Book buzz: Why Is Q always followed by U? Michael Quinion, Penguin, 2009
In an office meeting, your boss talks about “pushing the envelope.” Your eyes glaze over at the overused jargon and you wonder how hard it could be to shove around a piece of stationery. But wait! Where did that phrase come from, anyway?
Native speakers of English absorb the language by osmosis and take its quirks for granted. We forget that this vibrant language has assimilated words from many linguistic ancestors and geographies. Until we bump into uncommon words like “scuttlebutt” or “argy-bargy,” or use phrases like “laugh all the way to the bank,” “on a wing and a prayer,” “panic button,” and yes, “push the envelope.” Where do all these words and phrases come from? And while we’re at it, why isQ always followed by U?
Ask Michael Quinion. Having worked on the Oxford English Dictionary for many years, Quinion is well positioned to answer these questions. Indeed he did, in the Q&A section of his website, http://worldwidewords.org. Why is Q always followed by U? is a compilation of the responses to the most popular of these questions.
Quinion’s readers from all over the English-speaking world have submitted wide-ranging questions about usage, origin, spelling, and even pronunciation. Quinion finds clues, connections, and quotations from several sources and answers all of these. For instance, his response to the titular question encompasses the Phoenicians, the Greek, the Etruscans, the Romans, the Old English, and the French. He also provides explanations for such delightful expressions such as “whim-wham for a goose’s bridle,” “trig and trim,” “shaggy dog story,” and others.
My favourite gems:
Spelling bee The “bee” refers not to the insect, but to the English dialect word been. This is a variation on boon, which once meant ‘voluntary help, given to a farmer by his neighbors in time of harvest, haymaking etc.’ Bee is a classic North American word developed among farmers for various kinds of mutual help at key times of the year, hence “sewing bee,” “quilting bee,” and (barn) “raising bee.” In the nineteenth century, informal spelling matches among neighbors or in schools morphed into larger competitions with prizes. These became a big craze. In 1874, the term “spelling bee” first appeared and then spread quickly and widely. For Americans, it redefined bee to mean a public contest.
Lieutenant Ever wondered how to pronounce this correctly? The Americans say “lutenant” while the British say “leftenant”. The word is derived from lieu, meaning place, and tenant, holding. Etymologically, the pronunciation ought to be lieu, so the Americans seem to have gotten it right. Perhaps early readers in Britain misread u as v and therefore settled on “leftenant.” This version was actually taken to the North American colonies, where it changed to its modern pronunciation in the nineteenth century — aided by Noah Webster’s 1928 dictionary, which recommended “lutenant.”
Stationary/stationery These are similar because they come from the Latin “stationarius” and have related meanings. In medieval times, a stationarius was a trader based at a military station, who had a fixed store and not an itinerant business. He usually sold books and had links to universities. The word became stationer in English by the fourteenth century. In the days before movable type, when everything had to be written and copied by hand, a stationer not only sold books but also copied and bound them, and sold related materials such as paper, pens, and ink. By the seventeenth century, when printing had become well established, a bookseller sold finished books, while a stationer sold writing materials. Stationery as a term for writing materials appeared in the eighteenth century, while the word stationary became an adjective for things that do not move around.
Push the envelope This term comes from the world of aircraft design. In aeronautics, the flight envelope is the outer boundary of all the mathematical curves that describe the safe performance of the aircraft under various engineering and atmospheric conditions. It is taken to be the known limits for the safe performance of the aircraft. When test pilots test an aircraft, they “push” these limits to compare calculated performance limits against data derived from actual flights and to determine what the plane is capable of doing and where failure is likely to occur. Today, we understand it in the sense of going, or attempting to go, beyond the limits of what is known to be possible.
Suffice to say that Why is Q always followed by U? is a fascinating book for word nerds. Read it to gain a better appreciation of the English language’s dynamic and ever-changing spirit.
Have you read this book? Or perhaps you have read “Port out, starboard home” by the same author? Do share your experiences in the comments section below.
Bhavana is a freelance editor in Ottawa. When not editing, she devours books and really, really, loves her local library.