I had so much fun talking about Portuguese words last week that I decided to do it again. This brief post will have some more of my favorites.
Abacaxi \¦a-bə-kə-¦shē\. This one has the typical Portuguese "x" for the \sh\ sound, which is always fun. Other than that, the spelling is actually pretty straightforward. It's a word for a large pineapple grown in Brazil.
Barbeiro \bärˈbā(ˌ)rü, -rō\. This word for a type of insect exemplifies Portuguese patterns in two ways. Firstly, the \ā\ sound being spelled as "ei" is very common. There's also the tendency to spell \ü\ as "o" at the ends of words derived from Portuguese.
Cachaca \kəˈshäsə\. This is a type of Brazilian liquor. The last c has a cedilla, which enables it to be used for an \s\ sound before an a (it otherwise would be pronounced as \k\). It also has the typical "ch" used for the \sh\ sound in Portuguese.
What are your favorite Portuguese words?
Portuguese can seem like a tough language of origin from which to spell a word. How is one supposed to be able to figure out ridiculous tongue twisters like caixinha or cavaquinho or chocalho? It really can be difficult. However, it's only exceedingly difficult if you don't understand Portuguese spelling patterns; in fact, Portuguese has become one of my favorite languages to spell words from because of its unique yet more or less consistent patterns. Let's take a look at Portuguese via the three aforementioned tongue twisters (that all happen to be musical instruments).
Caixinha: a box rattle used in Brazilian dance orchestras. This is my favorite Portuguese word of all. There's just something about the sound of it and the way the letters go together that makes it great. The \k\ sound, of course, is spelled with a c--this is the norm in Portuguese words, as Portuguese is a Romance language. Romance languages are derived from Latin, and Latin rarely if ever uses the letter k, and as a result, the other Romance languages behave similarly. The rest of the word follows typical Portuguese patterns as well, including the x used to spell \sh\ and the characteristic h used to make the \y\ sound (this occurs mostly after the letters l and n in Portuguese words).
Cavaquinho: a Brazilian stringed musical instrument somewhat smaller than a ukulele. Besides the \y\ pattern again visible in this word, there are two notable things about cavaquinho. Firstly, there's the qu being used to spell \k\. This does deviate from my previous observation that c is most commonly used--qu is used before i and e, and c is used in all other situations, as a c before an i or an e would be pronounced \s\. The other thing worth noting is the fact that the word ends in an o--for words ending in the \ü\ sound that come from Portuguese, this is the typical ending.
Chocalho: a Brazilian rattle commonly consisting of a gourd with its dried seeds inside. This word is basically a repeat of previously-discussed patterns (for example, the \ü\ sound being spelled with an o or the \y\ sound being spelled with an h). The only other thing of note is that it exemplifies the other option besides x for spelling the \sh\ sound in Portuguese--ch. The use of x vs. ch is very context-dependent, and it's best to just learn some Portuguese words with that sound in order to get a feel for when to use which.
Portuguese, while difficult, gives us some tremendously fun words. It really only takes a little bit of work with the language's spelling patterns to start having a great time with Portuguese!
February 11, 2011. Two days before my eighth birthday. It also happened to be the day of my first ever spelling bee. If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting too much. I had learned the list of words that my brother had learned for the bee (we were both competing). The bee began, and I got my words.
Gnash. Feud. Thorax. Raspberry. Succinct. I didn’t struggle too much.
It was my turn again.
Zigzaggedness. I knew this one. No problem.
“Zigzaggedness. S . . .”
I stopped. How could I have said the wrong letter? On accident? I knew the word!
I felt myself blushing more intensely than I ever had, and probably ever would. All 300 kids in my elementary school were staring at me, and I had just made a fool of myself. What could be done?
I spat out the correct letters. Z-I-G-Z-A-G-G-E-D-N-E-S-S. But it was too late. I couldn’t take back the S. I jumped off the stage and sat down with the other eliminated kids. Then I cried.
Within a week or two, I had gotten over it. It was just the spelling bee. Who cared about that anyway?
From that day, I would go on to compete in my regional bee four times. I would go to the Scripps National Spelling Bee twice, placing ninth in 2015 and fourth in 2016. You probably already know some of this if you’re on this website. I promise there’s a point to me saying all of this.
