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Be well

I was saving valetudinarian, the term for a person unusually anxious about his or her health, for the weekly word feature at, but Sunday seemed like a better day for it.

In my parish, the sharing of hand sanitizer, instituted in apprehension of a bad flu season, has become a ritual gesture, like crossing oneself at the benediction. As people line up for Communion, they pause to pump a little sanitizer and rub it in.

Never mind that there is little or no hazard of contracting anything from the bread and wine, or that the exchange of germs has already taken place during the handshakes and hugs at the sign of the peace.* The sanitizer is put out there before Communion, and they use it because they’re used to using it and want to preserve their good health.

Little rituals like this are the stuff of the valetudinarian’s life. As an example, you may recall old Mr. Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma, whose querulous concern about even a light fall of snow and the danger of contracting a chill mark him as the type. You can distinguish a valetudinarian from a hypochondriac; the latter imagines himself to have an illness, while the former is apprehensive about contracting one.

As we boomers age, you can expect the see the valetudinarian population multiply, given our self-regard, our obsessive consumption of vitamins and other nutritional supplements,** and our expectation that we can evade the common fate of humanity.

The word valetudinarian shows that language can display a nice sense of irony. It derives from the Latin valetudo, health, and valere, “be well.” Do put a sweater on. It’s only in the low 50s in Baltimore today, spring not quite having arrived, and you don’t want to catch your death.


*A word to those who intinct—that is, dip the bread into the wine instead of drinking from the cup. People’s hands are dirtier than their mouths; if you prefer intinction out of sanitary concerns, you are misguided. Even if you use the sanitizer.

**Americans, my biology major roommate used to say, have the most expensive urine in the world.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:58 PM | | Comments (28)


Fun to read. We Episcopalians can be a fussy bunch!

i expect it'll be about five years until we begin seeing stories about a new wave of germs that have mysteriously become resistant to alcohol-based, pump-dispensed hand sanitizers (with vitamin E and aloe), baffling scientists worldwide.

I won't quarrel with the notion that Mr. Woodhouse was apprehensive about catching illness, but I will with your definition of "valetudinarian" applying to him. You have given us a modern meaning, but Dr. Johnson's dictionary shows a different understanding at the time Austen wrote Emma.

On p. 920 of the second volume of his dictionary (found here I found his definition for "Valetudinarian. Valetuduniary" as "weakly; sickly; infirm of health". Mr. Woodhouse was prone to illness and had good reason to be apprehensive. He just happened to project his own condition on those around him so that, for example, he could not understand why Mr. Knightly would choose to walk in the night air nor why Mr. Perry the Apothecary (a great rhyme!) would allow his children to eat something as unwholesome as wedding cake.


Perry and apothecary do not rhyme outside North America, alas.

What do Perry and apothecary sound like in the rest of the world? And do they sound like that in the entire rest of the world?

Yes Tim, I was kind of wondering the same thing. I've been sitting here, twisting my tongue in my best approximation of RP English, trying to get them to NOT rhyme, without success.

In my part of the world (London) the penultimate vowel of apothecary is a schwa. I suspect there may be a full rhyme in parts of Scotland though, JohnC?

@Picky, are you saying that the "e" vowel sound in "apothecary" is pronounced "schwa" by MOST Londoners?

Respectfully, old chap, would that peculiar inflection perhaps not be isolated solely to the Portuguese section of London town, if such a cultural enclave even exits in your fair city?

As I recall, the spoken Portuguese language (one of the Romance tongues) has a superfluity of "schhhh" sounds, that's why I ask. (Not trying to be a wiseass, my friend.)

In fact the recognized national dish of Portuguese-speaking Brazil is called, phonetically broken down---- fesch/wada----- kind of aurally akin to freshwater, in English. I've never seen this exotic culinary delight actually spelled out on a restaurant menu, but my old Sao Paulo-born animation buddy, Roguerio, at Warner Bros. Studios back in the early '90s, clued me in on this traditional savory Brazilian dish. But I digress.

In checking my Webster's NewWorld Dictionary they identified the Middle English (ME) root of the word apothecary as "apotecarie", the Old French root (very similar to the ME), as "apotecaire", and finally the ancient Greek root as "apothēkē". Hmm.... nary a "schwa" sound in the lot, but I reluctantly accept your claim, nonetheless.

Picky, I've heard that some strains of authentic London Cockney-speak can sound like a totally alien tongue (from the Queen's English, that is) to the untrained Londoner's ear, not to mention a total foreigner? So, bottom-line, the "schwa" usage is hardly out of the question. (Let's ring up Sir Michael Caine and get his take on this linguistic conundrum. HA!)

@Laura Lee, I'm kind of w/ you on this one. I would argue it's almost impossible NOT to rhyme the words Perry and apothecary, unless perhaps one stuffs ones mouth full of saltine crackers, or several large wads of bubble gum, and gives it a go. HA!

