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February 01, 2019  |  Friday words #158  |  412 hit(s)

Today's new-to-me word is so new that it doesn't actually exist yet. (Can't get newer than that, right?) Which of course requires some explanation.

This coming Sunday is the annual American football championship known as the Super Bowl. The National Football League (NFL) is notoriously …. careful … about protecting its trademarks. (If you listen to their fine print, the NFL claims copyright not just to their logos and broadcasts, but even to descriptions of the game.) Anyway, they jealously guard the name "Super Bowl." In 2014, in a possibly comedic effort to avoid the ire of the NFL, the comedian Stephen Colbert got around their policing by referring not to the Super Bowl, but to the Superb Owl. nyuck-nyuck. But the term stuck, and people have taken it up with glee.

All fine. The real story here is that this week on the Language Log, a linguistics blog, there was a post in which someone asked this interesting question:

Do you happen to know if there's a name for this phenomenon of splitting a word in a different-than-intended way to change its meaning?

Apparently there isn't, and this isn't the first time the question has come up—the Oxford Dictionary blog posted about it in April of 2018, but they had no term either.

Commenters on the LL blog step up with some additional examples: cow-orker; mans laughter; wee knights; now here. There are some notorious examples of URLs that are subject to this phenomenon, including penisland.net (Pen Island Pens) and expertsexchange.com (Experts Exchange). The mathematician and Scrabble aficionado John Chew has a page with over 16,000 words that have "compound ambiguity," i.e., can be broken up in different ways (like broad-sword and broads-word).

In response to the actual question, commenters proposed various names:

  • charade. This is a term used in puzzles where the answer is made up of multiple clues.
  • schizoepia. As the proposer of this term says, it's "vaguely modelled along the lines of 'onomatopoeia' from schizo- 'split' and epos 'word' and the suffix -ia."
  • superb owl. One person suggested the term superb owl itself as the name for the phenomenon. This follows the pattern of eggcorn, shitgibbon compound, cutthroat compound, and boathouse words, where an example of the phenomenon is used as the name for it.

I root for superb owl as the term of art here. But like I said, the word is so new we haven't even decided what it's going to be yet.

For this week's word origin, I have the word overture: where does that come from? An overture is the opening part (of music or of a transaction). You might think that it's over + ture. But no; it's overt+ure. (There's my weak attempt at relating this back to the superb owl business.) It might still not be obvious how overt gets us "beginning." Well, overt is the past form of the old French word ouvrir, "to open." (So I guess it means "opened.") This also explains why something that's overt is not hidden; it's open(ed).

We have a surprising cognate in English: the word aperture, which is basically the same word (including being based on the past form), except it's from Latin instead of French. And with an overture and an aperture, we close this week's words, haha.

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Todd Kopriva   02 Feb 19 - 3:50 PM

There are a couple of good examples here, not just the false one: