Daily Archives: February 8, 2011


Well, maybe it’s time I snuck in another pocket screed. Today’s will be “why ‘that’s not a word’ is a senseless assertion.” And maybe if I snuck in a bit of linguistic terminology as well… it’s ablaut time.

Let’s start with that ablaut thingy. What is ablaut? It’s a term (pronounced like “ab lout”) linguistics has taken from German to refer to what’s happening in word sets such as shrink, shrank, shrunken, or sing, sang, sung, or drive and drove, or any other set of words where an inflectional change causes the main vowel to move back in the mouth – in particular “strong” verbs.

Now, the thing about “strong” verbs is that, supposedly, they’re not making new ones. New verbs have to get the -ed past tense and past participle endings, supposedly. It would be sloppy and irregular and so on if some verb that didn’t have the “strong” blue blood in its veins were to take on the airs of ablaut.

The problem being that people, goshdarnit, don’t seem to approach language in a purely schematic, consistent way. Things are often done by analogy. And some things begin as “mistakes” but take root. There are quite a lot of fully accepted words and expressions now in use that have come about through “mistakes,” reanalysis, et cetera. And of course there are some that are still resisted vigorously in spite of being in common use for more than a century. One such is snuck.

It’s quite a sensible ablaut alternation, isn’t it? Sneak–snuck, as self-evident as, say, dive–dove. Alas, it was not always thus; the original (and still used, especially outside of North America) past tense of sneak was sneaked. Somehow snuck just snuck in there (like dove – the same people who oppose snuck oppose dove as the past of dive, for the same reason: it’s not an original strong verb).

It’s not as though the ablaut words we have have all kept their original vowels from the beginning, either. Drove would then be drave, for instance. But snuck is a pure interloper! It’s like having one of those people trying to get into your country club. They’re just not our sort. They don’t belong, you see. Why, snuck is not a word!

Well, yes it is. First of all, a word is any unitary lexical item that is used with proper effect to communicate a particular sense. In other words, if I say it as a word, and you understand it as a word, it’s a word for us. And if it’s in general circulation in a given language and used by many people, and those speakers of that language who hear it generally understand it, it’s a word in that language. Doesn’t matter if it’s not in your dictionary; dictionaries are like field guides, not legislation. Birdwatchers don’t say “That can’t be a bird; it’s not in my book,” they say “My book is missing that one.” That’s how it is with dictionaries too. And if you’re arguing against something being a word, it’s surely because you’ve heard it used as a word (otherwise why bother arguing?), so you’re already wrong from the start.

And anyway, snuck is in the dictionary. So there. It’s been in use in American English since at least the late 1800s, and it’s made its way into all sorts of dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sure, it’s comparatively informal. But the verb sneak isn’t exactly high-flown. And there’s use for informal words. Especially ones that have a suitable mouthfeel and sound, like snuck does. Let’s face it: sneaking is a generally negatively toned act, or at least a rascally one. It’s something done in such a way as to evade detection. There is a certain underhandedness and lack of dignity to it. Under what circumstance could you even think of saying “The Pope snuck into the room”? (Or “The Pope sneaked into the room”?)

So we have a word that has the nose-reminiscent /sn/, which also shows up in words like snip, snicker, snake, and sneer, and then we get that “uck”, which can be a very down-to-earth, informal kind of sound in our language: it might be good luck or a big truck or it might be getting stuck trying to buy a duck (yuck), or it might be any of a variety of other more or less louche words ending with the same rhyme.

This is not to say that sneaked lacks any such tones – it has the same onset, and rhymes with leaked and peeked and tweaked and such like – but it’s a higher, thinner sound (I have the sense that snuck is more appropriate to going under a table and sneaked to going in through a narrow gap), and it has a more complex ending, /kt/ rather than /k/.

So why not have a choice? It’s hardly the first time we’ve had two words for something, and just aesthetic and similar connotative matters to distinguish between them. After all, snuck is a word too.


I lately learned of an interesting little episode in bureaucracy thanks to torontoist.com. At Historicist: The Toronto Patty Wars, I found out that in 1985, federal food inspectors from the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs informed sellers of Jamaican beef patties in Toronto that they absolutely could not sell their products under that name.

The inspectors, you see, armed with the federal definition of a beef patty as consisting of only meat, salt, seasonings, and flavour enhancers, and definitely nothing made from grain products, were shocked, appalled, dismayed, etc., to discover that these so-called “beef patties” actually had quite a lot of flour and similar things in them!

Well, of course they did. A Jamaican beef patty is somewhat like an empanada or a Cornish pasty: it has a pastry shell inside which is ground, seasoned meat. And they had been sold in Toronto under the name beef patties since the 1960s (and in Jamaica long before that). So what’s the beef?

In the end, the vendors were allowed to continue calling their products patties, but they could not call them beef patties. Which of course means that if you sell Jamaican patties some of which have beef and some of which have other fillings, you have to use a more convoluted syntax to designate them.

This is clearly a case of putting the cart before the horse, and it’s also a great example of the grand old language game of presenting inferior understanding as superior understanding. The government knew of only one kind of patty, and made its narrow definition on the basis of that, and when it was confronted with other patties, it insisted they could not be patties because they did not fit its definition. This is perhaps the most classic example of a Procrustean bed I have ever seen in real life. It just goes to show how sometimes (often, in fact) pat answers are flat wrong.

The greatest irony of all in this is that the Caribbean sense of patty, “small pie or pastry”, predates the “flattened cake of ground or minced food” sense… by nearly 250 years.

The word patty, and its sibling pasty (pronounced like past with an /i/ on the end), come from an older sense of French pâté, which in turn comes from pâte, which is cognate with pasta and pastry and comes ultimately from Greek παστη pasté, “paste” or “barley porridge”. The English sense, in use by 1660, was first a meat pie. The meaning transferred to the filling – specifically formed and shaped as a disc – by the early 20th century.

And now what do we think when we hear patty? Well, if it’s beef patty and we’re not used to Caribbean food, we’ll think of a hamburger. But if we hear the word patty by itself (and we don’t think we’re hearing paddy as in rice paddy), we’re probably going to think of the female name. We might think of particular people, real or fictional, who have had that name. I’m put in mind of a rather winsome, introverted girl I knew I high school, for instance. (Thanks to Facebook, I know that she is now a university professor.) But I’m also put in mind of Peppermint Patty from Peanuts (a.k.a. Charlie Brown comics), singer Patti Smith, and the song “Cow Patti” by Jim Stafford – and of course cow patties, something I saw many of up close and personal when I was growing up in Alberta. And there are many males also called Patty (or Paddy), short for Patrick (or Pádraig).

You might also think of patty cake (also known as pat-a-cake) and the act of patting something and perhaps even that charming little Christmas song with the line “tu-re-lu-re-lu, pat-a-pat-a-pan.” And perhaps you’ll be put in mind of putty or petty or pretty or potty or pity or maybe even (in the spirit of the Christmas song) piety. It just has such a pleasing little percussivity to it, kind of like the little pats with which one may form a hamburger patty. (That word pat, by the way, most likely is imitative in origin – your hand goes “pat, pat, pat”, so that’s that.)