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Monthly Gleanings: December 2010

By Anatoly Liberman

This is the last time I go gleaning in 2010.  We are snowed in in the American Midwest (but so is everybody else), and, while looking for linguistic crumbs, I feel like the girl in the fairy tale who was sent by her evil stepmother to the forest in the middle of winter to return with a basket of wild strawberries.  She met Father Frost (January).  The old man, who had often seen the girl before, was touched by her sweet meekness and asked his brothers to help her.  For one hour January gave way to his younger brothers, and “in May” the girl gathered the berries and returned home with a full basket and wearing a dress of incomparable beauty.  Father Frost is around, the berries are on display in supermarkets, May will certainly come, and in the meantime I’ll go ahead and comment on the questions still unanswered in the previous twelve months.


Caramel. I have no persuasive explanation of why some people say car-a-mel, while others prefer the dissyllabic form car-mel.  The second pronunciation seems to be unknown in Britain, and the American Century Dictionary, which was published a hundred years ago, does not list car-mel, but all the authoritative American dictionaries that have appeared in the last fifty years do and sometimes even say that car-mel has almost ousted car-a-mel.  (As far as my personal experience is concerned, I have heard caramel in caramel apple only pronounced in the old-fashioned way.)  Is it possible that the word changed under the influence of many places called Carmel, the one in Israel being the most famous?  If some of our correspondents have a better suggestion, their help will be greatly appreciated.  (I like this rhetorical flourish: while writing it, I feel like James A. H. Murray or Joseph Wright.)

February. The variant Febooary has become almost universal.  An explanation has been known for a long time.  In words with two r’s in succession, the first one tends to drop out or to be replaced with l.  Sometimes a whole syllable is lost: library becomes libry, and contrary becomes contry. The pronunciation Febooary seems to have originated on the East Coast, where Janry (that is, January) has also been recorded.  Since it is common to enumerate months, Janry could have influenced February.  Similar things sometimes happen in the history of numerals (one, two, three…).  The origin of f in four is hard to explain; perhaps four was affected by five.

Primer and short-lived.  There is no historical justification for the variant primmer (though this is exactly how this word was often spelled in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century).  Even in Latin the root vowel is long.  Since the variant primmer existed (despite the fact that it had no right to), people began to differentiate between primmer (which today is the standard pronunciation of a typographical term) and primer.  I have sometimes heard elementary books referred to as primmers, but it seems that primer has taken over and is now the variant used by most speakers in all situations.  By contrast, -lived in short-lived should have rhymed with thrived, because, from an etymological point of view, it means “having a short life.”  It has the same structure as good-natured, long-winded, or well-mannered.  The alternation f ~ v is as in life ~ live, lively, or simply live (verb or adjective).  But lived was taken for the past participle of the verb live (compare well-read, long-awaited, and so forth); hence the pronunciation with a short vowel.  It appears that the historically correct variant has gained much ground in the second half of the 20th century, especially in the United States, or perhaps it has always been the most popular one but “suppressed,”  to accommodate what was believed to be a more refined norm.

Zoology. Shouldn’t this word have three o’s?  No, two are enough.  Zoo-, which goes back to the Greek word for “animal” (compare zodiac), had a long vowel.  The second element (-logy), as in bio-logy, philo-logy, etc., does not begin with an o, so that the spelling zoo-ology would have no justification.  But I quite understand why this question was asked.  Under the influence of its written form and possibly reinforced by the word zoo, zoology is often pronounced zoo-ology.  Those who say so, naturally, want a third o (sorry for the rhyme: it is unintentional).  Whether the pronunciation zoo-ology is to be recommended too warmly is a matter of opinion.


