TRANSCRIPT: English Has a Bee in Its Bonnet

Why are spelling bees mostly an English-language phenomenon?

This is the transcript for Lexicon Valley — Episode 1: English Has a Bee In its Bonnet. We’re making this one free to let you see the kind of content you’ll get if you become a paying subscriber to Booksmart Studios. You’ll get extra podcast episodes, extended guest interviews and an opportunity to engage directly with our hosts. Plus, you’ll be supporting all of the work we do here at Booksmart. Thank you for your support.

JOHN McWHORTER: From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, I'm John McWhorter.

Earlier this month, a 14-year-old, Zaila Avant-garde from Louisiana, became champion of the 93rd annual, mostly annual, spelling bee — it went on hiatus for three years during World War Two and then again last year because of you know what — the mostly annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

AVANT-GARDE: Wait, what is the language of origin?

MODERATOR: It's formed in Latin from a Swedish name.

AVANT-GARDE: Murraya. M-U-R-R-A-Y-A.

MODERATOR: That is correct.

Avant-garde beat out the second-place finisher, Chaitra Thummala. She got tripped up by this compound word: neroli oil.

THUMMALA: Neroli oil?

MODERATOR: Yes, it's a fragrant, pale yellow essential oil that darkens on standing, is obtained from the flowers, especially of the sour orange, and that is used chiefly in cologne and other perfumes and as a flavoring material.

THUMMALA: Neroli oil?

MODERATOR: Neroli oil.

THUMMALA: Are there any alternate pronunciations?

MODERATOR: I see just the one.

THUMMALA: Neroli oil. Um, language of origin?

MODERATOR: The first part of the entry contains, consists of a French element derived from an Italian geographical name. The second part went from Greek to Latin to French to English.

THUMMALA: Neroli oil. N-E-R-E-L-I O-I-L. Neroli oil.

MODERATOR: Neroli oil is spelled N-E-R-O-L-I O-I-L.

THUMMALA: Thank you.

This 12-year-old Chaitra was composed up there on stage. But when you flub a word, when you're that close, that's gotta sting. And I know it does because the only spelling bee I was ever in when I was six or seven years old was one where I was so confident and frankly, I was a good speller. They asked me how to spell cement and I just rattled off S-E-M-E-N-T. It was just a mistake. I knew it was C and that took care of me and I never got to go again and I had frankly never gotten over it. Come to think of it, have you ever seen an Italian spelling bee? Have you ever heard of Russians doing spelling bees? I doubt it because there's something peculiar about English that makes it particularly bee-worthy.

Today on Lexicon Valley, English Has a Bee in Its Bonnet.

WHY IS IT CALLED A SPELLING BEE?

The spelling bee, the National Spelling Bee, has been in the news in particular because Zaila Avant-garde, the winner, is a Black young woman. We have a historic win by someone who seems to be in a great many regards a superhuman. So to spell, where does that come from? Well, originally, what the word spell meant was to tell, the idea being that by doing this spelling, we're making the words tell us what they mean. And so to spell was to recount, to explain, to tell, at a time when the word tell did exist, but tell originally meant to count. And so that's why we say to tell the time, and that's why a bank teller is a teller. The idea is that this person is counting money.

And then there's also bee. We're used to hearing about spelling bees and you kind of let it go by. But think about what an odd word that is. It's a spelling bee and it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the insects bees. So why is it a bee? And the fact is, you might know that you can extend that usage. Spelling bee is the most common, especially with modern life. But you can have a quilting bee where a bunch of people got together and made a quilt or a logging bee where people would, well I guess the idea was to gather the logs there on the river or something like that. You can see that I'm a city boy, but there used to be a logging bee where a bunch of, I presume, men would get together and do whatever they were going to do with those logs. Or a raising bee. How do you build a barn? Well, you have a raising bee? So the idea is a group of people come together in some endeavor and create or get something accomplished.

