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3 Reasons for Syllabically Ambiguous Words

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Do you say car-a-mel or car-mel? Is your “fire” closer to fah-yer or fayr? There is a group of words in English that can be pronounced with two different syllable structures, depending on dialect, personal preference, or context of use. While many will insist that one or the other is incontrovertibly correct, there is usually no real basis for pronouncements on the one true syllable structure. Sometimes two things can both be correct. If you need a better authority than me on that, lots of dictionaries accept both pronunciations for all the words discussed below (e.g., Merriam-Webster). What’s more interesting than fighting about who’s right is understanding why these differences arise. There are three processes that result in syllabically ambiguous words.

1. Diphthongs, r’s, and l’s

One or Two Syllables: fire, tire, hour, liar, buyer, flower, drawer, layer, loyal, royal, file

All of these words have one- and two-syllable pronunciations. What do they have in common? They all have a diphthong followed by an r or l.

At least in their one-syllable versions. A diphthong is a glide from one vowel to another that takes place within one syllable. For example, the vowel sound in “hour” glides from “ah” to “oo.” A diphthong is not always represented in the spelling of a word. The vowel sound in “fire” glides from “ah” to “ee.”

The sounds that make up the second part of the diphthongs “oo” and “ee” can also serve as consonants when they start a syllable. “Win” starts in the “oo” position, but there, it is the consonant w. “Yes” starts in the “ee” position, but there, it is a y. (In technical terms, w and y are semivowels whose vowel/consonant status depends on whether they are in the nucleus of the syllable or at the edge of it.)

Sometimes the end of the diphthong becomes w or y, forming a second syllable. Hour becomes ah-wer and fire becomes fa-yer. This process also works in reverse. Sometimes a w or y moves over to join the vowel before it. Flo-wer becomes flour.

This kind of indeterminacy is all over the place. Think about “mower,” “shower,” “oil,” “hair,” “while,” or any other diphthong followed by l or r. Think of a one or two syllable pronunciation for each of them. Even if you think one of them sounds totally weird, you can imagine someone saying it.

2. Syncope

One or Two Syllables: orange, poem, crayon
Two or Three Syllables: caramel, mayonnaise, family, chocolate, camera, different, separate, favorite
Three or Four Syllables: interesting, comfortable
Four or Five Syllables: laboratory

These words all have a syllable which is often left out of the pronunciation. When we cut a sound out of the middle of a word, it’s called syncope (a three syllable word, sin-ko-pee). O-range becomes ornge, car-a-mel becomes car-mel, in-ter-es-ting becomes in-tres-ting. This pruning of syllables doesn’t happen in some random, haphazard fashion. If a vowel gets chucked, it will be before an r or l (those guys again!) or in some cases a nasal (m or n). It will also be from an unstressed syllable. So the American LA-buh-ra-to-ry becomes lab-ra-to-ry, while the British la-BO-ra-to-ry become la-bo-ra-try.

3. Epenthesis

Two or Three Syllables: realtor
Three or Four Syllables: mischievous

When we stick a sound into the middle of word, it’s called epenthesis. A few words gain extra syllables this way. Do you say mis-chi-vous or mis-chee-vee-ous? Real-tor or real-a-tor? Epenthesis usually happens in order to make something easier to pronounce—because some words can be as tricky as a mischievous realtor.

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 118th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."

Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."

By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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23 Slang Terms You Only Understand if You Work in Antarctica
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Thanks to extreme conditions, a small research population, close quarters, and the unique experience of life there, Antarctica has developed a lingo all of its own. Yes, even freezing, remote Antarctica has slang. Here is a sample of some, er, cooler terms, which come from the many English-speaking nationalities, from Canada to New Zealand, that have stepped foot on its ice.

1. BIG EYE

In winter, Antarctica is covered in perpetual darkness; in summer, sunlight. The continent can certainly put a wrench in one’s circadian rhythms, as this slang for light-related insomnia makes plain.

2. TOASTY

Antarctica’s climate also puts a wrench in one’s mental faculties. Crew stationed there often experience a loss of words, forgetfulness, irascibility, and “brain fog” brought on by the dark, cold, and altitude. Toasty is also used for other general misdemeanors committed around the camp.

3. ICE SHOCK

Antarctica’s shell shock. As one Antarctica-based worker blogged about it, ice shock is “when you get back to the rest of the world and realize that no matter how insane Antarctica is, the real world is FAR nuttier, and that you can no longer function in it.”

4. GREENOUT

A riff on whiteout. As The Antarctic Dictionary defines it, greenout is “the overwhelming sensation induced by seeing and smelling trees and other plants spending some time in antarctic regions.”

5. THE ICE

Speaking of the ice, this is how Antarcticans refer to the whole ice-covered continent.

6. CHEECH

Not the counterpart of Chong, but a play on consonant clusters in the name of the place from which many researchers jump off to Antarctica: Christchurch, New Zealand.

7. MACTOWN

McMurdo Station, the U.S. research hub and largest Antarctic community, which can host around 1250 residents in summer.

8. CITY MICE

These are personnel who work at the main research stations.

9. COUNTRY MICE

These are crew who move among different camps on the continent.

10. ICE-HUSBAND/ICE-WIFE

When the cat's away, the mice will play. One’s ice-husband or ice-wife is like a fling for crew down in Antarctica for the season.

11. ICE-WIDOW/ICE-WIDOWER

Meanwhile, one’s spouse or significant other is stuck all alone back home as their loved one is working at the South Pole.

12. FINGY

This pejorative term for a newbie apparently derives from “f—king new guy,” or FNG.

13. BEAKER

An epithet for “scientist.” Some specialist personnel also have nicknames, like fuelie (responsible for fueling various equipment) and wastie (who deal with refuse).

14. WINTER-OVER

When crew, bravely, stay in Antarctica over the entire brutal winter.

15. TURDSICLE

It gets cold down at the southern end of the world. The average—yes, average—temperature is -52ºF. The excrement freezeth, shall we say.

16. SNOTSICLE

So too do boogers freeze in this blend of snot and icicle.

17. DEGOMBLE

“To disencumber of snow,” as The Antarctic Dictionary explains, especially before coming back inside shelter. The origin of gomble is obscure, possibly a term for little balls of snow stuck to the fur of sled dogs.

18. SKUA

Named for the predatory, scavenging skua birds found in Antarctica, a skua pile or bin is a sort of rummage bin. Crew can leave and pick over unwanted items there. Also used as a verb.

19. OFFENSIVE POTATOES

British speakers apparently did not take a liking to canned potatoes they had to eat ...

20. SAWDUST

... nor the dried cabbage.

21. FRESHIES

Shipments of these fresh fruits and vegetables are quite welcome to the cuisine-deprived Antarctica researchers and personnel.

22. POPPY

Alcohol served over Antarctica ice, which makes a pop sound as it releases the gas long pressurized into it.

23. CARROTS

Not that much of the food sounds terribly edible, if slang is any measure, but these carrots aren’t to be munched on. They refer to ice cores, ‘uprooted’ samples whose cylindrical shape resemble the vegetable.

This slang is only the tip of the, um, iceberg. For more, see Bernadette Hince’s The Antarctica Dictionary, the Cool Antarctica website, and The Allusionist podcast, which has explored linguistic life on the ice in its episode, “Getting Toasty.”

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