There was only one way to deal with a new word in the past: Look it up, write it down, memorize it, then use it in a sentence. That was how you built a vocabulary, and in those days a big vocabulary was considered essential to personal success. That, apparently, was a long time ago.
A word jumped off the screen at me last night. It was "waiver," a perfectly good word, spelled correctly. The problem is that it was used as a verb. The writer apparently had no idea that the word he was looking for was "waver" _ a simple error, but jarring enough that I lost track of his argument. The situation reminded me of a similar mistake in the letters-to-the-editor column of my local newspaper a few years back _ "dribble" used when "drivel" was intended. The writer intended to be snarky, but wound up looking foolish to anyone who knew the difference. It was another case of mistaken homophones, or sound-alikes.
Homophones have been around at least since the Middle Ages. Shakespeare coined the term Dogberryism for inappropriate sound-alikes in "Much Ado About Nothing," believed to have been written around the end of the 16th Century, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals," written in 1775, introduced a character named Mrs. Malaprop, whose name gave us malapropism. Mrs. Malaprop was a comedic character, and malapropisms are naturally funny _ people like Norm Crosby built entire careers around mispronouncing words, and Yogi Berra certainly enhanced his legacy with malapropisms. I rounded out the character of Uncle Joe Talty in "The Leather Man" by making him the master of "a limerick, an intentional malapropism or a spoonerism for almost any occasion." But the effect of a word misspoken is different from the effect of a homophone used in print. Spell-checkers can't catch a misused word unless it's misspelled, but good spellers can and do. It all comes down to vocabulary, which is just as important today as it's ever been. Let's hope that teachers are stressing that in the classroom, and that kids are listening.