Good Questions: Grammatical justification for a media gimmick

NOT TOTALLY content with the replies given a few weeks ago in your Silly Questions column, may I seek a good answer to why our spelling has such an odd rule as 'i before e except after c'? (R Hamilton, SW London).

Let us begin with the important first amendment to the above rule: it is only 'i before e except after c' when the vowel sound represented by 'ie' or 'ei' is a long 'ee' sound. So freight, heir, rein, science, weigh and most of the other apparent exceptions are excluded. With the amended rule, the number of common exceptions (excluding borrowed foreign words) is reduced to a very small handful, including seize and species.

As with many matters concerning English spelling, how it happened is not easy to explain. Until 1755, when Samuel Johnson published his dictionary, the concept of mis-spelling scarcely existed. Indeed the first use of the word 'mis- spell', unarguably in its modern sense, occurs in Sheridan's The Rivals in 1775.

Until Caxton introduced printing in 1476, spelling had been very much up to the individual, and would reflect the pronunciation of the writer. The process of uniformity introduced by printing continued for three centuries until Johnson standardised everything. And that's where it becomes complicated.

Johnson's ideas of 'correct' spelling were based on both common practice and etymology. But his etymological ideas were not always correct, and common practice had, in any case, introduced standardised errors. For example, Johnson gives us moveable but immovable, uphill but downhil.

But he was consistent about his ie/ei rules. In general, 'ie' was pronounced 'ee' and 'ei' pronounced 'ay'. Words such as receive, deceive and conceive, all deriving from the Latin root capio (I take), had all originally been pronounced with an 'ay' vowel sound. Johnson assumed (sometimes incorrectly) that other words with 'cei' came from the same root, and the rule was born. Seize, incidentally, was originally pronounced, and even spelt, as sayze.

Since Johnson's time, when spellings were largely phonetic, pronunciations have moved on. But the spellings have remained the same.

Why are the events reported in the Happy Anniversary column, all of which are in the past, reported in the present tense? (Or is this just another of the gimmicks taken up by the media?) Alex Needham, Stockport.

The tense used is the 'historic present', described in Nesfield's Manual of English Grammar and Composition (1924) as follows:

'The Present Indefinite can be used to denote . . . what is past, provided that the event is known to be past. This is called the Historic or Graphic Present.' He also mentions the rhetoric figure of Vision, which uses the present tense instead of the past to make it 'appear as if the event were actually passing before his eyes'.

In other words: yes, it is a gimmick, but grammatically justifiable.

Is space finite or infinite, or is the truth that we do not know, or is there something wrong with the question? (Peter Cottrell, Birmingham)

According to current beliefs and evidence, it is too close to call. Newton thought that the universe was in a steady state, and demonstrated that such a possibility would not contradict his theory of gravitation. Einstein's general theory of relativity ran into a few problems with a steady-state theory, and he needed to invent a 'cosmological constant' to hold the whole thing together.

In 1929, Edwin Hubble detected evidence that the the galaxies are moving further apart, as Einstein's theory predicted. He also showed that the speed with which any galaxy is receding from the Milky Way is proportional to its proximity. The constant of proportionality is known as 'Hubble's constant', and is important in estimating distances to distant galaxies and, from those, the age of the universe.

The theory best able to explain all this is the 'Big Bang'; the idea that the universe began in a primeval fireball of unimaginably huge temperature and density. Afte the initial explosion, everything has been shooting away from everything else. But the question is will it ever come back?

According to the closed-universe theory, the process of expansion must eventually cease and reverse. If the gravitational potential energy of all the matter in the universe exceeds the kinetic energy released at the 'Big Bang', the universe has not reached escape velocity and must fall back to its initial state. Every 80 billion years or so, the whole thing will be relaunched with a new 'Big Bang'.

The alternative is an open universe, with everything continuing to move further and further away, boldly going where no matter has gone before. If we knew either the exact value of Hubble's constant, or the average density of all the matter in the universe, we would be able to determine whether the universe is open or closed. All current estimates, however, are so close to the critical value as to suggest that we may never know. Unless we're prepared to wait a few billion years to see which what happens.

I am puzzled by the name 'butterfly'. These creatures are not a close relation of the fly and have little connection with butter. Is it really a corruption of the phrase 'flutter-by', which exactly describes the mode of flight? (H A Simkin, Nottingham)

There is no evidence that the butterfly was ever a flutter-by, although the mole was once a moldiwarp and the mushroom a mushrump. The word 'butterfly', from the Old English buttorfleo or the older Dutch boterflieg, is certainly a juxtaposition of 'butter' and 'fly', although nobody knows why. One conjecture is an old folk belief that butterflies were given to stealing milk or butter. The OED, however, mentions another opinion connected with the Dutch synonym boterschijte, which suggests the insect may have acquired its name from the buttery appearance of its excrement.

Useful butterfly superstitions include the following: three butterflies flying together presages bad luck or even death (mid-19th century, northern England). If the first butterfly you see is white, you'll be lucky and eat white bread for the rest of the year, if brown you'll have bad luck and eat brown bread (late-19th century Gloucestershire).

Further contributions to Good Questions are welcome at: The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

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