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April 14th, 2004

Shouldn't come rhyme with home? / mass exodus / leaser or leasee

by Barbara Wallraff

Jill Stiger, of Mount Clemens, Mich., writes, “Why doesn’t ‘come’ rhyme with ‘home’? Did it at one time? I am a second-grade teacher, and the variants of our language make it very difficult to teach beginning readers!”

“Come” and “home” never did rhyme—but time was, at least they didn’t look as if they should. In books from, oh, say, about a thousand years ago, the verb that’s now “come” was spelled “cuman,” and the noun that’s now “home” was “ham.”
Spelling frustrates everyone learning to read English, whether the learner is a child in your class or an adult studying English as a second language. Sometimes letters, like the “e” at the end of “come” and “home,” are silent. Or they may have more than one pronunciation—the way “o” does in “come” and “home.”
Alas, there’s no obvious solution to the problem. Lots of phonetic spelling systems exist, but people who already read English have trouble warming up to them. For example, see how you like this phonetic version of the first stanza of Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself”: “I selabraet mieself, aand sing mieself, / Aand hwut I asuem yu shaal asuem, / Faur evre aatam beelaunging tu me aaz good beelaungz tu yu.” That’s an improvement? Although the job you’re doing with your second-graders isn’t easy, it is indispensable.

Mike Molitor, of Guilderland, N.Y., writes, “An ‘exodus’ is a group departure or group exit. ‘Mass exodus’ is redundant and poor use. Yet I hear this phrase used frequently, even by professional news reporters on TV. Is the use of ‘mass exodus’ now acceptable?”

No, it’s not. “Mass exodus” continues to betray that the person saying or writing it doesn’t know what an “exodus” is. Everything you report about the word and the phrase is true. In fact, the same misunderstanding—that “exodus” is just a fancier way of saying “exit”—leads people to make other mistakes with the word too. Here’s a sentence that appeared in the (Bridgeport) Connecticut Post earlier this month in a story about a basketball game: “‘It was one of the most difficult things I had to do,’ Okafor said, referring to his exodus to the bench.” When just one man—even if he’s Emeka Okafor—leaves the game, that’s no exodus. It’s an exit.

Ann Kosmyna, of Dearborn Heights, Mich., writes, “As someone who leases a car, I want to be called a ‘leaser,’ not a ‘leasee’ (which they pronounce ‘lessee’). My dictionary lists only the term ‘leaser,’ so why is the other term used? I do not like it!!”

If you look up “lessee” instead of “leasee” in your dictionary, you’re in for a surprise. “Lessee” is a perfectly good word, and it means the same thing as “leaser”—go figure. My news databases tell me it’s seen in print much more often than “leaser” is. Won’t you at least try to like it? Your indignation would be better spent on the real errors in spelling and usage that come up all the time.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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