Homophonia and Parekbasiphobia

This is now a well-known story (and no hoax): Blogger Tim Torkildson was fired from his position at Nomen Global Language Center, Utah’s largest private English as a Second Language school, for posting a piece about homophones on the company’s website.

Homophones are words with like sounds and different meanings, such as where/wear, or/oar, and pair/pear. They may have the same spelling (for instance, rose/rose).

A post about homophones is entirely appropriate for the website of an ESL school. But Clarke Woodger, Nomen owner and boss, told the Salt Lake City Tribune that “people at this level of English … may see the ‘homo’ side and think it has something to do with gay sex.”

Well, and so what if they did? They are learning English, correct? They would soon learn what “homophones” actually were. In addition, they could learn the meaning of the prefix “homo-.” Part of the point of learning a language is learning what words and their parts actually mean–not staying stuck in what you think they mean.

If you avoid the very sounds of words because of their possible associations, you will end up in a verbal noose. But that’s only part of the story. Woodger’s greater concern–as reported to Torkildson and to the Salt Lake City Tribune–was that Torkildson was going off on too many tangents in his posts and therefore couldn’t be trusted. This post on homophones–a wild digression, in Woodger’s view–was “the last straw.”

If we look at this story in terms of a fear of tangents and digressions (which I will call parekbasiphobia, as parekbasis is Greek for digression), then Woodger’s complaint is typical of a larger tendency in education.

Since my entry into public school teaching in 2005, I have seen widespread distrust of digressions. Teachers themselves understand the value of digressions–allowing a conversation to take an unexpected direction for the sake of larger understanding, or even for sheer fun. But policymakers and teacher trainers see it otherwise: to many of them, if you stray from the point for even a few seconds, you are wasting precious instructional time. You may be robbing children of the opportunity to meet the stated objective and thereby to achieve measurable progress.

One of the first “inservice trainings” I attended included a presentation about sticking to the point. “We want our lessons to go straight to the objective,” the presenter said, “not where our own imagination takes them. We want to be like this”–here she made a gesture of straight motion–“and not like this” (a gesture of a zigzag).

One of my greatest teachers, the poet John Hollander, showed us in lecture after lecture, seminar after seminar, what digressions could do. There was no imitating him–in no way could his teaching be a “model”–but I would not trade a single one of his lectures for something that stuck strictly to the point. For Hollander, the point itself was multifaceted; to understand it, one needed to take excursions into etymology, history, architecture, music, and more.

Now, how do I reconcile a defense of digression with my insistence that focus is essential for learning? On the surface, it seems that these two principles contradict each other, but they do not. There is a big difference between digression and all-out distraction. If one is attentive to the topic at hand, one can move this way and that within it. How and when one does so will depend largely on the situation. Not all digressions are helpful, but some may open up insights into the lesson’s central questions. You can miss the point by sticking too rigidly to the point.

By contrast, what doesn’t count as focus is a willful inattention to a lesson or topic–a preoccupation with one’s iPhone, or with the latest social gossip, or with the homework for the next class. Now, some would argue that such “distractions” should be made part of the lesson–that instead of battling them, teachers should welcome them and search for their inner meaning. On the whole, I disagree. There is a simple practice of setting aside one’s own immediate preoccupations for the sake of something else. If students (and teachers and schools) do not develop this discipline, they will be at the mercy of their urges and impulses.

But once the general focus is established, there’s room for a great deal of adventure. Just how much, and when–that’s a matter of judgment, and judgment is at the center of a teacher’s practice. Take away judgment, and you take it all away.

In fretting over Torkildson’s “tangents,” Woodger may seem ridiculous–but he represents a current of our time.

Leave a comment


  1. Hideko Secrest

     /  August 3, 2014

    Brava, Diana, for daring to assert that getting to the point should not be a teacher’s exclusive aim! When I have been observed as a teacher for evaluation, one of the things those in charge constantly remark upon is my going off on tangents. But those very tangents are prompted by things the students say, or their preconceptions. I often talk about the etymology of words, or the language of origin of words in order to demonstrate how deeply certain assumptions about the world go. When my German language students were laughing about the fact that the German word for innocent was “unguilty” (unschuldig), I said, “Not so fast! ‘Innocent’ comes from Latin, in- (not) + nocens (harming). So maybe it’s tough for us as human beings to grasp the concept of innocence without first hitting on the idea of wrongdoing.” The observer thought that was interesting, but nothing to do with the teaching of German, so I probably should have saved it for after class.

    • Thank you, Hideko, for this story! Sad that your comment would be considered irrelevant–but I can see many a classroom observer deeming it so.

      Here’s a situation where the students laughed at a German word only to learn that the English equivalent had the same features. Isn’t that part of what we learn when studying a language–that by laughing at others, we also laugh at ourselves? And the question you posed–about how we think of innocence and guilt–probably stayed with the students long afterward.

    • Ha ha, and thank you, Jon! I look forward to reading your entry on differential logic. (I think my students would be interested in it too.)

  2. CP Senechal

     /  August 3, 2014

    It strikes me that any sailor would catch your drift (if you get my point). When sailing up-wind, it’s never a good idea to sail too close to the wind (direction). Sailing too close into the wind’s direction can, and usually does, result in great instability (and much wetness). Attempting to sail directly into the wind results in a stall (called being in irons, appropriately). Instead, the sailor will tack into the wind; that is, taking a series of tangential courses that crisscross the actual course required, eventually achieving the objective of getting from A to B.

    In my own particular case, it wasn’t until I was a sophomore in University that I understood the mathematical concept of a negative number. I’m of the age when arithmetic in primary grades and mathematics in high school were taught in the absolute. How then to conceive of something less than zero? Sure, I quickly learned the mechanics of using negative numbers, but it wasn’t until an offhand comment, sparking much discussion, in a second year physics class that I finally grasped that zero was nothing more than an arbitrary point in space and the notions of plus and minus simply denoted direction from that arbitrary point.

    Absolutes are the straight-jackets of lock step thought, inhibiting imagination and curiosity.

    • Thank you for your very interesting comment! In both the sailing and mathematics examples you point to the frailty and rigidity of the absolute. That opens up many more analogies. I think of piano tuning, where the desired pitch is not the absolute pitch, but something slightly sharp or flat–which means that the piano can be tuned well to one key but not to all. It may also depend somewhat on the piece to be performed; if certain notes predominate, they must receive priority in the tuning as well.

      Also, welcome! It is a surprise to hear from a Senechal who isn’t a known relative.

  3. An extraordinary post! I appreciate your take on the whole silly subject. Up with tangents; down with woodgers! http://www.gofundme.com/cmbn6w

  4. Reblogged this on iwritetheblogggs and commented:
    The best blog yet on the homophone debacle.

  5. I like the idea a (conservative) educational philosopher (for want of a better name) in Great Britain kept reiterating (though i can’t find his name right now): “Education is what remains once you’ve forgotten everything”. This “straight to the point” is often for the birds as the “point” keeps changing ever faster and knowledge (by rote) is aging faster than even Western population at large. To truly learn one has to be wide awake and this is what keeps us digressing – we see that things may take a different turn than we thought at the outset. This “Nomen Global Language Center” can’t even say straight that he wants society to be homogenous, as there this “homo” prefix goes again. This is a homologue to the inquisition.

  6. I am of the mind that “When interviewed by the Salt Lake City Tribune, Woodger then proceeded to insult the intelligence of his clientele.”


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