By the Book: Why some vowels are weird and wonderful

06/08/2012 2:41 PM |

Remember learning the vowels, A, E, I, O and U, with the teacher inevitably adding “ … and sometimes Y and W”? Well, I’ve come up with 16 impressive and useful words that use a Y as the vowel but none, zero, that use a W. As a matter of fact, there are a dozen other insignificant three-letter words that use the Y — fly, dry, gym, gyp, etc. — but they’re too ordinary, not nearly as impressive as, say, lynx, cyst and myrrh. I tried for a sentence using them all, and got as far as “The rhythms of the pygmy’s hymns floated into the crypt as the gypsy slyly …” and got no further. Maybe a decent start for some spooky vampire thriller, but I stalled out at “slyly,” leaving nymph and tryst and stymie waiting in the wyngs. A word that uses W as its vowel still eludes me. If anyone knows one, would you shyly email it? I will wryly acknowledge you.

English has long been acknowledged as a strange language, with rough, bough, dough and cough usually used as examples. (Why do they never mention hiccough?) What catches my eye, though, are words that change to an opposite meaning when one letter is added. Like laughter. During a slaughter there’s never much laughter. Or when will it stop raining and start draining? And why is there such futility with our utility? A simple letter switch describes my wife and me moving from united to untied when discussing candied broccoli.

Yogi Berra is renowned for contradictory sentences like “It’s so crowded nobody goes there any more” and, regarding Yankee Stadium’s left field sun problems, “It gets late early out there.” But our everyday language needs no help from Yogi. The omnipresent “Watch Your Head” demands an improbable feat of agility, as does the dark and frightening “Louise suddenly found herself lost.” Good trick. And picture this: “We soon realized the professor was speaking tongue in cheek when he said he was trying to keep a stiff upper lip. He was actually beside himself with excitement.”

I wonder why anyone would consider taking a nonstop flight (to the Twilight Zone?) or why something that falls between the cracks doesn’t land smack on the board. Or, just curious, who is it that’s standing in a one-night stand?

Are we having fun yet? What’s the longest word that contains only one vowel? Strengths. What word uses every vowel once and in order? Facetious. (We really should add facetiously, but not facetiouslw). And eleven plus two and twelve plus one not only both equal 13, but use the exact same letters to say so. Also, isn’t this the worst spell of wheather you’ve ever seen? And here’s an every-letter sentence that’s better than the famous “quick brown fox”: Pack my gift box with five dozen liquor jars.

A few oxymorons: old news, pretty ugly, same difference, loose tights, student teacher, mandatory option. Then a couple of familiar acronyms from forgotten sources: self contained underwater breathing apparatus, zone improvement plan codes and DAM, Mothers Against Dyslexia (not really), and I’m through. Thru. Throu. Done.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

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