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Don't cut a wide one

Picked up a story yesterday in which the writer had written swathe for swath. This is a muddy patch in the language, and the Old Prescriptivist is going to lay down his coat so that you don’t have to get your shoes dirty.

Use swath as a noun, meaning a strip of space. Its origin in Middle English indicated the amount of space covered by a single stroke of a scythe. The metaphorical expression cut a wide swath means to make a big impression or to indulge in some ostentatious display. Pronounce it “swahth.”

Swathe is a noun for a bandage or wrapping. Put it out of your mind that it is an alternative spelling for swath; that will not help you. It is more frequently used as a verb, pronounced “swaythe,” meaning to wrap a strip of bandage around something, or, metaphorically, to surround or enclose. It’s akin to swaddle.

Keep them separate

This is the sort of point on which the Associated Press Stylebook could be useful, if it had an entry on this point. (Perhaps you could suggest it to them; I lack confidence that they listen to me.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:49 PM | | Comments (24)


Swathe has variable pronunciation: though the FACE vowel is historical, the LOT and THOUGHT vowels are also found. I myself have LOT in this word. For that matter, swath can be given the THOUGHT vowel as well.

We're an idle, sloppy lot, we BrE speakers. The tendency here has been towards spelling both words with the final E, and to pronounce them both with the FACE vowel and the final voiced consonant, so those are the first versions given in the ODE. I've no doubt you AmE speakers have the right of it, but I'm afraid over here the die Is cast.

A British Lady cut a swath
By wearing diamonds in the bath.
Wrapped her necklace as a swathe
Every time she went to bathe.

Apropos 'the irrepressible fairchildd's "swath/ bath"/ "swathe/ bathe" clever, short, rhyming ditty, i've often wondered why many Americans (and perhaps a fair share of Canadians of-a-certain-age), particularly those 'advanced-in-years' seniors representing Tom Brokow's so-called "Greatest Generation", who endured the travails of both the Great Depression and World War II, often pronounce the word "wash", as 'worsh'?

Could it be a holdover from say an old country Cockney Brit, or Old Scots affectation, or is it strictly a homegrown Am.En peculiarity?

Of course, "wash", as a noun, can refer to one's load of dirty laundry, often labelled "the wash", or a less frequent usage as representing a kind of evenly split, no-clear-victor contest result. As both a verb and noun it can refer to the activity of cleansing, or the act itself, most commonly one's morning ablutions.

Perhaps the "wash"/ 'worsh' dichotomy falls under the same pronunciation variable as the Bostonian "car"/ 'caw', "park"/ 'pack' phenomenon? We won't even go into the peculiarly warped Maine accent, which has some affinity w/ the New England mode of speech, but IMHO, is even more foreign to the ear
than the distinct Bean Town 'accent'.

As a long-time-transplanted Canadian, I can't help but see the grassroots speech inflections of say the denizens of North Dakota, and for that matter, all those northern prairie / Plains states bordering the 49th Parallel, as very close to their Canuck neighbors to the immediate north,eh?

Watching the hilarious classic 'sleeper' film from a number of years back, "Fargo", that quirky cast of characters in the movie sounded like they could have just as easily walked out of the northern Manitoba bush country, as much as the rugged wintery climes of North Dakota............ wood chipper and all.

Perhaps it's the legacy of the early Scandinavian pioneer homesteader stock's plodding, slightly sing-songy speech patterns in this region that spilled over into Am.E on either side of the shared border.

"Yah........ you betcha." What's Sarah "The Wasilla Wacko" Palin's excuse? (That was a cheap shot. Sorry.)


My grandmother, of distinct German extraction, grew up in northwestern PA and always said "worsh", not to mention "oh my gorsh". Yet my mom, who grew up in the same household, says wash. Go figure...

When I was growing up we had neighbors who moved to California from Pennsylvania. I was stunned when the mother informed me that Janet could not come out to play because she was "worshing her head."


That little girlhood friend of yours must have had some supra-natural powers, where she could actually remove her head, and "worsh" it?

Okay, I'm being a tad silly here, but you get my drift?

That kid sounds like a perfect subject for the next big Stephen King blockbuster psycho-thriller.

The book's back jacket hype-blurb might read something like this: "She was once an seemingly innocent, charming little wooden hand-puppet, who miraculously became flesh incarnate as a seemingly possessed, controlling child who eventually made life totally insufferable for all those souls who chose to defy her malevolent will." (Remind you folks of anyone? HA!)