Why is that a bee? And the reason is almost certainly not because it's like a bunch of bees coming together. It's tempting. But why would people say that? Why would people say, let's have a bee? You know, you don't look at bees swarming and say oh look at the bees beeing. Or, oh look over there, it's a great big swarm, it's a big fat bee. So why would people say let's have a quilting bee, as opposed to, say, a bee in or let's have a quilting bees’ nest or something. It just doesn't work. And actually there is an obscure dialectal word been. And what a been is and not a bean as in that — is it a fruit or a vegetable, whatever it is — not that bean, but a been is also something someone does for someone else. And it did also refer specifically to what the people lower on the social scale might do for a lord during feudal times. And so it's a been that they do. It's related possibly to boon. So you can have a been. That is plausibly where this word bee would have come from.

But the problem is, why don't we call it a quilting been? Why don't we call it a spelling been? Why did the n drop off? Now, sounds drop off the ends of things all the time, but not all the time. And so, for example, if we're going to say that people first started saying, well, why don't we have a quilting been, and then they kind of leave off the n: quilting bee, whatever. Well, then why do we have words like clean and bean? That same person might say: why don't we have some beans tonight? I loves me a cranberry bean. And then after a while, cranberry bea. I don't know who this person is, but that kind of n doesn't drop off usually. And so what happened here? You have to go further and I'm not sure that anybody has. But I'm going to pick up the story here and take it further in a way that I think most linguists and etymologists would consider plausible. The way that you went from been to bee was because been would have felt like a plural word. And so people would have knocked the n off and just said bee. Stay with me. So, it used to be that in English, let's go back to Middle English. plurals were usually with s. And so you're talking about horses and chairs, et cetera. But then there were a whole lot of plurals that ended with n. We've only got a few now, like children and oxen. But it used to be, for example, that you had eyen and earen. You had in your mouth tonguen, if you happened to have two tongues. You talked about housen, you had shoen rather than shoes. You still do in some varieties of Scottish. You had not trees but treen. That sort of thing was common.

Well, if you have a situation where you hear words ending in n as possibly plural, then you have this quilting been and it's a whole bunch of people doing it and that leads you to think of plurality. Quilting been would have felt like it was a plural, especially in Middle English. And so some people would have said quilting bee to make it singular. So an analogy is that the original word for that little delicious green thing shaped like a ball, it was a pease. But because pease sounds plural, people started saying, well, why don't I take this one little pea in my hand? Nothing like slicing a pea. You don't usually deal with them singly, but if you did, that's where pea comes from. Or it used to be that you had, because in French it’s cerise for a cherry. You had a cherries, it was taken from French. So une cerise  and then a cherries. But that sounds like what it sounds like to us. And so you make up a word cherry. If you've got eyen and earen and tonguen and housen, well then if you've got been: well let's have a raising been. But shouldn't we be making that just one bee, right? And so that's how that would have arisen. And so that's why we talk about a spelling bee.

WHY ARE SPELLING BEES MOSTLY AN ANGLOPHONE PHENOMENON?

Another interesting thing about spelling bees is that, you know you think of it as something universal, like lemonade. You go to Helsinki and you spend six weeks in Helsinki and you get a yen for some lemonade. I was reading The Power Broker by Robert Caro to assuage my homesickness for New York and I wanted some lemonade. Couldn't find it. They had all sorts of other fruit ades, but they did not have lemonade. You'd think that you'd get it everywhere, but you can't. It's just that sort of thing. And in the same way, do you think you can get peanut butter and jelly everywhere? I haven't checked, but I am quite sure that if you spent six weeks in Bangkok, you'd find that people are very little inclined to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Spelling bees are something similar in that it's largely an Anglophone phenomenon because of English’s shitty spelling. If you think about it, a spelling bee doesn't make sense if you have a human and sensible spelling system. Let's take Finland again. Finnish is a language with a very regular, sensible spelling system. It's hard to misspell something if you're a Finn. So to have those little blond kids standing up and spelling things, it would be kind of boring because spelling itself just isn't that hard once you've learned the basics. Or, you know, many more of us, I'm sure, are familiar with Spanish. Imagine a spelling bee in Spanish. Some people would be better at it than others. But for the most part, it wouldn't be very exciting because Spanish’s spelling system has its wrinkles — there are things that you have to know, especially about the diacritics — but it makes sense. That is certainly not true in English. And so not only do we have words from a great many languages, but we have a spelling system that basically stopped moving in the 1400s, whereas the whole vowel system turned upside down. And that means that we have a system that lends itself to being able to spell really well, especially some of the more obscure words, is subject to being a contest. It's something that people will pay to watch happen and that somebody can get a prize for doing really well. So if you are in an Anglophone country, you were familiar with the spelling bee. If you're in many other countries, there's no such thing as that beyond kids just learning the basics of spelling. Nobody 14 is standing up there having to try to spell some uniquely difficult word.

