or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, June 19, 2006


There's a puzzle making its Internet rounds--I ran across it yesterday, though I can't remember where--which is asked and answered on, of course, Snopes.com:

There is a common English word that is nine letters long. Each time you remove a letter from it, it still remains an English word — from nine letters right down to a single letter. What is the original word, and what are the words that it becomes after removing one letter at a time?

The good folks at Snopes have received some mail about some of the possible solutions, and end with the following note:

Finally, scrapping and strapping both work as solutions if "pi" is used as the penultimate reduced word, solutions contested by many readers who claimed that "pi" is not technically an English word but merely a Greek letter used to represent a common mathematical value.

Well. What kind of a stupid assertion is that?

Of course "pi" is an English word. It's a pronounceable string of letters with a well-defined meaning ("the transcendental number produced by dividing the circumference of a circle by its diameter"); what else could it be but a word? The next thing you know, such people will be telling us that "alpha" isn't a word, either, or "sigma"--or, for that matter, "ess" and "aitch".


A letter in the newest issue of Harper's Magazine--I'd have a lifetime subscription if they sold them--contains the unfortunate word "rearmament". I think it's unfortunate because when I first read it, my brain tried to divide it into the word "rear-" and then something else which didn't make any sense. This is why we have the lovely dieresis: a word such as "coöperate" is accented to tell us that it isn't pronounced "COOP-er-ate", that the second, marked syllable is pronounced separately from the one preceding it.

I know: the dieresis is hardly used any more. (You don't even usually see it in "naïve", which used to have it all the time and could still use it.) So we can usually employ the modern version, the hyphen, instead: "re-armament" is superior to "rearmament" and "co-operate" to "cooperate" because they aren't subject to any confusion whatever.

You can't entirely clean up the language in this manner, of course: there's nothing to be done with, say, "arsenal". But I do think that where words are compounded from roots and prefixes, and where confusion might arise, it's better to mark the words and remove any doubt. I like to give readers a sporting chance.


Blogger Bright Beak said...

Arguing that 'pi' is not a word would drive all numerophiles into a doldrum that would be unfathomably deep, and from whence many would not emerge unscathed! OY! There is just no way that anyone working with 'pi' would ever wish to revert to that cumbersome definition you gave. Imagine how long THOSE questions would be on tests. Would we even be allowed to still use our <π>?

Monday, June 19, 2006 9:50:00 PM  

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