Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for November, 2010

Quadrigraph Sighting

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Often writing systems lack a letter for a sound and that lacuna is covered by a digraph, two letters representing one sound, like English SH and CH. German has a trigraph, SCH which stands for the same single sound that Croatian, Czech, and Slovene represent with the one letter Š.

Danish seems to take the n-graph cake in this respect wasting FOUR letters for the same consonant sound with a quadrigraph. We find it in a few surnames like Schjødt where the first four letters represent the single sound that SH represents in English and Š in those Slavic languages that use the Latin alphabet.

The interesting thing about this quadrigraph is that it contains the digraphs for the same sound in several Indo-European languages using the Latin alphabet: CH in French, SH in English, SCH in German (a trigrph), and SJ, which is used in most Danish words.

SCHJ is the only quadrigraph I know of. I know some consider combinations with the GH digraph in English to be quadrigraphs, e.g. eight and though. These are not quadrigraphs, though, for they represent two sounds. Eight represents the sound [eyt] and though, [ðow], i.e. the two sounds of diphthongs, a vowel plus a reduced consonant. This is not the case in Danish. It is true, as I say, that the Danish quadrigraph occurs only in surnames like Schjeldal, Schjelderup, Schjødt, Schjønberg, and Schjønning but they are true quadrigraphs.

Does anyone out there speak a language that has another?

Silly Words in English

Friday, November 19th, 2010

This is just a note to alert blog readers that over the week of November 13-18 I will be featuring silly English words, most of which were just too silly to be included in The 100 Funniest Words in English. The five I chose are:

Let us know on the contact page at if I missed your favorite. If we like it, too, we’ll see if we can see if it has a good story and run it in the series.

Lame Ducks of Washington

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Now that we have a few lame ducks down in Washington, I thought this peculiar phrase worth tracking down. So here is what I found.

First, referring to Congress as a whole as a “lame duck congress” is a misuse of the word, since those congressmen who were reelected are not lame ducks. In this context, the expression has taken on a slightly different meaning, a congress controlled by a party that loses that control at the end of the year. In this sense we have a lame duck House but not a lame duck senate.

The word more generally refers to people finishing their last term at some position, knowing they will soon be replaced. But this expression probably originates on the high seas as British naval slang referring to a disabled ship or a ship damaged at sea. The term duck makes more sense in this context.

If this is correct, then the term migrated from naval slang to financial slang, referring to a bankrupt investor or an investor in default of his debt at the exchange. At the stock exchange there are bulls, bears, and lame ducks, people who can not raise the liquidity to invest in any market.

From the stock market the word then migrated to politics where it is used mostly today. It is available outside politics, though, in reference to any thing or person who is disabled in any way. The American Heritage dictionary says that it may refer to “an ineffective person; a weakling.”