I was recently trying to explain to the ever-present Frenchman in my life why writing “a whole nother story” was not a mistake on my part. No, I had not made a typing error, and no, ‘nother’ should not be written with an apostrophe before it as the ‘a’ had not disappeared, it had merely reappeared in front of the ‘whole’, and no, “another whole story” just wouldn’t mean the same thing.

I couldn’t think of the linguistic term for this phenomenon (‘an other’ >> ‘another’ >> ‘a nother’) so I searched around and disocvered the wonders of ‘rebracketing’ (or metanalysis or misdivision). Essentially rebracketing appears when pronunciation leads people to misunderstand where the parting between words occurs, and so the orange fruit which came from the Arab ‘narandj’ (still ‘naranja’ in Spanish) became ‘an orange’ when it firmly settle into the English language in the 14th century after transforming from ‘une norenge’ to ‘une orenge’ across the channel.

Other such examples are the transformations of Medieval words like ‘a napperon’, ‘a nuncle’, and ‘a nadder’, but rebracketing can go the other way too, with the best known examples being ‘a nickname’, ‘a notch’ and ‘a newt’, which were originally ‘an eke-name’, ‘an otch’ and ‘an ewt’. This, of course, can all happen far more frequently when a good part of the population is illiterate and the writing system is barely codified. Although that’s not to say that someday ‘nother’ might not enter the dictionary as an entirely seperate term.

Rebracketing can also happen in more complex cases, like when you misunderstand a whole phrase and interpret it differently as often happens when listening to songs. In ‘The Power of Babel’, John McWorther recalls how his mother always misheard a Church hymn as a girl, singing “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” instead of “Gladly the cross I’d bear”, all the while imagining a visually impaired children’s book character. And I’m sure we can all sympathise having at some point mis-sung our favourite band’s lyrics at the top of our lungs, blind to the nonsensical nature of what we were saying.

There are multiple other examples: Stark-raving > Star-craving, Let alone > Little lone, Prima donna > Pre-madonna. And if you tell someone to “Polish it behind the door”, be careful that they don’t think you’re saying that Polly….


Suing over an umlaut

How would you feel if you knew that Häagen-Dazs was not a Scandinavian product? Sorry to shatter your illusions dear readers, but Häagen-Dazs ice-cream was made in the Bronx by a Polish immigrant who wanted a Danish-sounding name for his new recipe. The legend goes that as a tribute to Denmark’s exemplary treatment of its Jews during the Second World War and its yummy dairy products, Reuben Mattus sat at his New York kitchen table for hours, saying nonsensical words until he came up with a “Danish-sounding” combination he liked to promote his frozen cream.

As it turns out, not only is Häagen-Dazs not composed of any Danish words, “äa” and “zs” are not spellings native to any Scandinavian language. A bit of linguistic deception you might think, either that or a piece of very clever branding which has clearly worked well. In any case, Häagen-Dazs certainly seemed to think that they now owned “Scandanavian-sounding things” as well as the umlaut apparently, as that is exactly what they sued the new ice-cream company Früsen-Gladjé over in 1980. Forget that Früsen-Gladjé are actually real words meaning ‘frozen joy’ in Swedish, and that an umlaut over the ‘u’ is the way this word is spelled in a real language.

Häagen-Dazs also sued Früsen-Gladjé  over a number of other points including the use of a map of a European country on the packaging (albeit not the same country), giving instructions on how to eat the product (leave to melt slightly first) and pretending to be European (apparently this is a trademark infringement in America). You’ll be happy to know that the court refused to extend Häagen-Dazs protection to its Scandinavian marketing theme, finding that the difference in the trade dress of the two products was apparent “to all but the most obtuse consumer.” And so the umlaut lives on to be used for marketing purposes another day.

Happily for Häagen-Dazs, they found someone else to sue later on: a Chinese company claiming to sell clothes under the name ‘Haager Dasz’. And this time they won. Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream also recently got into a legal battle over trademark infringement, but it wasn’t with another ice-cream company. I won’t go into details here, suffice to say that ‘Ben & Cherry’s Boston Cream Thigh’ was being marketed to another consumer base altogether.


