Do you like odd words? If so, today’s post is for YOU!
I enjoy words. I love learning new words, and now and then feel the need to make nifty neologisms. I take pleasure in playing word games and punning around. I use a vigorous vocabulary for producing prose and programming. I revel in vicious verbiage when needing venomous invective.
Weird words are wonderful. Exceptions excite intrigue. Luckily for us, the English language (in its multitudinous international forms) is known for being an absolute mish-mosh of exceptions to dang near every orthographic rule that has been imposed upon it over the centuries. This is not surprising considering how many other languages have been sources for our vocabulary!
Being familiar with many of those weirdnesses is great when one is an editor, writer or proofreader. (Alas, not everyone shares such passions, so we logophiles must sometimes refrain from exercising too much pedantry.*) It also gives me a number of opportunities for musing …
Today I ran some errands on the way home, which caused me to take a different pathway. En route, I espied a cellular antennae tower array (mobile phone mast), one of those tall poles with transceivers and other prickly bits plated upon them. Several of those tower arrays or television UHF/VHF (Yagi-Uda) sets atop houses are called antennas. But — insects sniff their environments with antennae.
Some words are the same whether you have one or more; not just the same spelling in singular and plural, but also the same pronunciation:
Fish (As children, many of us learned this from Dr Seuss, “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish”). Ditto salmon and trout. (I bet readers can inform me of other species of fish.)
Thrips (A small insect that often infests flowers and spreads diseases; especially problematic in greenhouses.)
Sheep, deer, moose.
Bison – pedantic technical note: the North American animal is a bison, not a buffalo, but buffalo is so entrenched in history (i.e. Buffalo Soldiers, buffalo nickel) that the term “bison” seems reserved for ecological/zoological discussions.
The American buffalo has just one species: Bison bison. A single category of interbreeding organism is a species, several are different kinds are also species. “Specie” refers to coins, such as our buffalo nickel. If I recall correctly, one of the new coins the U.S. mint has released in their recent series is a nickel with a bison on one side. Series is another word that is the same in both singular and plural.
Swine (unlike pig -> pigs or hog -> hogs)
Complaint: people calling plural bovine animals “cows”; the cow is a female that has calved. Call them a herd of cattle. Of course, then one has the problem of knowing if the single animal is a calf, cow, [castrated] steer, or bull. Then again, depending upon where you are, most of the cattle one passes might be breeding or milking cows, or maybe young steers shortly destined to be burgers and roast-beast. But like “buffalo”, “cows” seems to be a common-usage term.
(Except, of course, amongst small children, who invariably call them “moo-cows”, which is odd because I’ve never heard any preschoolers saying “quack-ducks”, “neigh-horses”, “baa-sheep” or “meow-cats”; go figure.)
Interestingly, draft bovine (used for ploughing) are ox -> oxen. There are few words that retain this archaic plural: child -> children, one brother -> several brethren, and hose -> hosen (from when one tied their individual hose onto the hem of a garment). Clothes is one of those words that just comes in single form, except it is by default plural.
When I teach gardening classes, I add a couple seconds pause after explaining, “If you’re making a new garden bed, you can either kill what’s there with glyphosate, or slice off the pieces of turf and re-use them, or compost the turves.” Turves is the correct plural for pieces of turf, but we don’t use the term much, so there’s a bit of a mental speed-bump.
Did you know that J.R.R. Tolkien invented dwarves as the plural for his Middle-Earth race? All other sorts (cutesy fantasy beings, or small-growing forms of plants or animals) are dwarfs.
In Zoology class we learned that the plural of penis is penes. Common usage (when not using one of the many silly slang terms) is penises. But if you are needing to talk discretely over the heads of younger folk, penes will likely be off their radar.
Right now I’m listening to Etta James singing the blues; no one ever sings “a blue” (tho’ you can blow a blue note).
Then there are the pluralisation questions about which only geeks worry: one Mus musculus is a mouse, and several are mice. But what about the computer accessory (um, Mus digitus ?) – computer mouses or computer mice?
One datum, a bunch of data. But when or how the hell does a person have just ONE datum? A single point? I suppose that’s possible, unlike news. Good or bad, there’s never just one news. A “new”? I tend to get out of the news loop when on holiday; but invariably when I catch up, I find that the news seems more like recycled “olds”!
One spectrum, a wide spectra, as in “spectral analysis” – unless of course, one is doing a bunch of analyses on your spectra data.
How about one index -> two indices. Indexes is a verb: “My program indexes everything for me!” Then of course, it turns around and creates indexes to hold that data. Hmn. Meanwhile, we still have one index -> two indices in science, and on the radio news I hear indices used as indicators of how the world is going.
In geometry, our geometric shapes have sides (planes). Each pair of planes intersect at edge, and several will meet at the corner, called a vertex. A triangular pyramid has four vertices and a cube has eight.
And lastly, Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message,” meaning that what is used to spread the message is important. Newspapers, YouTube videos, and blogs are all kinds of media. So too are my choice of growing medium for my seedlings.
If some yahoo grabs a can of spray paint as their medium of choice, and scrawls a graffito on the side of a building, you can be sure that someone else will want to join in and next thing you know, there will be graffiti everywhere.
My thanks (always plural) to all my readers!
*Unlike those grammar mavens dedicated to eradicating excessive and misused apostrophes, whom I heartily encourage to be ever-ready with their jumbo-size bottles of correction fluid!
Also, thank you everyone for your tireless efforts trying to rid the world of misspellings; Valentine’s Day is coming up, and I know that I shall be wanting to face-palm with each sale banner for Valentines Bokay’s.