The trouble with language is that it just doesn't gel

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The Independent Online
IHAD a language teacher at school who must have been a very good teacher because even now, years later, I can remember many of his stray remarks, even if I can't remember a lot of what he was teaching us. One of his observations was that although mispronunciations may come about through carelessness, they also happen because of people's mistaken desire to be careful. 'As you go through life, he said, you will notice that everyone with the slightest acquaintance with French will insist on putting an acute accent into the name of the French painter 'Degas', as if the name was Day-ga, whereas, as any French person will confirm, there is no accent and it is pronounced, rather dully, Duh-ga.'

(In this he was absolutely right and it is unusual to find anyone who pronounces the name correctly. I am afraid to mention the man myself, as people tend to look askance at me when I say Duh-ga, as if I don't know that it is really pronounced Day-ga, so I tend to talk about Raoul Dufy instead.)

But the thing that sticks most in my mind is his observation to the effect that nobody, for years and years, has succeeded in inventing a completely new word.

'Whenever somebody comes up with a so-called new word,' he said, it is almost always based on an old one. Modern words like 'television' and 'microwave' are just two old word-bits stuck together. The only word I know of that owes nothing to a precedent is 'gas', and I think the man who invented it did say later that he almost certainly had the word 'chaos' at the back of his mind. But if you come across any other word that has been minted afresh without reference to a preceding word, let me know.'

I have kept my eyes and ears open for such a thing ever since, but without success. The only time I wanted to get in touch with him was when I heard a story about the derivation of the word 'quiz'. Some 18th-century gentleman in Dublin, so the story went, maintained that he could invent a new word and get it in general use. His friends wagered that he couldn't. He accepted the bet and went round Dublin all that night painting the word 'quiz', which he had coined for the purpose, on all available walls and fences. Next day everyone was saying 'Quiz? What's this quiz?', and the word survived.

(Having said which, I now think it sounds a remarkably unlikely story, and in any case, if it is true, there is a good chance that the word may have been based on the Latin 'Quis?'.)

The last time I thought I might have come across a new word was when I was in a pharmacy recently staring round the shelves and suddenly I became aware of how much space is devoted these days to stuff called 'gel'. Bath gel, hair gel, shower gel . . . you can't get away from it. Never had it when I was a boy. Got through the whole of my youth without even knowing about bath gel . . . I'm still not very clear what the point of any of it is, especially 'shower gel', because anything you put in a shower is, by the very nature of the act, immediately washed away isn't it?

So where did the word come from? If the stuff is new, is the word also new? No, of course it isn't. Reference to an old dictionary reveals that it is just an abbreviation for gelatine and has been in use in the theatre for years and years meaning the stuff you use to get lighting effects. But as a fashion fad it is quite recent, so I was amazed the other day to find a reference to it in a Thirties novel I had dipped into, in which a character said: 'I'll tell you the trouble with all these gels today . . .'

For a moment I was baffled. Then I realised that the character was not talking about bathroom accessories at all, but was saying 'girls' in the old-fashioned way. 'When I was a young gel' - that sort of thing. And this means that the word 'gel' can be pronounced with a hard 'g' and with a soft 'g' - depending on its meaning.

Is this unique? Is there any other word in the English language that is spelt the same but pronounced differently depending on its meaning? There are words that are stressed in different ways depending on whether they are used as noun or verb (escort and escort), but different pronunciations of an identical spelling? I can't think of any.

My old teacher might have known. But I'm on my own now.

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