As an English teacher, I constantly struggle to explain to my students why words like your (a possessive pronoun) and you’re (a contraction meaning “you are”) don’t work interchangeably. They understand when I teach the concept, yet I see this and other errors constantly in student writing. It would seem that the world does, indeed, struggle with homophones on a daily basis, and when I am not teaching a class, I still cringe when I see homophones used improperly. However, I was floored when I read about an education blogger who was fired because it was believed that his blog about homophones could potentially cause some confusion with the word homophobes. This is an example of our world gone too politically correct, and while it needs to be understood that with every story the media prints, there is the story of those who are involved, the media’s spin on it, and the truth somewhere in the middle, the notion of the word homophones getting confused with homophobes is ludicrous in the extreme.
Homophones, for those who may have forgotten, are words that sound the same but mean different things – whether and weather would be classic examples of homophones. Homophobes, strictly speaking, are those who are afraid of or who hate homosexuals or homosexuality. These are about as related as Kermit the Frog is to the Pope. According to Newsweek, who wrote about education blogger Tim Torkildson’s dismissal from the Nomen Global Language Center in Provo, Utah, the dismissal stemmed from Nomen Global owner Clarke Woodger’s concern that Torkildson’s post about homophones would associate the school with homophobes and homosexuality.
According to Torkildson’s account of the firing, Woodger was concerned that some students at the school would not understand what Torkildson was talking about and could be offended that Torkildson was possibly discussing homosexuality. Woodger said that some might think a blog on homophones would be about homosexuality, and that was apparently the reason behind Torkildson’s firing.
While a 2010 Gallup poll ranks Utah among the most conservative states in the United States, I fail to see how a topic from elementary school could even potentially be considered linked to one of the biggest issues facing LGBT individuals today. Homophobia continues to be a concern worldwide – ask those who live in Nigeria and Uganda, where homosexuality is effectively outlawed – and has never, not even once, been a grammar issue.
Torkildson also admits that there were some personality clashes with Woodger, and while only Torkildson and Woodger will know the full story behind this matter, Woodger’s linking of homophones and homophobes is a stunning misstep on his part. He did admit, according to Torkildson, that he had not looked the word homophones up prior to their meeting and his subsequent dismissal of the education blogger, but it is likely that Woodger may not have even read the full post. Context is everything, whether you are in a social setting or reading a newspaper, and if Woodger thought, even for a moment, that the students in his school would potentially get homophones and homophobes confused, he is not giving the students in his school nearly enough credit for their intelligence. A Grade 4 or 5 student in 21st century North America has no doubt already heard the term “homosexual” in one way or another simply through their experiences consuming mass media; some of their families may have homosexual partnerships, for that matter.
Perhaps Woodger needs to take a hard look at his own views on homosexuality before he determines that students will get a basic term like homophones confused with homophobes. A grammar refresher might also be helpful, though given the recent press coverage on this matter, Woodger may not have time for it. For his part, Torkildson is currently homeless and living in a friend’s basement.
Opinion by Christina St-Jean