Elemeno, My Dear Watson

I never jumped rope. Nor did I ever bounce a ball and sing, “A, my name is Alice …”

But I had a ball in school singing the “Alphabet Song.” It took years for me to realize I was singing it wrong. Between K and P in the song came L, M, N, and O. I always used to sing it “elemeno P.”

That was elementary school, my dear Watson.

Someone is sure to jump on me for that. In The Quote Verifier, Ralph Keyes wrote, “In the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, those words [‘Elementary, my dear Watson’] are never uttered by Sherlock Holmes.”

But the phrase is so familiar that it resonates more than any actual dialogue. Snopes.com raises an interesting philosophical issue: How can you ask what a fictional character “really said,” when — by definition — the fictional character isn’t “real.” It’s way beyond the scope of this column, but this touches on the “reality” we impart to works of the imagination. Sometimes fiction can be more real than what we read in the news.

Whether elementary, or L, M, N, O or elemeno, the sounds of ­language play games with our brains. The results can range from hilarious to disastrous.

William Safire wrote, “We all hear the same sounds. But until we are directed by the written word to the intended meaning, we may give free rein to our imagination to invent our own meanings. (‘Free rein’ has to do with letting horses run; some people are changing the metaphor to government, spelling it ‘free reign.’) …”

The image of government as a wild horse given “free reign” is too ­relevant today to go unnoticed. But that’s for political pundits to discuss, not a word geek.

Safire reminisced about his mistakenly calling the bandleader Guy Lombardo “Guylum Bardo,” and he asked readers for examples of what he called “false homonyms.” Then he added, “That was a slight misnomer; homonyms are words pronounced the same, but with different meanings.” Here are some phrases Safire listed. They are all twisted out of shape, giving them new meanings:

“1. The Guylum Bardo syndrome — the simple misdivision of words — is called metanalysis. Many of the words we use correctly today are mistaken divisions of the past: a ‘Napron’ in Middle English became an ‘apron’ — the ‘n’ slid over to the left. …

“2. The ‘Jose, can you see?’ syndrome — the transmutation of words when they pass through different cultures or languages — is known to linguists as the Law of Hobson-Jobson. British soldiers in India heard the Mohammedan cry ‘Ya-Hasan, ya-Husain!’ and called it ‘Hobson-job-son.’…

“3. Semantic change can come from malapropisms, named after Mrs. Malaprop, a character in … a 1775 play. … More people than you suspect read and pronounce ‘misled’ as ‘Mizzled.’ …

“4. Folk etymology is the term for the creation of new words by mistake or misunderstanding or mispronunciation. ‘Tawdry,’ for example, came from Saint Audrey’s, a place where cheap merchandise was sold. …”

In a verbal fireworks display of patriotic metanalysis, Safire wrote:

“The most saluted man in America is Richard Stans. Legions of schoolchildren place their hands over their hearts to pledge allegiance to the flag, ‘and to the republic for Richard Stans.’ With all due patriotic fervor, the same kids salute ‘one nation, under guard.’ Some begin with ‘I pledge a legion to the flag,’ others with ‘I led the pigeons to the flag.’”

All this patriotic fervor leads me to think about the Bill of Writes.

Before you right the wrongs of my writing, let me hasten to assure you that was intentional. That was a lead-in to discussing rite–write–right–wright. So don’t hang up the homophone.

A homophone is “a word that is pronounced the same as another but has a different meaning and usually spelling. … Many nouns are homophones, such as pair–pear” (Garner’s Modern American Usage).

My Dad, z”l, used to say, “You can’t pare a pear with a pair of scissors.” But he was always a cut-up.

A rite is a religious ceremony. Write is what I’m doing now. Right means the opposite of wrong, or something to which you are entitled. In the political spectrum, right is the conservative side. During the 1964 presidential campaign, Barry Goldwater tried to counter Democratic claims that he was a right-wing extremist. His team came up with the slogan, “In your heart you know he’s right.”

A wright builds or repairs things. A writer of plays is called a playwright. That says a lot about the craft of playwriting. Maybe we should adopt it for all kinds of writing. How about calling writers and editors wordwrights? We’re all builders and fixers. It has the connotation of wordsmith, but the sound adds another dimension:

Fighting for our writes.


Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.