Of course, the concerned townsfolk eventually clued into the raison d'etre of this havoc-making little bad seed of a kid, w/ her extraordinary ability, when provoked, or crossed, to spin her head around full-circle, 360-degrees----clockwise and counterclockwise, no less. Her unblinking peepers would enlarge to the size of a startled owl, as her stumpy little digits suddenly morphed into raptor-like talons.

And you thought that Damian kid was a handful? A bad omen, or what?

King's new tome's working title would be, "Twisted Sister", and ironically, run a blood-curdling 666 pages. The devil made him do it. HA!

(Go ahead Dahlink, "worsh" my mouth out w/ soap.)

Reminder folks.......... Halloween is a mere 8 weeks off.



The forms "worsh" and "Worshington" are hypercorrections. Western Pennsylvania was settled by Scotch-Irish people, who had "r" after vowels like most Americans today; their English neighbors on the coast mostly did not. So the word "scorch", for example, was "scorrrch" in the West, "scoach" in the East. Hearing Easterners say "wash", the Scotch-Irish assumed that the form of this word in their dialect would be "worsh", and that's what people living there say to this day.

Which is how my rhotic fellow Scotch-Irish Appalachians frequently pronounce it.

Okay, you got me, Prof. "Rhotic" is a new one on me.

Hard "r" pronunciation, particularly at the ends of words.


There are those of you who pronounce Rs properly. Not necessarily trilled like Mr McIntyre's (distant) Scottish relatives, but definitely sounded in every position, the way you would expect in American English. You folk are rhotic (you know, that Greek stuff).

Then there are the sloppy mouthed rest of us. Many of my fellow-countrymen are rhotic, but an awful lot of us lose the R sound in the middle, and especially at the end (as Mr McI says) of words. In "career", for instance, we have no R at the end, but a sort of apology for a schwa. We are doomed, I fear. We are non-rhotic. There is no health in us.

Picky, I did not realize you could hear me all the way across the pond!

We can, Dahlink, we can. But do we learn?

So Picky, would it be correct to say your pronunciation is irrhotic?

Possibly, Laura Lee. But it's got far too many Rs for me to be able to say it.

John Wells (who devised the term "rhotic") uses "non-rhotic" for the antonym, and the rest of the profession follows him. The former terms were "r-ful" and "r-less", which he thought were just too inelegant.

Non-rhotic speakers are found in England (except the West Country and Lancashire), Wales, eastern New England, New York City, parts of the American South, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Caribbean (except Barbados), Pakistan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is also non-rhotic. Scotland, Ireland, most of the U.S, Canada, Barbados, India, and the Philippines are rhotic areas.

The r's that are dropped are those at the ends of syllables as well as the ends of words, except when the r is between two vowels, like the first r in "career" (which is "ca-ree-uh"). In all varieties except AAVE, a final r is restored if the next word begins with a vowel, even in some cases where there was no r to begin with.

Just a thought.

Those non-rhotic English speakers, worldwide, that John Cowan kindly enumerated would likely have a dilly of a time pronouncing say the late actor, Canadian-born Raymond Burr, or controversial U.S. statesman, Aaron Burr, or both famed Richard Burtons-----the Welsh-born actor, and the intrepid African explorer; even Ben Hur, or the thoroughly fetching British actress, Elizabeth Hurley, and the veteran U.S. actress, Barbara Hershey. (Might even dispense w/ the hard leading "H" in the case of the aforementioned female thespians, if one were inclined to Cockney-speak?)

Picky, old lad. As an admitted lifelong non-rhotic English speaker, or as Laura Lee earlier so aptly put it, an "irrhotic" speaker, what, pray tell, gives?

I would venture to say that the Scottish Highland English speakers' coarse, distinctive burr exemplifies the rhotic accent to-the-very-extreme, eh laddie?

Would you pronounce Robbie Burns, the Scottish bard, as Robbie 'Buns'? As in hot-crossed. HA!

Hmm........ likely he'd nay be none too happy 'bout that 'cheeky' appellation. Although he could often be a bawdy, lusty sort, so perchance he'd find no real offense.


Not as "buns" for heaven's sake, Alex.  In all those names I would pronounce the vowel much as you do, But whereas a rhotic speaker ends the syllable with a movement of the tip of the tongue towards the roof of the mouth to suggest or produce an R,  the non-rhotic speaker doesn't.

