The Homonym List

Writing about puns got me thinking about homonyms, which made me think of The Homonym List. My little sister was a math kid. She used to put pictures of the math books she had finished in the photo cover of her school binder, where most people put pictures of horses or Christian Slater. (Did I just date myself?) Let’s just say she liked to organize and catalogue.

Bare feet?

 At some point around 4th grade, she and my parents started keeping a list of all the homonyms they could think of. Because it was my sister’s project, the list quickly turned into a spreadsheet. For a long time, our conversations were full of things like “What about bear and bare? Or bought and bot?” Which is really kind of funny, because of course you can’t hear the difference between homonyms, but everyone always had to say both of them. Or in the case of extra-awesome ones like err, air, ere, and heir, all four. The list got very long — there were several hundred entries, but I’m not sure exactly how many, since it was “preserved” for the future on a now-obsolete computer. And in a way, that’s alright, because it leaves the challenge open.


Or bear feet

I am hoping to make a homonym list in my class this year — maybe a collaborative one between classes, or a gently-competative one. I like the idea of it being a word project that lets the budding spreadsheet nerds among us loose, while also being a really fun way to explore the ridiculous spelling quirks of the English language. It’s also a way to learn a lot of interesting, old words without awkwardly Learning Vocabulary Words.  

On a side note, I’ve been in England for the past few weeks, and there are some lovely cross-accent homonyms. I think my favorite is how when British people say “artistic,” and I say “autistic” it sounds the same. 


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Very Punny

So I have a soft spot for bad puns. It’s probably why I get along with seven year olds. I’m talking really bad, like why did the golfers wear two pairs of pants? In case they got a hole in one! I learned that joke off a Dixie cup. 

But the thing is that puns are a great entrance into wordplay and verbal humor, which can be immensely complex and intelligent — just look at Shakespeare. If I was naming kinds of intelligence, I think I’d say that wordplay was one, but maybe that’s just because I enjoy and admire it.

I credit my dad with developing my love of a bad pun. He loves some bad ones. My mom is certain her sense of humor is superior, but no one gets her jokes, and when she tells other people’s she tends to clean them up so much that she ruins them. Which can be funny, but not in the way she meant. Regardless, my house as a child was a place where people were often groaning over each other’s invented jokes. Like my brother’s: What grows on mills in the morning? Mildew! No one says this is a great joke, but it’s not any worse than the jokes on a Dixie cup.

Here’s the deal — the bar on puns is really low. (Which reminds me — man walks into a bar and says “ouch!” I love that joke. I know, but I do.) This means it isn’t hard to invent jokes that are at least as worth their space as the ones in kids’ joke books — and better, because they’re original. A great place to start is with homonyms. Homonyms are jokes waiting to happen. They are also the bane of beginner spellers. Playing with the potential for humor in them can help transform them from a minefield of spelling failures into a mine of dumb jokes. Like the one about the lady who saw her first gray hair and thought she’d dye. Or the Boy Scouts’ camping trip, which was intense. Or how people who jump of bridges in Paris are in Seine. Sorry, I know, they’re terrible. Your kids can come up with better, I bet.

And even if you don’t think they’re funny, they might. My sister and her best friend laughed for years over their version of Knock knock, who’s there, Mickey Mouse’s underwear. It went Knock knock, who’s there, Mickey Mouse’s cary-car. Yeah, I know. Some humor is impenetrable.


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Just the Facts

Sometimes when we look at things, all we see is our own minds. This exercise helps me break out of that. It’s something I do when I want to see a place clearly — whether that place is my own yard, a park bench, or a cafe in Paris.

It is very simple: sit some place and write down what you notice. Write down precise details, small things and large. But here’s the catch: only write down things that are facts, not opinions.

This is where it gets interesting, and difficult, and helps you see the world afresh. For instance, say a man walks by frowning and dragging his feet. He has dark skin and white hair and uses a cane. Say your first instinct is to write down this: There goes a sad, tired old black man. Pause for a second — is that description fact or opinion? Is his frown sadness or frustration? You don’t know. Is he tired or is something wrong with his feet or is he practicing a funny walk? You don’t know. Is he old? What does the word old mean, anyway? Old as a grandpa? Old as a mountain? Old as yesterday’s newspaper? And just because his skin is dark, does that make him necessarily black? Is that something you can know without talking to him? And while we’re at it, are you sure he’s a man? Shoot, there goes that sentence!

But really — this is where it gets interesting. This is where we look closely. Instead of jumping to sadness, we have to stick with describing his frown and the slump of his shoulders and the pathos in his eyes. We actually look at how he is walking and try to describe the shuffle and lean of his steps in a way that the word tired will never actually portray.

I’ve done this exercise with my students in the forest, and they’ve returned with beautifully observant descriptions. I’ve done it myself in Paris, where my snap judgement there go lots of beautiful Parisian women in skinny jeans was challenged, and at Monet’s garden, where I wrote down the water dappled like hammered metal, the lilies a stark pink. For a while, before the rain, a car alarm, and I can still remember with precision the image I wrote down years ago on a beach in Spain of a small boy in a red Speedo doing push-ups while a man (I could not swear it was his father) cheered him on. 

I’d encourage you to try this yourselves and with your families, whether in a familiar place or a new one. When we learn to use language precisely, we encourage precise thoughts and clear vision. I would guess that this exercise could spark interesting dialogues about our assumptions and about the simple, delightful details of the world.

Posted in Exercises, Ruminations

The Picture/Caption Game

Here’s a great game for all those boring travel moments. All you need is a few pieces of paper (or receipts or envelopes or old boarding passes) and a few pens, pencils, crayons, or Hello Kitty Multi Color Pens — whatever you’ve got. Adults enjoy it, kids enjoy it, pre-literate people can play too, and it teaches non-pedantically about parts of speech.

Misunderstood Umbrella (photo by sektordua on Flickr)

This game (which needs a better title, I know), is a variation on Exquisite Corpse. It works like this:

~ Someone writes a phrase at the top of the paper. I like to play that people write an adjective and a noun — Hungry Cat, Misunderstood Umbrella, etc. Pass it to the left.

~ The next person draws a picture of the phrase. This gets especially fun if the phrase was kind of abstract. Then they fold over the phrase so that only the pictures shows and pass it to the left.

~The next person writes a adjective/noun caption for that picture. They fold over the picture and pass to the left

~ The next person draws a picture for that caption, and so on until the paper is full.

Then you open the paper and look at how the Misunderstood Umbrella became a Groovy Manta Ray, which became a Talking Leaf etc. Pre-literate kids can be positioned so that they always draw. And those older folks who cringe because they “can’t draw”? Tell them that’s an asset in this game, like mumbling is in Telephone.

Another fun version is to write full sentence captions instead of a two-word phrase. This version is especially good for older people who can make the sentences weird and abstract instead of descriptive. It’s much more fun (and challenging) to draw “Maybe no one speaks Umbrella said the umbrella” than “There is an umbrella with a frown in a corner.” And after all, the whole point is to have fun writing.

(And if you try this one out and come up with a better name for it, please let me know!)

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