“Well, what do you know…!” said Jack, as he sat down on the other side of the two-seater in the food court at Bayshore. I think Jack was taken aback by the rather loud shirt I was wearing; a gift from one of my children who thought I needed a brighter public image. I decided to forestall further comment in that direction by taking a different tack, taking him literally.
I said, “For one thing, I know the difference between flotsam and jetsam; and why some clocks with Roman numerals have IV and some IIII for four o’clock, and that the S in Harry S Truman is not an abbreviation and should not have a period. And that the Spanish city of Zaragoza was named after Caesar Augustus, and that if all the snow and ice in the world melted, the only part of earth above the surface would be the top of Mount Everest. Anything else?
“Sorry I asked,” said Jack, “but now that your mention it, tell me how do you handle the word debut in English.
I said “I don’t.” I can’t recall the last time I had occasion to use “debut”. What’s your problem anyway?
Jack said “I know you pronounce it ‘deb-yoo’ in English, but what if you use it as a verb?
I said “You mean should you say ‘he deb-yood the concerto…’ or ‘he deb-yoo-ted the concerto’?
Jack said “Neither sounds right to my ears.”
I said “Mmmmmm.” Jack didn’t think that was very enlightening.
I said “We say ‘deb-you-tont’, not ‘deb-you-ont’, so it looks as if that ‘t’ has a place in there. So may be it should be ‘deb-you-ted’ I know the adjective for ‘ballet’ is ballet-tik.”
Jack said “But how about the verb ‘crochet’. Would the past tense be ‘crotch-uh-ted’? That doesn’t sound right. Would you call a ‘crocheter’ a ‘crotch-uh-ter’ or a ‘crochay-er”? And what about ‘ricocher’?”
I said “how about avoiding the problem altogether, and saying ‘bouncing back’ instead?”
It didn’t look as if we’d get much closer to solving that imponderable, so we looked at our food for a little while as we ate.
Then Jack happened to look at his watch. “What was it you said about Roman numerals?”
I said “normally you write the Roman numeral four with an I and a V. But look at your watch what does it have for four?”
Jack said “I, I, I and I. Why don’t they spell it I V?”
“Well, let me tell you,” I said. “I don’t know when this happened, but at one point in history, someone took a look at the Roman numerals on a clock face and decided that the numbers looked off-kilter. In the old way of doing things, starting at the top and going clockwise, there would be four contiguous numbers with at least one I in it, five contiguous numbers with at least one V in it, and four contiguous numbers with at least one X in it. But things would look a lot more balanced if you changed the IV to IIII. That would give you one set of four I’s, one set of four V’s and one set of four X’s. And that’s the way most dials have it nowadays, if they use Roman numerals.”
“Well what do you know…” said Jack, not thinking.
I said “I know that the two smallest states in the world are each about the size of a house, that Galileo never said “as still it moves” and that Luther never nailed his theses to the church door, and that you shouldn’t say ‘long-livved’ but ‘long-lyved’, and that …”
“Why not,” interrupted Jack.
I said “for the same reason that a cat with nine lives is a nine-lyved cat, not a nine-livved one.”
“Oh,” said Jack. “Good to know.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but you’ll never get other people to change the way they say it.”
Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.
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