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There’s a word for it

| Monday, September 5, 2016

Written English can be especially confusing, with spelling rules that inevitably include myriad exceptions. For example, when writing the sound “off,” you are comfortable enough with the straightforward spelling of the sound in words such as “offering,” but the insanity starts with the spelling of words such as “cough,” and “trough.” Alright, so now you have two ways to spell the sound “off,” but odd words appear that muddle this one exception: the “oo” sound of “through,” the long  “o” of “dough,” the “ow” of “bough.”

This confusing array of sounds arising from one combination of letters can be frustrating for someone new to English, and is equally frustrating to persons suffering from learning differences, such as dyslexia, who need consistent spelling and pronunciation to help decipher the written word. The examples listed here owe their peculiarities of spelling and pronunciation to origins in Old English, revisions through Middle English (with impact from the great “vowel shift,” so beloved of linguists) and modern efforts at uniformity. What we are left with are at least six pronunciations of “-ough” (perhaps up to 10 in British English).

The gradual evolution of English over centuries has produced a number of these odd spelling clusters, but the challenge has been greatly increased by words assimilated from cultures around the world. In the same way the United States has grown and been strengthened by numerous waves of immigration (and unless you’re talking about my Comanche grandmother, we are all immigrants), English has been fortified by the introduction of loanwords secured from other languages. A loanword finds a home in English because there is no native term for the concept or phenomena that the word conveys, or it might be used simply because it is prestigious to drop the occasional foreign term, “n’es pas”?

A favorite loanword of mine is the German noun “Treppenwitz,” which literally means “staircase wit.” This single word describes the phenomenon of coming up with a clever comeback only after you have left and headed down the stairs. This may also occur when you wake up at 3 a.m. in the morning and come up with something better than the “Oh, yeah … well, whatever,” you ended a conversation with the prior evening. The lapse in time before a response comes to mind is not limited: I have often come up with clever things I should have said decades after the initial opportunity.

The German language has been especially generous in providing words that capture complex concepts, whether the “angst” of dealing with a changing world or the entire “zeitgeist” of society, which can leave us with a sense of “Weltschmerz.” The German loanword that has repeatedly come to mind recently is “Schadenfreude,” literally, “damage-joy,” to describe a sense of joy triggered by another person’s misfortune. The term has developed to describe satisfaction in seeing a person (or perhaps even an institution) get what they deserve, especially following smug, self-righteous condemnation of similar action.

Allow me to present a few recent examples.

In the Book of Genesis, the flood was seen as God’s will and as punishment for the sins of mankind. Stepping into what I am sure are the large and comfortable shoes of God, some modern conservative evangelicals have invoked God’s judgment in recent floods. Tony Perkins, the head of the zealously anti-gay Family Research Council was especially vocal in declaring God’s anger was manifested in floodwater; Perkins declared in 2015 that flooding in the Bahamas from Hurricane Joaquin was a sign of God’s wrath and punishment for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Perkins may now have second thoughts about God’s use of floods to target wrongdoers, as Perkins’ house was swept away in this summer’s massive flooding in Louisiana.

“This is a flood of near-biblical proportions,” Perkins said on his radio show, without a trace of irony. Thankfully, none of his family was harmed.

Ken Starr recently resigned his post as a Baylor University law school professor, severing his last tie with the Baptist church-affiliated university stunned by a sexual assault scandal involving its football program. Starr’s most famous role was as the special counsel who self-righteously and zealously pursued charges against President Bill Clinton in a 1990s White House sex scandal. Starr was fired as president of Baylor in May and later stepped down as chancellor amid allegations the university (or “Thee University,” as school bumper stickers sanctimoniously intone) mishandled several cases in which football players were accused of sexually assaulting women. Starr’s failure to respond to allegations of rape and assault was cited in a report commissioned by the school as instrumental in allowing the culture of violence against women to grow and persist.

Now, perhaps in a moment of Treppenwitz, I realize that the examples I cited are not really Schadenfreude-inducing, but are best described with a Sanskrit loanword: “karma.” It’s a simple word for a complicated idea, namely that the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence decide his or her fate in a future existence. It’s more than just stepping on a cosmic rake that smacks us in the face; it’s the legacy of all our actions. Schadenfreude is the world’s petty response to misfortune — karma is our ability to shape a cosmic response through our life’s work. I knew there was a word for it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at patrayram@sbcglobal.net

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  • mashabell

    The frequent use of one spelling for several English sounds (On Only Once) and the many different spellings for identical sounds (blUE shOE flEW thrOUGH tO yOU tOO) are frustrating not only to foreign learners of the language or those with some kind of learning difficulty. They make English literacy acquisition slow and tedious for nearly everyone. – Finnish children learn to read in a term and write well by the end of their first school year, while Anglophones need at least three years for learning to read and 10 years to write to an equivalent standard.

    A few irregularities of English spelling may be due the vowel shift on which some linguists still blame them. Most were adopted quite deliberately, for various reasons, by people who simply gave no thought to ease of learning. – Early scribes disliked a succession of short stokes next to each other, so they substituted o for u next to v, w, n and m (oven, wonder, month). Because early printers were paid by the line, they often inserted EXTRA letters to earn more money (werE, morE, monEy). Samuel Johnson thought that words from Latin roots didn’t need to conform to English consonant doubling (funny – money, poppy – copy, rabbit – habit …) and wrecked the English system of differentiating between long and short vowels (cope, copper – copy).

    I’ve explained the various dilutions of English spelling consistency in more detail on the History page of my EnglishSpellingProblems blog.