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Why Does Q (Almost) Always Go With a U?

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Leaving aside for now the few foreign loanwords (e.g., Qatar, Iraq) where Q shows up without a U, an English Q is the only letter that can't go anywhere without a partner. Why does a Q always need a U? We can blame it on a whole bunch of our alphabetic ancestors.

Because of the French

Before the Norman invasion of 1066, English didn't even have a Q. Words like queen and quick were spelled cwen and cwic. Not only did the Normans inject a whole bunch of French vocabulary into English, they changed the spelling of English words according to their French ways. French represented the 'kw' sound with QU spelling. To make things more complicated, French people stopped pronouncing the w part, but their spelling never caught up with that change, so words that English borrowed much later, like mystique and quiche, have a 'k' pronunciation instead of 'kw.'

Because of the Romans

So why did the French use QU for 'kw' sounds? Because Latin did. For the 'k' sound, Latin used a Q when it came before a 'w' sound, and a C everywhere else.

Because of the Etruscans

Why did Latin use two different symbols for a 'k' sound? The Romans got their writing system from the Etruscans, who had three different symbols for the 'k' sound: it was gamma (the ancestor of both C and G) before e or i, kappa (ancestor of K) before a, and koppa (ancestor of Q) before u or o.

Because of the Phoenicians

The Phoenicians originated the gamma, kappa, and koppa, but for them, the symbols represented different sounds. The ancestor of Q, koppa, was for a consonant made way in the back of the throat, with the back of the tongue touching the uvula. English doesn't have anything like this sound, but Arabic does, and in borrowings from Arabic (e.g., Qatar, Iraq), English represents it, appropriately, with a Q.

The road from uvular Q to quaint, quirky QU isn't as haphazard as it might seem. The 'u' vowel is produced with the tongue further back in the mouth, so 'k' is slightly further back when it comes before 'u' (compare "key" with "kook"). Q went from standing for a way-back-of-the-throat consonant to a slightly-back-of-the-throat consonant. From there, its pronunciation fate changed from era to era and language to language, but its partnership with U remained strong through the centuries, giving us a tiny window back to the origins of our writing system.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

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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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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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