Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for April, 2009

Boning up on deBoning

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

BonerCharlene Moore notices the darnedest things in English. I always enjoy mulling them over because it inevitably gives me a tickle. Today she wanted to know why bone and debone mean that same thing. Well, it is a good question. Couple and decouple have opposite meanings. So do regulate and deregulate. May Day! May Day? What’s going on with bone?

Make no bones about it, to bone by itself means to remove the bones from whatever you happen to be operating on, just as to shell means to remove the shell from and to husk means to remove the husk from. So, I have no bone to pick with Charlene on this one.

However, as I boned up on the problem I discovered this: to bone also means to put bones in, as to bone a skirt with stays, originally made of whalebone. So, verbing nouns like bone can result in a verb meaning “to add to” or “to remove from”. To saddle, to soap, and to clothe all indicate adding saddles, soap, and clothes to something. In fact, the sense of addition is far more prevalent than the sense of removal, so that interpretation of bone would be far more natural. Hmmm. That could lead to confusion, couldn’t it?

Well, the solution is to add something to bone that would clarify the fact that we have in mind removing bones and not sticking them in. Now, what is the prefix we use for that? I know! DE-! Best of all, we will keep that meaning for both bone and debone so that any bonehead can use them without making a boner. Right? Right! Aren’t English-speakers smart? You betcha!

Livery, Grocery, and the Suffix -Ery

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

William Hupy has been struggling with the English suffix -ery, which seems to have at least two different meanings, neither of which fit livery and grocery. I wrote this up quickly in hopes of clarifying the functions of this suffix and its various relationships. I thought some of you might be interested, too.

The English suffix -ery is an adaptation of the Latin -oria which came to French as the suffix -erie, usually meaning “place of”: bakery, eatery, brewery, nunnery. However, it sometimes converts a noun into the quality that identifies the noun: tomfoolery, knavery, savagery.

When English borrows such words directly from Latin, the suffix -ory is the result, e.g. laboratory, observatory, dormitory, depository, a suffix more frequently used to convert verbs into adjectives: congratulatory, conciliatory, exclamatory. (Don’t be surprised that a suffix in English has more than one function. Suffixes are dying out like flies in English and, as the number of suffixes dwindle, the remainder must pick up more and more funtions.)

Livery and grocery do not contain either suffix. Livery comes from a French word meaning “delivery”, originating in the Latin word liberare “to liberate, set free”. Grocery is simply the suffix -y added to grocer. The latter word has an interesting history. It comes from grossus “large, thick” with the suffix -arius, a personal suffix meaning “someone who (does something)”. The original word, grossarius, meant “wholesaler”, i.e. someone selling on a large scale, as opposed to a small-scale retailer, rather like someone selling by the gross rather than by the item.

US Dialects: East but not West

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Larry Rymal in Texas recently sent this question, which I suspect lies on the minds of many others: “I have a question. It has bugged me ever since ‘day one’: Why is our general American accent different than the British accent. I’m not referring to the difficult-to-understand cockney accent, but the general London accent of the Queen or the Prime Minister.

My thought has been that since we primarily immigrated from England, why didn’t the sound of the words? Why is the general American accent not similar to Australia’s and New Zealand’s, for example?”

I have talked on this subject a lot but can’t find anything I’ve written directly to the point. To understand the answer to Larry’s question, we need to know about the nature of dialects, how they arise and how they become languages. I have discussed this in A Language is a Dialect with an Army.

Another reason dialects arise, not covered in that blog, is that, as the area in which a language is spoken expands, speakers at the periphery come in contact with peoples speaking other languages. More often than not, speakers of both languages intermingle and begin speaking each other’s language but imperfectly, the properties of the native language carrying over into the second language and vice versa. At some point, everyone in the region may speak the dominant language but with the peculiarities introduced by the secondary language.

This is similar to what happened in the US but in the US the change in pronunciation and new vocabulary was added by immigrants who moved to the periphery of the US. All the immigrants who ended up running this country originally landed on the east coast, most passing through customs on Ellis Island, and settled in the northeast. (West coast immigration came later.)

As these foreigners entered the US, the original English speakers moved south, where the dialectal features of 18th- and 19th-century UK English are best preserved. The accents of Presidents Carter and Clinton reflect the upperclass British shift of [r] to [ah] and the pronunciation of [o] as [uh-u].

Lower class UK dialectal traits are found in the dialects of those living in rural areas. Don’t forget that large numbers of Africans were also imported into the South, where you can find considerable influence of West African languages on the dialects of people of European extraction.

The Italians, Germans, Poles, Russians, etc. came in through Ellis Island in New York and settled near by. Many characteristics of their foreign accents were absorbed by the English spoken in the area around Ellis Island. That is why the variations in accents are so marked in New York and New Jersey.

So why are there no accents or dialects out west? Well, when immigrants  overpopulated New York and New Jersey, they began moving westward. They were joined by southern farmers looking for free land.

