“Carrots and Cords”

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   The source of particulars in this post is James J. Kilpatrick’s The Ear Is Human: A Handbook of Homophones and other confusions¹ and a peek at several dictionaries and, maybe, tweaking the truth.

   For the record, a homonym is “one of two or more words that are spelled and pronounced alike but different in meaning” (salt and post, for example). A homophone is “one of two or more words pronounced alike but different in meaning or derivation or spelling” (carrot, carat, karat, and caret; and cordchord, and cored for example).

   Now to go directly to Kilpatrick for two homophone sets he discusses:

   “carat/ caret/ karat

   “The two that give trouble are carat and karat. Anyone who has occasion to write about caret presumably knows that the caret is that little arrowhead mark that proofreaders use to indicate where matter is to be inserted. So much for caret.

   “A carat is a unit of weight, equal to 200 milligrams, that is only used for precious stones. A karat is a unit of fineness for gold. One karat is equal to 1/24th part of pure gold in an alloy; thus an 18-karat wedding ring is three-fourths gold and one-fourth good intentions.

   “If you throw a carrot into this linguistic stew, you get a four-way homophone, but it didn’t seem necessary to discuss the roots of carrot. You can dig them out for yourself.”

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   “chord/ cord

   [After four paragraphs of examples in public print of where these words have been confused, Kilpatrick cuts to the skinny.]

   “The problem with chord and cord is that we get tangled in word associations. We associate chords with music: It takes at least three notes, sounded simultaneously, to produce a chord. In writing about a signer, we think music, and automatically a Shelley Burch [previously mentioned] acquires vocal chords. No way. Those things vibrating in her throat are vocal cords.

   “Now we get into serious trouble. A cord is a piece of stout string. Right? We have a simile, ‘straight as a string.’ We think of a cord stretching from one point directly to another. But do you know what the straight line is that connects two points on a circle? That’s a chord. My advice is to forget geometry when you’re writing about less esoteric cords and chords.

   “Chords have to do with music, and by extension with harmony, and harmony pleases. Thus we strike a responsive chord….

   “Cords have to do with–well, cords: umbilical cords, vocal cords, the heavy string with which you tie up a package. As for the busy woodsman in South Dakota, he was turning out cords of wood, each 4 X 4 X 8 ft.²

   “Three-way homophones are nothing unusual, but if you’re playing word games you can hit a triple with cored.”

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   These are only 2 of 185 sets of homophones in The Ear Is Human. If exploring words is part of what you enjoy, the writing of the late James Kilpatrick is someone to keep your eye open for as you prowl used book tents this summer³.

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   ¹ James J. Kilpatrick, The Ear Is Human: A Handbook of Homophones and other confusions  (Andrews, McMeel, & Parker, 1985).

   ² Something important that Kilpatrick doesn’t mention is the difference between a face cord and full cord (or regular, traditional, Kilpatrickian cord). A face cord 4 ft. X 8 ft. X 16 or 18 in. (“deep”), only a bit more than 1/3 of a full (or real) cord, though it looks the same head-on. That’s in keeping with the way things often are these. If the wood is for your stove, and it can easily accommodate 18 in. wood, then that’s the kind to buy if it’s available that way for the same price. Ask your woodman what he means by a “cord.”

   ³ Kilpatrick, once a widely syndicated political columnist, has been called the H. L. Mencken of our time. Another of his books on my shelf is Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art (Andrews & McMeel, 1993) about which William Safire has said: “In the eternal battle between impossible-to-maintain standards and impossible-to-stand maintenances, his trumpet is certain.”