bookkeeper

I remember a little story in some book of mental exercises about a bookkeeper who happened to be entering an item about a purchase of balloons (probably 1100 of them) and noticed that there were two double letters in sequence, lloo. He got to thinking about other words that had the same (I don’t remember their examples, but spittoon and settee would be others), and wondered whether there was any word that had three double letters in a row. After thinking long and hard, he noticed something in his office that gave him the answer. What was it?

Well, the plaque on his desk, or the sign on his door, or his business card, whatever – as long as it said bookkeeper. An extra interesting detail about this word, however, is one that might in fact ironically have kept the reader from noticing the sequential double letters: the double k is across a morpheme boundary (since this is a compound word, made of three morphemes – book + [keep + er]), and – unlike most double letters in English – it actually represents a double sound, or anyway a long one (since the /k/ isn’t released twice but is held for double length).

We rarely do double sounds in English. We used to; vowel length once really was vowel length. Now it’s more a function of a change in quality. And we don’t say a long /l/ in balloon (as a speaker of, for instance, Italian might) – it’s not /bal lun/ but /bə lun/.

There are a few other words in English (I don’t have numbers on how many) that have long consonants, and generally they are due to morpheme boundaries. There are at least three that even may be said with long consonants but written with a single letter: thirteen, fourteen, and eighteen, which can (but don’t always) have a held /t/, partly to distinguish them from thirty, forty, and eighty.

But it would be sloppy to say bookkeeper with just a single short /k/. That would make it sound like bookie per, say. And while a bookie may be a bookkeeper of sorts, a bookkeeper is not necessarily a bookie per se.

But this word – and especially its related verb bookkeep – suits bookkeeping well enough. It’s all double-entry ookkee, with the positives b on one side balanced out by the negatives p on the other. (You could also view the kk as the ledger columns, the boo as a positive with trailing zeroes, and the ee as cancelled amounts before the negative p.) Certainly you want to double-OK everything in the accounts, with no book capers and nothing that leaves you saying “eep!”

Book and keep are both old, time-honoured English words (keep originally meaning something more like “capture”). Bookkeeper has, for its part, been around at least since the 16th century. But it has rarely been used for someone like me, who buys books (especially reference books) and almost never sells them. Rather, the books that are being kept are account books (for instance at toll bridges), and the keeping is like housekeeping – not just retaining but maintaining. Why has it always cleaved to that one sense? Oh, there’s no accounting for the vagaries of language… we can just keep the books.

Thanks to my wife, Aina Arro, for prompting me to do bookkeeper.

2 responses to “bookkeeper

  1. Pingback: zucchini | Sesquiotica

  2. You are brilliant.

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