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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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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Why Do We Call People Blamed for Things 'Scapegoats'?
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From Marie Antoinette to the cow that reportedly caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, history is filled with figures who were single-handedly—yet often undeservedly—held responsible for epic societal failures or misdeeds. In other words, they became scapegoats. But what did goats (who are actually pretty awesome creatures) do to deserve association with this blameworthy bunch?

The word scapegoat was first coined by English Protestant scholar William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible, according to David Dawson’s 2013 book Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat Or, the History of an Idea. Tyndale, who was deciphering Hebrew descriptions of Yom Kippur rituals from the Book of Leviticus, recounted a ceremony in which one of two goats was selected by lot. A high priest would place his hands on the goat’s head and confess his people's sins— thus transferring them to the animal—before casting it out into the wilderness to rid Israel of its transgressions. As for the other goat, it would be sacrificed to the Lord.

Tyndale coined the word scapegoat to describe the sin-bearing creature, interpreting the Hebrew word azazel or Azazel as ez ozel, or "the goat that departs or escapes." That said, some scholars have disagreed with his interpretation, claiming that Azazel actually stands for the name of a goat-like wilderness demon, whom the offering was meant for, or a specific location in the desert to where sins were banished, often thought to be a mountainous cliff from which the scapegoat was cast off and killed.

Over the centuries, the word scapegoat became disassociated with its Biblical meaning, and it eventually became used as a metaphor to describe a person who shoulders the blame of any wrongdoing. Now that you know the word's etymology, remember the poor animals that inspired it, and maybe resolve to go a little easier on the next person who ends up having to take the fall for everyone else's mistakes.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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