On that February day seven years ago, I didn’t know that as the years went on, spelling would become unrivaled as the most important thing in my life. I was going to study hundreds of thousands of words, give up other activities, say “no” to my friends far more often than I wanted to, and it was ultimately going to pay off. I was going to get to go to Washington, DC twice (and once as a spectator) and meet so many people. Some of them would become my closest friends. I was going to win a bee put on by the Spelling Bee of China in California. I was going to travel to China for a spelling bee, and I was going to get to meet even more amazing people through that experience. Once I was ineligible, I was going to start coaching younger spellers.
Of course, seven-year-old me didn’t know any of those things. I figured I’d do the school bee the next year in fourth grade and try to win. If I didn’t, it would be no big deal. I didn’t need spelling. There were better things to do. Over seven years later, I can’t imagine my life without spelling.
This rambling and messy post does have a purpose. If you’re doing anything (spelling or something else) and you’ve only just begun, don’t give up. You never know where it might take you. It might just be the best thing to ever happen to you.
The week leading up to a bee (especially a regional or national bee) is often one of the most stressful weeks of a year. I've had the opportunity to experience these weeks firsthand a number of times. Many people, especially if it's their first time competing at a certain bee, are unsure of what to do in the week beforehand. How to modify your schedule, how to modify your study strategies, and how to mentally prepare yourself are frequently asked (and very good) questions. Here's what worked for me.
Scheduling: Set up your schedule so that you can study as much as possible. Eliminate all but the necessary obligations from your schedule if you can. Write out a schedule each night (on school nights) or day (on weekends) of what you're going to do when. Give yourself breaks though--it's not efficient or healthy to study for hours and hours on end without breaks. Take 5-10 minutes every hour or two to get up, walk around, and drink a glass of water.
Studying: Review, review, review. Go over all the words you've struggled with from everything that you've studied. Then, write down the ones you miss and go over the missed words 5-10 times (it might seem like a lot, but it's absolutely worth it). Then, write down the ones you miss during those 5-10 reviews, and review those 10 times. Repeat the process until you've gotten all your missed words correct multiple times.
Mental Preparation: If you're anything like me, you're probably at least a little nervous. Take some time to get into a good mindset. Envision yourself winning as vividly as possible multiple times, and envision yourself losing once or twice too so that you're prepared for both outcomes. (Mostly envision yourself winning, though--confidence boosts are always a good thing). Most importantly, remember that you've worked hard. Remind yourself that regardless of the outcome, the experience and knowledge gained is so much more important than your placement or a trophy.
Every speller comes face to face at some point with the everlasting conundrum of -ible versus -able. It always appears at first as though there are no rules, no patterns, no guidelines by which to guess what ending the word uses. However, if one parses through enough words, some tendencies become apparent.
The basic rule for this is to drop the suffix and see what remains. If it's a whole word, use -able. If it's not, use -ible. Take, for example "accountable" and "disponible." "Account" is a word. "Dispon" is not. Of course, even the best rules have exceptions, so there are some ways to determine if a word is an exception.
The -ion rule can be incredibly helpful in this pursuit. It's pretty simple. If the base word of the -ible/-able word has a form ending in -ion, it's probably -ible. Think of "combustible." "Combust" is a whole word in itself, but it doesn't use -able because of its noun counterpart: combustion. There's "assertible" too: "assert" is a whole word, but it still uses an i because of "assertion." It's not a perfect rule, but it's a helpful one at least.
However, there's another challenge if the base word ends in -e. There's still the confusion regarding i vs. a, but an additional question is added: should the e stay or go? The e typically only stays if the base word ends in -ce or -ge, assuming they make s and j sounds respectively. In that case, the word would be -eable (but if the -ion rule applies, drop the e and use an i). Otherwise, it will probably be -able. "Pronounceable" and "ageable" are both good examples--"deducible," however, drops the e and uses and i because of the -ion rule.
If all else fails, go by the numbers--four times as many words end in "-able" as end in "-ible."
Of course, none of these rules are constant, and there are plenty of exceptions. Use these rules as a loose guide, though, and you'll start seeing vast improvement in your ability to differentiate between -ible and -able.
Everyone is familiar with the hippopotamus, the gargantuan gray pachyderm that's cute but can also be dangerous and deadly. The word hippopotamus has one of my favorite etymologies. It's not that it's esoteric or complex. It comes from the Greek hippo- meaning horse and potam- meaning river, so literally, it means "river horse." There's something oddly funny to me about thinking about a hippopotamus as a river horse, but such is language. There are a number of hippo- words in addition to this that are equally amusing, baffling, or fascinating.
