Monthly Archives: February 2013

A herstory (or mansplanation) of portpersonteau words

A herstory (or mansplanation) of portpersonteau words

From broceries to guybrarian to Galentine’s Day, we often employ wordplay to poke at differences between the sexes

Another article by me on Read it at!

A Word Taster’s Companion: Lovely, lyrical liquids

Today: the twelfth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Lovely, lyrical liquids

Liquid. Say rarely rural, really, Larry. Oh, come now, you can do it! Why would such flowing sounds cause any trouble?

And they are flowing sounds. English has two phonemes of the type called liquids: /r/ and /l/. Mind you, they do each have more than one allophone.

Liquids are consonants that involve contact or near-contact of the tongue with the palate but allow ample air to pass around – more than for a fricative. They produce no buzz or hiss. You could actually almost drink some kind of liquid (water, beer, wine) while holding your tongue in the position to say a liquid, but the swallowing would cause you to say a nasal instead.

Liquids are lovely, lush, lyrical. You can sing them, though your voice teacher will probably tell you to sing vowels instead. The singability of these sounds means that they can be syllables, and often are. Say burble, turtle, gurgle. If you’re like most Canadians and Americans, your first syllable of each word has not a vowel per se but simply a sustained /r/ with the tongue not really moving during it. And while you may or may not slip in a little vowel – a short schwa – before the /l/ in burble and gurgle, you almost certainly don’t in turtle, where the tongue can maintain the tip contact and simply release the sides to go from the /t/ to the /l/, making the peak of the syllable not a vowel but the liquid /l/.

So why aren’t liquids considered vowels? In the case of /l/, the tongue tip touches the roof of the mouth, so that rules it out. But in both cases, even though they can be peaks of syllables (meaning you can use them where you would use vowels in words like turtle and gurgle), they don’t behave like vowels anywhere else. We use them where we use consonants, at the beginnings and ends of syllables. And liquids aren’t the only consonants that can be the peaks of syllables: we also do it with nasals (like the syllabic /n/ we usually say in button).

We don’t have unvoiced versions of these sounds in English, though they do exist in other languages – Welsh, for instance. Well, let me make a small correction here: we don’t have separate unvoiced phoneme pairs for these. But we do sometimes say unvoiced versions of them, thanks mainly to our habit of aspirating voiceless stops at the beginnings of stressed syllables (remember that from “Stop! What are you doing”? Don’t make me explain it all over again!). If the stop is followed by a liquid rather than a vowel, the aspiration makes at least part of the liquid voiceless. Say play and pray. If you pay attention, you will find that your voice doesn’t really start up again until the ay part – the /l/ and /r/ are said mostly or entirely voiceless.

There are some other allophones of liquids as well. You’re probably used to saying /r/ with your tongue humped up in the middle but not touching (except at the sides). But you’re surely also used to hearing trilled versions, from languages such as Spanish and Italian but also from Scots English and some other kinds. Trills are actually not liquids. They’re functionally similar to liquids and tend to be used in the same ways and places, but the difference between a trill and a liquid is like the difference between dribbling a basketball (trill) and just picking it up and running with it (liquid). Except that you don’t get whistled out for saying a liquid.

A further effect of this is that /r/ can be said in some dialects as tap – rather than a trill, which is multiple bounces, you say just one bounce. This is why some British accents can sound to North Americans like they’re saying “veddy” when they say very: we only use a tap for /d/ and /t/, not for /r/. But it goes both ways: a Yorkshire accent can sound to someone from southern England like it’s saying “gor any” rather than “got any” because they, like North Americans, tap /t/ in that position, while in the standard southern British accent only a /r/ would tap in that position.

To add to the fun, in English we have two kinds of /l/, a “bright” one and a “dark” one. The difference is that the “bright” /l/, which is used at the beginnings of syllables, has the tip up but the back fairly low, whereas the “dark” /l/ has the back well up, and sometimes the tip doesn’t quite touch, especially if it’s before another consonant. Compare la la la la la with all all all all all. And then say elk elk elk elk elk and see how the /l/ is reduced to something almost like /u/ without lip-rounding.

Oh, and speaking of lip-rounding, you will notice, if you observe for a bit, that we normally round our lips to some extent when saying /r/. This makes the sound more distinctive. Stand in front of a mirror and watch yourself say ring. Say it slowly and clearly. Maybe take a little cell phone video of yourself doing it. You will see that your lips are rounded. Now say wring. When you say that, you think of your lips being rounded. And they are. But they’re just as rounded when you say ring.

