My cell phone pings. I glance away from my first-grade students to see the word “taught” illuminated on its screen. I wait. Soon “taut” appears beneath it.
Two years have passed since my son and daughter departed for college, emptying my nest. I watch these adult siblings now weaving their individual lives and look for threads that still connect us. One of those threads is our love of words. Spelling bee champs, Scrabble competitors, voracious readers—we are Wordies.
Our growing list of homophones has hung on the corkboard in our pantry for 15 years. I don’t recall what brought the list to life. Perhaps it was the gleeful discovery of “some” and “sum” by a then-young Austin. After other childhood projects pinned in the pantry were abandoned (creation of a planet, mastery of sign language, attempts to accurately draw sea turtles), the homophone list lived on.
Merriam-Webster defines a homophone as each of two or more words having the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins, or spelling. We decided early on that, to be included on our list, word pairs had to have both different meanings and different spelling. Who wants to spend time explaining the difference between sitting on a perch and fishing for a perch while the different spellings and meanings of “purchase” and “perches” make inclusion in the list indisputable?
Over the years, this list has piqued (peaked, peeked) the curiosity of family and friends. In its infancy, whenever Austin or his sister, Faith, blurted out additions like “break” and “brake,“ conversation halted, the original topic lost.
“Good words,” I’d say and then explain our project to the curious non-Wordies. Inevitably, these non-Wordies would debate what the correct label was for our words. Were they homophones or homographs? Homonyms? Some even suggested that our list consisted of synonyms.
As my kids’ eyes widened, I imagined them thinking, “How do they not know what homophones are?” Then I could almost hear their brains click, “Wait! Do, not, know and due, knot, no!”
I make a note of my son’s “taught” and “taut” and return my focus to the flock of first graders in front of me. My students are at that eager-to-please, wide-eyed age, their brains and mouths working hard to form words from newly introduced sounds. Their reading successes are daily reminders of the joy my own kids found in their developing vocabulary all those years ago.
Austin and Faith absorbed new words early and easily. Weekly, we picked a subject—volcanoes, goats, hats—and talked and talked about it, exhausting the subject’s associated vocabulary. We sought out unique words in books and spent many afternoons in the shade of our back porch, nibbling on peanut butter toast and relishing the words in Treasure Island, All Creatures Great and Small, and others.
Winter months took us inside, my children’s soft bodies pressed close to mine as words carried us from a boy’s Christmas parlor in Wales to Scrooge’s chilly chamber in England. Austin and Faith were particularly tickled by Dickens’ wordplay. “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you” could be heard around our house long past December.
When my kids were in first and second grades, a week wouldn’t pass without one of them excitedly announcing the discovery of a new pair of homophones to add to our list. With wide, lemon-slice smiles, they shared “feet/feat,” “blue/blew,” “plain/plane” and many more. The list grew exponentially back then.
“Good words,” I’d tell them, as our dinner table buzzed with this secret language we shared.
In middle school, when the list topped 400 homophone pairs, the single syllable words made room for words like “gorilla/guerilla,” “discussed/disgust,” and “addition/edition.” Light-hearted squabbles started whenever one of us balked at the suggestion of a questionable word pair. This prompted negotiations like, “I’ll let you add ‘axes’ and ‘axis’ if you let me add ‘court’ and ‘quart.'” Debates still take place between us today regarding the proper pronunciation of “qu.”
By the time Austin and Faith started high school, our list neared 500. It was then that my kids’ interests shifted from language and literature to science. I felt a twinge of trepidation, concerned that if I couldn’t keep up with their increasingly diverse vocabulary, our connection as Wordies might be lost. To compensate, while Austin and Faith pored over science homework, I challenged myself with crossword puzzles. During afternoon breaks between their studies and swim practice, the three of us munched on popcorn and talked about our day. When they told me about what they were learning, they noted homophones that they came across along the way.
“I have a good one,” Faith said one afternoon. “Rime and rhyme.”
“Me, too,” added Austin. “Gaseous and gashes.”
“Good words,” I told them.
When I shared “islet” and “eyelet,” words gleaned from my crossword endeavors, they both nodded and smiled.
“Good words,” they echoed back.
Their continued interest in our word game, so second-nature now, coupled with their new interest in science, made for rich additions to our list during those years.
Those afternoon breaks that we spent sharing homophones—which dwindled quickly as their near-adult schedules filled—gave me the opportunity to remain close to my kids. While my ears caught their words, my eyes marveled at the way (weigh) my son’s hands had grown (groan) to mirror his father’s and how the flecks (flex) of gold in my daughter’s eyes (ayes) sparkled. The connection that our small word game forged between us allowed me to witness up close my teenagers’ ascent (assent) into adulthood.
Since leaving for college, my kids speak a language that’s unique to them, their friends, and their field of study (engineering). When they return home for holiday breaks or summer barbecues, our dinner table isn’t filled with conversation about homophones. Instead, I enjoy listening to their exchanges peppered with mathematical jargon. They have their own shared language now, and, though it’s a language foreign to me, I hear in it how their fondness for words continues. There’s something comforting in that, this love for language living on in them. It’s a way by which, I hope, I will live on in them, too.
There aren’t many days now that I receive texts like my son’s “taught” and “taut.” But when I do, I feel a bridge across the miles connecting me to my kids. I open the pantry door, find the list and pencil in their additions. Second grade turtle drawings and high school swim schedules are no longer there to crowd the list. Instead, it peeks out from beneath my daughter’s study abroad itinerary and photos of my son’s new apartment. I linger there with the list, reminiscing about the sources of some of the 500-plus words. I see the word “bridal” (bridle) and search out the word “veil” (vale), remembering our family road trip to see that famous Yosemite waterfall. “Parody” (parity) shouts out from the list like 10-year-old Austin shouted it after the curtain call at our annual summer play. “Palette” (palate/pallet) whispers from the list in the same hushed tone that 13-year-old Faith used at a museum exhibit of watercolors.
There are many days more that I find myself in the pantry not to add to the list, but to retrieve bread for myself, alone. I pause to look at our words and run my fingers over the yellowed paper. I smile, lift the loaf of bread (bred) from the shelf and close (clothes) the door.