Verbs (Enron) to letter order (abstemious)

—Richard Lederer—

[first published in Word Wizard ]

          The most universally confused pair of verbs in English are lay and lie. When the Enron Corporation scandal broke in early 2002 and I noted the last name of the disgraced CEO (Ken Lay), a little quatrain immediately knocked on the door of my imagination and said, "Write me!":

Take the Money Enron

The difference between lie and lay
Has fallen into deep decay.
But now we know from Enron's shame
That Lay and lie are just the same.

          Linguists Otto Jespersen and Mario Pei have branded English spelling as a "pseudohistorical and antieducational abomination" that is "the world's most awesome mess." The chasm that stretches between how words are spelled and how they actually sound is the letter combination –ough:

Tough Sound

The wind was rough.
The cold was grough.
She kept her hands
Inside her mough.

And even though
She loved the snough,
The weather was
A heartless fough.

It chilled her through.
Her lips turned blough.
The frigid flakes
They blough and flough.

They shook each bough,
And she saw hough
The animals froze—
Each cough and sough.

While at their trough,
Just drinking brough,
Were frozen fast
Each slough and mough.

It made her hiccough—
Worse than a sticcough.
She drank hot cocoa
For an instant piccough.

          One of the first spelling formulas we are taught in school is "i before e, except after c." To show how much this rule was made to be broken, I offer a poem that I hope will leave you spellbound:

E-I, I-E—Oh?

There's a rule that's sufficeint, proficeint, efficeint.
For all speceis of spelling in no way deficeint.
While the glaceirs of ignorance icily frown,
This soveriegn rule warms, like a thick iederdown.

On words fiesty and wierd it shines from great hieghts,
Blazes out like a beacon, or skien of ieght lights.
It gives nieghborly guidance, sceintific and fair,
To this nonpariel language to which we are hier.

Now, a few in soceity fiegn to deride
And to forfiet thier anceint and omnisceint guide,
Diegn to worship a diety foriegn and hienous,
Whose counterfiet riegn is certain to pain us.

In our work and our liesure, our agenceis, schools,
Let us all wiegh our consceince, sieze proudly our rules!
It's plebiean to lower our standards. I'll niether
Give in or give up—and I trust you won't iether!

          Some words just can't buy a vowel—not an a or an e or an i or an o or a u. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, some call these words that have had a vowel removement "abstemious" words, a facetious label since abstemious (along with facetious) contains every major vowel, and in sequence.
          In the poem you're about to read you'll find a heavenly three-syllable word that eschews the major vowels—syzygy, which means "the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies."

A Sonnet to Abstemious Words

Once did a shy but spry gypsy
Spy a pygmy, who made him feel tipsy.
Her form, like a lynx, sylph, and nymph,
Made all his dry glands feel quite lymph.

He felt so in synch with her rhythm
That he hoped she'd fly to the sky with him.
No sly myth would he try on her;
Preferring to ply her with myrrh.

When apart, he would fry and then cry,
Grow a cyst and a sty in his eye.
That's why they would tryst at the gym,
By a crypt, where he'd write a wry hymn.

Her he loved to the nth degree,
Like a heavenly syzygy.

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Richard Lederer is the author of more than 30 books about language and humor, including his best-selling Anguished English series and his current book, Word Wizard. Dr. Lederer's syndicated column, "Looking at Language," appears in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States.

He has been elected International Punster of the Year and been profiled in magazines as diverse as The New Yorker, People, and the National Enquirer. He is language columnist for The Toastmaster, Pages, and the Farmers' Almanac and is Verbivore Emeritus on public radio's "A Way With Words."

content Copyright 2007, Richard Lederer—All Rights Reserved