Ducky "Not a Quack" Isaksson............. I've got a headache. Get me to an apothecary........ not a nunnery. Over and out.

Sure, we all call it the apotheschwary here on the mean streets of the Portuguese ghetto.

No, sorry, Alex, by schwa I meant that miserable colourless mumbling noise a short unstressed vowel tends towards in English (especially - perhaps? - southern British English?). Like the "er" in "carer" but with the R sound removed. Or the "ir" in "you dirty rat" but with the R removed.

So for me the first, third and fourth vowels in apothecary are all schwas. For some the fourth vowel has become such a feeble schwa that the word is almost "apothcree". So that's how it don't rhyme with no Perry.

What a way to start the day, Picky. I can't stop laughing at apotheschwary.

I could swear I heard Russell Brand call his wife Katy Pree.



I still have that darn headache from last night, and after reading your thorough and most well-intentioned "schwa" explanation, above, I must confess I'm even more dazed-and-confused.

Alas, if only i could HEAR you actually pronounce "apothecary", face-to-face, the authentic London way, I'm sure it would become clear as a wee dram of the amber-hued Laphroaig. HA! That's where that clever, and most expedient online phone 'app' w/ mutual mug-shots, Skipe, could really come in handy about now.

Now, I can at least appreciate that your "schwa" IS an identifying linguistic device, of sorts, and moreover, NOT a particular phonetic sound, which I erroneously just assumed, which then took me down that dubious path leading to the mean streets of the London Portuguese 'ghetto'. HA! And you thought the Warsaw ghetto was a piece of work? (Hmm...... perhaps not really a joking matter..... never mind.)

But I guess my 'guese' is definitely cooked, I'm afeared, w/ this "apothecary" puzzle, still essentially that...... a puzzle. Obviously I'm missing something, and it might be adequate cranial gray matter. HA!

Picky, I'm curious, what's your take on the odd, yet not uncommon New England pronunciation affectation popularized by our late Pres. J.F.K., where words ending in an "a", most notably the country "Cuba", end up coming off phonetically as Cue/ber, w/ a distinct trailing "eer" sound at the end?

Was the charismatic, ill-fated statesman speaking in 'err'. (Groan!) Hmm.......Err-speak.......... kinda catchy, no? As opposed to Grrrr-speak, common to mad-dogs, and irate Englishmen. (Sorry Picky, that was a low blow. HA!)

Of course w/ the whole Bay of Pigs / Ruskie nuclear missile Caribbean theater offensive gambit being a huge world news story, 'Cue/ber' (Cuba) was, at the time of this scary display of blatant Cold War brinkmanship, often on the lips of our neophyte president. Forget 'Bermuder', Jamaiker' and the 'Bahamers'........... out of sight, out of mind back in those heady days of potential global nuclear annihilation. (Yikes!)

Picky, what, pray tell, is all that about..... or in my native Canuck-speak, a/ boot? HA!

@Laura Lee, are you still getting your morning chuckles at my expense? I trust you are laughing w/ me, at this point, and not at me. HA! Ican take the flack....... really.

Ducky "Dazed & Confused" Isaksson........ over and 'oot'.

Let's try this again. A schwa is a reduced vowel like (according to Wikipedia) the following:

like the 'a' in about [əˈbaʊt]
like the 'e' in taken [ˈteɪkən]
like the 'i' in pencil [ˈpɛnsəl]
like the 'o' in eloquent [ˈɛləkwənt]
like the 'u' in supply [səˈplaɪ]
like the 'y' in sibyl [ˈsɪbəl]

I have to admit I don't have a total schwa in all those places, but I hope you get the picture - the first two are particularly good examples, I think. The schwa is represented by the character ə. (I hope this comes out the right way in this damn blogland).

So you, Alex, might pronounce apothecary "əpothəkerry" (rhyming with Perry and with schwas first and third vowels, but using that weird North American o of yours). I would suggest you have a primary stress on "poth" and a secondary stress on "kerry".

I would pronounce it "əpothəcəry" - using a proper, decent, civilised o, of course, and with a single stress (on the o) and all the other vowels except the y as schwas.

If this goes on much longer I shall be fairly sure I don't blinking understand it myself.

I can hear JFK in my mind saying Cuba (oh yes, I remember the missile crisis, mate) but I can't identify the "eer": business. I'll have to find a recording of him.

Picky is quite right about the English-speaker's habit of swallowing or partially swallowing syllables. We pronounce "interesting," for example, as "IN-trest-ting." Only those striving to be hypercorrect mistakenly say "IN-ter-ES-ting."

I've just listened to JFK's television address on Cuba (on that Youtube thing). First of all, it reminded me of what an impressive bloke he was (whether he was right or not in the way he handled this - and I'm not here to say he was wrong).

