What Is ‘gh’ Doing in So Many English Words?


It’s a blight, a thoroughly tough plight, enough to make you want to fight … or laugh. There are so many ways to pronounce, or not pronounce, the English "gh," almost none of which have anything to do with the usual "g" or "h" sound. Why is it there to begin with? 

Once upon a time, the "gh" did stand for a specific sound, one we don’t have in English today, except in interjections of disgust like blech. That back-of-the-throat fricative (written as /x/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet) is found in German, and if you look for the German counterpart of English "gh" words, you will often find the sound there: light ... licht, night ... nacht, eight ... acht, high ... hoch, neighbor ... nachbar, though ... doch.

So when you see a "gh," it usually means that it was pronounced with the blech sound in Old English, when our writing system was first developed. Early scribes had to adapt the Roman alphabet to English, and since Latin didn’t have the /x/ sound, they used "h" or a non-Roman character called a yogh (ȝ). Eventually, during the Middle English period, they settled on "gh."

By that time the pronunciation was already changing. The sound turned into /f/ or was dropped entirely. The Great Vowel Shift was underway and many parts of the language were in flux, but by the time the shift was complete, the printing press had stabilized the writing system, and the "gh," pointing back to an earlier English, was here to stay.

Not all examples of English "gh" can be traced back to the /x/ sound. The word-initial "gh" of ghost and ghoul came from the habits of Flemish typesetters. Words borrowed from Italian like spaghetti and ghetto just stuck with Italian spelling conventions.

And there are some words that show how "gh" took on a life of its own in English, words that came into the language long after Old English and never had a /x/ sound in them. Delight and sprightly were modified under the influence of light and right. Sleigh was made to look like weigh, perhaps to avoid looking like slay. Haughty was modeled on words like taught and aught, because, well, doesn’t that look more haughty than hawty? Like it or not, "aught" now stands for a specific pronunciation, with a rounded vowel, that really can't be spelled any other way (at least in dialects without the caught-cot merger). Is taught the same as tot or tawt? I think naught.

What Would Happen If a Plane Flew Too High?


Tom Farrier:

People have done this, and they have died doing it. For example, in October 2004, the crew of Pinnacle Airlines 3701 [PDF]  was taking their aircraft from one airport to another without passengers—a so-called "repositioning" flight.

They were supposed to fly at 33,000 feet, but instead requested and climbed to 41,000 feet, which was the maximum altitude at which the aircraft was supposed to be able to be flown. Both engines failed, the crew couldn't get them restarted, and the aircraft crashed and was destroyed.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable causes of this accident were: (1) the pilots’ unprofessional behavior, deviation from standard operating procedures, and poor airmanship, which resulted in an in-flight emergency from which they were unable to recover, in part because of the pilots’ inadequate training; (2) the pilots’ failure to prepare for an emergency landing in a timely manner, including communicating with air traffic controllers immediately after the emergency about the loss of both engines and the availability of landing sites; and (3) the pilots’ improper management of the double engine failure checklist, which allowed the engine cores to stop rotating and resulted in the core lock engine condition.

Contributing to this accident were: (1) the core lock engine condition, which prevented at least one engine from being restarted, and (2) the airplane flight manuals that did not communicate to pilots the importance of maintaining a minimum airspeed to keep the engine cores rotating.

Accidents also happen when the "density altitude"—a combination of the temperature and atmospheric pressure at a given location—is too high. At high altitude on a hot day, some types of aircraft simply can't climb. They might get off the ground after attempting a takeoff, but then they can't gain altitude and they crash because they run out of room in front of them or because they try to turn back to the airport and stall the aircraft in doing so. An example of this scenario is described in WPR12LA283.

There's a helicopter version of this problem as well. Helicopter crews calculate the "power available" at a given pressure altitude and temperature, and then compare that to the "power required" under those same conditions. The latter are different for hovering "in ground effect" (IGE, with the benefit of a level surface against which their rotor system can push) and "out of ground effect" (OGE, where the rotor system supports the full weight of the aircraft).

It's kind of unnerving to take off from, say, a helipad on top of a building and go from hovering in ground effect and moving forward to suddenly find yourself in an OGE situation, not having enough power to keep hovering as you slide out over the edge of the roof. This is why helicopter pilots always will establish a positive rate of climb from such environments as quickly as possible—when you get moving forward at around 15 to 20 knots, the movement of air through the rotor system provides some extra ("translational") lift.

It also feels ugly to drop below that translational lift airspeed too high above the surface and abruptly be in a power deficit situation—maybe you have IGE power, but you don't have OGE power. In such cases, you may not have enough power to cushion your landing as you don't so much fly as plummet. (Any Monty Python fans?)

Finally, for some insight into the pure aerodynamics at play when airplanes fly too high, I'd recommend reading the responses to "What happens to aircraft that depart controlled flight at the coffin corner?"

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Are Some Men's Beards a Different Color Than Their Hair?


Throughout civilization, beards have acted as a silent communicator. For some, it's a symbol of virility and power. For others, being hirsute is mandated by religion, marital status, or both. (Amish single men are clean-shaven; husbands are not.) Seeing an unkempt, scraggly beard could be an indication of a person's economic status or their lack of vanity. One man, Hans Langseth, sprouted a 17-foot-long chin warmer for the unique identity it afforded him. (He kept it neatly rolled over a corn cob when he wasn't busy showing it off.)

Langseth's whiskers, which wound up in the Smithsonian, present a curious timeline of his life. The furthest end of the beard was a vibrant brown, grown out when he was younger. The ends closer to his face—and to the end of his life in 1927—were yellowed.

While age can certainly influence hair and beard color, it doesn't explain why a younger man can sport a decidedly different beard tone than what's on the rest of his head. Other follicular forces are at work.

By default, scalp hair is white. It gets its color from melanin, turning it everything from jet black to dirty blonde. Pheomelanin infuses hair with red and yellow pigmentation; eumelanin influences brown and black. Like shades of paint, the two can mix within the same hair shaft. (Melanin production decreases as we age, which is why hairs start to appear gray.) But not all follicles get the same dose in the same combination. While you might sport a light brown top, your beard could be predominantly dark brown, or sport patches of lighter hairs in spots. Eyebrow hair will probably appear darker because those follicles tend to produce more eumelanin.

If you're wondering why these two-toned heads often have a red beard but not red hair, there's an answer for that, too. While all hair color is genetic, one gene in particular, MC1R, is responsible for a red hue. If you inherit a mutated version of the gene from both parents, you're likely to have red hair from head to toe. (Hopefully not too much toe hair.) But if you inherit MC1R from just one parent, it might only affect a portion of your follicles. If that swatch of color annoys you for whatever reason? There’s always beard dye.

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