Thursday, January 05, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

A Regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors."

Gerald Ford is a klutz (never mind that he was among America's most athletic presidents). Dwight Eisenhower would rather golf than govern (never mind he was one of the hardest-working and most effective presidents of the 20th century). And George W. Bush can't say nuclear.

Well, he can't, can he?

It's not exactly correct to say the president mispronounces the word. He uses an alternate pronunciation -- "nu-ku-lar" -- that might be considered dialectal. It is commonly heard in the U.S. South, and in the U.S. military (which traditionally draws disproportionately from the old Confederacy states). Its use has been noted since the early 1960s among nuclear scientists themselves, including British and Canadian scientists.

Bush is not the only modern president to say it that way. Oddly, his father wasn't among those who did (though he had his own grating way with Sa-a-addam). But Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both Southern men, said "nu-ku-lar." So did John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, who perhaps picked it up during their military service.

The first U.S. president we know of to say "nu-ku-lar," and the first to be widely scolded for it, was Eisenhower, as far back as his "Atoms for Peace" speech to the UN.

[Before the Atomic Age, the word hardly entered a president's vocabulary, so we have no idea how Wilson or Coolidge said it.]

The cause of this alternate pronunciation is a natural, universal human quality that has had a tremendous impact on the complex structures of language over the millennia: laziness.

The two vowels at the end of the spoken word nuclear tend to melt down in modern American speech to a "ye-" sound, making the word "nukly-er." But that "-kly-" sound chunk is not one that English-speaking mouths like to make. So the speech part of the brain does what it has done since time immemorial when confronted with a knotty sound cluster. It rearranges it.

One of the most common ways to do this is to swap one sound for another nearby in the word. The process is so common that linguists have a name for it: metathesis. The brain of the person hearing the rearranged word will recognize it as the same word and the pronunciation problem is solved for the speaker.

In the case of "nu-ku-lar," this probably is reinforced by the adjectival ending of common words like binocular, circular, particular, secular, and especially molecular.

Some linguists dismiss the metathesis explanation of "nu-ku-lar" and say it all is caused by the bad influence of secular and such words. They point out that the "-kly-" doesn't cause any pronunciation problems in clear.

But I think this is mistaken. If you look at the whole word nuclear, it requires much more effort to pronounce correctly than clear. Your mouth has to shift from a high back vowel (-u-) to front vowels (-e-, -a-) in a feat of oral gymnastics. You have to make a sort of Wallace & Gromit face.

The tendency to avoid this by equalizing the vowels in a word is the same process that anciently altered the English plurals of words like man and mouse. Once you've done that, it becomes natural to break up the "-kl-" and smooth out the word.

Metathesis is common in phonetic speech. People say "comfterble" when they pronounce comfortable and "interduce" instead of introduce, and nobody pronounces iron like it's spelled.

It is nothing new, either. Its long history is proven by many words in English that have been completely changed by metathesis. That is, we now take their changed forms as the only ones, and have forgotten the original except when we meet it in ancient writings.

Third, for instance. That this is a metathesized word ought to be obvious to anyone who reflects that it is based on three. Or anyone who compares it to its Germanic cognates, such as German dritte, in which the initial consonant cluster is preserved.

Sure enough, the Old English form of it was þridda. The metathesis of thrid into third is attested in writing from as far back as c.950 C.E., in Northumbria. But the form thrid was prevalent in English up to the 16th century.

The Dutch form of the word, derde, shows a similar metathesis. As, apparently, does the more distantly related Latin equivalent, tertius (compare Greek tritos).

The same pattern gives thirty (early 15th century metathesis of Old English þritig), and thirteen, a c.1430 metathesis of Old English þreotene.

In fact, the modern standard dictionary of English is littered with "nu-ku-lar"-style metatheses. Hasp is a late Old English metathesis of hæpse (German still has haspe "clamp, hinge, hook"). Wren is an Old English metathesis variation of earlier werna. Curl is a 15th century metathesis of Middle English crulle.

Through is a c.1300 metathesis of Old English þurh (related to German durch). It is kin to thrill which itself is a metathesis of Old English þyrlian, from þyrel "hole" (which is the second element in nostril). Originally thrill meant "make a hole in;" the modern meaning "give a shivering, exciting feeling" is first recorded 1592, via a metaphoric notion of "pierce with emotion."

Bristle is another case of metathesis; the older Germanic form is preserved in Middle Dutch borstel. Bright was metathesized in Old English out of beorht. Fresh is a late 13th century metathesis of Old English fersc.

Among the most common metathesized words is bird, which in Old English was bridd. The metathesis of -r- and -i- occurred in the 15th century. It originally meant only "young bird" (the usual Old English for "bird" being fugol -- related to fowl), and it is of uncertain origin with no cognates in any other Germanic language.

