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Just Love Words

Just ♥ Words—rural juror

Friday, 08 July 2011 10:03

rural-juror2In a 30 Rock episode, Jenna stars in a movie, but no one gets the title—"Rural Juror." Jenna keeps calling it "rurur jurur," a hilarious combination of words, which made me want to try a few of my own—Worry Weary ... Arrow 's Error ... Fear of Furor...

Okay, not as funny as Jenna's, but then Tiny Fey's not exactly writing this blog. Still, it got me to thinking about the act of speech, a complicated process that depends on how we shape our hard and soft palates, open our glottis, move our tongue, shape our lips—and the order in which we do it all.

 We perform these oral gymnastics with ease in our native languages, almost instinctively, because we've been doing so since childhood. And that's what makes tongue twisters so much fun: they confound our ability to perform our usual verbal gimmicks. Selling sea shells, Peter Piper's pickles, and the wood chuck chucking. Say them fast and you trip up—because you can't move your tongue to the proper position fast enough.

My favorite piece of linguistic trivia isn't quite a tongue twister, but it's close enough to have actually altered the way we say a common word or two.

Don't You Just ♥ Words?
—Thunder—

Old English for thunder was thunner—an awkward word due to its phoenetic demands. Say it quickly...and you'll know why the "d" slipped in. It has to do with a slight mistiming—as we move our tongue from the "n" to the "r," says linguist Charles Barber.

This transition calls for two simultaneous movements of the speech organs: (1) the nasal passages are closed by the raising of the soft palate, and (2) the tongue is moved away from the teeth to unblock the mouth-passage. [If there's a mistiming], if the...nasal passages are closed before the tongue moves, a "d" will be heard....

Thus the "d" found its way into the word because it was easier to say. Thunder was was first noticed in the 1300s, but it took another 300 before it was accepted as standard English.

Thimble and bramble
are two other words affected by a similar phonetic mistiming, says Barber. They both acquired a middle letter "b."

End of lesson, end of blog post...except to reference Charles Barber's The English Language: A Historical Introduction, Cambridge UP, 2000, p45.

 

Just ♥ Words—Janus

Wednesday, 12 January 2011 10:04

janusMy friend Gordon showed up again with more word fun—this time Janus words. Since it’s January, named after the Roman diety Janus—who faced both backward and forward, looking to the past and to the future—we’ll take Gordon at his words.

Janus words are self-antonyms, or contranyms. They're spelled the same. . . and pronounced the same, but they have opposite meanings.

 

Don't You Just ♥ Words?

Cleave — to stick together; to cut apart
Clip — to hold together; to cut off
Custom — the norm; unique
Dust — to remove dust; to lightly sprinkle
Fast — held firmly in place; moving quickly
Oversight — to watch carefully; not noticed
Quantum — tiny, in physics; very large, as in ”leap”
Sanction — to approve; a punitive action
Temper — to harden; to soften

This is just a smattering. There are lots more.

 

Just ♥ Words—the case for the missing M

Saturday, 17 April 2010 10:46

who-whomDon’t do math (can’t). But do do grammar. I believe in grammar—its rules for clarity of expression—so others can make sense of what we’re trying to say. (Notice I violated grammar here…because I can. I’m so good…the grammar police gave me a pass.)

Nonetheless . . . here’s one grammatical rule that continually irritates me:

WHO \ WHOM—the M Conundrum

THIS?     —    Give the award to   WHOEVER   deserves it.
Or this?  —    Give the award to  WHOMEVER  deserves it.

THIS?    —   Give the award to those   WHO  you think deserve it.
Or this?  —  Give the award to those  WHOM  you think deserve it.

The who / whom embroglio is totally overrated.  Clarity can be achieved perfectly well without that niggling little ”m.”  Who?  Whom?  Does it matter?  We get the point.

 

Read at your own peril . . .

Answer:  Give the award to WHOEVER deserves it. 
“Whomever” is not the prepositional object of  “to.”  Rather, WHOEVER  is the subject of a dependent clause, “whoever deserves it.”  The entire clause is the prepositional object.  Phew!

Answer:  Give the award to those WHO you think deserve it. 
“Whom” is not the object of  “you think…whom.”   “You think” is parenthetical…you can remove it altogether. So the “who” becomes a relative pronoun for “those” and the subject of the relative clause “who deserve it.”

 

See what I mean? So much ink spilled over a measly “m”!  The rules of grammar, in this particular case, are so arcane—it’s like trying to figure out the oyster fork from the fish fork at an Edith Wharton dinner party. 

So here’s my personal campaign for a better world:  let’s drop the m from whom!

 

Just ♥ Words — prepositional adverbs

Friday, 20 November 2009 11:04

grammar-policeEnglish—what a great language to have fun with!  Here’s a silly little grammatical conundrum for which I have no explanation . . . except that it’s idiomatic.  Nonetheless, rules are rules—and rules must be obeyed.

Don’t You Just ♥ Words?

You can say
Take the garbage out.  —or—  Take out the garbage.
And you can say
Take it out. —but not— Take out it.
___________

You can say
Butter Mom up.  —or—  Butter up Mom.
And you can say
Butter her up. —but not— Butter up her.
___________

You can say
Turn the lights on.  —or—  Turn on the lights.
And you can say
Turn them on. —but not— Turn on them.
  

Verbs and prepositional adverbs—you would think they’re like infinitive verbs—to be or not to be—you’re to never split one of those.  I mean “you’re never to split one.”  (But we all do.)

But prep-adverbs are different from infinitives. If you use a pronoun, you have to split them up”—not  ”split up them.”  Strange.

It's a wonder anyone ever learns English.

 

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