Saturday 15 May 2010

Pasteur Pedicular

A rubbish joke:

A woman tells her doting husband that she wishes to bathe in milk. 'Whatever you ask, darling,' says her husband. 'Would you like it pasteurised?'.
'No. Just up to my chin.'

Which does nothing but illustrate how little shifts of pronunciation can cloud things. Pasteurised is, of course, named after Louis Pasteur. Yet we pronounce his name pa-stir. With his milky method we have longened the A and added in a Y to make it past-yer. Perhaps, perhaps our pronunciation has been skewed by a dream of cows in pasture. I couldn't say for sure.

The curious thing is that because of that slight shift you can use the word pasteurised without ever noticing that it must be named after the famous chemist. You see it the second you consider the word, but how often do any of us consider anything? I feel certain I don't. I am a man of wild and imponderable action. Thoughts are for losers.

Put the stress back on the middle syllable of excellent, and you can see how it relates to excel and repel and repellent. Not that that should come as a cataclysmic surprise, merely that the connection was loitering in a dusky corner. By Shakespeare's time excellent had already become a cretic. But it still meant exceeding, rather than praiseworthy as we can tell from Queen Margaret's ever-so-slightly-catty remark to Elizabeth of York:

From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death:
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,
To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood,
That foul defacer of God's handiwork,
That excellent grand tyrant of the earth,
That reigns in galled eyes of weeping souls,
Thy womb let loose, to chase us to our graves.

Women, eh? (I have an idea for a line of greetings-cards, as a competitor to Clinton's. On the outside of a card I'd have CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR BABY!!!!! !!! and on the inside I would reprint that passage. Any takers?)

As with pasteurised and excellent, lousy is obviously to do with lice, but how often do you think of that when using the word? The slight shift from the unvoiced S to the Z of lau-zee means that we never think of our diminutive neighbours. Louse-ridden has retained a pure and powerful punch. Lousy has lost meaning and must be replaced. Luckily such a word exists: pedicular. Pedicular (which was suggested to me by an erudite reader) means 'of, pertaining to, or caused by lice'. Pedicular is the thinking man's lousy.

A lousy picture, or a pedicular one


  1. I always feel somewhat inadequate after reading your blog and wondering how I've taught English for so long without knowing ANY of this.

  2. Oh dear. Should I stop? There a wonderful called Les Derniers Jours by Raymond Queneau in which a retired geography teacher decides that his whole life has been a fake because he's never actually left France. He pines away and perishes.
    I would hate to cause the deaths of my readers, if only because it would take down the stats on the blog.

  3. I don't know what's better. Your posts, or the comments. I feel as Fran does, without quite the same amount of shame, as I have only ever taught English as a second language, which doesn't really count.

    When one day I am interviewed for the Sunday paper and asked which five people I would most like to have dinner with, you will be among them.

  4. Somewhat fascinating and a joy to read on account of your beautiful writing. Deb told me about you so I swung by to check you out. See, I liked your rubbish joke and and I'm one of those losers that are very much into thought but I will be back.