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AWADmail Issue 249

February 18, 2007

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Interesting Tidbits about Words and Languages

From: Beth Williams (b-b3 juno.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--butte

Here in Central Oregon, we have many buttes. While hiking with friends one day, we climbed one that had a lookout point on which there were signs designating that to the north was "such and such butte", over there was "so and so butte", etc. One woman who was enthusiastic about the view but did not know how to pronounce the word "butte" cried out to a friend "Oh, look at that beautiful butt!" You should have seen all the heads whip around to look!

From: Hans Heilman (nshep rcn.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--butte

This homophone brought to mind an exchange from the Firesign Theatre comedy troupe's radio play, "Temporarily Humbolt County", from their album "Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him":

Elder #1: That's not a well, it's the eye of the Holy Serpent Mount on which you're standing.

Settler #2: It's a beaut!

Elder #2: No, it's a mount.

Settler #2: And right purty too...

See the full text.

For those unfamiliar with Firesign Theatre, they are a comedy troupe whose humor includes much stream-of-consciousness wordplay. They have recorded a number of albums -- their best known albums date from the late 60s/early 70s and include "Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers", "I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus" and "Nick Danger".

From: Nancy Leek (nancy roadq.com)
Subject: butte

Greetings from beautiful Butte County, California!

Butte County has a number of buttes, but is actually named for the largest of them, the Sutter Buttes, which are no longer within the county. They didn't move, but the size of the original county was reduced, and now the Sutter Buttes are located in Sutter County. They are known as the world's smallest mountain range, and stand out in the otherwise flat Northern Central Valley, surrounded by orchards and rice fields.

When we first moved here 15 years ago, our teenage daughter took a look at the cover of the phone book and asked, "Why would they name it Butt County?" We explained to her that Butte and Butt are very different things, both in meaning and pronunciation.

From: Bryce Babcock (bandz commspeed.net)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--butte

A rule of thumb here in the southwest is that if the elevated land is wider than it is high, it's called a mesa. If it's higher than it is wide, it's a butte. The problem with that distinction is that the elevation when viewed from one side may appear wider than it is high, and be called a mesa, but viewed from another angle may appear higher than it is wide, thus fitting the description of a butte. That is why there is little rhyme or reason to geographical names for these flat-topped, steep-sided prominences, some bearing the name mesa and others called buttes. Other anomalies occur through the frequent mixing of English and Spanish words, such as a formation north of Phoenix called Table Mesa!

From: Sue Levy (slevy jalcomputer.com.au)
Subject: A.Word.A.Day--annalist

Seeing the unfamiliar word 'annalist' reminds me of the day I choked on my coffee while glancing at the birth notices in the morning paper. A pair of very ignorant (or cruel) parents had named their daughter Analyse. I couldn't help wondering if the child would one day have a sister, and if so, would she be named Analysis?

From: Gavin Kreuiter (kreuiter ananzi.co.za)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--annalist

Does this mean an annalist is annals retentive?

From: Danielle Juzan (djuzan earthlink.net)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--boll

In promotion of my home state, I must mention the Boll Weevil monument of Enterprise, Alabama.

The general idea was that weevil devastation forced the area to diversify their crops, which ultimately led to greater prosperity.

From: Shannin Schroeder (smschroeder saumag.edu)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--boll

Interestingly, a nearby university here in Arkansas has as its mascot the boll weevils.

From: Susan Walker (violetwind earthlink.net)
Subject: Boll

When I looked at "boll", a homophone did not instantly come to mind. So I spoke the word aloud and then it became clear -- with our Midwestern/country accent, "boll" also means to heat water until it bubbles!

From: Bob Green (rgreen med.umich.edu)
Subject: homophone

Here is a fun one: what would you call private army groups set up to do evil? Malicious militias.

From: Abby Kaplan (kaplanas gmail.com)
Subject: talking parrot (Re: AWADmail 248)

I appreciate the thought and care that goes into every edition of A Word A Day. As a linguist, I've been especially impressed over the years with AWAD's generally very good track record of not perpetuating the many myths about language that linguists find so frustratingly ubiquitous. That's why I was disappointed to see a link in AWAD Mail Issue 248 to a three-year-old BBC story about a parrot that has purportedly acquired a rudimentary grasp of human language.

The claims made in the article about the parrot's linguistic abilities are unsubstantiated and wildly optimistic, in some places attributing abilities to N'kisi that surpass even what has been proven for chimps. Although many species have their own (sometimes complex) communication systems, no species has the communication system specific to humans that we call "language", and it has never been convincingly demonstrated that any animal can learn this particular system. Steven Pinker's discussion of the topic in "The Language Instinct" is entertaining and informative.

A brief discussion of one of the more egregious statements in the article is available at LanguageLog. A more detailed discussion of some of the claims that have been made about N'kisi is available at Skeptic's Dictionary (with emphasis on the bird's claimed telepathy, which has been deleted from the BBC article, but also some discussion of his purported linguistic abilities).

Thank you very much for the valuable service that AWAD provides; I look forward to continuing to receive your thoughtful reflections on English vocabulary.

His words, like so many nimble and airy servitors, trip about him at command. -John Milton, poet (1608-1674)

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