Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for January, 2010

Maths, Aftermaths, and Foremaths

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Donald Schark discovered a new word recently and wrote in about it. Words are “discovered” in other words, and this one is quite a surprise to me. Donald wrote:

“I am reading an author who wrote of people facing the math and aftermath of their decisions. I have never heard math used before without the prefix, so I checked Webster. Math is from the AS “mowing.” Why is such a useful word in disuse? It certainly applies to those who are currently suffering the math of war or the latest earthquake.”

Indeed, the sense of “mowing” has shifted to “a disasterous event”, since this is what is implied today by aftermath. It implies another compound, too, namely foremath, as the foremath of an earthquake or sunami. Much is being written about that now as we try to forecast these events. The foremath of hurricanes, we now know, is long, tumultuous, and filled with evidence about the storm itself.

I will run this word as a Good Word soon no matter what the research turns up simply because of the excitement at discovering a new word. I felt the same way when I found ease in disease and busy in business., and at one in atonement. Finding words inside words we take for granted everyday is an exciting experience—whether those around me realize it or not.

Two Poached Steaks

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

This morning my wife and breakfasted at a local Pennsylvania Dutch (= Deutsch “German”) restaurant where two new and very young waitresses served us. My wife ordered two poached eggs. A few moments later the manager came out and asked if she really wanted two poached steaks. Apparently, poached steaks were not ordered very often at Ards Farm Market & Restaurant.

Well, my wife didn’t order two poached steaks either, but it is easy to understand how someone raised among the German-Americans in our area would have made the mistake. My wife asked for two [potsht egz]; that is the way she pronounced it.  At the end of German words, however, voiced consonants like [g] and [z] are pronounced without voicing (vibrating the vocal cords), so [g] becomes [k] and [z] becomes [s]. Our cook heard the waitress order two [potsht eks] = “poached steaks’. Now that is exactly how someone with a “Dutch” accent would pronounce poached eggs but not how someone without an accent would hear it.

Final unvoicing, changing a voiced to an unvoiced consonant at the end of a word, is common. The incident reminded me of my first breakfast in Serbia decades ago. My wife and I had never breakfasted in Serbia before, so we were not sure what to expect. However, we were in the big city, Beograd, and in Beograd they are prepared for the foreign tourist. For that reason the most prominent menu entry was “hemeneks”. My wife wondered what in the world that was. I explained to her that this would be the way she would hear “ham and eggs” pronounced for the coming year.

The Subtleties of English Words

Friday, January 15th, 2010

David Stevens commented on the Good Word cataclysm by noting that calamity is in with those [words = catastrophe, cataclysm] also, but probably connotes less than a catastrophe.”

He is right. My response is that I am always amazed at the subtle differences in words of the same semantic category available to careful speakers. In this case we can find a long continuum of words that indicate increasing intensity of problems: problem < trouble < calamity < catastrophe < disaster < cataclysm.

There may be other words that we could insert in this continuum but we find such continua in words expressing almost every category of variable concepts.