Liquids are certainly mellifluous sounds, though holding them too long can have a sort of “low class” sound to them, just due to established norms in speaking English. Say “haaaaaaard” and then say “harrrrrrrd.” The latter sounds like what? A pirate, perhaps? Now say “faaaaaaaall” and then say “falllllllllll.” Does it sound like a dog, or like someone’s choking you? The effect is much less, however, at the starts of words: “rrrrrright” and “llllllllush” probably sound simply emphatic, and perhaps even a little upper-class – again, due entirely to association with who is heard to say them when.

What do liquids feel like to say? Well, in theory you can sustain them indefinitely, but in practice you will find that your tongue tires out sooner than you might expect because it’s being held in a tensed position. This is especially true of the “dark” /l/, which can feel a bit like choking. Ultimately, in their fluidity, liquids are rather like the fish in the stream of your speech. They’re slick and smooth and wet, and as lovely as they are to look at you probably won’t enjoy holding them for all that long.

Liquids are called approximants by linguists. But they’re not the only approximants out there. Along with these consonants that can behave like vowels, there are sounds that are vowels behaving like consonants…


Creeping in a tropical crepuscule, you approach a portal. What epic will it open to? A paradise of rhapsodic terpsichore, or a pit to trap you in perpetuity? As you tiptoe to it you seek an apotropaic. What will protect you, what will send evil away so that you live, transposing as apo transposes to opa that you may say “I see” safely (apo tr opa i c) and escape captors?

A typical approach is to expect that spiritual raptors will be reflected and ejected by some particularly wretched complection: with ugly gargoyle or sheela na gig you can provoke apoplexy in spooks from poltergeist to perkele. Perhaps a hippopotamus? No – that would only endanger your life and limb (they’re not just porky and pug-ugly pachyderms; they’re exceptionally truculent), and you happen not to have a hippo in your pocket. You pick apart your anorak hoping to prestidigitate some unexpected amulet. In the peripheral aspidistras you glimpse a pair of eyes, a couple of fangs, perhaps an ear, all shaped like the word apotropaic. You step back and keep patting your pockets frantically.

But what provokes “Eureka!”? What little bit of plastic epitomizes the dactyl and trochee, or trochee and amphibrach, “ap-o-tro-pay-ic,” you happily exclaim? What has seen that you lived without devil, what will you set atop the portal for protection as you pick its lock? As ugly as any projectile that has traced an erratic hyperbole: a Poopatrooper. An apotropaic Poopatrooper.

You toss it up. It approaches apogee and pops its parachute, and drops loopily to the capstone of the portal, where it perches. You approach, trepid but expectant…


Can you look at this word without seeing a sort of robin’s-egg blue in your mind?

Colour words are evocative just because of the clear visual association. But do any other associations enter your consciousness with this word? Well, they will after we’ve tasted it, if not before.

The shape of this word is long; it has two u’s and a q, and somehow those letters seem blue-greenish to me, possibly under the influence of the sense. It has a descender in the middle, no loop on it, and a small ascender at the start and a dot near the end. You could picture it as being a segment of a dressy necklace made of carved semi-precious stones. The sound of it clicks on the tongue tip and knocks at the back, but then swings around open and closes into a buzz on the tip of the tongue. Your tongue describes a full lap around your mouth – perhaps a blue rondo à la turquoise.

What other words does it taste of? Tortoise, for certain. Turpentine and turnkeys and tourniquets? Maybe. Quarters? I think so. Could you picture a turquoise sasquatch? Only for fun, in a colouring book. It makes me think of a Caribbean territory – can you imagine buying cakes and turquoise in the Turks and Caicos?

Oh, yes, Turks. Does this word make you think of Turkey? Turkish delight? Have you ever stopped to look at turquoise long enough to wonder where it came from? If you have, you have probably guessed that the stone it names is associated with Turkey. And indeed it is – Turkey is not the only place it can be found, but that’s where it was first introduced to Europe from. It can actually be found in Saxony and Cornwall too, but somehow it was not associated with those places – they had less traffic with Greece and Rome than Turkey did at the time. It can also be found in China, Australia, India, Chile, and a few other places.

But wherever it may be found, history happened in such a way as to make this stone not chinoise or indienne or even cournouaillaise. Nope, it was from Turkey, and therefore it was Turkish. Turquoise, in the French of the time. (In modern French, it would just be turc or turque.) But actually our current spelling was layered over top of an existing English word: before about 1600 it was called turkeis or turkeys or any of a few other spellings of the same sound. An archaic form turkise still survives. But after the French spelling was adopted, the pronunciation modified to match the spelling – not as the French would say it, but as the eyes of Englishmen took it: “turkwoys” or “turkoys.” Remember, these are the same people who pronounced Beauchamp like Beecham.

Well, isn’t that nice? From a term associated now with dumb birds and asinine humans and hearty feasting food we have moved on to a term that seems exclusively lapidary, that hides its origin in plain sight with exotic spelling and endotic pronunciation. It’s sort of like taking something ordinary like aluminum and making a sought-after pretty gemstone from it.

