Sunday, April 22, 2007

Safire watch: Not even "On words"

Well, our alert reader's prediction didn't really pan out this morning: Safire's "On Language" contains no language experts of any sort. But like last week, he doesn't really try to say much on language, even "On words" — he once again doesn't step up to the plate. He treats two unappetizing items, varmints and half-breed, but neither with much eye to language structure or history. You're much better off this morning just going to Jan Freeman's The Word, where the topic (mmm, coffee) is more appealing, the prose better and the information much richer.

Let's deal with the reprehensible part first: He refers to a "beautiful half-Indian, half-Anglo" woman from an old western ("Duel in the Sun") and reports a problem "doing some research on the web" (whoa, he was doing this, or his assistant? Oh, sorry). He's bothered, it seems, that he can't use the old term half-breed ("an unprintable slur", good call on that, at least, and it shows implicit understanding of "use versus mention"), but then bemoans the alternatives, with his own choice "just not satisfying", if apparently better than mixed race and such. After Imus, "writers are on guard not to give offense" and he's in a tither about how to talk about racial identity generally. With Barack Obama and Tiger Woods, we assume readers will know something about their backgrounds, so 'of mixed heritage' can work better. Few of us recall Pearl Chavez's 1946 character, so you need a more precise characterization.

In the end, though, most of us are concerned about more than pithiness when it comes to talking about race: He's bothered by the lack of a clear, fixed term when the problem is that we as a society don't currently have a handle on how to deal with the substance. If you're looking for a handy term to let you waltz through this thicket without breaking a sweat, you've really missed the boat.

OK, now to a word: varmint. The hook of course is Romney's gaffe about being a hunter, specifically a "small varmint" hunter. Varmint is native vocabulary for me, but my gun for shooting such things is called a "squirrel rifle". Romney's remark sounds wrong, facts aside: varmints are by definition small. The Oxford English Dictionary on-line gives examples of bigger animals — deer, bear cub, panther, etc., all from the 19th c. — but those aren't modern varmints. Merriam-Webster's definition fits current usage as I know it far better:
1: an animal considered a pest; specifically: one classed as vermin and unprotected by game law
2: a contemptible person: RASCAL; broadly: PERSON, FELLOW
But the word itself is of some interest: Safire brushes it off as "a dialect form of vermin, rooted in the Latin word for 'worm'". Well, vermin has a variant varmin. That kind of vowel lowering before r is hardly uncommon (see eye-dialect clerk/clark, there/thar, etc.). But vermin is a collective (I can't imagine anybody saying *a vermin), while varmint is a count noun. (Freeman's column is in fact about the rise of "a coffee". And if the green looks like the color of a certain chain's logo, the color palette works better than I hoped.)

More striking is the t tacked on, something dealt with here a while back. Together with the t/d-less forms mentioned there from ads-l (she use to do such and such, etc.), I wonder if there's not a little more of a story in there about where this change occurs: Most classic examples, treated earlier, all end in -s or -sh, but I bet there are more with -n, like varmint. Maybe that's out there in the literature.

Finally, a question: Don't lots of people pronounce this word as varmit? I thought the famous user pictured above was in that category, but if you listen to the sound files here, there's a clear n. Dictionaries seem to give it with an n, but I think hear it often without.


Joe said...

Don't know about other speakers, but I certainly have [vaɹmɪʔ]. With effort, it's possible to get the second nasal, even if it feels odd. In contrast, I definitely have both nasals phonologically in most words ending in similar sequences, like with the suffix -ment = [mə̃ʔ], or maybe with a syllabic nasal.

Phonetically, as you well know, this isn't surprising: Lots of people lose /n/ before a word-final obstruent, leaving just a nasalized vowel, so that can't is often pronounced with no real [n].

Assuming earlier varmint, the presence of a preceding /m/ would allow listeners to easily interpret the nasality they'd hear on the vowel as associated with the /m/ (even though that's not how the usual pattern of nasality works in English), or miss the cue altogether. Seems like a kind of story Ohala or Evolutionary Phonology is well equipped to handle.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Again - East Tennessee - we have a definite N. If we lose anything, it's the T...

Mr. Verb said...

Interesting ... Joe's from just over the mountains in western NC, so I would have guessed you'd have similar patterns. Do you lose the /t/ or just get a glottal stop there like he does?

The Ridger, FCD said...

It's more a glottal stop, I guess.