Many of you may have heard about a proposed alternate spelling of ‘the word ‘fish’ , often misattributed to George Bernard Shaw, which reflects the utter silliness of Enligh orthography:


GH as in “rough”
O as in “women”
TI as in “nation”

GHOTI = “fish”

Take examples from a few other words however and you can end up with:

GH as in “night”
O as in “people”
T as in “bouquet”
I as in “piece”

….and GHOTI = “………….”

By this logic, both Ghoughpteighbteau and Ghoughphtheightteeau are possible alternate spellings for another foodstuff – can you work out which? (hint: think of hiccough, though, neigh, debt, neighbour and plateau among others)

Poems on the queerest language

My poor husband is currently reading David Crystal’s “Spell it out” and getting lost in the confusion of English spelling and pronunciation, which made me think of the following poems summing it all up quite nicely:


We’ll begin with box, and the plural is boxes.
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese.
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
When couldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?

The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But the plural of vow is vows, not vine.
And I speak of a foot, and you show me your feet,
But I give a boot – would a pair be called beet?

If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?
If the singular is this and plural is these,
Why shouldn’t the plural of kiss be nicknamed kese?

Then one may be that, and three may be those,
Yet the plural of hat would never be hose.
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.

The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim!
So our English, I think you will all agree,
Is the queerest language you ever did see.



I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough, and through?

Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.

And dead; it’s said like bed, not bead;
For goodness sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother.
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there.
And dear and fear for bear and pear.

And then there’s dose and rose and lose —
Just look them up — and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.

And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start.
A dreadful language? Why, man alive,
I’d learned to talk it when I was five.

And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I’ll not learn how ’til the day I die.

The origins of these poems are somewhat of a mystery. They are at times quoted as being one whole, the original versions of both seemingly elusive. The first poem has been cited as being the work of a certain Richard Krogh, while the second  is attributed to T.S. Watt and apparently appeared in The Guardian newspaper in 1954. Both are to be found with different titles and endings. Sometimes they are wrongly taken to be versions of “The Chaos”, an earlier and much longer poem by the Dutch writer Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870–1946) which includes about 800 examples of irregular spelling. There are also many versions of “The Chaos” to be found online, but if you’re feeling up to it, here is where you can find two of them: http://www.i18nguy.com/chaos.html,    http://ncf.idallen.com/english.html

Spell It Out

spell-it-outDavid Crystal, possibly my favourite linguist, has been at it again. He has been promoting his new book by stirring public opinion with his seemingly brash and nonchalant views on language change. Orthography to be precise. You see, unlike most laymen who are appalled at the idea of internet culture influencing ye auld English spelling, Crystal is a mere content observer of such phenomena as the disappearing ‘h’ in ‘rhubarb’ and ‘p’ in ‘receipt’.

He has been monitoring the internet by means of Google searches for a while now and has observed a distinct increase in the number of hits appearing which include such linguistic anomalies. When we don’t pronounce a letter in a word anymore, we tend to forget that is was there in the first place and little by little alter its spelling. This has been going on since writing began of course, but somehow when we observe the change happening within our own lifetimes it becomes sacrilege. Surely the way we were taught to spell in primary school was God’s Law and that all those red pen marks over our essays ingrained into us the importance of getting it right?

What has the world come to when leading authorities on language like Crystal or Oxford English Professor Simon Horobin begin telling us that it’s really not such a big deal whether it’s spelled ‘they’re’, ‘their’ or ‘there’? After all, it’s all pronounced the same and we get meaning from context. Such brazen views expounded at the Hay Festival this year incited relatively important reactions from the media considering that we are talking about a festival of literature and ideas, not Glastonbury. The Telegraph even did a reader poll in reaction to Professor Horobin’s statements, and an astounding 93.27% of those who replied did so to affirm that Grammar Does Matter.

A more interesting poll would perhaps have been to find out whether people even think that the ‘h’ in ‘rhubarb’ or in ‘where’ is even pronounced these days. There are still some quite divided on the issue as it turns out.