Now, I know who I'm going to hear from when I say this, and it's going to be French folk. The French are going to tell me that they have something called the dictée and that that is a spelling bee. And indeed there is the dictée. And I think it's a great thing in itself, but it's different from the spelling bee. The dictée is about grammar that you need to know how to spell, as opposed to the brute business of having to master the sequence of letters that various words are written in. So French spelling can be irregular here and there. But for example, a dictée might test something like this sentence: Elle s’est fâchée. And that means: She got mad. Elle, that's she and we can leave that alone. But then s’est fâché. S’est is s and then est. Now, you have to know first of all to have an apostrophe after the s. And then is the s an s or a c? So is it the s that's analogous to the se in se habla español in Spanish? Or is it the c as in c-apostrophe-e-s-t, c’est? As in, you know, c’est la vie, that's life. Is it that, is it the s or is it the c? Well you have to know. And then fâchée. That's the getting angry part. The a has a little circumflex over it. Well you better know, you have to have that. So that feels like spelling, but then fâchée. You can't hear it but if it's a non male person then you have to have to e’s at the end — and never mind that the first one has to have a certain accent over, the accent aigu — but then you have to have this extra e to indicate that it's feminine. That has nothing to do with the way you pronounce it. You just have to know. The dictée is about that. That is interesting but it's not like the spelling bee.

You know, there's an English equivalent to this. Suppose you were going to say something like: I’d have bred its clams. I mean this is just a perfectly natural sentence. I'd have bred its clams. Let's say that there's some lake with clams in it, the lake’s clams, its clams. And you're a clam breeder and you're saying, well, I'd have bred its clams, but they spilled peach jello powder in the lake. Yes, we're going to keep that. And so the clams all died. I would have bred its clams otherwise, so I'd have bred its clams. In a dictée, you would say, for example, is it I'd have bred its clams or I'd of bred its clams, the way many people would spell it in an untutored way. Or I'd have bred. Do you spell it like Wonder Bread or is it b-r-e-d? You have to know, and then, I'd have bred its clams. Do you put an apostrophe in that its or do you leave it alone? That's the sort of thing that the dictée tests. We don't have that here. We call that learning or not learning grammar in school. The spelling is just can you spell Connecticut? And that's just what it is.

WHY IS DYSLEXIA WORSE FOR ANGLOPHONE KIDS?

The spelling system that we have means that dyslexia is worse for Anglophone kids than for a great many other kids in the world. Dyslexia is much less of a problem, for example, in Finland, because it's just so much easier to read. You know, dyslexia is a funny thing. Seventy five percent of dyslexics are men. That probably corresponds to your experience if you have it. There's something male about it. And biologically, what dyslexia is is interesting too. The left brain is where most people process just vanilla sentences, you know, just ordinary words being put in order with grammar. The right brain is different. The right brain is more about creativity, the right brain is more about things like the tone of how you talk, as opposed to the content of how you talk. With dyslexics, the right brain is a little too active during the reading process. And that seems to have something to do with why people have trouble with the decoding. There's a region of the brain called Geschwind’s territory and Geschwind’s territory is connected to the two regions of the brain that are best known for processing language, the Broca's area and the Wernicke’s area. Geschwind was discovered to have something to do with language really only about 20 years ago. And the thing about it is that it's the last region of the brain to mature and it does it right around when most kids are learning how to read. And wouldn't you know, with dyslexics, Geschwind’s territory is a little bit underpowered. It's a little bit less active. But dyslexia is something that would be barely noticeable in a person if it weren't for this weird thing we do called reading. This means that Finnish kids do learn how to decode, to know what it is on the page, earlier than kids learning English. But what's interesting is that they don't understand the content of what they're reading any faster than Anglophone kids do. So they can recite what is on the page, but in terms of knowing the connection between that and content, that's something that is consistent. Nevertheless, dyslexia is a worse thing to have if you're dealing with English’s fucked up spelling.

