Daily Archives: November 25, 2011


This is one of the basic words of English, a word so common that it has a great depth of flavour from all its uses and associations, and the flavours that stand out will be particular to each individual at each time.

For me right now, what comes to mind first is Johnny Cash’s moving rendition of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” – listen to it and watch the video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=l95D7leeU3w. Words often bring songs to mind for me; another that comes to mind is “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. (now there’s also an “Everybody Hurts” by Avril Lavigne for some reason). It also makes me think of two actors: John Hurt, who is very good at looking hurt, and William Hurt, who is a bit too smoothly good looking to quite match his last name. It reminds me, too, of my time working in a bookstore, when we had a big bin of Penguin “hurts”: books that had been damaged a bit and so were marked down. And you can follow hurt down the path of poetry, down the path of country music, down the path of childhood bruises or of adult betrayals. Oh, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to…

Hurt comes in many places, in many forms, in many magnitudes. And hurt has the classic versatility of short old English words. It can be a noun, either countable (So many hurts I have felt) or mass object (I’ll open up a can of hurt on you); it can be an adjective (You look hurt at the price we charge for these hurt books); it can be a verb, either present and future (“I’ll hurt you if you hurt me”; “Love hurts” – see Nazareth or Joan Jett) or past (“I hurt you you ’cause you hurt me” – The Pretenders). The noun and the verb have been in English since the 1200s, the adjective since the 1400s – but the past tense used to be hurted, as in “he never hurted any” (as you can hear in “Geordie,” a truly lovely song sung by Joan Baez), now reduced, probably thanks to haplology.

Is the word suited in form to its meaning? It’s hard to tell – it’s one of those words that set the tone. It starts with an exhalation, a sigh but not a soft sigh, more like the sharper exhalation of pain or impatience. In the writing this is followed by a cup u perhaps of sorrows, but in pronunciation the cup is taken away and only the liquid remains: a syllabic liquid /r/ and no vowel at all. And then it knocks smartly at the end with /t/, like the crack of a whip.

What other words is it like? Hunt, heart, curt, hurl, hurtle… Oh, yes, hurtle is derived from hurt. Hurt first meant “knock, strike, dash”, and the iterative ending le gave it a sense related to collision. What other word could be used? A related one is smart, as in “cause pain” (that smarts) or “feel pain” (I’m still smarting). It relates specifically to a sharp pain, and it is from that sharpness that the adjectival sense eventually slid all the way to “intelligent”. It’s cognate with German Schmerz, which seems like a good word for hurt. But smarting is not the same as hurting; smarting is a sharp pain but one you will get over, while hurting is a deeper, more sorrowful pain, one you are less likely even to want to acknowledge openly. But it’s the kind of pain you write songs about.


As I’ve mentioned elsewhere (An Appreciation of English: A language in motion), language changes, constantly, and there are two main reasons people change language (deliberately or accidentally): to make their lives easier, and to make themselves feel better. In-group inventions, which give a sense of superiority and belonging, are a good example of the latter group, and include slang and technical jargon. The various reductions and weatherings that speech undergoes make up an important part of the former, and among these is haplology.

Haplology is a sort of reduction – syncopation, in fact – that might be made by some hapless guy provoking “LOL,” or it might be done deliberately with no apology. It’s simply removing one of two sequential identical or similar sounds or syllables. For instance, if haplology were to become haplogy, it would have been subject to haplology.

It can happen because you lose track – in a word such as unununium, for instance (and, by the way, if you were to lose track the other way and make ununununium or haplolology, that would be dittology, as would dittotology). It can happen because it’s a real nuisance to say – in a word such as peroration or library (especially in British pronunciation), the sequential /r/s are extra exercise for the tongue, like a couple of sit-ups, so they do tend to smear into one /r/. Or it can just happen because to heck with it. Who needs morphophonology when you can have morphonology? You probably can’t be bothered with both /b/s in probably most of the time. (Dropping both of them down to “prolly” is not only haplology but also deletion.)

On the other hand, you’re less likely to do it with a word such as titivate or mimetic or gigabyte; you can skip over bits in the mushy middle of a word, especially when they’re unaccented, but up front the salience adds distinctiveness.

We know that there are many languages where reduplication is actually an important morphological feature; Hawai‘ian gives us mu‘umu‘u and humuhumunukunukuapua‘a, among others, for instance, and you would not expect them to trim those down, because that would change the meaning. But many people think haplology is also infra dig for the language of Englaland, a sign of a simpleton.

No, Englaland was not a dittograph (reduplication in writing or typing); it’s what the name of the place was at first (or Anglaland, Englalond, or a few other versions). Say it a few times and it should be clear why it easily folded into England. It stands as a bit of a counterbalance to those who would maintain some sort of idololatry of the original. Oh, sorry – although idololatry would be true to the Greek and subsequent Latin source, it’s always been idolatry in English.

But it’s true it’s simple. That’s the point: simplify. The haplo is from Greek ἁπλοῦς haplous “single, simple”. The term was actually coined in the late 1800s by the American philologist (not philogist) Maurice Bloomfield. It doesn’t get used a lot, but we sure do what it names a fair amount. With the double lick of /l/ it’s like a la-la lark or glossolalia, and if it makes you happy make no apology.

Thanks to Lynne Melcombe and her blog post The Happy Haplologist? for bringing this word to my attention.