Monthly Archives: May 2015

Idyll Speculation — Word(s) of Wisdom

While giving a recent talk about the Glamour of Grammar, I touched on the subject of homophones — words that sound alike, but are spelled differently. For newcomers, It is one of the trickier aspects of learning the English language; even many native speakers find it confusing.

As I talked, I merrily wrote some examples on the board: bear and bare; principal and principle; where and wear; and finally, idle, idol and idyll. And that’s when things fell apart.

“It’s id-yll, not eye-dyll,” said a member of my audience. “At least, that’s what I’ve always been taught.”

I froze. I had been saying eye-dyll all my life, but was that something I had learned, or was it one of those words I had read and never heard pronounced?

We moved on to other topics, but when I reached home that evening, I headed straight for the dictionary. I flipped through the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary, the Bible for Canadian journalists. Id-yll, it read. Hmmm, I thought, and plucked Webster’s New World Dictionary from the shelf. Eye-dyll, said Webster, and I felt like pumping my fist in the air. I wasn’t wrong – I was just wrong in Canada. Id-yll is the British pronunciation and the one used north of the 49th. I grew up south of the 49th parallel and learned the American pronunciation, eye-dyll.

It was a lesson in context, but one I might never have learned, because idyll isn’t a word that comes up often in conversation.

So, when are idyll and idol homophones? In the United States, but not in Canada. U.S. Customs won’t let the Canadian pronunciation cross the border!



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Vive la Cuisine — Word(s) of Wisdom

French is often referred to as the language of love, but to me, it should actually be considered the language of food. We have absorbed many food-related French words into English, but we rarely stop to consider their origins or original meanings.

French chefs have long held an exalted place in the cooking hierarchy, so it should be no surprise that the word chef itself is French, meaning head or principal. Cuisine, too, is a word we use regularly, not thinking about its French translation: cooking.

Walk into any restaurant and order an hors d’oeuvre (appetizer or digression; literally, outside the production): French. Choose your entrée (entry or first course): French. Discuss the wine choices with the sommelier: again, French. When you clear your palate between courses with an amuse bouche (to amuse/divert the mouth) and select your dessert: both French.

And what about the le dessert itself? Napoleons, those multi-layered, rich pastries are named for napoleonthe infamous French emperor, and writer Marcel Proust made the madeleine famous. And who can resist  an éclair or a tarte?

It was Shakespeare who said, “If music be the food of love, play on,” but I say, “If French is the language of food, enjoy!”

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The “Berra” Best of Yogi — Word(s) of Wisdom

Yogi Berra, the Hall-of-Fame Yankees catcher, was also known by his teammates and his fans as something of a cockeyed philosopher. Some of his famous observations on life were paradoxes, contradicting themselves, while others just didn’t seem to add up, either mathematically or logically. Yet Yogiisms, as they are commonly known, generally bring a smile to the faces of those who hear them.Yogi_Berra_1956

Some of his folk wisdom has stuck and become a part of our modern lexicon. Which sports fan, watching a team fall behind, hasn’t quoted Yogi, saying, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over?” It’s a statement that seems obvious, until you think about the meaning: Don’t give up on the team until the last play, because miracles happen. And who could disagree with Yogi’s sentiment that “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too?”

The thoughtful Yogi, however, is often forgotten in favour of the confusing Yogi, with amusing or paradoxical statements such as:

  • “Baseball is 90 per cent mental — the other half is physical.”
  • “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”
  • “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
  • “You can observe a lot by just watching.”
  • “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

As wise as a Hindu yogi? You decide.

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