Want more? Dirt is a 15th century metathesis of Middle English drit. Fright, meanwhile, is a metathesis of Old English fyrhtu, first recorded in Northumbrian dialect as fryhto. German Furcht retains the original order of sounds.

Middle English had a word crud meaning originally "any coagulated substance," probably from the Old English verb crudan "to press, to drive." In the 16th century this was metathesized into curd, and we now use it to describe a delicious kind of lemon-flavored paste. The verb curdle comes from this Middle English word, and it, too, is metathesized. The original form was crudle.

Crud disappeared -- until the 20th century. About 1920 it reappeared in U.S. army and college student slang as a term for "venereal disease." It is said to be a metathesis variant of curd, which, if true, makes it an unconscious return to the original Middle English form of that word.

The metathesis process seems to be nearly univeral among human speakers. It turns up regularly in languages as diverse as Navajo and Hebrew.

Metathesis likely explains why a breed of small ponies from the Shetland Islands are called Shelties.

In Spanish, it created tilde, a word since borrowed into English, from Latin titulus "inscription, heading." In Portuguese, the Late Latin word parabola meaning "speech, discourse" was metathesized into palavra "word, speech, talk," which became the common traders' term for "negotiating with the natives" in West Africa and was picked up by 18th century British sailors and smuggled into English as palaver.

In Irish, lupracan (source of English leprechaun) emerged by a metathesis of Old Irish luchorpan, a word much more transparent in its original form, and meaning literally "a very small body," compounded from lu "little" and corpan, a diminutive of corp "body" (borrowed into Irish from Latin corpus).

Other words that entered into English bearing scars of metathesis in Latin or French include stencil, avalanche, fringe, omelet, and burnish.

Licorice comes ultimately from Greek glykyrrhiza, which literally means "sweet root." The English word is not metathesized, but the French (réglisse) and Italian (regolizia) are.

Narwhal probably is a metathesis of Old Norse nahvalr, literally "corpse-whale," so called from resemblance of whitish color to that of dead bodies.

Trouble comes from Old French trubler, which was meathesized in the 11th century from a descendant of Latin turbidus (source of un-metathesized turbid).

Not all metatheses "stick." Some don't drive out the original forms. Grass had a variant form gærs in Old English, and likewise cress had a form cærse. Neither survives. Run had a metathesized Old English form ærnan, which was the usual way to write the causative form of the verb ("to cause to run").

The variant pronunciation "ax" for ask now is regarded as uneducated, but it goes right back to Old English acsian and ax was an accepted literary variant until c.1600. A reverse of the same sound shift did stick in task, which comes from an Old North French tasque, which represents a metathesis in Medieval Latin of a form of classical Latin taxare "to evaluate, estimate, assess" (source of tax).

Burst is from Old English berstan, but the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European base of it is *bhres-, which indicates an ancient metathesis on the way to Old English. And in fact the forms reverted to brest- in Middle English, from influence of Old Norse brestan, but it was re-metathesized in the late 16th century and emerged in its modern form. However brast was common as the past tense through the 17th century and survives in dialect.

So if you want to drag the Prez thourgh the drit over this "nu-ku-lar" stuff, you're in for a heap of tourble. Better get up birght and early -- like about five thrity a.m.; better get a fersh start. It's the early brid gets the worm, you know (especially if the brid is a wern). Because this partisan bickering is firghtful stuff; it will make you birstle with indignation. It will crul your hair, it gets so hot. Only if you get it exactly right is it a true thirll. Otherwise, it's just a pile of crud. Or curd.

As for Ike, he didn't seem to mind some people's irritation over "nu-ku-lar." If they wrote him off as a rube for it, so much the better. It fit in with Eisenhower's carefully cultivated image of a constitutional monarch, more interested in playing golf than in politics.

His first biographer claimed that the 'unanimous consensus' of 'journalists and academics, pundits and prophets, the national community of intellectuals and critics' had been that Eisenhower's conduct of the presidency had been 'unskillful and his definition of it inaccurate ... [he] elected to leave the nation to fly on automatic pilot.' He was seen as well-meaning, intellectually limited, ignorant, inarticulate, often weak and always lazy." [Paul Johnson, "Modern Times," p.461]

Only after the archives were opened did most Americans realize how hard he truly worked, how smart he truly was, and how he kept any one observer from seeing enough to judge this. Churchill saw it. Richard Nixon, Ike's vice president, called him "complex" and "the most devious man I ever came across in politics;" Nixon knew a bit about both qualities.

Eisenhower's inarticulation and feigned ignorance was a handy way to avoid giving straight answers at press conferences. "Indeed he was Machiavellian enough to pretend to misunderstand his own translator when dealing with difficult foreigners." [Johnson, p.463]

Not to make too much of this, or to suggest that Dubya is an Ike. But it serves as fair warning (as does the popular opinion of Lincoln among his opponents) of trusting too much in the assertions that a president is ignorant because he doesn't speak in public as well as those who hate him think they do.