Daily Archives: September 19, 2010


Say you’re driving along a word – sorry, I mean a road – and all of a sudden there’s a stop sign or a stop light you didn’t expect. “Hm!” You say. “That’s new since I was last through here! …What a nuisance!”

Well, now, driving through this word, nuisance, there’s also a stop sign in the middle, though it’s not a new one: right after the u, which you pronounce, there’s this i which you sail right through (without getting a ticket). For many speakers of English, it may seem that the i and u are reversed, because there’s a glide into the vowel ([nju]); for Canadian speakers generally, it’s just [nu] and the vowel is tout nu without any glide on or off. Quel nuisance!

So why’s the i there? I’m tempted to say it just seems to suit it. But that line would not be fruitful. In fact, we have a small suite of words that have this ui, and they’re not like that just to keep the i off U.I. In fact, they all come from French. But, ah, it would be too easy if it were just a French [wi] being reinterpreted as an [u] or [ju] in English without changing the spelling.

Fruit comes from Latin fructus by way of Old French fruit, but the English spelling originally tended to leave out the i; it might equally keep the c instead. The i seems to have been reintroduced.

Suit, for its part, traces back originally to popular Latin sequita, and showed up in English in the 13th century as siwte and then by the 15th century generally as sute. But we also see soyt and soyte in 16th-century use. Our modern suite was originally the same word and split off only about four centuries ago. In all this there was doubtlessly also cross-influence from French; when French came to have it as suite, hey presto, guess what we had in English.

But then we come to nuisance. It seems straightforward by comparison. Its source is Anglo-Norman French: nuisance. It showed up in 15th-century English as nusance, indicating a loss already of the glide; but then within a century we see nuysance. And newsance also appears. It reverted to the spelling nuisance probably with an eye to etymology (there was a vogue for a time in English for etymological respellings, so people could see where their words come from – this gave us assorted silent letters, such as in doubt and debt and falcon – well, the l is no longer silent).  But here’s the good part: In French, the word nuisance fell out of general use between the 17th and mid-20th centuries; the modern French use is most likely influenced by the English usage. Turnabout is fair play, eh!

But of course we say it one way and the French say it another. To English ears, the French [nwizãs] may almost seem charming (because it sounds so French), and it has that “yes”-sounding [wi] (as in oui) in the middle and a [z] to balance the [s]. The English version [nusIns], by contrast, reminds us of noose, while [njusIns] and [nIwsIns] might have a taste of no use, and the consonants are [n], [s], [n], [s], all noses and hisses. We may note a similar difference in sound between the cognate pair French ennuyer and English annoy – and the English word is irritated, while the French one is simply bored.

Well, etymology and spelling can be a nuisance. But a fascinating one.


Jess had just come into the kitchen at Domus Logogustationis, where Daryl, Margot, and I were lolling about. “It looks like something’s moving in your jacket,” Daryl said, eyeing Jess’s windbreaker. He looked again, blinked. “Wow, that was weird. Gave me the whim-whams.”

“More likely the fantods, you mean,” Margot remarked. “A whim-wham is more like a fantastic notion.”

“Or a fantastical object,” I said. “Or an ornament of dress. Like, say, a little pair of cat ears on a brooch.” I gestured to Jess’s neckline, where just such an ornament was apparent.

Then the ornament turned its head and mewed.

“Gentlemen,” Jess said, “and lady, meet Whimsy.”

We reacted as you might expect, kittens being the cutest things in all of creation: “Awww!” We clustered around.

“What gave you the notion to name it Whimsy?” Daryl asked. Jess responded with a don’t-feed-me-straight-lines raised-eyebrow look.

“Is this a he or a she?” Margot asked.

“A him,” Jess said. “There is, after all, a him in Whimsy.”

“What made you decide to get a kitten?” I asked.

Jess gave me the same kind of look she had given Daryl. But then she decided to answer anyway. “Well, it wasn’t whimsy or some whim. It’s always unwise to get a pet on a notion – they’re a commitment. No, I had decided that I needed a touch of whimsy in my life. And here – ow!” The kitten was climbing up her shirt and onto her shoulder.

“Was that a whimper?” I asked.

“Not that I’m a wimp or anything,” she said. She stroked Whimsy. “Well, listen up and you’ll hear a Whimsy purr.” Pause. “Speaking of purr, I came in here to find some milk. And a saucer. Now where, how, what…” She looked around.

“Don’t forget whom, when, and why,” Margot observed dryly.

“Ah, well,” Jess said, striding towards the cupboards, “my favourite wh word is definitely whimsy. Once you’ve done with the details you still need flights of fancy.”

“As long as your whims don’t carry you with the winds,” Margot said.

“Why don’t you have a cat?” Daryl asked Margot.

“If I did, I’d more likely have quinsy. Tonsillitis. I’m allergic.”

“So am I,” I sighed. “One of the great tragedies of my life.” Margot opened her mouth to issue another correction; I pre-empted it. “Yes, I know that it’s not technically a tragedy: there is no hubris, no hamartia, no climax, no crisis… let it go.”

“Speaking of ‘let it go,'” Jess said, attempting to lift the kitten off her shoulder, “Whimsy has developed a whimsical attachment to my shirt.” She shrugged off her jacket and tried again to get the kitten delicately off her shirt, which appeared to be made of silk. “Oww.”

Daryl lent a hand and lifted the kitten off. Unfortunately, the result was a noticeable tear in the shirt.

“Huh,” Jess said, poking her finger into the hole. “Flimsy.”

Thanks to Marie-Lynn Hammond for saying Whimsy would be a good name for a kitten.