We are currently trialling our new-look independent.co.uk website - please send any feedback to beta@independent.co.uk


You're never at a loss for words, especially when I am

THE OTHER day I wrote that, apart from one exception, I couldn't think of any word in English that could be pronounced two different ways to yield two different meanings. I should have known better than to try to outsmart the Independent readership. Hardly was the print dry on the page than I got a letter from Mr Sandford in Sturminster Newton pointing out that simple words like row, read, lead and sow can be pronounced two different ways with quite different meanings. (Or, in the case of read, different tenses.) He added ominously: 'What's the betting other committed addicts will add to these?'

Hardly was the sweat of embarrassment dry on my forehead than I received a letter from Sian Andrew-Arthur of Mumbles, adding tear and minute to the list. How could I have forgotten that minute can mean 60 seconds or tiny, depending on the pronunciation? Easily, I'm afraid. She, too, added menacingly: 'You will never be alone - we are out there in our thousands. . . .'

She wasn't kidding. I have received letters from a hundred committed addicts, and the overall picture tends to build up nicely. They tend to be teachers or linguists, or one-time Radio 3 presenters, and have a sharp eye for words. And they take a great deal of pleasure in putting people like me right. And as some of your solutions were quite ingenious, I would like to bring the best of them to print today.

Some words cropped up on many people's lists. The most common of the lot were bow, lead, sow, row, tear, read, wind, gill and lowering. They all have at least two meanings and pronunciations. The last one, lowering, I would not have thought commonly used in its secondary meaning of threatening (alternative spelling to louring, the books all say), but at least half a dozen readers suggested it, so I suppose a wide selection of people do still look up at the sky and say, 'Pretty lowering out there . . .'

Correct pronunciation is sometimes a vital part of one's living. Peter Barker, familiar voice from the wireless, wrote to say: 'As an announcer for Radio 3 for 30 years, I grew to be particularly careful, when at the microphone, to remember whether I had written about a violinist's bowing or about his bowing. It was also quite important, when describing concerts for a broadcast, to make it clear whether the orchestral players were in a row or in a row.'

Dave Marsden, bass player of Bristol, wrote to point out that bass can mean either a low sound in music or a kind of fish, and someone else wrote to remind me that I, too, was a bass player, and to ask if I were a bower or a plucker? They wanted to point out that bower could mean 'someone who bows' or 'a leafy nook', depending on the way you said it.

Some of the words smacked of crossword usage. Those who said that flower was not only a bloom but also something that flowed (eg, a river) were obviously crossword addicts. Similarly, denier can mean a unit of weight for women's stockings or someone who denies, but I can't imagine anyone using the latter sense seriously.

But other suggestions were truly thoughtful. I loved the idea from Barry On of Cheltenham that agape could mean 'Christian non-erotic love' or 'with mouth wide open'. He also pointed out that lineage would be pronounced differently, depending on whether it means family descent or number of lines in written material. Helena Jenkins of Sevenoaks says: 'How about, 'I moped when I couldn't ride my moped'?' David Marks of Ealing says: 'If tolling the bell is what I'm doing, does the bell go 'doing'?' Fernleigh Sharp of London sent a long list that included the word caller, which stumped me till I remembered that it doesn't just mean someone who calls - it's also Scots for fresh, as in 'Caller Herring'. Mr Irvine of Brighton said he had once read a Belfast newspaper headline saying: 'Red leader sent to jail', which had been nothing to do with a Communist but referred to a man whose job it was to put red lead on ships in the shipyards.

Two last thoughts. Harry Sales of Woking was the only one to attempt to get three pronunciations out of one word, committee. 'If the accent is on the last syllable it means, or meant, in law the person to whom the charge of a lunatic was committed. If the accent goes back to the second syllable, it means a committee of people. If the accent is on the first syllable, it becomes spelt differently, comity, meaning courtesy, as in 'comity of nations'. Can you beat this?

Well, I can't, but Robert Richardson thinks he can. Look at this sentence: 'I am a farmer's wife, and while he is in the field doing the sowing, I am at home sewing the clothes; so we both sew.' Now, how, he asks, should you spell the last word in that sentence?

I think this correspondence is now closed.