In any case, here we are in our new place and some of you are worrying that we're not going to have songs anymore. Well, of course we're going to have songs. Of course we're going to have clips. And, for example, wouldn't you know, yes, there is a show tune called The Husking Bee. And so here, just because I have to, it's from Say, Darling, which is an obscure, actually a play with music. And the music was by Julie Stein of Gypsy and Funny Girl fame. The lyrics were Betty Comden and Adolph Green. And just because I have to, we have to hear a little bit of the unremarkable but kind of catchy Husking Bee Broadway tune.

(SONG: The Husking Bee)

SHOULD SPELLING BEES REQUIRE CONTESTANTS TO DEFINE THE WORDS?

You know, there was an interesting controversy about spelling bees back in about 2013. They started in certain parts of the test to require contestants to actually define the word as well as spell it. A lot of people didn't like that. And, you know, actually, I did. I kind of like the idea of people not only having to do the mechanical task of spelling these words, but actually having to say what they mean, because a language like English, because of the artifice of the dictionary, has a very richly preserved vocabulary. That doesn't mean that to be an English speaker is to just have more words because other languages have fewer words. It's all about whether you have words from the past preserved in a book or words that are from the present but that nobody ever uses that are nevertheless preserved in a book so that you can have the artificial situation of a language over a thousand years times lexicon preserved in a book. Now, to an extent, all of those things are trivia. However, there are all sorts of words that have very particular meanings that it can be somewhat mind expanding to know about. It certainly doesn't hurt to have many synonyms at your disposal. It certainly doesn't hurt to be able to take a look at all the words that have been within the history of your language. That can't happen if your language is oral, as most languages are. And as I always say, oral languages, especially ones that are lesser known and spoken by fewer people, tend to be much more complicated than English. And if you could preserve every word that they had had over a thousand years, you'd have a dictionary as enormous as the ones that we have for these very few languages that are written a lot. I kind of liked that idea of the vocabulary being embraced. It reminded me of something that I've seen in speakers of other languages that I just found, you know, here, partly charming, partly erudite. Partly there seemed to be a certain cultural pride, which is more diagonal with being an American person in general because of what America is. But still, I couldn't see it as a bad thing.

I once knew a Russian person who was talking about a boyfriend who she had had, and the boyfriend, frankly, sounded like a complete piece of shit. And I said, well, what did you like about him? And she said, I loved his Russian. And remember she's Russian. And I just remember thinking that doesn't translate into at least modern American English. Nobody would say: Oh, I loved his English. You would say: I love the way he talked, but you wouldn't specify it was the person's English. You could write a whole article on that difference and you would have to include that in the even relatively recent past, Americans as well as Brits did refer to English in that way. So there's a passage in one of Maya Angelou's autobiographical volumes. You know, she has The Caged Bird Sings one and, you know, everybody reads that one. Everybody doesn't always know that there are six or seven others. It's a majestic series. And in one of them, and I frankly don't remember which one — come to think of it, I think I do. It's the one after Caged Bird. Maya Angelou was talking to some women she's met and one of them says, well, you speak such good English that you must have gone to college. Think about it. That's a funny way to put it. You would imagine a foreigner maybe saying that to her. But these are American people somewhere in California. They're all Black people at a bar. Well, you speak such good English that. It's just that's the way it would have been put back then in the 40s and 50s as opposed to now. Or the journalist H.L. Mencken once accused Warren G. Harding of having bad English. Now, notice that these days we may have had plenty of things — notice this we — we may have had plenty of things to say about the way a certain recent president talked, but people didn't usually say he had bad English. You would say that he spoke badly, that sort of thing. And so it used to be that way. But I think there's been a cultural change in America since the 1960s that makes us less likely to say I like your English and it's neither a good nor a bad thing. But to the extent that there's anything about English that one might admire, just as one admires words in other languages, I wouldn't mind the idea of somebody not only having to spell disingenuous, but to actually say what it means, not only having to spell expatiate, but to actually say what expatiate means, that kind of thing.

