Thursday, July 19, 2012

I before E, except after C. Weird.

Huffpost Canada has a new article asking "Is Proper Spelling Still Important?"

Well, of course it is!

You might enjoy the article, along with their slideshow of the most commonly misspelled words:  You know many of them from our past Bees.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Oh, my goodness: "oculogyrism" has a cousin!

I love my daily e-mail from the OED on-line.  Today's gem is one I've been looking for for ages: a word about eye-rolling. Anyone who has had teenagers will surely understand the need to know this word.  And here it is: nystagmus.

Now, the problem is this: nystagmus refers to involuntary eye movements. So you have to ask yourself: is your favorite teenager's default expression voluntary, or not? It seems that you can argue it either way, most times....

Nystagmus does not replace our old friend oculogyrism, but it does provide an added dimension.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Greg Kahoun, member of the Bee List Celebrities, sent this poem.  Read it aloud and weep!

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it's written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation's OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won't it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It's a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

The attribution is to  Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité, 1870-1946. His name wasn't too easy to spell, from the looks of it!  Thanks, Greg, for reminding us of exactly how challenging spelling can be. And I had no idea that "groat" was pronounced "grit"!
Here's Greg's link:

What do they mean, "again"?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Better than Spell-check, and way more fun.

I follow @oedonline and @OxfordWords on Twitter, and enjoy their various offerings, which include things like Word of the Day, Foreign Word of the Day, and the OED Word of the Day.  OxfordWords just posted a link to common spelling mistakes, which you may find interesting.  As far as I could tell, these words don't vary depending on which continent you're spelling them on.  There is another page devoted to differences between British and American spellings.

By far the most entertaining page on the Oxford Dictionaries webpage is the on-line Spelling Bee.  You can choose one of three levels (Tricky, Difficult and Fiendish--and trust me, Fiendish IS fiendish), and you can choose American or British pronunciation.  You can even post your scores to your FaceBook page (um, no thanks--not after Fiendish!).

There is an entire page devoted to games, which looks like a fun place to spend a rainy afternoon. However, the sun is shining here, so out to do the weeding.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Huh? Say WHAT?

This is supposed to be a spelling blog, but who can resist this interesting and interactive website from Yale University?

This research group at Yale has developed a map of the US using what they call "microsyntax": regional grammatical and usage idiosyncrasies. It is really fun to take a look at what passes for normal in other parts of the country....of course, I make fun of other parts of the country tongue in cheek, since I hail from the land of "a Whole Nother Thing" and presently live in a state where directional signals seem to be very, very optional.

Scroll around and take a look. Have fun!  And maybe we'll have to add "anymore" to the next word list.

Props to Visual Thesaurus for the interesting lead.

If a picture paints a thousand words....

...then today's prize goes to language maven Eliza Edgar, who sent this cartoon by Dave Coverly to me the other day.
Thanks, Eliza!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Have you been waiting for this with baited breath?

Gosh, I hope not! The correct term is "bated" breath--that's "bated" as in restrained. Baited breath implies that you might have some worms, or bait of some other type, in your mouth. Yuck.

Oxford Online Dictionaries have published a page that can help you avoid floundering and foundering in your written work.  Pore over it to ensure you have the correct word, lest you accidentally leave your readers "week" with laughter.  They do have a couple of British spellings--the word "kerb" might look funny to anyone who hasn't tried using it in a cut-throat Scrabble game--but it's a useful list.

One pair that the list missed is marital/martial: I once made this typo in a paper about Greek drama (in my defense, the line between war and marriage was pretty thin in the play I was writing about). Luckily, my teacher thought it was hilarious.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

National Spelling Bee

I live in a house full of Stanley Cup fanatics, and have despaired of ever gaining control of the remote long enough to watch the Bee on TV.  Luckily for me, the folks at Visual Thesaurus are putting together lists of words used in the rounds.  Boy, that could make my life easier....

Check it out, and enjoy!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Help from the experts

The people who work for the Oxford English Dictionary have a wonderful collection of blogs, word-a-day emails and Twitter feeds. Yesterday's tweets were particularly useful for us: they wrote about the word "chthonic" (featured in our Bees), and they posted a list of frequently-misspelled words--along with their correct spellings. Check it out.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Dover artist and fellow word girl Jane Bleakley forwarded this link:

Check it out: it's cool.  They have a swirly word web that is reminiscent of the one on Visual Thesaurus--Woop Studios' one is a bit artier, and you can click on the individual words (if you're quick enough) to see a brief description and an image of a print featuring the word you've selected.  Their artwork is for sale, and they state an interest in partnering with charitable organizations and schools for mutual benefit.

As clever and creative as it is, the website lacks any notation about the sources of the collective nouns illustrated. It looks like there are some traditional terms alongside some more fanciful words.  For example, Woop lists a prettying of doves (the traditional term is dule), and a journey of giraffes (rather than a tower or a totter).  Because it's not clear where Woop Studios found their alternate terms, I would not rely on the site for more than entertainment (and shopping).

