Some time ago I was thinking about topics for blogs and decided to do a geeky tribute to homonyms— the mischievous imps of the word world. Homonyms have a tendency to blend into the background unless you have an eye, or rather an ear, for them. They can create humour and havoc, and they are marvellously engaging when well-handled. I mentioned the topic to a friend (I forget why, since we were rolling up a carpet at the time) and he said, “Do you know that Erin Robinsong is a collector of homonyms?” I did not know, but I do know Erin a little bit, and as it turns out she has just completed a poetry manuscript called Binaural Ballad that investigates homonymy.
But first, a refresher course (courtesy of wikipedia):
- Homonyms are words that share pronunciation but have different meanings such as aisle (walkway) and isle (island).
- Sub-species of homonyms are homographs (identical spelling but different meaning such as bat, which can be a winged mouse or a piece of equipment for baseball) and homophones (different meanings but same sound such as oral and aural).
- Linguists also like to differentiate true homonyms which are unrelated in origin, such as skate (on ice) and skate (the fish) or polysemous homonyms which have a meaning-based relationship (for example the mouth of a river and the mouth of an animal).
- The word heteronym refers to words that have identical spellings but different pronunciations, such as bass (pronounced base to refer to a string instrument and bass to refer to a fish).
Why are homonyms wonderful?
- Homonyms introduce ambiguity, which can be a bane if you’re a newspaper editor but a boon if you’re a poet or humorist. Consider the following headlines:
Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
Teacher Strikes Idle Kid
One can imagine the writer in the first example meant the word try in the judicial sense, but it can be read to mean try in the sense of attempt. Try is a homonym (and a homograph). In the second headline the subject is meant to be teacher strikes as in labour stoppages, and not in the verb sense to hit someone.
I wonder what Adam and Eve
Think of it by this time,
This fire-gilt steel
Alive with goldenness;
How bright it shows—
“of circular traditions and impostures,
commiting many spoils,”
Requiring all one’s criminal ingenuity
If you were to hear these words, rather than see them, the ambiguities of the homonyms (gilt and guilt, steel and steal) echo the ambiguity of Moore’s feelings on the subject.
Erin Robinsong (best name for a poet, ever) was kind enough to speak with me and to share an essay that she wrote about homonyms. Erin is a Toronto-based poet and interdisciplinary artist who loves to explore movement and sound. Her work has appeared recently in Regreen: New Canadian Ecological Poetry; Dandelion Magazine; Poetry is Dead; and onstage at the Conference on Ecopoetics (Berkeley, CA), and the &NOW Festival of New Writing (San Diego, CA). Erin teaches at Humber College, The Harbourfront Centre, and in public libraries throughout Toronto as part of Swallowing Clouds, a literacy and performing arts program directed by Yvonne Ng.
I cannot do justice to Erin’s writing here, but what I can say is that she has a deep relationship with homonyms, and she collects them with zeal. Apparently there are seven thousand homonyms in the English language and there are massive online collections available. Erin curates her own collection for “surprising resonances and tensions.” She thinks of them as living, mysterious, koans or riddles that we can grasp with a sense of wonder, but if we only use our intellect, we miss the better part of the experience. Homonyms are an example, to her, of “things [that] reveal themselves to have unexpected alter-egos leading other lives” and she feels that they can lead to “invisible wires between things buzzing.” Homonyms have a living or animated quality that can transmit thoughts in an unusual alchemy of sensory data (sound, visual form) meeting anatomy (eye, ear, brain) perception and understanding. Here is an excerpt of Erin’s essay:
Take “spell.” Is it enough to spell something correctly, will that get the job done? The magic transference of language into form, that is? No, because spells must be spoken aloud, and for that spelling is important—we can’t call a hole whole, for instance, without disastrous effects—but it isn’t ultimately what matters. What matters is sound. How do magical forces hear homonyms? They hear the tension between them…
Erin’s approach to homonyms reminds me that playing with words can be sheer fun. Does matter matter? And on another matter, if you are interested in seeing/hearing some of Erin’s work. Check out these links:
Variable Whethers (video poem)
Osculations on a Theory of Islands (sound piece with Kathleen Brown)
Big thanks to Erin for taking the time to help me with this post. (Please see the photo credits below). Until next time,
Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, March 23, 2014. We hope you can join us.
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Photo credits (in order of appearance)
Headshot: self portrait
Oscultations: Denise Brennan
Batgirl: Kaeli Robinsong
Cell: Berkley Brady
Variable Whethers: still from video
Excerpt from Marianne Moore’s poem, Marriage, fromhttp://www.poemhunter.com/poem/marriage-2/