British writer, journalist and broadcaster Simon Winchester in an interview May 30th on National Public Radio noted that among three-letter words run, with 645 distinct meanings in English, has surpassed set and put. Winchester literally wrote the book on the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. His first major success, The Professor and the Madman, was a New York Times´ bestseller and tells the story of the two men behind the creation of the OED.
The fact that a word can have so many different meanings is generally of little import to a text proofing system. However, it can be problematic when the words also have different conjugations or declensions.
For example, consider bass (a male singer or an instrument) and bass (varieties of fish). Most dictionaries, including Oxford Concise Dictionary, 11th edition, list the plural of the singer-instrument bass /beIs/ as basses; the same dictionaries list the plural of the fish bass /bæs/ as bass. (Note some dictionaries do list basses as an alternative plural for the fish – but then these same dictionaries also list fishes as an alternative. Well, that’s a discussion for another time.)
Differences in pronunciation and morphology can arise because some of these words actually are not etymologically related, but have different points of origin. Sometimes they began as the same word, but split at a later time.
And bass is not an isolated instance. Nouns like talus, corona, os and medium have different plural forms depending on the meaning (tali or taluses; coronae or coronas; ossa or ora; media or mediums). Moreover we are all familiar with the duplicate pairs of verbs including hang, wind, ring (hanged or hung; wound or winded; rang/rung or ringed).
Personally I like to keep things simple in my own idiolect and so I prefer: I caught one bass, but many other bass got away…I enjoy the tone of bass instruments and bass singers. Maybe it’s a cop-out (bit of a cheat to switch to an adjectival use in the case of music) but I think sticking to one form makes writing just a little easier.
For more on purely alternative forms, although meaning does come creeping into these cases too, see the discussion of antennae and antennas in the blog entitled Caveat pluralis!
So for me at least, there’s just one base, or basic, form of bass…at least in writing.Note: To read a transcript of the entire NPR interview click here