In all the names you mention (containing the BIRD vowel) and similarly where the vowel is a schwa (eg the second vowel in carer), I pronounce nothing in that syllable after the vowel.  Other vowels (in, eg, war, pure, car, mere) are given a faint flavour of R by adding a suggestion of a schwa at the end.

I hope all these mentions of schwa don't send you off to the Portuguese apothecary.

I think I foresee another discussion of spirits coming up. One restaurant in Scotland offered a Robert Burns dinner for the tourists, by the way. We did not partake.


Rather than a Portuguese apothecary, or pharmacist, I might be better off consulting a Portuguese, or better still, Brazilian, master chef who could instruct me on the finer points of slow cooking the Brazilian national dish, feijoada, which just happens to be pronounced, 'freschwada', w/ a delightful embedded "schwa" for good measure.

This popular traditional hardy meat and beans stew originated in Portugal, but apparently the creative Brazilians concocted their own distinctive native version, w/ various inputs from former African slave, Lebanese, and even German immigrant cultures.

Thankfully, no offal involved, but pork trimmings (tails, ears, hocks), cured bacon, pork ribs, smoked sausage, and jerked beef are all added to one's choice of beans (pinto, white, red, or black turtle), plus various cutup fresh veggies, to come up w/ the hardy melange, served hot w/ steamed rice, fried chopped collared greens, and a colorful garnish of orange slices. Yum! Yum!

Picky, a little birdie told me that the surname of the famed Irish-born playwright who penned such classic stage dramas as "Man and Superman", "Pygmalion", "Major Barbara', and "Candida" was actually pronounced "Schwa"----George Bernard, to be specific. I had to dig deep for that one. (Groan)

Thanks for that little physiological factoid regarding how the tongue rises to the roof of the mouth for rhotic speakers, whereas w/ you non-rhotics the tongue does not. I tried it out, and it proved to be a reliable rule of thumb........... or more precisely, 'rule of tongue'.

Picky, hope you're having a pleasant Labor Day. Hopefully a leisurely start to a week where on this side of The Pond most public school kids are heading back to class, while sadly the dying art of cursive script barely exhibits a detectable pulse in this era of technological supremacy.

Computers, smart phones, Kindles,Nooks, iPads, and the like have really gummed up the works for the purist cursive set. But alas, that's a debate for yet another day.


P.S.:------@Dahlink, I trust that Burns' touristic dinner would have the de rigueur haggis, perhaps a smoked kipper, or two, maybe some onions and tripe, and the piece-de-resistance, savory blood pudding (sausage). A warm scone w/ clotted cream would have to be the capper.

Of course, every January on Burns' Night, celebrated all over the globe where ever a quorum of nostalgic Scots gather for a wee dram, the haggis is bagpiped into the commemorative gathering, and a heartfelt whisky toast is made by all to the great Bard of Ayrshire.

Alex, the menu was something on that order--plus a tasting (sipping?) menu of whisky, I believe. But I confess I was busy reading the regular menu, which was enthralling, and did not pay too much attention.

Oh my luve is like a red, red rose,

That's newly sprung in June:

Oh my luve is like the melodie,

That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,

So deep in luve am I;

And I will luve thee still, my dear,

Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,

And the rocks melt wi' the sun;

And I will luve thee still, my dear,

While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!

And fare thee weel a while!

And I will come again, my luve,

Tho' it were ten thousand mile!

Laura Lee,

Thanks for those classic lines of sweet rhyme from the venerable Scottish bard, Robert Burns.

Lovely, heartfelt sentiments, indeed. Yet when he pens "my only luve" in that final stanza, the old adage, "do as I say, and not as I do", immediately comes to mind. The word "only" is the sticking point for me.

As credible chroniclers of Burn's rather short, but fully actualized life would note, Burns was quite the ardent ladies man, and would have many serial romances, and fleeting 'intimacies' w/ sundry bonnie lassies over his lifetime, even playing-the-field, or sowing his wild oats, as it were, while apparently happily married. (What a cad. HA!)

But alas, I'll grant you, in your Burns' citation, he's not necessarily referring to HIMSELF as the gushing, amour-struck lover in the piece.

So let's not be to harsh, or judgmental w/ lusty Robbie and his roving sensuous ways, for I would contend that his carnal 'research' clearly imbued many of his literary works w/ a glow of unfettered romance and sensual pleasure that few poets have expressed w/ as much lyrical grace, sentiment, and consummate ardor, to this very day.

For Burns truly was a 'jolly good fellow'............. and an abidingly lustful, and romantic one at that. HA!


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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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