Friday, 15 February 2013

Bsilence


There are all sorts of silent letters tiptoeing around the English language. There's the P in pterodactyl, the G in gnaw, and, when Jean Harlow pronounced the T in Margot Asquith's first name, Mrs Asquith corrected her by saying that "The T is silent, as in Harlow."

There are a bunch of silent Bs in the middle of words like debt and lamb, but rarely, oh so rarely do you find one at the beginning of a word. But over at the ever-enchanting Six Degrees of Sir Thomas Urquhart, there is one. And it's rather useful. The word is bdelygmia, which means a long series of insults. So when you say to a chap that he's a bounder, a rogue, a scoundrel, a scallywag and a dog-fondler, that's bdelygmia, which a silent B.

Or as Shakespeare put it:

A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave; a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service; and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.

For those interested in the silence of the second letter, The Oxford English Dictionary also has:

Bdellatomy - The name given to the practice of cutting leeches to empty them of blood while they still continue to suck.

Bdellium - The name given to several trees or shrubs of the family Amyridace√¶, chiefly of the genus Balsamodendron, from which exudes a kind of gum-resin resembling impure myrrh, of pungent taste and agreeable odour, used in medicine and as a perfume.

Bdellometer A surgical instrument proposed as a substitute for leeches, and fitted to show the amount of blood drawn.

I remember being shown this video as school when I was about seven. It was my first introduction to Tom Lehrer.

9 comments:

  1. How correct is it to say the e is silent? Maybe it's more like an imposter e, which tricks other letters into doing naughty things. Here in New Zealand we have lots of silent/imposter letters, like l in 'cool', which is often pronounced like a w; r in 'cart', which usually lengthens the preceding vowel; or t in 'but' or 'butter', pronounced as a glottal stop or d, respectively. But depending on who you're talking to, it might not be very respective at all.

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  2. New Zealanders stopped using their ancestors' exact English pronunciation circa 1900, Australians ditto. My theory (unprovable) is that it had as much to do with the impact of local Indigenous speaking as anything to do with mingling of Irish and English pronunciations at the time. When I listen to Australians speak, the local variations are amazing and subtle: they are geographic, pure colour tone and accent. The same with New Zealanders (Pakeha),who express what I call the Great Tasman Vowel Shift. I find it inexplicable why New Zealanders and Australians pronounce English differently, until putting it down to local usage and the evolution of absorbed local sounds. A professional linguist would find my theories "worthy of pursuit."

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  3. The 'p' in pterodactyl shouldn't really be silent; English speakers are quite capable of pronouncing the 'pter' in helico-pter (from Greek = "spiral wing") but somehow are incapable of doing so when the 'pter' is at the start of the word ;)

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  4. Oh we oughtn't forget Ronald Eustace Psmith who reminds us that the P in his surname is silent ("as in pshrimp"). First names with silent letters abound, as in Hermione (barely an H and where's the Y?). Other Christian names seem to have letters both silent and invisible, as in Roald Dahl.

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    1. And Eustace is pronounced with a silent "E"

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  5. When I tended to be a bit chatty, my dad would admonish me to "be silent like the pee in swimming"....

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    1. Your comment reminded me of something my father once said to me: "Psychiatrist has a silent 'p'. Scroll down to the second image found here: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_zZW2-KTlUpY/R8R1NYQblcI/AAAAAAAABmI/DP8d-kv6Pzs/s1600-h/toi-comic-1.jpg

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  6. Let me add the name of one of the most fascinating animals in earth, the one and (so far) only true parthogenetic: the bdelloidae rotifers! (Name derived from Greek "leech", yes)

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  7. In your book Elements of Eloquence you say, for the word 'bdelygmia', that no letter is silent but here you say that the 'b' is silent so, respectfully, which is it?

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