On Writing

Weird Words Make for Weird Spellings

24 Feb , 2018  

Is it jif, as in JIF brand peanut butter? Or gif, as in gift? Seems a strange thing for a giraffe to quibble over, especially if the inventor calls it jif. Weird words lead to weird arguments. Does the parent get to name the baby, or must he follow linguistic conventions?

To say gif seems akin to calling me Holy, not Holly. I’m good, but I’m not that good. Then again, it stands for “Graphics Interchange Format,” and the g in graphics is a hard g. I love weird words, but some seem to unnecessarily complicate communication.

Call it whatever you want and pour yourself a gin martini to celebrate the fact that the world’s not coming to an end, no matter how you say it. Even Merriam-Webster shrugs and declares it’s fine, either way.

Another odd word I’ve been noticing a lot, lately: sceptical. Or is it skeptical? Skeptical certainly makes more sense, given that no one pronounces the word like scepter or septic. I am pretty sure that I grew up spelling it sceptic, but at some point that made no sense at all to me – maybe around the time I learned the word septic and decided that it was too easy to confuse the two. Now I view the whole thing with a healthy dose of skepticism and think the sceptics are septic.

Apparently, sceptic is the British spelling; here, on the other side of the pond, skeptic is the preferred spelling. So, again, don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong – just pick one, try to be consistent, and know that you’ll get funny looks in different regions regardless of which you choose.

I take that back. I re-read the previous paragraph with a healthy dose of skepticism, and decided to investigate further. Etymology Online provides a better historical and linguistic explanation, not only of the word’s meaning, but of the underlying logic for the variations in spelling of the word skeptic.

Another odd word: plait. Whenever I read that word, and my brain comes screeching to a halt. Is it pleat (like the folds of a skirt or curtain) or plat or plate? It’s either plat or plate, according to the dictionary, but its chief meaning is pleat. Its secondary meaning, and the one where I see it used most often, is as a synonym of “to braid.”

Something writers should consider, when choosing words that sound pleasing to their own ear, is whether the word is so uncommon as to drive someone to the dictionary – not (only) to discern the meaning of the word, but to make sure they’re hearing it correctly in their own head as they read, so that they won’t make fools of themselves if they try to use their new word in public. “To braid” is less likely to throw up such roadblocks, I think, than “to plait,” but that may be a regional thing.

Did any of you grow up using the word plait as often, or more often, than the word braid?

It’s good to learn new things. I realize we all suffer “information overload,” these days – far more of it than when that term was minted. But to learn and understand our own language, to grow our vocabularies and our understanding of the meaning, pronunciation, spelling, and origin of words, helps us to understand our own history and to communicate more deeply with others.

What are your favorite “weird words”?

Holly Jahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; and A New Leaf for Lyle. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young at heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.

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16 Responses

  1. Peter Wright says:

    Yes, growing up with horses in the very British influenced Rhodesia, we always “plaited” pronounced “platted” our horses tails, never braided them. In fact we would have been highly sceptical (as we were taught to spell it) of anyone who claimed to do so.

    To “braid” something inferred that a material and needles were involved, embroidery for instance. Not a good combination with horses tails when standing inches behind very powerful back legs that could kick much quicker than we could move out of the way.

    A weird word I came across recently is “irenic” Miriam Webster’s definition – favoring, conducive to, or operating toward peace, moderation, or conciliation.

    It’s a word we should be using much more frequently these days.

    Thank you for a though provoking post Holly.

  2. Cheryl says:

    I just can’t say jif, knowing that the G is for Graphical.

    • So, you’re in the linguistic camp, rather than the parental right to name the baby camp? 🙂 I’m right there with you – just pointing out there’s a legitimate argument to be made for either pronunciation.

  3. Anklebuster says:

    Well, I could spend all day discussing words–weird, or otherwise–but (and there is a word for this, I’m sure) I can’t think of a single weird word to share. SO, I’ll skip that portion for the moment, and talk about plait.

    Growing up around my sister and a bunch of female cousins, I became quite familiar with the word. The girls wore “plats” and were always “platting” each other’s hair. Later, plaits gave way to cornrows, but someone still “platted your hair into cornrows.”

    Of course, much much later, cornrows became the foundation for braids and weaves. LOL
    Now, some smart cookie finally invented (or discovered) a technique that does away with individual braids: Crocheting pre-braided hair into cornrows!

    My grandmother plaited my hair into cornrows once on a weekend. I loved it, but combed it out before going to school. That day, my hair was straighter than it would ever be again. So, I learned the whole point of why guys would subject themselves to such torture.

    Darn it, I still haven’t thought of a weird word. Instead, I’ll repeat something I used to say all the time as a child. “Milk is a weird word. The more I say it, the sillier it sounds.”

