How do you pronounce “boatswain”?

There may be good reasons to stumble in trying to explain what the Higgs boson is in plain English, but yesterday’s compilation in The Globe and Mail wins the prize for obscurity. 

It concludes with this paragraph on “How to explain it to, say, English undergraduates”:

"The Higgs boson (pronounced like “boatswain”) is a type of subatomic punctuation with a weight somewhere between a tiny semicolon and an invisible comma. Without it the universe would be a meaningless cloud of gibberish – a bit like The Da Vinci Code, if you read that."

As explanations go, this leaves a lot to be desired, even if we do our best to ignore the inevitably mystifying reference to The Da Vinci Code. 

Subatomic punctuation? Ah. 

A weight somewhere between a tiny semicolon and an invisible comma? Hands up all those who understand. 

Without it the universe would be a meaningless cloud of gibberish? Er.

But let's go back to the beginning of the paragraph. Boson pronounced like “boatswain”? 

For this to be helpful, “boatswain” would need to be an easy word and one with an unmistakable pronunciation. Unfortunately, “boatswain” is not an easy word. It’s an old word more in use in my grandmother's day than in my own. And it would be hard to find a trickier word when it comes to pronunciation. I spelled it out to two friends yesterday, both of whom are native speakers of English. Both hesitated over it, and then one came up with something like “boatsin,” and the other something that sounded quite a lot like “boat” followed by “swain.” The dictionary suggests “bos’n” or “bosun.” 

It would, in fact, make more sense to use “boson” to explain how to pronounce “boatswain.” How do you pronounce “boatswain”? Easy peasy. Like "boson." 

© Linda Leith 2012

The Globe and Mail, Thursday, July 5, 2012

 

Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

More articles

A practical guide for new Canadians - Step Five, by Felicia Mihali

Step Five: Ideology

You have to stop making comparisons between this political system and the one you left behind. The one back home may have been funnier to watch, but don’t forget how ineffective it was. So ineffective, in fact, that you decided to leave the country despite the good laugh you had over the political debates. Politics will be less funny in Canada.

Photo: Martine Doyon




Like a Beast, by Joy Sorman, I, translation by Lara Vergnaud

Like a Beast tells the story of a young man, Pim, who loves animals. He loves them so much that he learns to butcher them. Perfectly. The author’s meticulous research helps carry the reader deep into the realm of its subject.

Translated by Ellen Sowchek 

[Photo: C. Hélie. All rights reserved.]

An Outsider Publisher, by Linda Leith

Dennis Johnson of Melville House Books, who sees himself as an outsider, is critical of the mainstream of American publishing. I've heard him talk about publishing a couple of times, now, both times thanks to the Literary Press Group of Canada, of which LLP is a member. He's one of the more original voices in contemporary publishing.

8-Logos-bottom