Silly Questions: A tongue-twister for Americans

WHY do Americans pronounce 'squirrel' as a monosyllable? According to R J Pickles: 'It is the result of a genetic speech defect where the tongue, when rolling a double 'r' in anticipation of the 'e', goes into a spasm which can only be relieved by the pronunciation of an 'l'. It has led to the grammatical rule in America that a double 'r' negates the following 'e' before an 'l'.'

'Not the fault of the Americans,' says Russell Vallance. 'Their accent derives from that of the city of Brissol here in Yerp. And, as any Brissolian will tell you, a squirl is a bush-tailed rodent that lives in the trees along the Avon Gorge.'

David Clarke asked his wife, who is American. 'Her answer is that it is because the word 'squirrel' contains only one syllable.' Len Clarke says that the Americans 'are simply copying posh English, in which syllables are discreetly halved in number. Thus, decent chaps award only two each to posh names such as Cholmondoley and Featherstonehaugh. Our ability to turn apartment into flat and elevator into lift, however, still hornswoggles them.'

'The squirl,' says Stuart Cockerill, 'is an animal indigenous to the Americas. Its similarity to the European squirrel is an example of convergent evolution. It is excellent when burgerised (with mayonnaise and fries) but tends to get violent when seeing anything remotely red.'

N James produces the most convincing explanation: 'It is because Americans try to pronounce everything as a monosyllable. The interesting question is why they succeed with squirrel and mirror.'

Having surmounted that obstacle, we move on to ups and downs, and why the Sussex ones are downs when they are clearly ups. 'Downs are not ups because they are dunes,' says E Turnbull, explaining that it is therefore raised land and has nothing at all to do with the down that is the opposite of up.

Len Clarke says it is because it is easier to go down than up, and that if lifts had been invented when the Sussex Downs were named, they would probably have been called the Sussex Ups.

'Geographically speaking,' writes Andrew Isitt (so he should, strictly speaking, have said 'geographically writing'. Sorry, that should have said 'strictly typing, have written,' oh never mind), 'the answer is Synclines and Anti-Synclines. A down synclined to be rather steep, anticline it takes a lot of effort.' He hopes this sheds some light on the problem.

We received a wide variety of questions this week, and have decided to begin with something cultural. 'Could you please tell me,' asks Colin Richardson, 'why Al Fresco, the medieval Italian graffiti artist, chose to use his real name and not the name of his town of origin, as so many of his contemporaries, such as Veronese, Corregio, da Vinci and Parmesan did?'

'Where can I obtain books suitable for display on my decaffeinated coffee table?' (a reader in Dorset).

Why do people wearing camouflage clothing look so conspicuous? (Tom Gaunt).

Why is there always a heavy goods vehicle on the nearside lane which obstructs your view of the sign for the next exit on a motorway? (Judge Michael Cook).

All explanations and more questions, please, to: Silly Questions, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

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