Episode 357: February 21, 2013
by Neal Whitman
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I read an interesting post recently, on a blog called Arrant Pedantry. In this post, titled “No Dice,” Jonathon Owen traced the history of the English word “dice,” and how, in his words, it “slipped through the cracks of language change.” Today, we’re going to talk about “dice” and other examples of language that got left behind.
The Plural of “Die” Is “Dice,” Not “Dies” or “Douse”
“Dice” is the plural form of the singular noun “die,” a fact that I didn’t realize until I was a teenager. Before then, I just thought the word was a noun like “sheep,” with the same form for both singular and plural. But even if you know that “dice” is the plural of “die,” isn’t it strange it’s not just “dies,” with a Z sound at the end? After all, the plural of the plural of “pie” is “pies” and not “pice,” and the plural of “fly” is “flies” and not “flice.” Even as an irregular plural, “dice” is weird. The singular forms of “mice” and “lice” are “mouse” and “louse,” but the singular of “dice” is not “douse.”
In his blog post, Owen explained that originally, the plural of “die” was spelled D-I-E-S. However, at that time, all plurals that ended in “-s” were actually pronounced with an S sound at the end, not with a Z sound. Then, probably sometime in the 1500s, a sound change occurred, so that for most nouns these plural endings came to be pronounced with a Z sound. After this sound change, the plural of “die” would have been pronounced with a Z sound at the end. But what we actually see around this time is that the spelling changes from D-I-E-S to D-I-C-E. In other words, speakers hung on to that final S sound, and changed the spelling to make it clear. “Dice” got left behind.
“Dice” as a Non-Count Noun
Why did it get left behind? Owen suggests that people were not thinking of “dice” as a plural; they were thinking of it as a non-count noun, like “mud” or “Jell-O.” Even though you can count dice, and know whether you’re rolling two, three, or six of them, speakers considered “dice” a non-count noun, kind of like “furniture” and “homework” are today, even though you can count pieces of furniture and homework assignments.
Pronouncing the “-ed” on the End of Wicked
Another sound change that has happened with English suffixes is that the “-ed” suffix is now usually pronounced as just a T (as in “knocked,” “washed,” and “kissed”), or just a D (as in “wagged,” “slammed,” and “raised”). So in that case, why do we still pronounce “wicked” with two syllables?
Well, if we were talking about something that had a wick, like a candle, we wouldn’t. We’d pronounce it “wict.” But that’s not the meaning we want if we’re talking about witches of the west. As it turns out, “wicked” may be derived from an Old English word for “wizard” plus that “-ed” suffix, but that connection is so hidden that most English speakers probably think of “wicked” as an indivisible word. So in the 1600s, when the “-ed” suffix began to be pronounced without its vowel, “wicked” got left behind, along with some words that truly didn’t have that “-ed” suffix, such as “naked,” which just happens to end in “-ed” by chance.
“Buck Naked” Is the Original, but “Butt Naked” Is Gaining Ground
“Naked” brings to mind a good example of how compound words or phrases can get left behind, too, when one of their component words falls out of use. The phrase “buck naked” first appeared in the 1920s, and its origin is still a matter of dispute. What exactly does “buck” mean in this context? When new generations hear an expression that doesn’t make sense to them, they’re likely to reinterpret it as something that makes at least a little bit more sense. Thus, in the 1960s, the much more sensible “butt naked” began to appear, and has been increasing in popularity ever since. Reinterpretations like these are called “folk etymologies,” and there are hundreds of them in English and other languages.
How Dare English Change!
Sometimes entire rules of syntax get left behind. For example, take the sentence “How dare you!” The verb “dare” comes before the subject “you.” In present-day English, only helping verbs do that; for example, “How are you doing?” and “How did this happen?” The reason "dare" does this is that it used to be a helping verb, too.* But while helping verbs such as "may," "can," and "must" continued on into present-day English, "dare" mostly fell out of use. Because “How dare you” is a fixed expression of indignation and outrage, it hung on, but it’s still a bit rare. As a result, when some speakers these days hear “How dare you,” they try to make it fit the modern grammar rules that they know, and reinterpret “you” as the object of “dare” instead of the subject. They can do this because “you” can be used as either the subject or the object of a verb. Then, when these speakers try to use “How dare” with a third party, they’ll use object pronouns and say “How dare him,” “How dare her,” and “How dare them!” The expression still doesn’t quite match modern English grammar, because now “dare” is left without a subject, but that’s what happens when expressions get left behind. Later speakers try to make them behave, with varying degrees of success.
Perish the Thought
Another piece of the English verb system that’s been mostly left behind is the subjunctive mood. You can find it in fossilized subjunctive expressions, such as “Perish the thought!”
But once again, an expression that missed the system update years ago is subject to tinkering by later speakers. In this case , the verb “perish” means to die, and doesn’t take a direct object. But because “the thought” comes after it, and because it’s “perish” and not “perishes,” it’s easy to interpret the expression as a command, with “perish” meaning to kill, and “the thought” as its direct object. Speakers might go for years with this reinterpretation never revealing itself, but when they say something like, “I perished the thought,” it comes to light.
Why Fossils Are Fun
Fossil language like “dice,” “wicked,” “buck-naked,” “how dare you,” and “perish the thought” make a language more interesting. Furthermore, linguists can often use these left-behind fragments of older language to gain insight into earlier stages of a language’s development. Things that are archaic and strange in one language can sometimes even show how that language is connected with others, where similar words or constructions are still in common use. So when you come across a pronunciation, word, or expression that just doesn’t seem to make sense, don’t get frustrated. You might have stumbled across a fossil, with its own, fascinating story to tell.
This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs about linguistics at literalminded.wordpress.com and is a regular columnist for the online resource Visual Thesaurus.
Jonathon Owen’s blog, Arrant Pedantry.
Dice photo from iStockphoto
*The original version of this article referred to "dare" as being in the subjunctive mood.