'The bass swam around the bass drum on the ocean floor'

by Felicia Lamport

I was having lunch at the faculty club with a recent acquaintance when a young man approached my table, handed me a slip of paper, said "Two more" and walked away. My companion and I were just beginning to discuss the project that we had agreed to lunch about when another man came up, gave me another slip of paper, said "Three, maybe four" with an air of quiet triumph and left. A woman dropped off the next slip. "Only one this time," she said, "not a large number, but after awhile the mind tends to grow number."

"Would it be presumptuous to ask what this is all about?" my vis--vis said.

"Not at all," I said. "It's a kind of game--trying to find a word that has two separate pronunciations, two distinct meanings, but only one spelling. Word games used to be used more often, but it's a subject I didn't intend to subject you to since you're an economist." He looked slightly annoyed. "The last economist I tried it on got his wind up before I'd even had a chance to wind up," I explained. "This is more likely to appeal to literary people."

"Economists are not necessarily illiterate," he said. "Can you give me an example or two?"

I handed him the slip the first man had given me. He unfolded it and read aloud: "The bass swam around the bass drum on the ocean floor." He paused to blink, then continued: "The buck does odd things when the does are in heat... You sure this isn't some sort of a private code?"

"Something I'd only intimate to my most intimate friends?" I said. "By no means." I handed him the slip the woman had given me, sure that it would be a good one; her mind moves so supply that she had already added a dozen to the total supply.

"A crow can scatter wheat seeds, but can a sow sow corn?" he read, and laughed, but I sighed because the example duplicated one that had already been given me by a physicist obsessed with the game. "Oh, sao-so!" my lunch companion said. "I get it. But what's the problem? There must be dozens of words that meet your three conditions."

"They're rather hard to find. Name one if you can."

His silence lasted quite awhile but his lips kept moving.

"Are you having dessert?" the waitress asked.

"After dessert she deserted..." he started off happily, but I interrupted with: "No good; the spelling must be the same."

"Oh." Then after a pause, "But suppose I said: 'She wished she could desert him in the desert'?"

"On the nose--same spelling, two meanings, two pronunciations."

"Give me a few more from your approved list," he said.

"A couple should be enough to present you with at present. First, a rather sweet one: 'After watching the seagull dive for a fish, the dove dove.'"

"Lovely," he said. "Go on."

"OK, a final example," I said. "'The town dump is so full that it may have to start to refuse refuse. And if that makes the mayor blow his fuse, who will refuse him?'"

"That's a double," he said accusingly, and then added on with sudden inspiration: "When my mother-in-law accompanied us on our honeymoon trip to Niagara, I nearly threw the old dam over the dam."

"Two-thirds OK, but the pronunciation is the same in both."

"Damn," he said. Then, after a pause: "How about: 'In trigonometry, the sine is a sine que non'?"

"Sorry," I said gently, "foreign languages don't count. Although one contribution, 'It's unwise to rub pt into one's pate,' struck me as so charming that I was tempted to give it a visa."

"Why not?" he said. "Must you be so intransigent?"

I sighed. "You make me feel that my sole object is to object. But I allow one great exception: 'Man's laughter can be crueler than manslaughter.'"

"That's really awe-inspiring. Do these things have a name?"

"Of course: heteronyms, logical relatives of synonyms, homonyms and antonyms."

The next morning's mail brought seven sound ones from my lunch companion--not a bit to my surprise. Heteronyms spread like happy rumors, perhaps because they're so useful in warding off insomnia, migraines or irritation with airplane delays. A two-page list came from a paleoanthropologist on the same day that a novelist swam up to me on Martha's Vineyard and said, "I saw the weirdest thing in town: a hand reaching up from a manhole wielding a threaded needle. It's the first time I ever came upon a sewer in a sewer."

We are, I think, coming close to a close with the contents of the master list, combining the inspirations of several score heteronymophiles for a 49-word total, including 16 you may or may not have spotted on this page.

Back to The Heteronym Page