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

 

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