Tuesday, September 11, 2012

It's gherkin vs. diphthong

Arnold Zwicky recently sent readers to Ted McCagg’s blog, where a "Best Word Ever" competition has been unspooling for months, with words facing off in tournament-style showdowns. Today came the final pairing:

I had already been pondering the Final Four, posted yesterday, and was hoping that kerfuffle and hornswoggle would be kicked to the curb in this round. They're both fun words, as far as they go, but they're also invented words, intended (in some sense of the word) to be amusing. Hornswoggle is 20th-century American; kerfuffle is Scottish, a 20th-century variant of the 19th-century curfuffle, itself from a 16th-century verb, apparently onomatopoeic, meaning "to disorder, ruffle." And that's all there is. 

Both gherkin and diphthong have better stories, etymologically and otherwise. John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins gives this summary of gherkin's roots: 
Etymologically, a gherkin may be a 'little unripe one.' The word was borrowed from an assumed early Dutch *gurkkijn, a diminutive form of gurk, which probably came from Lithuanian agurkas. This in turn goes back via Polish ogurek to medieval Greek angourion, which has been linked with classical Greek agouros 'youth.' 
Diphthong, the term for two vowel sounds combined in one syllable, is also descended from Greek. And wouldn't it be nice to have a language word end up as Best Word Ever? But I think diphthong is only in the race because of its recent adoption as a slang insult, a development Neal Whitman explored a while back in a Visual Thesaurus piece. And that usage requires pronouncing the first syllable dip (as in dipstick, etc.), not as diff.

I don't mind that in theory; as Neal points out, "the spelling and pronunciation do have historical precedent: The word was borrowed from French, where it was originally spelled dyptongue, and the 'dip' pronunciation is recognized in several dictionaries." And it's pretty funny to see diphthong turned into a naughty word by kids who have no idea what it means. But if it wins the laurel,  which word is being honored? Is the insult dip(h)thong even the same word anymore, or just another funny coinage based on sound associations?

Gherkin has also had a small sideline as a rude word (what can you expect? It's a pickle and it  rhymes with jerkin'). But that use isn't widespread enough (at least in my world) to compete with the memory of gherkin as the sweet miniature pickles of childhood, the ones we liked when we couldn't yet stomach the dill spears. And gherkin is charming just as it is -- no variant pronunciation or nutty reinterpretation needed.

So I've got my fingers crossed for gherkin. But if diphthong carries the day, I'll be prepared. In a tournament where fuck was upset, a couple of rounds ago, by hornswoggle, we know anything can happen.


djw said...

I've loved language arts as long as I can remember, and I've thought "diphthong" sounded funny as long as I've known it. Consequently, when my kids were little (20-odd years ago), I often called them "diphthongs" when they were acting silly; I didn't know anyone else ever applied it to people!

Bryan White said...

My vote would be for "diphthong" (since "fuck" is out of the running.) I wasn't aware of its slang usage, though.

Anonymous said...

I immediately favoured diphthong but confess that I've always said "dip-thong", similar to "dip-theria." Am I wrong with the latter as well? I didn't know about the slang usage either.

Vireya said...

I've never heard it pronounced "dif". I was taught "dip" here in Australia, and am surprised to discover now that not everyone says it that way!

Jan said...

Vireya and tritetales, you remind me of a point I didn't make explicitly. If I already pronounced it dip-thong, I would be more likely to favor "diphthong" as Best Word. But I learned to say diff-thong, so the slang usage forces me to consciously choose a pronunciation. That's a serious bump in the road to Best Word Ever (for me).

Anonymous said...

Why isn't defenestration among the finalists?

empty said...

I disapprove of this whole enterprise.

I'm with Jan on "kerfuffle" and "hornswoggle"; they're too self-consciously cute to win a decent beauty contest.

"Diphthong" might do well in the swimsuit competition, but I am unable to enjoy it fully because I am irritated and distracted by both the pronunciation question and the fact that some people use it to mean two vowel letters together as opposed to two vowel sounds blended. I think "phthisis" is a better word.

I never liked gherkins much, but I'm quite fond of the word "gherkin", so where does that leave me?

I like so many words in so many ways. I'm sure that there are hundreds of words that I like better than any of these finalists--such as "clam", or "turnbuckle", or "wingnut" (which I swear I would love even if it referred just to hardware), or "lampblack". But how could even one person, let alone a crowd of people, different beholders with different eyes with different beauties in them, have a favorite word?

Bryan White said...

I would have liked to see "ubiquitous" as a candidate. I'm surprised it's not here, in fact. It's usually everywhere ;D

Gregory Lee said...

Does "gherkin" have a diphthong?

Jackofallhobbies said...

What was the outcome of this tournament? Could we begin another? Perhaps it could be for words that sound alien in origin, or words that would make great names for celebrity children.

I work as an English teacher, so you might expect me to vote for dipthong, but I must choose gherkin, if only to go against type.