DOES ENGLISH SPELLING NEED AN OVERHAUL?

As neat as spelling bees are in themselves, the fact that they can even exist is a symptom of a problem about English in terms of the way it's written. And so you might think that what we need to do is fix our spelling system. Some might think that the charm of the spelling bee is not worth the fact that it's so hard to learn how to read in this language, that it's harder to be dyslexic in this language, that the spelling system just doesn't make any damn sense. And so you think, why can't we spell words more like maybe even not perfectly like, but more like it's pronounced. And the thing is, you have to think about what you're asking for and whether you really want it. And so, for example, you might read about how there are people who are trying to come up with umbrellas that actually work, because, you know, umbrellas don't really work well. But the truth is, if you look at any of the prototypes, they aren't anything that you would probably want to carry around. You read about how there are all sorts of different flavors of mustard, but there only seems to be one kind of ketchup. But do you really want other kinds of ketchup? Have you ever tasted another kind of ketchup or even noticed how if you're American, ketchup is a little different in Europe and you don't really like it? Do you really want more kinds of ketchup?

It's kind of like that with spelling reform. So, for example, I know my grandmother, to know, K-N-O-W. Well, what the hell is that k doing there? And then there are all sorts of other issues that we could get into. So, how would you spell know, as in K-N-O-W better? Are you going to spell it N-O, because then it looks like no as in yes and no. Now, there's nothing wrong with words that look alike. That's fine. So know is N-O. Now how are you going to spell knowledge? Now, however you're going to spell knowledge, notice that it's really far away from the word that we're used to. So it would take a real adjustment. It would be like carrying an umbrella that looks a little misbegotten. But then notice that however, you're going to spell knowledge, it's not going to start with an N-O most likely. I mean, that's part of the problem. And so knowledge wouldn't look like it was related to know. So we have know and knowledge and we can see the relationship and notice how when I point that out, there’s a little click, feels kind of good, like when you pull a little piece of dead skin off and you feel like it's an accomplishment. So know, knowledge, no more of that. Now you'd have no and something like nalidge. Okay, next. How are you going to spell known? Is it going to be N-O-N? You can kind of tell, no. So, is it going to be N-O-A-N? Well, why exactly? And however you spelled it, notice that it wouldn't look like it was related to know spelled N-O, because you wouldn't think of it because N-O is such a short and common little sequence. And then what about knew? I knew it was time to go. Okay, knew. Are you going to spell it N-E-W? For one thing, E-W — why is it pronounced that way? Don't we want to reform that too? So suppose we spelled it N-U but then once again it doesn't look like N-O, and then you have the issue of how would you spell, you know, something like the new in a new car.

