Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Origins of Silly Words

Roger Bullard recently commented on my entry Silly Words in English, writing, “I sometimes use the word sticktoitiveness because for some weird reason, I just can’t think of the word perseverance. It doesn’t come to me when I need it.

I’ve decided to respond in a separate entry because it speaks to an issue that has intrigued me for decades. I had always thought that there was enough for some useful research, but never could gather enough data. Still, I think there is something here worth pursuing.

What do we do when we can’t think of a word? Speech is fast, which is why speaking is the most difficult of the four language proficiencies (reading, writing, comprehension, and speaking). We inevitably come upon words we know we know but can’t retrieve them fast enough to plug into the sentence we are uttering. We have to create a word on the spur of the moment, but how?

I noticed several words that seemed to be “near misses” and thought them the result of such moments. Two words originally caught my attention: hassle and (to) harry, as in harried. Their meanings are almost identical and identical with a far less often heard word, harass. I suspect that the two more common words are words someone uttered when they either could not remember harass, or could not decide which syllable of this word to emphasize, a problem associated with it.

I have a few other words in my files: embroil for embroglio, huffy for haughty, get in someone’s good graces for ingratiate, and kulacks for culottes.

As I say, I have never been able to gather a sufficient corpus of examples or find a way to prove my hypothesis. If it is true, however, it offers an explanation of folk etymology, since most of these examples seem to associate the meaning of the original word with words that are more common, more ‘Englishy’, the definition of folk etymology. Someone (or many) cannot remember how to write French m’aider “help me”, so they write what they remember: may day.

We do make errors when we speak, usually corrected quickly. But what if we simply can’t find the word but must continue speaking? Wouldn’t we try to utter a word with a similar sound that suggests the meaning we are getting at? Failing that, we would resort to something more desperate, like creating a word from a phrase like sticktoitiveness, as Roger claims to have done. No final conclusion here, but the issue is intriguing.

5 Responses to “Origins of Silly Words”

  1. J.A. Williams Says:

    Speech is not the most difficult mode of language processing. Research shows that all human beings will learn to speak without explicit instruction – see literature on child language acquisition – granted there are no physical or mental disabilities, or complete isolation.

    Reading is the most difficult mode of language processing because it requires an individual to develop and utilize language-specific architecture in the brain. This architecture must be automatized for visual decoding as well as information encoding, storage, and retrieval. This requires a learner to map abstract phones to a segmented speech signal.

  2. Robert Beard Says:

    I suppose we should move the discussion to a higher level. I’ll admit I was thinking in terms of second-language learning, having taught a second language for 35 years. There is no question but that my statement holds for second-language learning.

    However, the position of reading (and writing) in first-language learning isn’t the same for all languages. English speakers in the US go into college with a loose hold on spelling and reading. In Russia, however, writing is taught in kindergarten and reading skills progress much faster because of the closer relation of the spelling system to the spoken language.

    The spoken language, basic grammar, that is, takes about 4-5 years to learn if you start at the age of 2, regardless of the language. How long it takes to read and write then depends on the proximity of the writing system to the language spoken.

  3. Helpfor Yourenglish Says:

    Hi Robert

    I enjoyed reading this blog entry. I admire your inventiveness with “sticktoitiveness”. LOL

    I found your comments on the words ‘hassle’ and ‘harrass’ interesting because when speaking I probably use ‘hassle’ as much as I use ‘harass’. Perhaps my choice of words depends on who I’m talking to and what I’m talking about.

    In the UK, we have a few words to get us through times we can’t think of things or people’s names. The words are ‘thingamejig’ and ‘whatsisname’.

  4. Eileen Opiolka Says:

    I was interested in your comments on “near misses”. While editing a text recently, I changed the word “predominately” into “predominantly” . I have since discovered that “predominately” has a long history, but it still jars.
    Am I being pedantic?

  5. Qjames Says:

    ‘to harry’ predates ‘to harrass’ (sic -to harass). So your suspicion would only fit for a time traveller with considerable influence on the English language.

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