According to an article in The Salt Lake City Tribune, a man was fired from his English-teaching job after he penned a blog post explaining “homophones”.
In linguistics, a homophone is a set of words that sound the same but have different meanings. For example, the words “pair” and “pear” are pronounced the same way, but they have different spellings and meanings. Linguists also make the distinction of a “homograph”, a set of words that have the same form, but mean different things, such as “kind” as in being nice, versus “kind” as a type of something. These phenomena are known collectively as “homonyms”. Here’s a fun list of some homographs found in English.
In this story, teacher Tim Torkildson discussed the concept of homophones on the Nomen Global Language Center website, when his boss Clarke Woodger, complained that he could not trust him and that his post about homophones was the “last straw”. Torkildson was fired, and Woodger bemoaned, “Now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality!”
As my friend Yau-Man Chan remarked, “Wow.. what’s next – drama teachers fired for training thespians? Wait till the boss finds out that he along with all his fellow humans are in the genus Homo Sapien and he’s been drinking homogenized milk! Isn’t English fun and nasty? Love it!”
What’s going on here? Well, this is a classic case of pejoration, that is, a type of semantic change whereby a word develops negative connotations. Specifically for Woodger (and unfortunately, others), the perfectly innocuous “homophone” has become tabooed and tarnished by his negative perception of the similar-sounding word “homosexual”, even though the two words have nothing to do with each other beyond their prefix. The “homo” prefix comes from the Greek “homos” for “one and the same”, as found in words like “homogeneous”. As pointed out by Yau-Man in his example of Homo sapiens, there is also the prefix “homo” that comes from the Latin for “male human”, although the current meaning has shifted to “human being”.
Pejoration has likewise affected the words “snigger”, “niggardly” and “denigrate” that sound too similar to “nigger”, even though they have no etymological connections. “Ass” as in donkey has become tarnished for it’s homophony with “ass” as in “bottom”. “Rooster” is preferred over “cock”. “Coney” was once a word for “bunny”, but it dropped out of use due to its similarity to a naughty word…
“Ayds” appetite-suppresant candy was popular in the 1970s and 1980s, until the public awareness of AIDS caused problems for the company. Sales plummeted, so they changed the name to Diet Ayds. The damage was already done and the product was withdrawn from the market and the company eventually folded, all due to the potent power of pejoration.
Words can ameliorate too, that is, improve in connotation, although the phenomenon of pejoration is much more common because we humans are a dirty bunch and laugh when people say words like “condiment” and “mastication”.
Of course, there’s nothing “bad” about homosexuality, although homophobic people like Woodger perceive the word as something “dirty”. This is their own prejudice. In Woodger’s case, his actions seem to be motivated by homophobia and his personal dislike of Torkildson who would reputedly, “go off on tangents” in his blogs that would be confusing and sometimes could be considered offensive. Woodger argues that his school caters to foreign students and that, “People at this level of English may see the ‘homo’ side and think it has something to do with gay sex.
I argue that people need to be taught a language as it’s spoken naturally, without being influenced by the biases and prejudices of the teacher. In fact, an article explaining the prefix “homo”, its etymology (origins) and its current meanings and usage would have been a much better reaction than firing a man for doing his job. Ironically, a similar post about homophones was posted on the school’s website back in 2011 with apparently no controversy…
Thanks to Yau-Man Chan for the link.