What matters is original ideas versus what matters are original ideas. In a comment on my previous gleanings, our correspondent noted that both variants are correct.  Yes, they are, if by “correct” we understand “acceptable,” but for many years I have been collecting examples of this type and have only one or two with is.  An absolute majority of speakers seem to prefer the plural in this construction (what I miss are family hotels, and so forth).  Who versus that.  It is true the older norm allowed, perhaps even required, the man that (rather than the man who), but then the pendulum swung somewhat, and who became more common, to be again ousted by that.  For this reason, no rules can be formulated, and advice to writers should be given with utmost caution, but reference to the Authorised Version should be avoided (the people that walked in darkness). The grammar of the AV is the grammar of Shakespeare, and its rules are no longer valid for us.  It says our Father which art in heaven, but though in American English one occasionally hears which after an antecedent denoting an animate object (the professor which taught this course last year) and though we take it more or less in stride (the New World began to be colonized while Shakespeare was still alive – the brave new world), today’s norm requires who after father (my father, who is a doctor…).  There’s other ways to do it. This is a rather widespread colloquialism (that is, something ungrammatical but common).  The use of is after there and less often after here (regardless of the plural that follows) goes a long way back, and not only in the construction there is ~ there’s.  In 19th-century novels, one can run into a sentence like here is your hat and gloves (though hardly here’s your gloves and hat!) and here comes Mrs. X and her children.  Shakespeare says in Sonnet 31 about his friend’s bosom: “And there reigns love and all love’s loving parts, / And all those friends which I thought buried” (read buri-ed in two syllables, for it rhymes with dead, and, in connection with what has been said above note friends which). In there’s other ways, other ways is probably felt to be “a unit,” and ‘s disguises the meaning of is by its shortness and phonetic insignificance.

Oriented versus orientated. Since there is the word orientation, people coined the verb orientate (back formation).  I may be not the only one to have heard the participle admiratet.   Oriented and disoriented are preferable to orientated and disoriented (they are more traditional, shorter, and less pompous), but the long forms have gained a foothold in the language, and the dictionaries, these permissive and non-judgmental products of our culture, list them without comment.  Nauseous versus nauseated.  To be sure, nauseous is “active” (it refers to things that cause nausea), while nauseated is “passive” (it means “affected with nausea”), but it is the fate of similar-sounding and near synonymous words to get confused.  Nauseating adds to the confusion (compare nauseating smell and nauseous smell).  The question was whether one dares to distinguish between nauseous and nauseated when no one around makes this distinction.  This is a perennial but unanswerable question.  Being better than one’s neighbors is snobbery and may have dire consequences.  Being at their level is demeaning and makes you lose your self-respect.  So take your pick.  (My spellchecker reacted to “nauseating adds…,” above, and suggested nauseating ads; this is what editors call unconscious humor.)


I have read with great interest all the comments and letters addressed to me about pay through the nose, kibosh, and wayzgoose but will respond only to what has been said about highfalutin.  I suggested a British origin for this word.  The written records are dead against my suggestion (all the early examples are overwhelmingly American).  Yes, of course.  If it were otherwise, there would have been no reason to beard a lion in his den.  But several facts seemed to support my guess.  Highfalutin has no regional color: it is not tied to any locality in the United States, while in England it was known in Liverpool and London.  I concluded that for an obscure British word it would have been easier to reach the United States than for a novel piece of American slang to gain instant popularity in England.  Finally, I mentioned skedaddle, a classic Americanism, whose dialectal British origin has been discovered almost by chance.  I also knew that the Yiddish word I cited from a slang dictionary was extremely suspicious.  David L. Gold, who has done more than anyone else to debunk the false Jewish origins of English words, said so many years ago.  I have read his review, and there is reference to it in my bibliography. But I thought that when one deals with words like Engl. bosh, balderdash, and so forth (and highfalutin belongs to this category), one might suspect that they are traceable to (garbled) foreign slang.  So I risked saying that perhaps some Yiddish word had been pronounced in a way that sounded to outsiders like highfalutin.  It would be silly to insist on such an etymology, but I hope that what I wrote about the word (-falutin is not a participle of any verb, highfalutin is not an American regionalism, the search may take us to England, and in England the source may turn out to be Yiddish) will inspire someone to find a better origin of this recalcitrant word.

Many thanks to all our readers and correspondents for their interest, encouragement, and support through the four seasons of 2010.


A Happy New Year!

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

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  2. NemaVeze

    Re: “caramel” –

    Isn’t the three-syllable version pronounced with the TRAP vowel in the first syllable, but the two-syllable version uses the START vowel?

    Maybe the first vowel moving back causes the second vowel to be elided somehow.

  3. R

    Speaking of “caramel”: does the case of alarm/alarum have any bearing?

  4. mollymooly

    Regarding the name “Carmel” as an influence on the pronunciation of “caramel”, Irish experience suggests otherwise. “Carmel” as a girl’s name and “Mount Carmel” as a name for convents and schools were common in 20C Catholic Ireland, but I have rarely if ever heard there the American 2-syllable pronunciation of “caramel”.

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