Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Butterflies and Skipping Stones

Considering the number of things that fascinate me, you’d think I’d be a lot smarter than I am. But my intellect is more the butterfly/skipping-stones variety, flitting/skipping from one fascination to the next without taking the time to really explore any one thing in any great depth.

This morning, in the period between being totally asleep and fully awake, I was thinking/dreaming of the interrobang. I love the interrobang, though it is very seldom seen—more or less doomed by the simple fact that it came along after the invention of most typewriter and computer keyboards and has limited usage even if there were room on the keyboard for it.

The interrobang, a combined question mark and exclamation point, wasn't even invented until 1962, by an ad man named Martin Speckter, to satisfy a not-overwhelming demand for a punctuation mark to use in cases where a sentence can be either a question or a statement, generally of incredulity, such as “You’re kidding me!?”

And from the interrobang, I flitted to the fact that the shortest words in the English language are “a” and “I” which are both, in themselves letters, though “I” has to be capitalized in order to qualify. And then I moved on to the fact that many words are pronounced as letters of the alphabet: bee, see/sea, gee, I/eye/aye, Jay/jay, Kay/quay (Jay and Kay are the only letters that are also names), el, oh, pea/pee, cue/queue, are, tee/tea, you/ewe/yew, ex, and why (which would be disqualified if you pronounce the “wh,” which most people don’t).

Which, of course brought me to one of my favorite trivia facts—that there are sentences which can be spoken but cannot be written—as in the plural of words with multiple spellings. You can easily say “there are three (to/two/too or you/yew/ewe or I/eye/aye)s in English” but you can’t write it down without spelling out all the variations.

English, I have heard, is one of the most difficult to learn of all languages because it is so flexible, and there are more exceptions to the rule than there are rules. The prefix “dis” (disassemble, disagree, disappear, disloyal, disgrace) generally indicates it is the opposite of the stand-alone word it’s attached to. Yet I’ve never heard of anyone being “gruntled” or of an “aster.” The same is true of the prefix “in” (incredible, inedible, inappropriate, indecent) which can lull you into a false sense of security until you come across a word like “inflammable,” which means exactly the same as “flammable.”

Etymology—the study of the origins of words—and the original meaning of words is endlessly fascinating. It’s amazing how little thought most of us give to them. I don’t know how many times I’ve pointed out to a couldn't-care-less friend or acquaintance that the word “breakfast” literally means “break fast”—to break the fast between going to sleep and getting up, and how over the course of time words lose their clarity through mispronunciation. “President” was, I’m sure, originally pronounced “pre-ZI-dent”, which is the exact definition of the word: the president presides over the nation. The pejorative “nigger” is a natural result of the too-rapid pronunciation of the word “negro.”

I know my more educated friends, upon reading this, will probably jump all over it, pointing out innumerable errors, misconceptions, etc. To which I reply, with all due respect: “Tough.”

The accuracy of my beliefs and assumptions aside, the fact remains that in response to the old question, “if you were stranded on a desert island, what one book would you take,” my answer would be “an unabridged dictionary.” Every word of every book ever written or ever to be written is in there. The fun would be in knowing what every word means, and in putting them all in the right order to recreate whichever book you might want.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (


Kage Alan said...

Have you ever made up a word of your own, perhaps in one of your novels? It's typically one of those words that should logically already be a word, perhaps we'd swear was an existing word, so we create and pass it off as a real word? Those are the colorful butterflies we create and send out into the world ourselves.

Dorien/Roger said...

Oh, yes. I frequently use words no one else seems to recognize as valid (such as "store" as the past tense of "stare"--"stare/stared/store", as in "I store at him for several minutes.") Unfortunately, my editor always excises them.

Nikolaos said...

One of my very great pleasures is to leaf through my dictionary. It's Chambers, and is old as, and falling apart. I love its selection of Scottish dialect words. What fun it is to find a new word and use it. Serpiginous is my latest acquisition. Beaut!

Dorien/Roger said...

I hope your discovery and appreciation for "serpiginous" is not based on having experienced it. One of my top favorites is onomatopoeia, both for its sound and its definition.

Nikolaos said...

No, but I have used it to describe someone I have come to dislike!

Onomatopoeia is a lovely word. Though I always have to stop and remember how to spell it.