Daily Archives: November 26, 2012


Plants have their mutations, and so do words. In word country, one that crops up from time to time is metathesis (that’s pronounced with the accent on the “ta,” by the way): sounds are transposed. This has affected some of our best-known words. Without it, you might aks for the thrid time what that birht brid is, rather than ask for the third time what that bright bird is, since our modern versions of ask, third, bright, and bird all got their forms by metathesis of the [r] and vowel sounds or, in ask, of the [k] and [s].

But you have to be careful. While metathesis is not normally harmful, you should watch out if you make yourself comfortable in some foliage to eat an hors d’oeuvre with mascarpone. You will not be harmed by being “comfterble” rather than “comfortable” – indeed, the former is a more comfortable sound. You may or may not be foiled by “foilage.” As long as you are careful with your “or durv” and it does not veer too close to ordure you will probably survive.

But if metathesis affects your soft Italian cream cheese, you will find yourself face-to-face with a gangster from the red planet: Mars Capone. Do not try to turn it into a candy bar with a capon; you are too late. The scar may be gone, but the consequences of its turning into rsca are simply too risky. A green man with a machine gun, making a bloodbath from the red planet – your only hope would be to send him to Alcatraz for syntax evasion.

Yes, better to keep it away from that cheese. As long as it’s mascarpone, it may sound like it wants to scarper, or like it’s wearing a mask, or you may hear a hint of a corn pone (for a NASCAR driver perhaps?) or get a clear taste of carp (you may even see one), but you are at no risk of its being crap or, well, that machine-gun man. You will in fact have a nice soft spreadable outcome of a liaison between cream and a curdling agent (such as citric acid). It can be part of a nice little “pick-me-up” – Italian tiramisù.

Never mind that the word’s origin is uncertain and subject to some speculation. Just don’t let that [r] shift from the unstressed syllable (such a nuisance to put that extra effort into what would otherwise be a simple schwa) onto the lengthened opening [a], no matter how natural it may seem. It could be your life we’re talking about here, you know.