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Saturday, December 20, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: Geese a-laying

Six geese, possibly a-laying

It will come as a shock to some of you to know that "lay" has been used intransitively to mean "lie" since about 1300.  and for almost the first half-millennium of its use, no one objected to it. 

Like so many of our usage shibboleths, the attempt to create a  firewall between intransitive "lie, lay, lain" and transitive "lay, laid, laid" (which are ultimately of the same origin) was an artificial creation of the 18th century prescriptivists. Clearly, as with many of their prescriptions, this one is not working so well: intransitive "lay" is used very commonly, especially in speech and especially in North America. I hear more and more confusion of the past tenses of "lie" and "lay" as well, with people saying things like "I had lain it on the bed." 

Personally, although I observe the distinction because I was taught to do so, I don't think the world will come to an end if people say "She was laying on the bed", because, seriously, we know that humans don't lay eggs, and birds are not usually found on beds. This distinction is an unsustainable one. After all, we use "stand" both transitively and intransitively without endangering English-speaking civilization as we know it.

For those of you haven't harumphed off at the above display of heresy, let's look at the word "goose", which, surprisingly, manages to illustrate several important phenomena in the history of English.

In Old English, the word was gós, and back in the mists of time its plural would have been gósiz. By the phenomenon called "i-mutation", the vowel in the second syllable affected the vowel in the first syllable, so by Anglo-Saxon times, the plural had ceased to be gósiz and had become gés - our modern "geese". I-mutation is perhaps the most common cause of our irregular plurals.

Over time, the "o" in gós became lengthened, so that it was pronounced to rhyme with "dose". In the Middle Ages, they came up with the brilliant idea of representing lengthened vowel sounds by doubling the vowel letter, so we got the spelling "goose". All would have been well, but then the Great Vowel Shift came along, and every long "o" vowel sound shifted to become a long "u" sound. But we kept on spelling the word as if it was still pronounced to rhyme with dose. It's really quite crazy that we use a double letter "o" to represent a sound that has nothing to do with the sound "o".

A baby gós  was a "gosling". But while the "o" sound became longer in "gos", it got shorter in "gosling" (as was always the case when a vowel was followed by two consonants). As a result, it was not subject to the Great Vowel Shift, and we ended up with this oddity where the parent bird has one vowel and the baby a quite different one. (For another example of this, see The Fifth Day).

We're still not done with the role of "goose" in the English language. As you will recall, many English words acquired extraneous silent letters in the Renaissance to reflect their etymology. "Goose" narrowly missed this fate, as William Caxton tried to rewrite it as "ghoose" (as he succeeded in changing "gost" to "ghost").

OK, that's quite enough for "goose". The question why a male goose is called a gander will have to wait for another day.

For a different "lay", see this post
For why the plural of "moose" is not "meese", see this post.

For why we don't say "fiveth", "fiveteen", and "fivety", click here: 

For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 

For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:

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  1. Fascinating stuff.

    But as a wilderness-traveling inhabitant of The Great White North, what about the plural form meese? No, I mean mooses ... er, moose.

    1. Moose was borrowed from a North American native language long after i-mutation ceased to be A Thing.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.