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Language Can Get You in Trouble


Two writings this week, methinks, since you were robbed on Friday. This is a presentation I gave in university on homonyms.

Today I have the pleasure of discussing homonyms and other frequently confused words.

Homonyms are words that sound alike, but are spelled differently. Frequently confused words are—well, frequently confused.

Some may think homonyms to be unimportant and arbitrary. It might even be imagined that I chose this topic because it was the easiest on the topics list. These things are all completely untrue. Not only are homonyms complicated and interesting, but they can also result in several socially embarrassing situations.

For example: a man who is vacationing in the small island of Nauru with his girlfriend and who suggests a brisk walk down the ‘isle’ (meaning the island) might soon find himself stuffed into a small Nauruan wedding chapel.

But these situations can be avoided with a simple grasp of homonyms. For instance: if one were ever to find one’s self in eighteenth-century Newfoundland, one should never ask to eat a burger. They didn’t have burgers in eighteenth-century Newfoundland. They did have burghers, however—B-U-R-G-H-E-R. A burgher is a merchant, and asking to eat one would probably land you in the stockades. Cannibalism was just as uncouth back then as it is today.

Knowledge of homonyms is also useful to undertakers, who must be extremely careful when offering anyone a beer. Beer is commonly known as the drink responsible for many students failing English 2000, but if spelled differently, it can mean something else entirely. A bier—B-I-E-R—is a temporary frame for a coffin, and offering one to somebody could be interpreted as a thinly veiled death threat.

That wraps it up for homonyms and frequently confused words. As always, I direct all questions to somebody else—anybody else—because he or she will doubtlessly know more than I do.

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