    I think that is true of any word, uttered to the point of aural fatigue.

    Cheers,

    Mitch

    • I think you’re right. We used to repeat words until they lost their meanings (temporarily – thank goodness, meaning returns eventually).

      I’ve considered attempting to crochet my hair, but figured that was just the sign of an unhealthy obsession with my hobby and went back to using yarn.

      And the only things I can think of to describe what you’re describing, about not being able to think up a weird word to share? “Drawing a blank” or “staircase wit.” As in, it’ll come to you around 3 AM, but neither of us will want to discuss it then.

      Do come back after you’ve slept on it, though, and share! 🙂

      • Anklebuster says:

        Well, still no weird word, but I HAD to come back and share an example of my favorite word, “serendipity.”

        I always joke that there’s a German word for what I’m trying to describe. On a whim, I Ducked “German word for forgetfulness” and DuckDuckGo responded with a link to 16 German Words That Perfectly Describe How You Feel Right Now.

        One of those words was Treppenwitz, which translates to “Staircase Joke” and is described almost exactly as you did!

        If you check the list, you’ll see the Southwest Airlines’ famous theme!

        [link: h t t p s : // www . buzzfeed . com/germanyinusa/16-german-words-that-perfectly-describe-how-you-fe-fr91]

        Cheers,

        Mitch

      • You couldn’t just drop the link like a normal person? It’s allowed – provided you’ve been allowed to post comments unsupervised at all. 😉 I think “staircase wit” comes from the French, originally. Yes – https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/l%27esprit_de_l%27escalier#English My favorite example of this is the time, in middle school, when I got smacked in the face with a kickball while trying to figure out how to guard first base. The girl next to me snotted off with, “Whatsa matter, ya ball shy?” I was trying hard not to cry, and it took me another ten years to realize that what I SHOULD have said was, “If I were ball shy, bitch, I’d have DUCKED.”

        I do love how it’s totally legit, in German, to just slam words together to make a new word that fits the situation. 🙂

      • Anklebuster says:

        Ha! Who says I’m normal? 🙂
        Actually, the buzzfeed link was dicey, so I trimmed off the tracking mess and wasn’t sure it would pass your spam filter.

        Anyway, I love German phrases! I wrote a Scrabble article about Schadenfreude. LOL
        I’m going to just say that so many words are weird, that they appear normal. It’s the reason none spring to mind. Oh, wait! What about all those –bok words? Springbok, reebok, gemsbok, steenbok. I think they’re all South African antelopes (I only looked up springbok, but according to WordFind, gemsbok, steenbok and rhebok are all South African. (I have a Chrome plugin that gets definitions, which is how I learned rhebok, as WordFind didn’t know.)

        All that from “spring to mind.”

        Cheers,

        Mitch

      • Not me! But I enjoy following you down the rabbit hole… And now you know, though I appreciate you sparing me the dicier bits of a URL, since you know how to lop them off without rendering it dysfunctional.

  4. Jack Yan says:

    Once I learned the creator called GIFs jifs, I went with that, so I am with the parental rights’ argument. Similarly Lucire is pronounced the way we do it (as though the word were Italian), and people often ask so they can get it right. We tend to have our house style and stick to it, but others can use theirs and I’m OK. As you say, pick one and be consistent (and let me choose mine and stick to that, too).

    • I’m so torn between being a parent and being a professional writer, I don’t know which “side” I’m on, honestly.

      Thank you for explaining the pronunciation of “Lucire” – I’d been mentally pronouncing it in French, not Italian, and should’ve asked! (You can imagine how people mangle my name; it is a great way to screen out unsolicited sales calls and scammers! Though I’ll admit that it irritates me to no end when someone I know or work with decides to “officially” rename me – as in, “I’ll just call you Holly Smith!” – because my name’s just too hard for them to say. I’ve taken to calmly responding with things like, “Call me whatever you like, as long as you don’t mind me calling you ‘Stupid.'” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told that to people with simple, easy to pronounce names, and they’ve made me laugh recounting all the ways people have mangled “Smith.” “Smit? Smythe?”)

      Yes, I think if you NAME a thing, you have naming and pronunciation rights.

  5. Jack Yan says:

    Interestingly, in France and Québec, the French pronunciation is used. Many years ago, at Montréal Fashion Week, the Italian media sent along a large contingent of people who were a bit rowdy. Our editor there opted to Frenchify the name so we wouldn’t be associated with them, and got my blessing afterwards when she told me what had happened. When I went to France later, I used the French pronunciation since it would be silly to have two in Francophone countries.
    I can definitely imagine how people would mangle your surname! Mine gets mangled and it’s three letters!

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