Friday, January 18, 2013

Stalking the Corn

My friend Rita Bay  is posting a series about "horrible homonyms" and I don’t want to steal her thunder, but here is a homonym that shouldn’t be one. 

Last summer my local newspaper ran a front-page photo of a farmer’s ruined crop in the field. “Corn Stocks Destroyed by Car,” said the headline. Well, okay.  It’s a stretch, but one could say the farmer’s future supply of corn was destroyed by some idiot driving an SUV through the young plants. I shrugged and let it go. 

A few weeks later, in a story about farmer’s markets, the same newspaper featured a photo of fresh, delectable corn piled high. “Stalking the corn,” said the caption. My mind immediately went into Euell Gibbons mode—I still use a well-worn copy of his famous book on foraging, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Then my bent for sci fi took over, and I imagined mutant corn rampaging over the Great Plains as intrepid environmentalists hunt it down, armed with hypos of recombinant DNA. I’m weird like that. 

Stalk, stock. To my mind, there’s no confusion about them. Stalk has an “aw” sound in the middle, while stock has an “ah” sound. Could there be a regional variation in the pronunciation? Granted, I’ve lived in New England for “only” fifteen years, but I have a pretty good ear for dialect and have always been able to distinguish a difference in the two words. Perhaps not as distinct as in the Mid-Atlantic, where I grew up, but clearly discernible. 

Then I started coming across a similar confusion, from writers across the country. “He chocked it up to bad parenting.” “Her tummy was chalk-full.” This isn’t a question of dialect. It’s plain and simple sloppy speech. Worse, it's sloppy writing.  

A chock is a wedge or other item used to prevent movement or to fill an empty space. A doorstop is a chock. I chock my car to keep it from rolling backward whenever I put it up on a ramp. If my tummy is chock-full, I can’t eat another bite. But if your tummy is chalk-full, you’ve been swallowing pulverized limestone, and that can’t be healthy. “To chalk up” is to record or attribute, as in writing a point on a scoreboard. (Think of writing with chalk.) It carries a connotation of a provisional judgment—He blamed her bad manners on poor parenting, but maybe he was wrong. 

We are writers, folks. It’s our job to be precise about the words we use. Make sure you’ve got the right one.