These are hard things. Do you notice how difficult it would be to get any kind of consensus on these things or even if you were doing it by yourself, how would you decide? And the truth is, the Chicago Tribune, starting back in the 30s and actually into the 1960s, for a while started spelling some words sensibly. They had a feeling that this was the sort of thing was going to have to start slow, which if it ever happens it certainly will have to. But even starting slow looked really, really odd. So they would spell clue, C-L-E-W. Clew. And, you know, especially if it was about some important murder case or something like that, it almost seemed trivializing to be spelling it the way you'd expect it to be spelled in graffiti on some wall. Hockey was spelled H-O-C-K-Y, which looks like hocky, or it was something like hock’y with the uvular stop. It looked goofy. Frankly, it was an insult to the players. What do you do about these things? The truth is, if things are spelled differently, it just looks clumsy or cute. Maybe we just need to put up with it, but all of us would have to take a deep breath. And how many of us would be really up for holding our breath like that for the rest of our lives, even for the sake of a generation of kids who would grow up not knowing how stupid it looked because they hadn't known anything different and it would have an easier time. It'd be a tough one.

My younger daughter, she's six now — she knows that I love old okapis. They're these wonderful animals. If you don't know what one is, picture, really, picture a giraffe. Now give it a short neck. Got it? Now make that animal a lustrous mahogany, reddish tinged brown. Got it? And now give it zebra stripes on its butt. That is an okapi. I think they're wonderful animals. I've got stuffed okapis, I've got a plastic okapi and now I have a picture of an okapi where it is written that the animal is an O apostrophe C-O-P-Y. It's an o’copy. It's like this Irish Xerox. And that is extremely cute. It makes perfect sense. And I said to Vanessa, you know, you didn't spell this right. And she said, well, that's the way people spell o. And she's quite right. Clew, hock’y, know, knowledge, known, all of this is tough, tough stuff.

MARIE BOLDEN: FIRST BLACK WINNER OF A NATIONAL SPELLING BEE

So spelling bees might be with us to stay and to bring all of this back around to the spelling bees and to the winner of this year's spelling bee, there's something that needs to be noted. You're hearing a lot that Zaila is the first Black winner of the National Spelling Bee. And that's true if you're talking about the National Spelling Bee as sponsored by Scripps. But in terms of a national spelling bee in general, before Scripps came into the picture, in other words, in terms of the National Spelling Bee in the United States, the fact is that the first winner was also Black. She was also, for the record, a girl. Her name was Marie Bolden, and she was 13 years old and she took it in 1908. We should know about Marie Bolden. It happened in Cleveland. It happened in a very different time. The New Orleans team did not like competing against the Cleveland team because the Cleveland team was integrated. And down in New Orleans, the Black YMCA wanted to celebrate Marie Bolden’s having won up in Cleveland and the mayor of New Orleans discouraged that as disruptive. So these were very different times. But the first National Spelling Bee was won by a Black girl. And now, the most recent one. And something else to remember in the same vein. It's Washington, D.C. It's 1899. Dunbar High School is an all Black school. The kids at Dunbar High School were outscoring white kids throughout the city on tests in 1899. Important to know about such things, but especially for this episode, Mary Bolden, 13, in 1908 in Cleveland she was the first kid to take the National Spelling Bee.

This is the first Lexicon Valley for BooksmartStudios.org. And as it happens, the very first Lexicon Valley that I ever hosted way back in 2016 was about spelling reform. And so I'm feeling a little bit nostalgic and I'm going to combine that with the whole Broadway clip routine. And so what I want to play is a clip that's about not only nostalgia, but about a spelling bee. This is from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a musical about a spelling bee that rather improbably ran for over a thousand performances back in the aughts. And this is a nostalgic little passage where a grown woman who is proctoring the spelling bee is remembering a previous one. And this is how Lisa Howard, who played the part and has one of the most beautiful voices in the United States, gets it across.

(Song: Pandemonium — Reprise)


Lexicon Valley is produced by Matthew Schwartz and Mike Vuolo. N’Dinga Gaba and Chris Mandra mixed the audio. Our theme music was composed by the team at Harvest Creative Services in Lansing, Michigan. Every episode of the show will contain one additional tidbit, and it'll be accessible to paying subscribers only. Today's extra segment will be free for all. So if you want to know about how whistling and what my daughter thinks about noodles and issues of things like warmth and mowed lawns all have to do with each other, you can listen to this extra segment. That's the way they're going to be, but ordinarily only paying subscribers get to hear that extra bit. If you'd like to leave a comment, check out our other great podcasts under Booksmart or subscribe, please visit BooksmartStudios.org. This is Lexicon Valley. I'm John McWhorter.

