Daily Archives: April 2, 2009


Just last weekend I was talking with some fellow linguists about where one would insert an expletive (as we do in abso-frickin’-lutely – this process is called tmesis) in a word with a dactyl followed by the main stress. At the time I couldn’t think of a good English example; place names such as Constantinople and Kalamazoo presented themselves. But, hey, I forgot about this word: dactyl plus trochee, five syllables. Now, how many different ways could you arrange the main and secondary stresses plus three off-beats? Viewed as a bare arrangement exercise, it’s trivial combinatorics, but once you involve English phonotactic constraints it may limit the options slightly… While the total imaginable arrangements of one primary stress, one secondary stress, three off-beats, and an insertion – after at least one syllable and before at least one syllable – number 80, the total you’ll ever hear in English is rather fewer: it turns out that the location of the tmesis is normally predictable for any stress pattern (but also subject to morphemic influence), and when we work in other details of English stress patterns, we find that there are really only a couple of ways you’re likely ever to get it. But, ah, this is so dry – unless, that is, you happen to like mucking around with the calculation of permutations and combinations, which is what combinatorics is all about. It sounds so nice and technical, too, doesn’t it? Those clicky [k] sounds, the final [ks] on a word that is treated as singular (like other academic field names – semiotics, mathematics, and so on – but not so adventuresome as, say, Vercingetorix, which anyway puts the dactyl after the trochee), the obvious combine connection and the resonances of laboratory, binary, imbricate, and frankly quite a few other sesquipedalian (a dactyl plus dactyl!) sawbuck words… Not to mention the fact that we adopted (and adapted) the word from German (which took its components from Latin). For some people, just knowing and using a word of this sort is enough to sound smart. But if that’s not enough, application of it to aspects of life in casual conversations ought to do the trick. And, for that cowboy tinge on the geekiness, add that expletive, that taboo tmesis… And where would you insert it?