Q is for Quarry

Quarry; Open-pit mine
The marble quarry at Tatlock, Ontario, courtesy of Gary Sparkes.

History

The letter Q is derived from the Greek koppa and Semitic qoph. The original meaning of qoph is most likely a “cord of wool” and the original representation, a knot. Another suggestion is that Q represented the eye of a needle with a thread. A similar word in Arabic suggests that it might mean “nape” and represent the back of a head and nape of the neck. Yet another suggestion is that Q represents a monkey. I rather like that one.

Q is for quatrain and quintain

In poetry, a quatrain  is a four-line stanza and a quintain (or quintet) is a five-line stanza. These are usually part of a longer poem and may be variously rhymed.

There is something quieter than sleep

Within this inner room!

It wears a sprig upon its breast,

And will not tell its name.

— Emily Dickinson, from “Time and Eternity”

Exercises

  1. Write your own quatrain or quintain using at least one Q word. Which form is easier to write?

Special reading assignment

  1. The quintessential quiet in the quarter acre was accentuated by the murmur of quaking aspens.

 

S is for Sharp, Shin, and Sigma

Long S
Cover page of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, published in 1667, photo courtesy of Wikipedia > Long S.

History of the letter S

The letter S originated with the Semitic letter shin, meaning “teeth” or “sharp”, perhaps inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyph for “tusk”. The symbol for shin looks somewhat like a W, with an upper dot or tittle to distinguish the s-sound from the sh-sound.

The Greeks turned the symbol on its side, to create the letter sigma (Σ, σ) for the s-sound.

Prior to 1500s, the lower-case letter s in Roman print was a “long s” similar to a lower-case f or a tusk. In medieval hand, the words look a little strange to us.

bleff = bless

bleffedneff = blessedness

When printing came into use after the mid-1400s, a rounded s was often placed at the end of words.

blefs = bless

bleffednefs = blessedness

To distinguish between the letters f and long s, the rounded s form that we know today began to be used everywhere, from the mid-1700s to early-1800s.

blessedness

The long s remained as a symbol for shillings in Britain, although it morphed into a slash.

£6/10 (six pounds, 10 shillings)

 

Note: This blog post is an excerpt from a book, “English Manual: Letter by Letter,” to be published in 2016.

Q is for Queen Anne’s Lace

Daucus carota
In the very centre of a Queen Anne’s Lace flower is one tiny purple floret.

The sounds of Q

The letter Q, which by itself has the sound of K or a hard C, is in English almost never found by itself, but rather as the digraph, QU. It may be better to think of it as a short K sound followed by a diphthong: UA, UE, UI, or UO.

quarter

quest

quit

quorum

Occasionally, a word with QU is pronounced as a K, without a following diphthong.

quoit

clique

When you understand the origins of letters, you understand English spelling.

Historically, the letter Q came by way of the Phoenicians (they had two K sounds, one a guttural Qof that does not exist in English). The Greeks took it over as qoppa or koppa, but dropped it, as their language did not use that sound. The Etruscans had three K sounds, gamma, kappa, and koppa, this last letter always used before u or o.

The Romans took their alphabet from the Etruscans, but Latin had only one K sound. They dropped kappa and finally used gamma as the letter C and koppa as the letter Q.

Latin needed a representative for the sound “kw” common to the language. The Romans used the letter Q followed by a V (as the letter U hadn’t been invented as yet).

In Old English, the “kw” sound was represented by CW. In their alphabet, “queen” would have been spelled, “cwen”.

The French continued with the Latin QV. When the Normans conquered England, French spelling came to be preferred. CW became QV, and then QU when the letter U was introduced as a vowel. The Norman influence complicated English spelling. Most words containing QU are derived from French and Latin.

The English language didn’t really need QU, as the old CW would have done.

queen (from Old English cwen)

quay (formerly kay or key, these still used in some instances, e.g., the Florida Keys)

quench (in Anglo-Saxon, cwencan)

bequeath (in Anglo-Saxon, bicweoan)

Where QU is pronounced as K, a simple K or C would have sufficed. The following words are derived from French. You may see them spelled with a K on signs or in social media.

antique

boutique

critique

technique

unique

English imports words from other languages, including Arabic. These words may be transcribed from the Arabic alphabet in different ways. The guttural K sound (the Arabic letter qaf) is sometimes transcribed as a lonely Q without a U and is still understandable in English. In the following list, the second instance is the preferred spelling.

burqa or burka or burkha

faqir or fakir

qabab or kebab or kabob

qat or khat or gat

Similarly, some Chinese words have been transcribed into English in different ways.

qi or chi or ki

qigong or chi gong or ki gong

Special reading assignment

  1. Queen Anne’s Lace: a common roadside weed or a beautiful wild flower?

O is for Outlook

Outlook, bench, willow
This shady outlook is on the bank of Lake Ontario, a good place to watch for birds.

O is for onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia, Greek for “word-making”, describes a word or name that imitates a sound. Commonly, onomatopoeic words include names for noises and for animals and objects that make noises.

Names for noises

buzz

moo

rattle

sizzle

vroom-vroom

Names for animals that make noises

bobolink (bird)

chickadee (bird)

katydid (insect)

phoebe (bird)

whip-poor-will (bird)

In poetry, onomatopoeia is a device used to suggest the sound being described.

And the West-Wind came at evening,

Walking lightly o’er the prairie,

Whispering to the leaves and blossoms,

Bending low the flowers and grasses…

The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

O is for oxymoron

An oxymoron is the use of contradictory ideas in one expression in speaking or writing, to create an impression. In this case, the prefix oxy— means “sharp” and the suffix —moron, “foolish”.

open secret

original copy

typically odd

Exercises

  1. Find some instances of onomatopoeia and oxymoron and use them in a sentence.
  2. Use the word “outlook” in two different ways.

Special reading assignment

  1. Of the opposite ovens, only one was often off.
  2. Owls, nocturnal birds of prey, have captured the imagination in many ways. In literature, they represent messengers, wisdom, learning, and Athens. An owl may also be an omen. In real life, they just go about their own business.

 

A is for Apple Blossom

Apple tree in bloom
A crab apple tree in full blossom, a joy to all passers-by.

 A is for alphabetic.

There are many ways to organize things: alphabetic, numeric, alphanumeric, chronological, or by priority or importance.

To alphabetise means to put a list of things into alphabetic or alphanumeric order, letter-by-letter or word-by-word. Computers alphabetise lists automatically, placing special characters first, then numbers, then letter-by-letter. Computers may have a “stop list” of little words that don’t count, e.g., a, an, the, to. Dictionaries and phone books usually place special characters and numbers within the alphabet as if they were spelled out.

Letter by letter

Aida Coffee House, Aidan’s Gluten Free, Aidas Network, Aid to Women

Word by word

Aid to Women, Aida Coffee House, Aidan’s Gluten Free, Aidas Network

A is for Apple

A is for Apple
An apple a day…

A is for Alphabet

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

The word alphabet is derived from the Greek letters for A, alpha, and B, beta. The alphabet was created by a Semitic people living in Egypt around 1900 BC. Phoenicians and Hebrews adopted it, and then it spread to the Greeks and finally the Romans. Each culture changed it a little along the way.

The order of the alphabet is very important, both for finding words in the dictionary and for reading and making lists.

Writers practise reciting the alphabet the way musicians practise scales.

Some A words

a

ace

act

age

air

ant

art

as

at

axe

Confusing A words

away, awarding, always, wayward

about, above, abuse

gap, gape

cad, cape

argue

Special reading assignment

  1. “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why.”

—Bernard Baruch