What's the Difference Between Homophonia, Homophobia, and Homophonophobia?

A Blog About Language
Aug. 1 2014 2:24 PM

What's the Difference Between Homophonia, Homophobia, and Homophonophobia?

homophonophobia

A man has recently been fired from his job at an English-learning company for writing about homophones, on the mistaken belief that words which sound like other words have something to do with homosexuality.

The man in question, Tim Torkildson, reported about it on his blog, and the story was subsequently picked up by the Salt Lake Tribune and a variety of other flabbergasted media outlets.  

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"I'm letting you go because I can't trust you" said Clarke Woodger, my boss and the owner of Nomen Global Language Center.  "This blog about homophones was the last straw.  Now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality."

I said nothing, stunned into silence.

"I had to look up the word" he continued, "because I didn't know what the hell you were talking about.  We don't teach this kind of advanced stuff to our students, and it's extremely inappropriate."

Etymologically speaking, of course, homophone and homosexual do share a common Greek prefix homo-, meaning "same": Homophones sound the same (the same phone as in telephone or phonograph) and homosexuality is attraction to the same sex. However, by the same process that gives us phone for telephone, just plain homo is often used for the entire meaning "homosexual." (Or, in Canada, as short for "homogenized milk." I'm not even kidding.)

In fact, the similarity in sound between homophone and homophobe has been noticed before, in this comic by Magic Coffee Hair: The first character says, "Call me close-minded, but I just think it's unnatural for two words that sound the same to have different meanings," to which the response is, "Wow...I had no idea you were so homophonophobic."

What intrigues me is that reports of this incident are calling it homophonia, a near homophone of homophobia (or possibly a portmanteau of homophone + homophobia), rather than the longer but more precise homophonophobia like the comic does. The term homophonia isn't in Torkildson's blog post, but rather starts, as far as I can tell, with the Salt Lake Tribune, and gets picked up on Language Log and elsewhere.

Although homophonophobia is a bit of a mouthful, you'd think it would be a more obvious term than homophonia. After all, there are many words ending in -ia that have nothing to do with fears or hatred, as in insomnia or California, and it's easy to create new words with -phobia: You may never have seen blogophobia or YOLOphobia before, but it's obvious what they mean. On the other hand, without context, homophonia is what? The state of being a homophone?

But perhaps homophonophobia isn't accurate either: It's not so much that Torkildson's supervisor had an objection to the general concept of words that sound like other words, but rather to the connotations of the homo- prefix, making this both homophobia in the typical sense, as well as a type of meta-homophobia: fear/hatred of the sequence homo- itself. The less precise homophonia might be a better reflection of this complication.

In the meantime, commenters on the story are having fun with wordplay: There's a list of 35 kinds of sexy, hot homophone action from Mental Floss, as well as a post about "the gay addenda" on the Washington Post:

"Our hour has come," proclaim the militant homophones. "We are discrete but no longer discreet." They threaten to uproot heteronymativity.

At the very least, one positive result of this whole debacle is that more people seem to be inspired to learn what homophones actually are: Peter Sokolowski at Merriam-Webster reports a spike in people looking up the term in the past 24 hours.

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist and the contributing editor of Slate's Lexicon Valley blog. She has a master's in linguistics from McGill University and blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.

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