Daily Archives: September 16, 2010


One of the disadvantages of a weird language like English, with its multifarious exceptions and irregularities and a spelling system so divergent from pure phonological representation as to border on the ideographic, is a reflexive preference for the marked.

I am here using marked in the linguistic sense, meaning “exceptional, unusual, distinct from the normative pattern”. When confronted with a choice between a form that seems simple and logical and one that defies common sense, and in the absence of any clear or authoritative sense of which to choose, we will typically choose the weird one on the assumption that it must be the right one or why would it be there? And the more simple and logical one will tend to be taken as informal or simply incorrect.

One may greet such observations with a wry smile, but admit it: it’s a twisted state of affairs. In the world of linguistic intercourse, English is among the kinkiest. And its users are like people who have lived in a madhouse so long they’ve forgotten what sane is (sort of like people who think it’s somehow normal to need two tons of metal to move a hundred fifty pounds of person a couple of miles… but I digress). Why else would I ever have heard a person evince the assumption that the name Waugh is to be pronounced like “way”? Why else would so many people firmly (though erroneously) believe that one of the most consistent and inflexible rules in English – that we use an before a vowel sound and a before a consonant sound, as shown by examples such as an hour, a use, a house, an umbrella – would have one exception, to be defended to the death: an historic? And why else would we see, in more places than you might think, the word neck spelled kneck?

Well, now, I’ll be fair: nobody is spelling it, say, pneck or neach (although it occurs to me that the first time I heard someone speak of the town of Teaneck in New Jersey, I assumed it was spelled Tionech – I was a teen at the time, by the way). There is a second force at work here: analogy. We have, after all, a word knock, another one knack, and a body part called knee and another called knuckle. And neck is a short word and not a fancy one. So the weirdness here is at least a consistent weirdness. But still, neck is a common word. A person will have seen it thousands of times by the age of 20. And yet enough of these people nevertheless spell it kneck to produce more than 400,000 hits on Google.

But wait, you say. Are all those Google hits really for the misspelling of neck? Well, no, not all; certainly not all for the unintentional spelling – I suspect the founders of a company called Knife In Ya Kneck Records may know better – but also there are a few places where another word kneck is defined: it means “the twisting of a rope or cable as it is running or being put out”.

So there! It’s a real word! Ha! Well, except that is rare and obsolete, and appears in the first place to have been a variant on kink. Incidentally, kink for its part originally meant “bend” and is related to an Icelandic word kikna meaning “bend at the knee”. But one may have a kink in the neck, too, after all (and we may wonder whether some faint notion of this comes to play in the spelling kneck, with its extra angularity and knockiness).

In fact, there’s even a medical condition in which the neck has a chronic kink due to muscle spasms: it’s called wry neck. I may note wryly that I have in various places seen people write this Rye neck, apparently assuming that it’s a toponym like Lyme disease, or perhaps just that it comes from excessive consumption of Canadian whisky. Well, either way, I understand – for those interested in traditional herbals – that one may treat it with kinnikinnik. (With what? Oh, it’s also called bearberry. But frankly, I would sooner recommend physical therapy, and perhaps muscle relaxants or anticholinergics.) I’m not sure, though, what the treatment would be for getting one’s neck – or perhaps one’s knose – out of joint at a misspelling.

Why the second comma?

The Editors’ Association of Canada email list has lately had a discussion on the topic of sentences such as “Victoria, BC is a pretty place” – or should that be “Victoria, BC, is a pretty place”?

It’s quite common not to use the second comma. And in fact in most cases one is not too likely to misunderstand the sentence without it. But does it belong there, strictly speaking? And if so, why? Continue reading