked for all of us.” She responded, “No. I mean a literal bath. Our power is out and we cannot shower inside.” Those two meanings of the word “bath” are quite different, especially in the context in which we were using them.
The variance in meanings can carry over into actions being perceived differently as well. A friend’s door handle on the passenger side of his car had broken off and until he could get it repaired, he had to get out of the car, walk around to the other side and open the door for his wife. One day on a parking lot a lady observed him doing that and remarked how much she enjoyed seeing an old-fashioned gentleman thus motivated by chivalry going to open the door for his wife. I thought of Hyacinth Bucket insisting that her husband Richard open and close the car door for her, a weekly staple of their program, “Keeping Up Appearances.” Hyacinth’s insistence that their surname be pronounced “Bouquet” is another form of an invented homonym.
To carry usage to the extreme one only need turn to the late Hollywood movie producer, Samuel Goldwyn. An immigrant from what was then Russian-ruled Poland, Goldwyn was able to master the art of film production, but had not quite the same experience with the English language. His most famous quote is “Gentlemen, include me out,” which actually says it all, leaving no ambiguity as to meaning.
He also reportedly said, “I don’t think anybody should write his autobiography until after he’s dead.” His consistent invention of new terminology led to the inclusion in most dictionaries of the term “Goldwynism” to categorize the new wave of his malapropisms. Research has proven that he did not say, “An oral contract is not worth the paper it is written on,” an expression that long has been a standard Hollywood joke.
The realm of government and finance is beset with linguistic difficulties as well. Many years ago I was speaking with a federal government employee who kept referring to my having to get a certain form filed before the end of the “physical year.” When I asked if he meant the “fiscal year,” he answered, “What is the difference?”
All of us find amusement in observing others’ verbal slippages. One of my professors was a retired ambassador who lived with his wife, Georgia, in Arlington. They had an ancient pet cat, Mimosa, who had lived with them on assignment all across the world. After a dinner in their home, a colleague referred to the ambassador and “his charming wife, ‘Virginia’ and cat, ‘Magnolia’.” At least he knew her name was a Southern state and the cat’s was a flowering tree.