Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Et Voilà

I “collect” misspellings of familiar foreign phrases and unfamiliar English ones, for the sheer fun of it.

Voilà is one of those words I often see misspelled. I have seen “wah lah”, “wall a” “wallah” and probably others I do not remember. I can understand that, being that it is a foreign word first of all and more importantly, one that is more likely to be heard than read. If a non-French speaker does read the word, zie is unlikely to connect it to the pronunciation anyway.

To be fair, I try to imagine how I would spell je ne sais quoi if I didn’t have the internet with which to look it up. Around our house, we say something has a certain je ne sais quoi if what we really mean is that we either don’t like it or can’t figure out what it is, or maybe both. I rarely have reason to spell it, but if I had to guess, what would I come up with? Since I know it is French, I’d probably get “je” and “quoi” right, but I suspect what I would end up with is “je nai sez quois” or “je nez sais quoi” or something like that. I don’t think I’d wind up with “Jenny Saykwa”*, but maybe I would.

What brings up these musings is that recently on his blog Pharyngula, PZ Myers posted an email he received in which the writer used the phrase “gore and tenacity” in the sentence “The gore and tenacity to take the consecrated Host and desecrate it by piercing a nail through it and discarding the Blessed Sacrament.” Commenters speculated on the meaning of “gore and tenacity” and finally realized the writer meant “gall and audacity”. That led one commenter to declare “gore and tenacity”  the new “raisin date”.

Pharyngula, like many well read blogs, has a number of inside jokes that come from the lengthy comments thread, especially the nameless threads, and I don’t keep up. “Raisin date” left me scratching my head. I finally realized I was going to have to ask. As I was composing my question, the answer popped into my head. So I amended my question somewhat, to “What was the old ‘raisin date’? Was it by any chance a misspelled attempt at raison d’etre?”

I can understand how these errors happen. It would be easy to make fun of other people’s ignorance, but we really don’t learn language from the bottom up, we learn it from the top down. We learn intonation, inflection, and phonology (the music of language) first, and then imitate sentences which we then parse into smaller units that we can rearrange. So if you recall hear a speaker use a phrase like “gall and audacity” in a hectoring voice and need that “voice” in a criticism, and if you can’t remember the words “gall” and “audacity” because they aren’t in your everyday vocabulary, you could come up with “gore and tenacity”. And your audience, while puzzled at first, can figure it out, because they are hearing the music of the phrase in their heads.

That is how those banes of my life, “The proof is in the pudding” and “begs the question” used to mean “raises the question” obtained widespread circulation. People don’t parse those phrases to realize they don’t actually make any sense. The phrases as a whole function as “super words”, the way a child’s first “I don’t want to” functions as a “super word”, so that the meaning is in the whole even if the sum of the parts should leave you going “wait, what?”

I like “raisin date”, though. It has a certain Jenny Saykwa.

*I can’t pronounce French, either, so my spelling guesses use Anglicized pronunciation.


  1. There's a Gillian Welch song which includes the line, "Why can't I live the life of Reilly?"

    Which I have seen quoted as "Why can't I live my life a-wryly?" presumably by someone who's far too young to have heard "life of Reilly" used as a synonym for "the good life."

    Still, I'd rather lead the life of Reilly than to lead a wry life.

    Oh, and did you know this has been front-paged on today's Slacktivist?

  2. You're spelling "Je ne sais quoi" wrong there, which may be why you can't figure out why some people think it sort of sounds like Jenny Saykwa.

  3. That other Jean,

    Thanks for the correction, but I'm puzzled. I googled the spelling just because I never remember how to spell it and cut and pasted the spelling that I got. But I checked and yours is correct. I'll edit it, but really, I have no idea how it is really pronounced.

    Amaryllis - I saw that. It explains the uptick in traffic.

  4. Or maybe I didn't cut and paste - I see now what I did was flip-flop the "e" and the "ais" so I may have copied instead and copied it wrong.

  5. In my youth I had rather the opposite problem: I knew how words were spelled, but not how to pronounce them.
    After all, I read a lot, but, growing up in the rural Midwest, I seldom had occasion to hear the more unusual words I encountered in my reading actually spoken by anyone.

    1. That's me right there.

      I figured out what the word "commute" meant at an early age, but didn't learn the proper pronunciation until I was an adult. I still get it wrong. I have a TON of words like this, that I can spell properly but can't pronounce. ("Chemise" was another offender, but going to a Renaissance festival straightened me out before a wrong pronunciation could get too engrained.)

      "Athame" is an example of a whole community having our problem--90% of Wiccans who use one first learned the name of the sacred knife in a book. Which means that none of us have any clue how it was originally intended to be pronounced. There are nearly as many "correct" pronunciations of "athame" as there are athames.

    2. Same here. I got my vocabulary early, from extensive reading, but made up my own pronunciations.

      Eccentricity still usually gets a soft "c" from me unless I'm particularly paying attention.

  6. Curiously, I've discovered that autocorrect has made me more kindly disposed towards my internauts than I used to be. When I see something like "gore and tenacity," I no longer immediately assume the writer is making a goof, I assume their software was being "helpful".

    1. Ah, you mean the Rouge Angles of Satin* problem?

      (probably named after a fanfic writer's attempt to type "Rogue Angels of Satan")

  7. Melissa, that's something I hadn't considered. I try to remember to double check my autocorrect, but sometimes things slip through.

  8. I believe the most excellent Language Loggers refer to that as the "Cupertino Effect."

    I ran spell-check on a very long document prior to printing it off the edit long-hand. I'd misspelled "motivate" as "omtivat." Switched the first two letters, dropped the last one. Simple mistake, right? It wanted me to replace it with "ombudsman."

  9. The authentic Cupertino is institutional in nature--caused not just by trusting the spellcheck, but by abandoning the effort to check the spellchecker by firing the guy who used to check spelling.

    As for Jenny S. and her sisters, I don't consider them misspellings. They are two-part errors: first, fail to notice that they are foreign phrases; second, fail to try very hard to meet a standard that elevates written over spoken, which is mainly a question of permanence. I think of them as a "miswrite," in which "write" includes some modicum of check your work. There are lots of categories of miswrite; this one is 'miswrite from pronunciation' or something like that. Logic suggest that 'miswrite from prounciation' be covered by the term 'mondegreen.' Unlikely because partisans of such terms profit from being the only guy on the block who even knows what it means; that is essentially a conservative position, so adamant preservation of existing definitions comes with.

    To me, it's six and a half of one, a dozen of the other.


  10. Just found this post. Here's a fun word: "metastasis," pronounced: "me-TA-sta-sis." Of course, you look at it and want to pronounce it "me-ta-STA-sis." It's a medical term referring to cancer cells that have split off from a tumor and set up shop elsewhere in the body. Plural: metastases. Verb form: to metastasize. The adjectival form: "metastatic" is actually pronounced like you'd expect.