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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Dr Ruth’s Grammar Corner

28 05 2010

This is the place to come when you have a question about language (any aspect thereof) to which you’d like a considered response. I often receive emails from people agonizing over where to put a comma, or how to untangle their syntax, or whatever. Sometimes there’s a spat going on in the office and they appoint me mediator-cum-arbiter (big responsibility). In the past I’ve carried on these private conversations by email.  Now instead, I intend to have the conversation on my blog. This way I can share the love around. Here’s an authentic recent example. It took place by email, but I’ve reconstructed it here.

Hi Ruth. Am increasingly irked by Americans who use the term “off of”  as in “get off of that ….” Or “It’s time for politicians to move off of their long held views…..  Much to my horror, even Barack Obama (who writes beautifully) uses it in The Audacity of Hope. I am so horrified I felt obliged to discuss this with my local wordsmith.  Do you have any comments?  In disgust. (name withheld)

Dear Reader. Thanks for your query.  I see this as a matter of dialectal difference. In the US dialect, they simply have a double particle here. Like we do , for instance. with “put up with”  and countless others. Actually, what’s not to like? It’s a different dialect, that’s all.  Somewhere along the line you have had a neuronal synapse (or something)  between the  form and a quality of irksomeness (maybe it was coming out of the mouth of a rapper?) and that’s the source of the problem. Whatever way you look at it, however, your objections aren’t linguistically based. How can you get so disgusted by an extra little particle?

Dear Ruth.  I don’t agree that it’s a dialect. To me it’s silly grammar and I don’t equate it with double participles like “put up with”. After all you have to put up with something – you can’t just “put up” in that context.  But you can “fall off” something – you don’t have to “fall off of it”.  No it wasn’t coming out the mouth of a rapper – it’s in all the tv programs etc.  And anyway, I still don’t like it!

Dear Reader. The thing is, applying logic to things like “put up with”, as if they are inherently logical, is  problematic. I’m sure a speaker of American English could come up with an equally “logical” explanation for “fall off of”, a construction that would surely seem quite natural and normal to him/her. Certainly, language does have rules and regularities, but it’s generally an understanding we have as we look back over the language as we know it. It’s not a set of rules by which new items are constructed. Much more organic and unpredicatable. We don’t want it too predictable, do we? Latin is predictable, and look what happened there.