Second he seems to pronounce Cuba much the way I do. That is to say, surely, correctly. I hear no "eer". I ear no "eer". Perhaps I'm mislistening.

Oh Alex, Alex, you do make me laugh, but I would never laugh AT you. I do find our division by a common language an endless source of amusement. Just to be clear, we in America did all learn in the first grade about that valuable miscellaneous vowel sound schwa. But I think Canadians may have a whole different set of vowels.

And Picky, wot exactly do you mean by "that weird North American o of yours" and what pray tell is the proper, decent, civilized o?

Well, the weird North American 'o' is the one that sounds a bit like 'ah'. It's called the father/bother merger, I believe, and I understand that for most North Americans those two words would rhyme. For me they don't.

Forgive me, I don't intend to be critical - I assume you would pronounce it the way I do if you had the chance (ducks quickly).

Getting back to the original statement that "Perry and apothecary do not rhyme outside North America, alas" and my question as to how they sound in the rest of the world, what I've been able to glean so far is that they may very well rhyme outside North America but not in those parts of the English speaking world that really count.

Do I have that right?

Ah, and given the chance, after we learn to pronounce father/bother correctly, we'd be dropping the r off the end of those two words and adding an r to the end of words where there is none.

Prof. McI.,

I'm pretty sure our perky politico-on-the-make, Sarah "Barracuda" Palin, in her almost over-zealous attempt to perfectly enunciate her every spoken word to the media, would most likely use the "IN-ter-ES-ting" form, as opposed to the shortened version.

In an earlier post a few weeks back I was harping on her annoying speech proclivity of avoiding word conjunctions-----for example, using "is not", instead of "isn't", or "I was not" as opposed to the less stilted, more conventional "I wasn't". Maybe there's something in that pure spring Wasilla, Alaska, water? You betcha!

@Picky. i think i may have met your 'Miss Listening' once, at a very loud, and buzzing, hoity-toity cocktail affair. As I recall, she wasn't 'ARD of 'EARING, and was definitely a very fetching 'bird', indeed. Early on, I discovered I ranked very low on the comely Miss Listening's 'pecking order' on that memorable, yet sadly 'unrequited', occasion. (Sob!) I think the ambient din, and over-imbibing did me in. Plain and simple.

@Laura Lee, was Picky perhaps subconsciously channeling that titillating, naughty tome, "The Story of 'O' "? HA!

Frankly, i'm surprised the discerning Picky hasn't called us out on that nasty Yankee move (or more aptly, "remove") of the royal "u", in such common words as "color (colour/ Br.), "flavor (flavour/Br.), and such. Of course, we loyal Commonweal Canucks still retain the letter "u", yet after having lived in the U.S. of A. for over three decades now, I'm dutifully going w/ the flow and adopting the sans "u" spelling form. Apologies to Queen Elizabeth II are clearly in order.

Picky, cat got your tonge on that one ............ oops!....... sorry, I meant tongue? HA!

Ducky "Here's Looking at "U" Isaksson............ over and 'oot' !

On 'BROTHA' Where Art Thou? --------Mercy!!!!!!

Ducky "Ducks Quickly" Isaksson............... far, far gone.

P.S.: 'Oh Brother' was such a great, fun movie, by the way, w/ a super engaging sound track, to boot. George Clooney, as the happy-go-lucky, country-smart rube-on-the-run, was superb. What a cool, easy comedic instinct. A definite filmic 'tour-de-farce' for the versatile Clooney. HA!


Just noticed I unwittingly typed "On BROTHA' ", rather than "OH BROTHA' " in opening my last post.

My anal retentiveness has come thru for me, once again. HA!

Ducky "OH The Humanity" isaksson........ oy veh and out!

Laura Lee: absolutely correct. Carry on!

No, Tim: so far it is Rest of World Don't Rhyme It 1, Rest of World Do Rhyme It 0.

True, I'm from the part of the world that counts, but don't underestimate Mr Cowan.

Thanks for the scorecard, Picky. What about the initial point that valetudinarian in Emma doesn't mean what the original post says it means?

The fact that Mr W was a pain the neck didn't mean he was fit, in my opinion. I always thought he was unwell, but not as unwell as his fears led him to pretend. This mismatch was what caused him to project his fears onto others. (Picky, The Causes of Valetudinarianism, McIntyre & Tim University Press, 2011).

Hang on, Tim, I think that may mean I agree with you.

Yes, yes it does Picky. You have captured the true Mr. W nicely.

Laura Lee: looking back, what I said sounds highly offensive - I hope you didn't find it so. Sometimes hard to judge a joke correctly: if you think I'm daft enough to believe one vowel sound has some sort of virtue not found in another ... well, I'm daft, but not that daft.

Picky, not in the least offensive! All in good fun, and I trust you took my sham annoyance as such. Believe me, you are one of the main reasons I frequent this place.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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