MLP: Dissimilate this, folks

Print Article

How frustrating English can be! Before we leave Feb. (abbreviated lest you arrive at the point too quickly, Dear Reader), answer this one honestly: Can you pronounce it? You probably can, but do you actually say Feb-roo-ary, or more likely Feb-you-ary?

Perhaps it’s Feb-err-ary, Feb-wary, or if you lean British, Feb-rerry? Let’s just stick with Feb.

March can’t come soon enough. No, your Mrs. Language Person doesn’t dream of spring; she simply can’t bear to hear frigid Feb. butchered or blundered once more!

Those labored lingual endeavors to pronounce both “r”s in February illustrate what linguists (Oh those precious defenders! Poor, lonely word-wardens!) call dissimilation — when similar sounds in the same word become less similar by proximity. Put simply, the second “r” leads the unwary to mispronounce the first.

February isn’t the only two-r tongue-twister. Dissimilation knows no hierarchy (high-arky … shudder), nor lofty prerogative (per-rogative). It’s pre. PREE. How often your MLP’s ears have struggled in vain to hear asterisk (aster-ick), candidate (can-idate), and reservoir (re-suh-voir).

Dissimilation isn’t always about skipping sounds; sometimes the poor dears are added where they don’t belong. Gentlemen may remember the once-popular cummerbunds (cumb-ber-bund), and while MLP is no fan of sherbet, it’s much preferable to “sher-bert.”

Then there’s the mother of all dissimilation — Worcestershire sauce. Readers, for this MLP forgives all. Will someone please explain why our English cousins tell us this is wooster-sh’r, or worse, wooster? This form of dissimilation — the loss of entire syllables — is called haplology (or as silly linguists joke, haplogy).

Where did all those lovely letters go? Flattened, they were, by that running sequence of similar sounds, reduced to a single, pitiable occurrence.

Not all haplology is incorrect; in English, for example, we often drop a syllable when creating an adverb. Gentle becomes gently, and able, ably.

Just so we know the difference, please. Increasingly your MLP sees the inexcusable “probly” and “prolly” masquerading as words, instead of probably. That makes it all the harder to recall its meaning — how probable something may be.

Such as the likelihood of further confusion by mentioning assimilation — when a sound becomes like its neighbor. We say hymn (him), but hymnal (oh, yes, there is an “n” there). How often does one speed through “winner” when we mean “win-ter.”

Which brings this full circle. Is it March yet?


Mrs. Language Person and Sholeh Patrick are columnists for the Hagadone News Network who know just enough about linguistics to be dangerous, and not enough to be truly expert. Corrections and commiserations welcome at

Print Article

Read More Sholeh Patrick

Study: Idaho depends on guns

March 22, 2018 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press When it comes to guns, we’re No. 1. Idaho is the state most dependent on the multibillion-dollar gun industry. We have the most firearms industry output per capita, the most gun-related jobs, the m...


Read More

Stephen Hawking, in his own words

March 20, 2018 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press In early 1963, just shy of his 21st birthday, England’s Stephen Hawking — easily the most recognizable, award-winning physicist in history — was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), mo...


Read More

Irish gifts go beyond good beer

March 15, 2018 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press It’s almost Patricks’ Day (no, that’s not a typo) — time for corned beef stewed in Irish stout (this “poor man’s” dinner is mostly an American tradition), and shepherd’s pie (that’s more Irish). Br...


Read More

Here’s how presidents made some words OK

March 13, 2018 at 5:00 am | Coeur d'Alene Press Presidential influence transcends both terms and politics. Presidents change language, sometimes permanently. And that’s “OK.” Attempts to explain the origin of one of the world’s most popular wor...


Read More

Contact Us

(208) 664-8176
215 N. Second St
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho 83814

©2018 The Coeur d'Alene Press Terms of Use Privacy Policy