H E T E R O N Y M S
At, Present, He'd Like to Present Some Heteronyms
Los Angeles Times
December 4, 1989
I have discussed the homonym, homophone and homograph, but Milt Klein of Skylight
Productions notes that I have overlooked the equally provocative heteronym--a word that
has the same spelling as another but a different meaning and a different pronunciation.
For example, bass--a fish, and bass--a low voice.
Klein encloses a list of 50 heteronyms compiled by what he calls "a group of us in
the Hollywood community."
It's an amazing list. Try to think of a few heteronyms yourself. It isn't easy.
Their list begins with address, august, bass and bow, and continues through the alphabet.
Klein also encloses a one-page essay on heteronyms from the Smithsonian. It is by
Felicia Lamport, and it is felicitous indeed. In form, it is a luncheon conversation at
which friends keep dropping by to give the host slips of paper on which they have written
The host reads the first slip to his guest: "The bass swam around the bass drum on
the ocean floor....The buck does odd things when the does are in heat...."
Catching on, the host's guest tries to think of one himself: "After dessert she
"No good," the host interjects. "The spelling must be the same."
"Suppose I had said, 'she wished she could desert him in the desert'?"
"On the nose--same spelling, two meanings, two pronunciations."
And so on. I don't wish to plagiarize Lamport, nor do I presume to write as
ingenious a piece, but I will borrow her form to illustrate the heteronym, using only
words from Klein's list.
I was having lunch at the Caltech Athenaeum with Kent Clark, the Caltech English
professor, and Clark said, "I'm afraid the wind will buffet our buffet." (Remember, this
is imaginary. Clark is not this silly.)
"If it comes close," I said, "we can close the doors."
"It could compound the damage," Clark says. "by blowing through the compound."
"If the converse is true," I said, "and it blows through here, it would be hard for
us to converse."
"Indeed," he said. "We might have to desert before dessert."
"No good," I said. "But who is that at the entrance? She does entrance."
"You might exploit her presence," he said, "with a typical exploit."
"Seduction is not my forte," I assured him. "I'm better at the piano forte."
Clark raised a hand. "If I know my French," he said, "forte, meaning strength, is
pronounced for-tay. And pianoforte is one word."
"You're right about pianoforte," I admitted. "But forte is pronounced fort."
"Iconcede my error," he said. "That was a lead balloon. You lead me."
A well-known biologist entered the room. "As I live and breathe," I said. "A live
Clark lunged at his shrimp cocktail. "He is making a study of one-lunged
amphibians," he said. "He expects to perfect it soon."
"That's perfect," I said. "When will he present his findings?"
"Not at present," said Clark. "The details are so minute that it takes more than a
minute or two."
"What do you project for your own future.?" I asked Clark. "Do you have another play
"I'm working on a project," he said. "The object of it to eulogize co-education. I
hope you don't object."
"Not at all," I said. "My interest has peaked. But you look a little peaked."
"It's the incense," he said. "That smell tends to incense me."
"Do you intimate," I asked, "that you don't like exotic odors? Or am I too
"I'm afraid I'm a rebel," he said. "I rebel."
"Do you have a contract for your new play?" I asked.
"The converse," he said. "I'm hoping to contract for it, but I have no one to
"I hope to read it," I said. "I've already read 'Let's Advance on Science.' Have
you received the proceeds from it?"
"It proceeds slowly," he said.
Klein's list had "manslaughter" on it, with a question mark. But I notice that
Lamport used it: "Man's laughter can be crueler than manslaughter."
She concluded: "Heteronyms spread like happy rumors, perhaps because they're so
useful in warding off insomnia, migraines or irritation with airplane delays."
The greater the number, the number I get.
Reasons why the English language is so hard to learn:
The bandage was wound around the wound.
The farm was used to produce produce.
The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
We must polish the Polish furniture.
He could lead if he would get the lead out.
The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to
present the present.
A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
I did not object to the object.
The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
They were too close to the door to close it.
The buck does funny things when the does are present.
A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
After a number of injections my jaw got number.
Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
Let's face it - English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor
pine in pineapple.
English muffins weren't invented in England or French fries in France.
Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.
We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find
that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea
pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing; grocers don't
groce and hammers don't ham?
If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth?
One goose, 2 geese. One moose, 2 moose. One index, 2 indices.
Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend?
If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of
them, what do you call it?
If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?