BONUS SEGMENT: TH IS A DEAD SUFFIX

So let's think about the suffix. Suppose somebody said, give me a suffix in English. What's the first thing that you might think of? Probably I would think of the ed that marks the past. Walk, walked. There's a suffix, okay? Or, if you are more sunnily inclined, you might think of ness as in happiness. Happiness is climbing up walls, or whatever that lyric is in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. So ness, happiness, okay. Or something like stinginess or warmness. Although no, notice warmness isn't quite right. You’d know what somebody meant, but it's not warmness. You'd say warmth. Now think about that. Warm. That's clearly a word. It's a nice adjective. But then what's the th? The th is what makes it a noun. The th is a suffix. Why don't you think about that? Why isn't that something that would occur to you regularly? You feel like it's not a real one. The reason you feel like it's not a real one is because you can't just add it to any old word. It's dead. You use it where you use it, but you can't spread it. You can say that somebody is holy. You can talk about their holiness. You can't talk about their holyth or something like that. You can talk about somebody being cool, but there's no such thing as their coolth. You can't add the th. In linguistics, we call that “not productive.” That doesn't mean that it's lazy. It means that you can't produce anything with it.

The word “productive” always makes me angry, and it's because somebody once attacked me in the little world of academic linguistics over whether or not a certain suffix was productive. Believe it or not, these things do happen. It was very annoying being called out on productiveness. Of course, I was right and he was wrong. But still, it was very tense at the time. These things are so random. It's like just today, actually, my older daughter was listening to me whistle. I whistle too much. [whistling] That's me. And she said, you know, Daddy, whenever you whistle like that, it reminds me of those yellow noodles that you get at a Chinese buffet. Why? Well, one of those things, I must have been whistling at one of those buffets. Well, “productive” always reminds me of fighting, but really it's just about the fact that ness is productive. Coolness. You can say it. It's a little funny, but it's English. Coolth is Martian and that's because th is not productive. It used to be though. It's actually much more common than you think.

It's one of those things where once you're made aware of it, you see it everywhere. For example, you can say warmth. That one's fine. Very often though, because this one is so old, suffixes stop being productive often when they just get old and frozen. They become these husks, and next thing you know you need a husking bee. But they're so old that even the vowel in the word that comes before has changed. But talk about long, length. Well, it's longth, but things have changed. Deepth? No, but depth, yes. So there are ones like that. Then there are others where you really have to squint to see the connection, but it's definitely there. And so, for example, you are young. You don't have youngth, but you have youth. It's just that the word's gotten all smudged around. Right? Or something like you have filth. Well, that's foul. Foulth, filth. And then for mirth, it's from merry, merryth. And sloth is from slowth.

Now, what am I getting to? I'm getting to my favorite example of this kind where you'd never know that it was this little dead suffix th. Aftermath, the aftermath. And you think, well, it has something to do with mathematics. I mean, you don't think at all. But in the back of your head, you think, well maybe it's the solution and the solution that comes after, the aftermath. But then if you think about it, that's not it. Because there was no word aftermathematics before. It's some other kind of math. You know what that is? The vowel has changed. Its mowth, as in when you mow vegetation, you mow a lawn, you mow grass, and then you've got this smooth, placid situation where once there was chaos. It's the aftermowth. Isn't that good? You'd never know. That th is everywhere. It's just not productive. Moth, no. That is not the suffix. That's just an accident. That comes from a word that was originally something like molth, and what that probably meant was maggot because actually that word that became moth only referred to baby moths that are chewing through your clothes in that worm stage that they're at. For whatever it's worth, an adult moth, up way into Middle English, was called a flinder. Aftermath is like health, which comes from hale, girth, which comes from God knows what, but there was some word that meant, you know, “substantial,” and then length, depth, warmth, all of those. Aftermath. It's the same thing.