Juliana Berners (or Barnes), the grande dame of terms of venery, would likely disapprove of some of the content, but can you imagine what she might have thought about the word web?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

coming and going

Words and word-nerds come and go.  Today is a red-letter day on both counts:  Amelia Slawsby sent me this link about the first spelling bee winner:

First national spelling bee winner dies at 97

Frank Neuhauser, who in 1925 won the first U.S. national spelling bee with the word "gladiolus," has died. He was 97.
AND....are you ready? Today is the 172nd birthday of the word "OK": You should read the post; it is actually very interesting (here's a teaser: OK originally stood for "oll korrect"), and there is a link to Google Ngrams worth looking at.
It is safe to say that whoever coined the phrase "OK" from Oll Korrect was not a spelling bee finalist. I was about to say that participants in any of the Dover Bees would have a ridiculously easy time spelling gladiolus, but then found my fingers hesitating's trickier than it looks.  I think we might have to add that to the list for next time...

Friday, March 11, 2011

She? Oui!

Visual Thesaurus posted an article today about the origin of the word "she". At first I thought it was ridiculous, because, really, why would that be a separate discussion from the origin of the word "he"? Turns out it is. And we did not have "she" until the 1100s!

I'd heard of the French land of Oc and land of Oui, but apparently English boasts a land of She, or at least a map of where it took hold first. 

Check out this fascinating essay, and take nothing for granted!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Gorey Details

My fondness for Edward Gorey began in a grade school library, when my friend Mary and I happened upon his illustrations in Edward Lear's poem The Jumblies. It solidified at the start of college, when Mary sent me a postcard from a page of Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies, stating that "K is for Kate who was struck with an axe".  After checking my mailbox several times a day during Freshman Orientation, I was overjoyed to receive a piece of mail, even one that forecasted my demise.  Naturally, I glued it to my dorm room door.

Just imagine, if we'd had technology 'way back then, Mary might have sent me a text message instead of the postcard.  How sad.

The Boston Athenaeum is hosting a Gorey exhibit: Elegant Enigmas.  I dragged my favorite oculogyrist (who is now so long of limb, so deep of voice, and so thoroughly and adolescently dour, that I am tempted to refer to him as Lurch) with the promise that he'd appreciate Gorey's humor.

It's a small exhibit, but nicely done: there are a couple of rooms with drawings from Gorey's books, as well as illustrations he did for other authors; there are some amazing envelopes that he decorated (letters to his mother, I believe--good boy!), and--and this was my favorite part--his sketches and rough drafts. It was very instructive to see the "seeds" of Gorey's finished work. His drawings are so painstakingly perfect, done in superfine-point pen, that it is hard to imagine that Gorey ever needed to make a rough draft. But he did, and we can all take comfort from that knowledge.

In addition to his artistic talents, Gorey had a curious way with words. The Athenaeum exhibit has a study for a piece called Nursery Frieze, in which a line of creatures (his rough draft shows rhinos, but these look more like wild pigs) march across letters of the alphabet while saying random words like gavelkind, ophicleide, corposant, wax and jequirity. His cartoons feature characters with whimsical names like Lord Wherewithal, Mr. Earbrass, and Miss Skrim-Pshaw.

If you are not already a fan of the Boston Athenaeum, you should be. It is a membership library with research facilities, as well as a committment to outreach and community. I called them for information and a friendly, helpful HUMAN BEING answered the phone--on the first ring!  It's a lovely building, too, with large light-filled rooms, tucked into the top of Beacon Hill at 10 1/2 Beacon Street (Lurch was reminded of Platform 9 3/4, and thought I was making the address up to tease him). The Gorey exhibit is open to the public--suggested donation is $5 (you must give SOMETHING, says the sign, but give what you can) and although small, Elegant Enigmas is worth at least that.  If you find yourself in the area--lobbying at the State House, enjoying a meal downtown, or whatever--stop by and see for yourself. Lurch and I give it four thumbs up.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A group by any other name?

Chatting with artist and fellow word-lover Jane Bleakley today led to some speculation on spelling words involving groups of know, a gaggle of geese and so forth.

A little poking around led to a terrific list, published by Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources.  Not only does it give us the wonderfully obscure words for animal groups, such as a cete of badgers and a dray of squirrels, the article by Janice Welsh also tells us HOW many of these names came to be. 

Check out the article and then ponder why it is a knot of toads, but an army of frogs.

You can also check out Welsh's source, An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition, a book written by James Lipton and published by Viking Penguin, 1991.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Cultural misunderstanding?

I love receiving the Oxford English Dictionary's Word of the Day. This entry came in on December 23rd, and I am hoping--HOPING--that it was a sly joke.  Check it out (their text is in italics):

Your word for today is: putz, n./1

putz, n.1

Pronunciation: Brit. /pʊts/, U.S. /pʊts/

Forms: also with capital initial.

Etymology: < Pennsylvania German putz (German Putz decoration, ornament (late 16th cent.; now archaic in this sense) < putzen to decorate, to clean (15th cent.), of uncertain origin: perhaps related to classical Latin putāre to cleanse, to prune: see putation n.).

