Mid-word complications: O(s,b)ama and hur(t,d)le

12 05 2011

We’ve all seen in recent weeks how similarity between words can lead to mix-ups. Just think of the Osama/Obama mishaps reported in the press.

In this case, there are several factors that increase the likelihood of mishap: phonologically, the initial “O”; the single consonant distinction (/b/+/s/); the similarity in syllabic structure, with the emphasis each time on the medial of three syllables); and of course, the semantic relationship: we associate the two men for very obvious reasons, and lexically,  it’s highly likely that the two words appear together or near each other  in millions of utterances over the last several years.

English is replete with all kinds of coupling similarities, as well as the metalanguage to describe them. For example, homophones (eg  bear/bare), or words that sound but do not mean similarly; homographs  (eg bear (the animal)/ bear (the verb, to put up with), or words that are written and sounded the same way but have different meanings. There are lots more in this category of lexical trivial pursuit,  like oronyms (I scream/ice cream), that are homophonic in the sense that they sound the same, but carry different meanings and spellings, and just to confuse things, they often have little respect for word boundaries. Comedians make a lot of professional use of oronyms, and who knows, maybe privately too.

In this context, I want to mention a couple of words that recently came to my attention. They are hurtle and hurdle.  The former means to rush or move rapidly ahead; the latter, to leap over an obstacle or barrier of some sort, physical or metaphorical. Both are verbs and have only one differentiating consonant  (the medial /t/, /d/).  In fact, in some American English dialects, they are identical in sound.  And just think for a moment – spoken in confluence, in Australian English, it might actually be the semantics drawn from context, rather than the sound, that cue the listener to meaning.

Yet despite their overt overlap, their word histories are quite distinct. By this I mean that they each arrived at the 21st century via distinct trajectories, a phenomenon that inexplicably quite fascinates me.

Hurtle is Germanic in origin, derived from both hurt and hurl, and semantically related to a forcible collision or projection; while hurdle, also Germanic, but derived as a diminutive from hyrd  (door), has to do with encountering a barrier – originally, a frame of intertwined twigs (you can just see it, can’t you?). It wasn’t until the 19th century that the sense of a physical barrier as used in a race came into English, and yet another century before the figurative use developed.

So really, if the Osama/Obama link may give rise to endless conspiracy theories, the hurtle/hurdle similarity might be comfortably put down to historical accident.



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