Wednesday, 29 May 2013

footling and halibut

Quite hopeless. He has lost his grip completely. Only a couple of days ago I was compelled to take him off a case because his handling of it was so footling.
- PG Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves
footling is "driveling, blithering", from footle "to talk or act foolishly". This is possibly a variant of foutre, which the OED declines to translate, perhaps because French foutre is something of a taboo word. It's from Latin futuere "to have vaginal intercouse", possibly from Proto-Indo-European *bheh₂u- "to hit".

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the Germanic extended form *ƀaut- became *butt-, a name for a flatfish. This became English butt "flatfish, turbot" and halibut - ie holy butt, so named because it was eaten on holy days.

How a word meaning "hit" came to be used for a fish is unclear.

Thursday, 23 May 2013


The Guardian has an article on Steven Wilhite, the inventor of the Graphics Interchange Format, who apparently insists that GIF should be pronounced with /dʒ/ and not /g/. Why? Because that's what the creators of the word intended.

The OED lists both pronunciations. But:
“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Mr. Wilhite said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.” 
There's even a song, where we're told "you can't go around using words all willy-nilly."

I'm not convinced by any of this. The notion that a word's pronunciation is defined by the creators of that word strikes me as a variant of the etymological fallacy. In order to determine how a word is used and pronounced, the origin of the word is irrelevant. What's relevant is how the speakers of the language use and pronounce it now. And speakers of the language have decided to use both pronunciations.