Case in point: hippotigrine, meaning "of or relating to the zebra." Etymologically, however, this means "horse tiger." It's definitely amusing to think of a zebra not as its own animal, but as a hybrid of a tiger and a horse. It's funny, but it makes sense--the zebra does, after all, look like a horse, but with striped patterns reminiscent of the tiger.
Then, of course, there's hippogriff. It's a mythical creature that's half griffin and half horse. That one's straightforward enough, but I still love it because of its portmanteau-style construction. There are plenty of other very straightforward hipp- words, like hippology (the study of horses), hippic (relating to horses or horse racing), and hippodrome (a stadium for horse races). Overall, though, it's a fun (although common) root that has a part in some incredible words.
Jack, cheddar, parmesan--everybody knows a handful of common cheese names. Beyond that, though, there's a whole world of cheese words that have fascinating etymologies.
Take, for example, gammelost. It's a Norwegian blue mold cheese. The interesting part is that in Norwegian, "gammelost" literally translates to "old cheese": gammel means old, and ost means cheese. This is likely related to the "mold" part of the definition, but either way it's funny to see a cheese named for being old. There are a number of other "-ost" cheeses as well, such as primost ("whey cheese") and gjetost ("goat cheese"). Although all of these words are derived from Norwegian, they are English words that can be found in Merriam-Webster Unabridged.The phenomenon of "x cheese" cheese-naming is visible in words derived from other languages as well: schmierkase, which is cottage cheese, means "smear cheese" in German.
Another notable cheese-naming pattern involves geographical names. Cabrales, a blue cheese, is named for the municipality in Asturias, Spain in which it is made. Caerphilly, a mild white Welsh cheese, carries the name of an urban area in Wales.
Most people love cheese, although some hate it. It's undeniable, however, that the many unique cheese names and their origins are fascinating.
I started thinking about imitative words again this morning when someone I was working with misspelled "kyoodle." Imitative words have caused massive trouble for many a speller; in fact, "lulliloo" was nearly my downfall on a written test in 2015. At times satisfyingly phonetic, at times frustratingly not at all phonetic, there's no denying that imitative words are difficult. However, there's also no denying that imitative words can be a lot of fun. Here are some of my favorites.
Bisbigliando. This word is a musical direction for harps meaning "very light and murmuring." It originally comes from the Italian word for "whisper," which was created as an imitation of the actual sound of whispering. This word is fascinating to me because it shows that although the formation of imitative words occurs in all languages, it still follows the patterns of its own language even though the intention is to mimic a universal sound. (That is to say, "bisbigliare" just isn't a verb that would be coined in most other languages).
Guitguit. This one has the bonus of not just being imitative, but reduplicative as well. The reduplication in this word gives the word more of a fun sound than if it were just "guit." It's the name of a bird, so presumably its name is meant to imitate the sound it makes.
Boof. This one actually isn't that unique; there are loads of other words with the same meaning. Woof, bark, you name it, they're all different imitative words for the sounds that dogs make. However, they each have different connotations and create slightly different sounds in your mind, and "boof" always conjures up a noisy and gargantuan dog. It's interesting how much imagery your brain can create based on an individual word and word choice.
There are hundreds of fascinating imitative words in the dictionary in addition to these. What are your favorites?
Most pronouncers are extremely skilled and know what they're doing. Surprisingly (or maybe not), though, there are many pronouncers (especially at more local spelling bees) that pronounce a few (or several, or most) words incorrectly. If you've participated in a good number of spelling bees, you've probably been there. The pronouncer says your word indecipherably wrong, and you spell it wrong as a result. (I've definitely had my share of these experiences as a speller). When you try to appeal due to the mispronunciation, the pronouncer and judges refuse to hear your case, insisting they pronounced the word correctly. It's not fun for anyone involved.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to prevent getting into this situation beforehand. If you know that the pronouncer at a certain bee is sometimes less than competent, then, as backwards as it may sound, have someone quiz you on the words you're studying while intentionally mispronouncing them in a number of ways so you can get used to deciphering incorrect pronunciations. Come up with ways--yes, even absurd ones--that a word might be mispronounced. It may seem odd, but it could save you from elimination as a result of mispronunciation.
That being said, it could still happen. If you're anticipating mispronunciations, print out the pronunciation guide on Merriam-Webster Unabridged and take it with you just in case you have to appeal. That way, you'll have concrete evidence regarding diacritics with which to argue your case. You've worked too hard to be eliminated by a mispronunciation--it's better to appeal and risk being eliminated anyway than to not try at all.