Which is (you probably guessed where I was going with that) what turquoise is. It’s a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminum. Or aluminium, if you’re British. Isn’t that delightful? Less utile than aluminum foil, but even if turquoise can’t keep your food, it may do something for your luck – and as a talisman and apotropaic it is meant to foil evil and preserve good fortune.

Honeymoons and babymoons

Today my first article for was published:

Honeymoons, babymoons, and the surprising origin story of
-moon words

I encourage you to read it at

coup de grâce

We decided to have a special Shrove Tuesday dinner this year at Domus Logogustationis, the clubhouse of the Order of Logogustation. Word tasting is a nonsectarian activity, but we felt a need to have a little carnival to say carnem vale (farewell to meat), as we were giving up our kitchen for lent.

Not for Lent. For lent. We were lending it out to a cook, Marty Graw, for a few weeks so he could run a private cooking class in it. Our arrangement was that, in lieu of rent, he would cook two meals for us all: one just before he started with the class, on Shrove Tuesday, and another after he was done with it, in March. Naturally, for Shrove Tuesday he decided to go with a pancake theme.

So we were all seated around our tables, eagerly awaiting the delights forthcoming. Marty came in with one plate, in the centre of which was his featured assemblage for the first course, and he held it forth to explain to us what it was he was about to serve to each of us when he brought in all our plates.

“At the bottom you will see a buckwheat blini. It is topped with butter whipped with maple syrup. Above that is blueberry caviar with a daydream of orange zest shreds. And, as a coup de gras, on top of all is a piece of flash-seared foie gras.”

He went back into the kitchen to fetch the plates. Maury and I and Philippe Entrecote exchanged glances with each other, eyebrows raised.

“He did say coup de gras, didn’t he?” said Philippe.

“Yes, that’s what I heard,” I said. He couldn’t have said coup de grâce; that has an audible /s/ on the end. “Do you suppose he intended it?”

“I know him,” Maury said. “He’s not the sort of person who says ‘vishy-swa’ for Vichyssoise. I don’t think he’s prone to hyperforeignisms.”

“Precious turns of phrase, perhaps,” Philippe said. “A daydream of orange zest shreds?”

“It’s not a bad pun, anyway,” I said. “The foie gras is, after all, a stroke of grease. Or fat.”

“Perhaps he meant ‘neck of fat’?” Philippe said. The French for that, cou de gras, sounds the same as coup de gras.

“Not unless the goose’s liver is in its neck,” Maury said. “I mean, they do force-feed the birds by massaging food down the neck, but… Perhaps it’s the elbow grease they use to force it down. Coude de gras.” He knew, and we knew that he knew, that coude de gras actually means ‘elbow of grease’, but we let it go.

“Isn’t gavage illegal?” I said.

“Foie gras is illegal in some places,” Maury said. “Because of gavage. The force-feeding of the birds is seen as inhumane.”

“In which case,” Philippe said, “after all that torture, putting the bird out of its misery – and onto our plates – might well be a coup de grâce.”

“Ah, yes,” said Maury, “there’s the point that arched my eyebrows. A coup de grâce is of course not just a nice finishing touch. It’s the bullet through the head of a mortally wounded man. It’s the sword blow to decapitate a samurai who is performing seppuku. The grâce is mercy. It’s a mercy stroke.”

“A handsome stroke of mercy,” I said. “Mercy beau coup.” Philippe sighed and rolled his eyes slightly, not because it was a pun but because it was poorly formed French. Beau does mean ‘handsome’ and coup ‘stroke’ or ‘blow’, but the mercy was out of place.

Just then Marty arrived with our plates. As he set them down, Philippe couldn’t keep himself from gesturing to the foie gras and asking, “Are the geese grâce-fed?”

Marty, not being quite an Olympic-level punster, simply heard it as “grass-fed.” “No,” he said, “grain-fed. Maize, I think, with vitamins.”

“Merci beaucoup,” I said, lifting my knife and fork as soon as my plate had landed in front of me. Philippe rolled his eyes slightly again. Marty went back to the kitchen to get more plates.

“After smelling this coming for the past couple of minutes,” Maury said, “I’m about to die of hunger.”

I took a bite of mine and my eyes nearly rolled back in my head. “Maury, old chap,” I said after swallowing, “put some coude de gras into it and get some gras down your cou. If you’re nearly dead, this will surely deliver the coup de grâce.”

Philippe, chewing with purse-lipped vigor, paused after a swallow to mutter, “That’s what my cardiologist would say.” And then, after a moment, he reached for the wine.