As this great migration progressed, people speaking different accents intermarried and otherwise interacted in school, church, and business. In so doing, they shared their accents to such an extent that they created a common grammar of syntax and phonology (pronunciation) which they carried with them all the way to California.

Visitors to alphaDictionary from Washington, Oregon, and California who take our Rebel-Yankee Test, often complain that they test reports that they are 51% Yankee or 52% Southerner. The fact that these scores are so close to 50-50% reflects the fact that the dialectal differences of the South and North blended quite evenly.

So, that is why speech in the US is different from that in the UK, why we have “accents”, which is to say “dialects”, and why they are limited to the east coast of the US and not heard out west. You can easily see how the same thing happened in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India.

The Gravy-Sauce Confusion

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

There is hardly a pair of words that confuse English-speakers more than gravy and sauce. What are we supposed to call the liquid poured over or under the meat that we eat. The difference between the meanings of these two words is easy to remember.

  • If the liquid is poured over the meat (or certainly if over potatoes), it is gravy;
  • If it is under the meat, it is sauce.

Which reminds me of chopped liver and pâte. Chopped liver is served with meals costing $25 or less; if it comes with a meal that costs over $25, it is pâte (pah-tay). Simple, right? Now we can avoid embarrassing ourselves at high- and low-end restaurants.

Salmon and Salmonella

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

William Hupy has one of the sharpest eyes for quirks of language that I know of. Today it occurred to him that, while we skip the pronunciation of the L in salmon, we clearly pronounce it in salmonella. He wondered why.

Let me begin by saying that whether the L is pronounced in either word depends on where you are from: I’m from the South and we pronounce the L in both words sharply. I’ve been kidded about my pronunciation of salmon for decades in Pennsylvania, where I live now.

Salmon and salmonellaAmong people raised in the North, however, unless L is followed by a vowel, it is pronounced [U] (the vowel sound in would and should), that is, before (voiceless) consonants and at the ends of words. My sons, who were born and raised in Pennsylvania pronounce milk [miUk] and hill [hiU]. This pronunciation is certainly common throughout PA, southern NY, and NJ. (In Serbian, by the way, L becomes other rounded vowel, O, in the same positions and is written that way. The past of biti “to be” is bila  “she was” but bio “he was”.)

Now, since the L in salmon appears before a consonant, we would expect it to be pronounced [saumon] in these regions, as we hear almond sometimes pronounced. Most folks up North, however, have adopted the simpler pronunciation [sammon].

That leaves us with the question of salmonella. The problem here is probably what we might call ‘retroinfluence’. Though pronunciation is supposed to influence spelling (I’m not kidding; even in English), sometimes it works the other way around. We probably see salmonella written more frequently than we hear it spoken, so pronounce the L. We more than likely hear salmon more frequently than we read it, so the pronunciation change turns up there.

Life in the Slow Lane Stumbles on

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

Lewisburg now has a new diner, replete with waitresses that call eveyone “hon.” Like true diners, where the cuisine never exceeds the flavor of the meatloaf, its menu is traditional diner food cooked in traditional diner ways by two recent immigrees from Mexico (no, not Mexico, PA—the original one). Since Lewisburg is a cultural center of Central Pennsylvania, however, our diner has been experimenting with some new creations.

You wouldn’t want to miss the meatloaf cordon bleu: meatloaf with several slices of chopped ham slatered with Cheez Whiz. It could also be called a Philly chopped steak. I tried it and was surprised to discover that it tastes like—last week’s meatloaf. I guess Cheez Whiz doesn’t cover up as much flavor as it once did.

Next time I want to try the Monte Crisco sandwich. They don’t use mayonaise on this one, so it shouldn’t break my diet. And guess what they warm up the meatloaf in.

I thought I would just drop this brief note to let everyone know that life in the slow lane isn’t speeding up.

Latest Clichés: Skin and Haircuts

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

The latest Beltway clichés are beginning to irritate me and I can no longer resist the inclination to complain about them. “Put some skin in (the game)” brings up memories of falling and scraping knees, elbows, heads, and the like. 

This cliché replaces “ante up”, which replaced “cough up”, whose demises please no one more than me. “Put some skin in” is milder than “give a pound of flesh”, donated by Shakespeare but still it is pretty raw. “Ante up” comes from poker; it means literally to put more money in the game and hence is more fitting for the financial crisis than “putting in more skin” (unless, of course, you’ve been skinned by Bernie Madoff).

OK, the image is bad, so what is better? Let’s try “give/get a haircut”, as to give GM employees or AIG managers a haircut. Well, that isn’t a graphic image of an injury but then it doesn’t really imply a contribution to the cost of resurrecting our economic institutions. Hair cuts are something we all get on a regular basis and implies willingly giving up something we consider superfluous. It implies no kind of sacrifice at all which is the very point of these metaphors.

This is what comes of ignoring our poets and listening to the faces on radio and TV that talk faster than they think. Clichés, of course, are simply metaphors that catch on and are repeated ad nauseum by those who cannot come up with their own. I’m sure at least one poet in our midst has dreamed up a better metaphor than the ones that are morphing into clichés even as I click away now.