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Pronunciation of 'Kiln' Reveals Wacky History

Rob Kyff on

Q. A friend recently told me that her pottery pieces were being fired in a "kiln," a word she pronounces with a final "n" sound. But my high school art teacher pronounced the word for this potter's oven as "KIL." What's cooking with "kiln"? -- Chris Ryan, New York City

A. "Cooking" is the operative word here, for "kiln" is derived from the Latin word "culina" (kitchen), which also gives us "culinary."

"Kiln" originally ended with an "n" that was pronounced. Similarly, "mill" was once spelled "milne," and "ell," an old measure of distance, was once spelled "eln."

Perhaps because the "LN" sound is hard to pronounce, people started dropping the final "n" sound from these three words. But, while the spellings of "mill" and "ell" were changed to reflect their new sound, the "n" in "kiln" was retained.

So "kiln" entered modern English with its "n" spelling but still pronounced "KIL." That was the preferred pronunciation until the 1980s or so, which explains why your art teacher said "KIL."

But when people see a word spelled a certain way, they want to pronounce it that way. So, the traditional pronunciation, "KIL," was quickly overrun by "KILN," which is now the preferred rendering.

Thus, in a quaint turn of linguistic history, the pronunciation "KIL" survives almost exclusively among potters, like the talisman of a sacred craft, passed on from master to apprentice.

Q. In his recent book, former Speaker of the House John Boehner calls some politicians "whack jobs." Shouldn't that be "wack jobs," as in "wacky," or should one assume that they've been figuratively "whacked" on the head? -- Roy Wiseman, West Hartford, Connecticut

 

A. Boehner WOULD like to whack them over the head!

Your instinct about the origin of "whack job" is correct. The verb "whack," meaning "to strike sharply," appeared in 1719 and is believed to be derived from the sound of a physical blow (WHACK!). Soon, the British dialect term "whacky" (fool) emerged, which, as you surmise, derives from the notion that irrational people act as if they've been whacked on the noggin.

During the 1930s, people started using "whacky" as an adjective to mean "foolish, crazy," but spelling it most often as "wacky." The terms "wacko" and "whacko" appeared in 1975, and "whack job" and "wack job" surfaced in 1999.

A Google Ngram search shows that "wacky" is now used 10 times more often than "whacky," and "wacko" three times more often than "whacko." But "whack job" appears six times more often than "wack job."

Now THAT's wacky!

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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