A Word Taster’s Companion: Ah, frick it

Today: the eleventh installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Ah, frick it

Affricate. I do like this word, affricate, though it actually doesn’t contain the sound it names. “Affricate” is not “African” said with a cold and laryngitis, nor is it an expression of dismay or frustration (“I forget!” “Ah, frick it!”). Well, some affricates may be expressions of dismay – [ts] gets used for this at times – but it’s not essential to their nature. An affricate is a stop that releases to a fricative: a single gesture of the tongue, thought of by the speaker as a single sound, but made of two parts: the tongue moves, making a sort of breaking sound. It’s a consonant equivalent of a diphthong. Judge for yourself: Say “judge” and listen to the consonants in the word – is there more to them than in “dud” or “shush”

We don’t have a lot of affricates in English. If you look at the consonant list in “Sushi thief!” you’ll see a reason why: an affricate requires a stop and a fricative in the same place, and we don’t have that many pairs like that. Actually, we have even fewer than we could. Our only affricate phonemes in English are /tʃ/ and /dʒ/: “ch” and “j.”

We may occasionally say the available other stop-fricative combinations – [ts] and [dz] – and sometimes we may even say them so they’re not across syllable boundaries (as what’s up sometimes becomes ’tsup, for instance). But we don’t think of them as single sounds. In fact, many people will have a resistance to saying them where we can say /tʃ/ and /dʒ/, or will even think they can’t say them because we don’t start syllables with a stop followed by a fricative. Many English speakers have problems saying something like “tsump” and “dzump” – or tsar, or tsunami. But we have no problem saying “chump” and “jump,” or “char” (or “chunami,” if that were a word), even though they’re also a stop plus a fricative in a very similar place in the mouth. This is because we see them – and perform them – as one gesture. You’re saying char, not tshar. It’s the difference between courtship and core chip, for instance. To show in phonetic transcriptions that they’re a single phoneme, sometimes a joining line is written under the two letters. But that’s not supported by many character sets, so you don’t see it all the time.

We also say affricates as versions of stops. For instance, say choo-choo train. You may have noticed that you make the t is as the same sound as the ch. You’ll find the same thing, but voiced, in juju drain. In many places where [t] and [d] release with the tongue flexing towards the palate – nature, gradual, dread – the gesture results in affrication: as you release the stop you make a fricative on the way to the next sound. So our target phoneme is /t/ or /d/ and we have it in mind to say that sound and we hear it as a version of that sound, but it actually comes out as  [tʃ] and [dʒ].

But those aren’t quite the only affricates we have as allophones. Say cute. Now say it with emphasis, especially on the start – draw it out: Cute! Notice how the hump of your tongue is actually fairly far forward in your mouth when you say the [k]? And how air escapes past it as it releases to the vowel? Congratulations. You’ve just made an affricate that most Anglophones can hardly even conceive of existing – even though they make it: a voiceless palatal affricate. (The International Phonetic Alphabet way of writing it is [cç].)

It’s the further progress of that movement, by the way, that led Latin c, originally [k] in all positions, to become [tʃ] before [e] and [i], as it is in Italian and as one hears it in church music. It’s very easy to move [cç] forward just a little more to [tʃ]. (The process was a little different with [sk]: it dropped the stop as it softened up and it became [ʃ] without passing through [stʃ] – which is why excelsis is “ek-shell-cease” and not “ex-chell-cease,” and prosciutto is “pro-shoot-toe” and not “pros-choo-toe.”) That movement, from [k] to [tʃ], is also one way English came to have these affricates; cheap, for instance, is related to words and roots in other Germanic languages that start with [k] – German kauf, for instance.

It also goes in the other direction: the “y” sound as in yes and yellow – written as [j] in IPA – can be made so narrow that it touches the palate and makes an affricate. You can hear this in some dialects of Spanish: llave, [jave], has moved to [dʒave] in some South American versions, and the same accent can cause its speakers to pronounce English with the same effect: for instance, your sounding like jor. This same process is in fact a way that Latin words with j, which was really i in Latin, came to be said with [dʒ] in English.

What do affricates feel and sound like to say? [tʃ] can have a kind of mechanical or metallic crispness, which shows up in chug, cha-ching, and similar words. It sounds like bells, small change, machines… That effect is softened when you add voice, but there can still be a certain sturdiness, as for instance in Jack and jug. I’d say this also draws on the effect produced by a sense of jutting jaw and meeting teeth, which can be a movement you make when you say these sounds. On the other hand, the crispness of the release and the involvement of the most delicate of our stops, [t] and [d], can make these seem light and pretty in the right context, for instance Chelsea and Jennifer.

Consider the different sound effects between guy and chap, or coffee and java. Try swapping in affricates for stops, or vice versa: choffee? Gava, dava? Does it make it feel sturdier or more delicate, or something else entirely? One thing’s sure: that extra little break does add a little more richness to the flavour.

Next: Lovely, lyrical liquids