By Ray Hudson
Earlier in the week I heard an American referring to decals, those graphic stick-on logos or other insignia, as dee-kals. I had always heard and pronounced it as dehk-ull. Turns out dehk-ull is the way Canadians pronounce the word, whereas Americans follow the grammatical rule that the sound of a vowel occurring before a consonant, followed by a vowel, is that of the letter (in this case “e”). Thus the Americans are correct in calling it a dee-kal – but never in Canada eh?
Another strange pronunciation I hear occasionally is Warshington instead of Washington, or warsh-day instead of wash-day. It turns out these are from both regional and cultural influences, referred to as America’s Midland accent. Listen closely to Senator John McCain next time he’s speaking. He does this, as does at least one American announcer selling “warsh” day detergent. Centuries before now, however, it is reported to have made its way across the “pond” from Scottish-Irish influences.
In conversation recently, a friend said that he “knew the ropes” concerning a project he was working on. Investigating its origin, I discovered a large number of phrases we use regularly are nautical, originating with the British sailors, when Brittania ruled the waves.
– “putting a shot across the bows” or issuing a warning to an opponent that you are ready to do battle, is quite obviously naval.
– “knowing the ropes” is said to come from the era of sailing ships, when one had to know which ropes operated the rigging to unfurl sails, raise and lower yards and so on. There is another unrelated reference in history to knowing what ropes operated the rigging above the stage in a theatre. Either way, knowing the ropes indicated a strong knowledge of how things operated without getting hung up on a yardarm or proscenium.
I was surprised to find that “taken aback” also comes from the seas. In today’s parlance, it means to be startled such as to literally or figuratively jump back in surprise. In naval terms a ship (not a person) is “taken aback” when the wind blows the sails flat against the masts and spars (from the front) thus interrupting the ship’s propulsion.
And speaking of propulsion, I was driven to find the origin of the wish that someone be granted “God’s Speed” or “Godspeed.” It has nothing to do with divine motion however. The phrase, brought forward from middle English, looks like this: “God speid” or “God spede you.” This is a wish for prosperity, a prosperous journey, or for success, specifically “God prosper you.” So the next time someone wishes you Godspeed, you need not worry about speed zones with celestial radar traps.