Daily Archives: November 22, 2010


There once was an earl named Merle – a bit of a lout, actually – who had a fancy for a pretty girl with hair in ringlets. She was from the country and wore a country-girl’s apron skirt, and she liked perfume and jewelry. He was rich, and he wanted to see her dance on a bump on a lump on a log, twirling her skirt in the wind, to the sound of bagpipes from somewhere east of Moscow. So, bearing gifts, the Merle the earl thought, “I reckon this pearl and a little myrrh’ll make the pretty rural girl with the curls unfurl her dirndl and go for twirl and a whirl on the knurl of the burl to a Ural skirl.”

But she just hurled at the churl. Well done, girl.

Earl, url, irl… at one time, and still in some dialects, these had different sounds. But in many cases they’ve merged now to a syllabic /r/ followed by the final /l/ – a double liquid, and just incidentally a murderously difficult combination for speakers of many other languages. Not because it’s actually so hard to say – watch yourself doing it, and you’ll find that if you’re North American, you just hump the tongue up in the middle of the mouth, and then turn the tip up to touch – but because it’s nothing they’re used to saying; it doesn’t belong to their phonemic sets.

There are plenty of things that don’t require any more effort that most English speakers have similar trouble with. The Vietnamese name Nguyen, for one. But for most English speakers, this /rl/ rhyme segment of a syllable is nothing so hard – especially since we’ve merged the different original sounds really just by way of reducing speech effort. (There are exceptions, as Laura, commenting on my note on thrall, has reminded me – and thanks to her for suggesting these words.)

But although they sound the same, do we think of these the same? Don’t earl and pearl have a sort of higher-toned sense to them, with the extra “silent” letter and the association with riches (also not hurt by similar words such as earn)? Don’t the url words seem somehow lower-class or more blunt because of the u that we associate with the dumb “uh” sound, plus of course the senses of words such as burl, hurl, and churl? But what is the effect on it of URL, as in a web address? And what about irl, which shows up in some archaic words (thirl and tirl) and the uncommon skirl but mainly is seen in whirl, twirl, and girl? Doesn’t it seem somehow lighter? Does the little echo of skirt add to this? How about just the thin, spindly i?

Of course, there’s also the erle in Merle and some other names (including La Perle, an Edmonton neighbourhood I lived in 20 years ago) – not as thin, but still more elegant than url. And then there are cases such as in rural, Ural, and myrrh’ll, which are thought of as two syllables and so are often more filled out. And there’s the orl in world, which can get extra drawing out from the /w/ and /d/ bookending it – when I write it in verse, I instinctively treat it as two syllables, but not everyone else does!

And where do all these words come from? Well, not any East Asian languages, true, but they do have various origins, many but not all Germanic. We can trace most of them well back into the mists of time, but some, well, we’re not exactly sure about. Just where, for instance, did that girl come from…?


Who here used to watch All in the Family?

What did Archie Bunker say when he wanted someone else to be quiet?

I’m betting you just said “Stifle yourself!”

Now, some horsey people among the readers may wonder how a dislocated knee would cause someone to be quiet, but most of us are not familiar with that other word stifle, which as a noun refers to the joint on horses and similar animals that equates to the knee, and as a verb refers to dislocation of same. There’s no particular reason to think the two stifles have a common origin. But of course I wouldn’t want to stifle further etymological research. Especially since the origin of both words is entirely uncertain (French estouffer seems likely related to the non-horse [but not non-hoarse] one).

I also wouldn’t want to stifle innovation, dissent, competition, or creativity – or laughter. Maybe a yawn, though. All of these are things commonly spoken of as being subject to stifling. Or, more to the point, all these words are often seen after stifle – which itself may be preceded by trying to or could. The word stifling is actually a little different: the number one word to come after it, by a long chalk, at least in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, is heat.

And why would anyone want to stifle heat? They wouldn’t, of course. Nor would they want to be stifled by it, but it’s quite something how often people can speak of the heat as being stifling. Especially since you would think that if the heat is stifling them, they wouldn’t be able to speak. (And why are stifling creativity and stifling heat operating in opposite directions? One stifling is a present participle and the other is an adjective formed from the same.)

Well, figurative is figurative, eh? How often do people speak of stifling literally? As in causing the death of someone or something by depriving of oxygen? They may sometimes use smother or suffocate that way, but whereas He smothered the dog or He suffocated the dog might be taken to mean the dog had been killed, He stifled the dog would much more likely be taken to mean the dog had simply been silenced one way or another (but probably not by death).

And why do we need three words for basically the same thing? Well, in part because they have little differences of connotation and usage patterns – smother, for instance, generally produces an image of something soft being held over the face (and has the added flavour of its culinary use: steak smothered in mushrooms is acceptable; steak stifled in mushrooms or steak suffocated in mushrooms is not); suffocate seems to focus more on the sensation of asphyxiation; stifle, as we have seen, carries more of a sense of silencing or impairing.

But they also have different tastes from the feel and sound of them. True, they all start with /s/; two of them also have /f/. (And we think again of asphyxiation, which is the most literal of the bunch but does not automatically refer to an act of one person on another.) But suffocate has more of a gasping or coughing sound, and an echo of suffering; on the other hand, smother has a well-known rhyme in mother, and some other echoes too. Stifle has the cutting edge of the /aI/ central dipthong, which sounds like an exclamation of pain or woe and gives it a taste in the vein of rifle and knife, not to mention life, which may be ending. But probably not literally. (It also echoes Eiffel, as in Tower, but the different spelling attentuates that influence; those who hear it are more likely to think of a Bunker.)