Schoenanthed

 

Although I was a bit of a burn-out early in college, I blossomed into a nerd partway through, and one year, my parents bought me the Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM. It required a 3.5-inch diskette to run a program that would search the data CD and display the definitions and etymologies. It was marvelous, and I enjoyed digging through it to understand the history and nuance of words I knew or had come across in my reading and to discover new words.

A professor once brought up the matter of the longest one-syllable word in the English language, which he proclaimed to be “broughammed.” A Brougham was originally a type of carriage and was later a type of car. To be driven around in a Brougham was to be broughammed. Eleven letters, one syllable, edging out “squirreled (or tying “squirrelled”).

I wanted to find a longer one-syllable word, so I dove into the OED, figuring that words starting with nasty consonant clusters would be good candidates. I found “Schœnanth,” which is a sweet scented grass of Asia formerly used in medicine, also known as camel’s-hay. I reasoned that to be fed schœnanth was to be schœnanthed. Twelve letters, one syllable, a clear winner, for if you can take liberties and verb a word like Brougham, surely you can do the same with a word like schœnanth.

There is one little complicating technicality that probably makes my find a tie at best. That little “oe” is written actually as an “œ,” and it’s not clear to me whether it represents a single letter or two letters when so written. So it may be merely eleven letters and one syllable after all. Still, I’ll take a tie.

I hadn’t thought about this in a long time, but making my way slowly through a book titled The Book of Word Records, which covers this record among many others, brought it back to mind.

Fishes

I had cause last night to consider the best way to pluralize the possessive form of “fish.” It’s tricky because “fish” is both the singular and the plural, and since our apostrophe rule for plurals is that if there’s an irregular plural form, you add the apostrophe-s as you would for the singular, the possessive for the singular and the plural forms both for “fish” would be “fish’s” (just as for “child” it’s “children’s”). Well that leaves room for ambiguity, doesn’t it? Consider this sentence:

The fish’s lips were beautiful.

Are we talking about one fish here or two (red fish? blue?)?

Of course, sometimes we see the plural form “fishes,” as when we’re talking about loaves and fishes. But it turns out that in current, non-idiomatic English usage, it’s not the preferred form. Usage expert Bryan A. Garner explains it all nicely in his Garner’s Modern American Usage, which is one of my favorite books (not merely one of my favorite reference books):

The Evanses wrote in 1957 that the plural fish is of recent vintage and opined that “the life expectancy of a new irregular plural, such as fish, is not very long.” But the OED cites fish as the plural form as long ago as 1300. Today, fish is the firmly established plural. Fishes appears rarely, at least outside ichthyology. When it does appear, it usually refers to more than one species.

Fish does take the regular -es ending to form the plural possessive — e.g.: “A Yozuri Crystal Minnow seems to be the fishes’ preference.” David Sikes, “Island Time,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 4 Aug. 2002, at B14. And the plural form fishes persists in idioms such as The Godfather‘s “Luca Brazi sleeps with the fishes,” as well as the biblical allusion “loaves and fishes.”