Five Random Facts about the English Language

By Angela Son on March 8, 2013

(1) Why do we say ‘perscription’ instead of prescription?

What do people pick up from a pharmacy: perscription (PER- skripshun) or prescription (PRI-skripshun)?  Although the word is spelled ‘prescription,’ many say as if it were pronounced as perscription.  The swap of two sounds, ‘r’ and ‘e’ in this case, is called metathesis.  I am sure you have heard people say nucular instead of nuclear, comfterble instead of comfortable, or asterix instead of asterisk.  Are these changes in pronunciation, or so-called metatheses, speech errors that must be corrected?  Hard to answer.  In the history of English, what is considered standard or nonstandard has been a matter of two sides of a coin.  For instance, the pronunciation /æsk/ for ask used to be stigmatized over /æks/ spelled with a “x” in the 1500s; We see examples of Chaucer using “ax,” and Shakespeare “ask.”  With that said, the pronunciation nucular for nuclear is slowly gaining prominence (due to other -cular words such as molecular and spectacular, and lack of -clear words), and could–if we live long enough to witness–swap the standard spelling of nuclear.

(2) Do flammable and inflammable mean the same thing?

Both flammable and inflammable have the same meaning of ‘easily set on fire.’  The Latin prefix in- in inflammable, though has the meaning of ‘into,’ is confused with another prefix –in, which negates the meaning (e.g., indirect and insufficient).  In fact, the prefix in- in inflammable intensifies the meaning of the word flammable.  Then why do we have two words with the same meaning, differentiated only by the prefix in-?  The story goes that manufacturers started to change the word inflammable to flammable on warning labels to indicate that a product can be lit on fire in order to avoid the potential ambiguity of the original word, inflammable.  Other example of the same phenomenon include valuable and invaluable, both of which mean ‘extremely useful or important.’

(3) Why is sandwich a sandwich?

The origin of the word sandwich comes from the Earl of Sandwich, an English nobleman in the 18th century.  Known for a gambling aficionado, the Earl of Sandwich ate his food–meat, cheese, and other fillings–between two pieces of bread in order to spend more time at the gaming instead of the dining table.  Words driven from a person’s name, such as sandwich, is called proper nouns.  Other examples of proper nouns include pasteurize, meaning ‘to sterilize milk, wine or other products,’ from the French chemist Louis Pasteur, and galvanize, meaning ‘to shock or excite someone,’ from an Italian anatomist Luigi Galvani, who discovered the twitching of frogs’ legs in an electric field.

(4) What’s the difference among ask/question/interrogate?

The words ask, question and interrogate, in essence, have the same meaning.  The difference lies in the origin of the words.  Since English is originally Germanic, English words with Germanic roots are down to earth, such as the verb ask, which simply means ‘to say something in order to obtain an answer.’  The English language, although Germanic in its roots, has borrowed its vocabulary, grammar and spelling from other languages over the course of its development.  The words question and interrogate have French and Latin roots respectively, and their meanings are more specific and eloquent than its Germanic-rooted counterpart, ask.  Other examples of words with the same meaning in Germanic, French and Latin roots include king/royal/regal, sweat/perspire/exude.

(5) Why do Steven and Stephen sound the same?

Steven and Stephen, although spelled differently, are both pronounced with a ‘v’ sound.  Un-English looking spellings such as ph- and psy- are Latin and Greek borrowings.  Even a simple word like phone is derived from a Greek affix phone, which means ‘sound or voice.’  Derived from psukhe, ‘breath, soul, mind,’ the Greek affix psych- is a root of many English words such as psychopath, psychology, psychedelic, psychiatry, and psychic.

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