U.S. regional.

An ornamental display representing the Nativity scene, traditionally placed under a Christmas tree.

Originally a Pennsylvania German tradition.

1885 Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Daily Northwestern 26 Jan. 2/5The children disperse to their homes where Santa Claus has been busy giving finishing touches to the ‘Putz’.

1902 N.Y. Times Mag. 14 Dec. 15/2Only the chosen few can afford to have a really impressive ‘putz’ which fills half a room, and represents a landscape in miniature.‥ This more elaborate ‘putz’ requires not only money for its erection, but artistic handiwork.

1926 Ladies' Home Jrnl. Dec. 82/2The putz is simply the pictured story of the Nativity, built near or at the base of the Christmas tree.

1963 K. H. Seibel Joyful Christmas Craft Bk. iii. 60 (caption)A putz like this with tiny figures of the Holy Family in the Nativity scene is made with a variety of other figures, too.

2001 Frederick (Maryland) Post 8 Dec. b8/5The main components of a Putz are Nativity figurines and much imagination.
Where I grew up, putz had a very different meaning. Does anyone else remember the movie The Sunshine Boys (1975), with Walter Matthau and George Burns?  It may have been the first PG movie I ever saw, and that rating might have been due to the refrain "You're a putz".  I'm pretty sure they were not talking about nativity scenes, although if you read the 1902 definition above, it could come pretty close.
Checking in with Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish confirms my suspicions about the widespread acceptance of the more popular meaning of the word putz.  Rosten tells us that it is not a nice word; he suggests shmuck as a gentler version of the same concept.
Lest you think that the disparity in definitions is simply a matter of time (1902 versus the present), take a look at the Christmas Village depicted here:  it goes beyond the traditional Nativity scene.  Check the current Encarta entry for the term, and you are directed to a language advisory.  It would seem that both terms stem from the German word for finery or ornament--but the Yiddish derivitave is ironic, and the Nativity derivative is literal.
I'm surprised that the OED did not include any of the Yiddish-derived definitions of the word, especially since they are careful to attribute the word to American usage.  Just imagining the confusing conversation using this word that might take place between two native speakers of American English is enough to make anyone laugh--so, whether you celebrate it or not, I hope this entry gives you a Merry Christmas!

Friday, October 1, 2010

A nose by any other name?

It's always a good day when I find a word that sounds like it should be easy to spell...but isn't. Or a word that seems to mean something that it does not, in fact, mean. 

Today is a really good day: check out Ben Zimmer's NY Times article On Language, where he discusses the misuse of the word "we" (as in "we are not amused").

The technical term for the mis-use of "we" is nosism, ably pronounced and defined by A.Word.A.Day on the hyperlink.  The word comes from the Latin nos, or "we".

But don't you think that nosism should have something to do with noses?  The study of noses, perhaps? That would be rhinology.  Or a nosy person?  There are many terms for that, but here's a G-rated example: busybody.

We (that's the Bee team) will be tucking nosism away in the word file, with other gems like piesporter and kickshaw.  Perhaps the next Bee will feature a word category devoted to words with tricky definitions.  All we need now is a tricky title...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Spell-check doesn't catch everything

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook this morning:  the message on an electronic bulletin board in Indiana might have made it through spell-check, but I'm hoping it was an error anyway.  Spelling counts, folks!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Here's (or "heah's") a really good word: rhotic

Not to be a snob, but it isn't often that the Boston Globe uses words that are unfamiliar to me. This morning, however, Ty Burr's review of Ben Affleck's movie "The Town" sent me running for the dictionary.

Burr refers to Hollywood actors struggling with "non-rhotic speech patterns".

Shucks, I didn't even know what "rhotic" was, let alone "non". Burr does leave us a good hint; you will have to check out his review yourself (click on the link above, or look in the real paper on page 16G).
So: rhotic. Thanks to the Wordnik app on my phone, I was able to define it in seconds (and without paper cuts, for a change):

Of an English accent, pronouncing the letter r wherever it appears, as in bar (/bɑːr/) and bard or barred (/bɑːrd/); this trait is common in much of the United States, Canada, many parts of the north and west of England, Ireland, and Scotland.

Non-rhotic then means omitting the "r" in speech. Fabulous. Or should I say "mahvelous".

I hope the movie is as good as the review.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Oh, just you wait!!

Amelia Slawsby mailed me this link to the Huffington Post's coverage of  some of the longest words in English.  Read 'em and weep! Weep for joy, that is, that most of them never crossed our mind as we composed prior years' word lists.

Next time is a new time...and you can count on seeing some more of these, even if only for comic relief. I may have to retire hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian, now that Greg Kahoun caught me spelling it wrong in last year's list...but we still have 10 others.

Click on the Huffington Post link and enjoy their clever photographs and concise definitions. I notice there are no pronunciation guides. Hmmm.

Thanks, Amelia, for the fun read!