Year of the Whores

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At the advent of the lunar New Year, I usually try to come up with something clever to celebrate the occasion. (See here, here, and here.) Perhaps because I was preoccupied with other things, I hadn't yet thought of anything suitable for the Year of the Horse. Fortunately, at the last minute, BBC came to the rescue and gifted me with this spectacular subtitle blunder:

Well, it's no worse than the embarrassing cover of the MaxPlanckForschung that I wrote about in "Burlesque Matinée at the Max Planck Gesellschaft", and it doesn't require any detailed explanation.

"Year of the Whores", indeed! What will it bring?

[Hat tip to John Hill]


  1. Lazar said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

    As someone from the Northeastern US who has the "Tory-torrent" distinction, I often find that the pronunciation of "horror" in other regions sounds perilously close to "whore". Fortunately, I can't recall any instance where it actually caused a problem.

  2. Ben Hemmens said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

    I only recently realised where the word whore comes from. I happened to pass a parked van from the Netherlands and it said on the side "voertuigverhuur". Car hire. D'oh.

  3. Lazar said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

    @Ben Hemmens: Actually no, "whore" and "hire" are not related. The former comes from Proto-Germanic *khoraz, and the latter from PG *hurjan.

  4. David Morris said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

    The authors of the pronunciation textbook 'Ship or Sheep' need to produce a new book called 'Horse or Whores'.

  5. David Morris said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

    Or, as Mr/Col Kurtz didn't say: 'The whore, the whore!'!

  6. Joe Fineman said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

    Lazar: W. V. O. Quine, in _Quiddities_ s.v. Pronunciation, records: "Mrs. Alfred North Whitehead had not been long in America when she was struck by the forthrightness of American women: a new acquaintance had spoken of some third woman as a horror. It was indeed a forthright description, to the point of unkindness; but less so than Mrs. Whitehead thought. What she heard was 'a whore.'"

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 6:36 pm

    The BBC has been screwing up its subtitles for many years — not that other UK TV outlets are better. Some media coverage: "BBC turns Ed Miliband into Ed Miller Band: Deaf viewers complain about standard of corporation's subtitles", Daily Mail 10/11/2011; "BBC's mangled subtitles anger viewers", 10/10/2011; "Ofcom to crack down on sloppy subtitles", The Guardian 5/17/2013.

    An Ofcom initiative to monitor subtitling quality, with reports every six months, was announced last May. As far as I can tell, the first report has yet to be released.

    The reasons for problems like "whores" for "horse" is presumably unedited output from computer-interpreted stenotyping or voice writing. I doubt that they use speech recognition, since in that case the overall error rate would be much higher.]

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

    Some years ago, I was visiting the British Museum in the company of a six-year-old child who was fascinated by differences between British and American spelling. At one point she came running across one of the exhibition rooms calling loudly "Mommy! Daddy! The British spell "war" W H O R E!"

    I believe that she had gotten this impression from the placard for one of William Blake's watercolors:

  9. Eric P Smith said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 7:06 pm

    As a Scot I find this BBC gaffe particularly amusing, because Scots love to poke fun at the horse-hoarse merger of "posh BBC English".

    I suspect that [z] for [s] is becoming more frequent in Southern England speech, but I don’t think I’ve heard a [z] in ‘horse’ yet.

  10. SK said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 8:13 pm

    Eric P Smith: you maybe didn't mean to imply otherwise anyway, but the horse-hoarse merger isn't limited to 'posh' accents within England. It is found in practically all varieties of 'English English' – as well as most varieties worldwide.

  11. Eric P Smith said,

    February 1, 2014 @ 8:56 pm

    @SK: Yes, I consulted the Wikipedia article before I commented, but I decided to keep my comment simple.

    I am surprised that you say that the horse-hoarse merger is found in “practically all varieties of English English”. Have you a source for that? My untutored impression is that the merger is absent in large swathes of the North of England.

    Be that as it may, the pronunciation of ‘horse’ that we Scots find strangest is Received Pronunciation. While the vowel is transcribed /ɔː/, in RP it is very nearly [oː] to my ears.

    In Scottish English we have ‘horse’ [hɒɹs], ‘hoarse’ [hoɹs]; and towards the Scots end of the Scots/SSE continuum we have ‘whore’ [hur] with an alveolar trill.

  12. Ted said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 12:53 am

    This does lead me to wonder what Richard III was really thinking at Bosworth Field.

  13. Bob Ladd said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 2:43 am

    @Ben Hemmens, Lazar: Even without the etymology, the difference between present day Dutch huur 'hire, rent' and hoer 'whore' makes it clear the two words are different. Still, I've occasionally stumbled in the same way Ben reports, especially when confronted with the compound huurhuis (which of course just means 'rental house').

  14. Ben Hemmens said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 4:26 am

    Thanks for the etymological enlightenment.

    It couldn't have happened to someone from Tipperary, who would call the animal a "haɾs" or to someone from Dublin, for whome the word whore has two syllables, like sewer ;-)

  15. Robert Andrews said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    I was interested about the point made by Mark Liberman about speech recognition and the general unreliability of BBC subtitles, and I wondered how this affects spoken language corpora.

    I am currently studying corpus linguistics for a related Masters' programme and in a 1991 text from John Sinclair called Corpus, Concordance, Collocation, he says:

    "In my experience, there is no substitute for impromptu speech, and a decision I made in 1961 to assemble a corpus of conversation is one of the luckiest I ever made. Even at that time, I was assured that an automatic transcription of speech was 'just around the corner'. It still is."

    Does this hold true even now? I was wondering how advanced the technology has become and whether or not spoken language corpora (such as the Fisher corpus) can be more easily compiled now.

    [(myl) Speech recognition error rates for decent-quality recordings in topics and registers well covered by the language model are good enough for document retrieval work but (in my opinion) not good enough to use as a source of transcriptions for most linguistic research.

    But ASR as a basis for intelligent autocomplete in a well-designed transcription system can work very well, and has the potential to reduce labor time for transcription to the time of the recording, or even somewhat below that (by eliminating silences and speeding up well-recognized regions).]

  16. Eneri Rose said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 9:22 am

    This reminds me of an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which Raj (from India) is recommending to Leonard (who just lost his girlfriend) to "get back on the whores". Howard corrects Raj, telling him that "No, it's horse, get back on the horse." To which Raj replies, "Ugh, that's disgusting."

  17. William Berry said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 9:29 am

    Lazar, @1:

    I hear you. In my part of the country (Midwest), it would be much safer to say "house of horror" than it would be to say "horror house"!

  18. Mara K said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 10:36 am

    马 your New Year be a happy one!

  19. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    It's always confusing just after New Year's. I'll be writing "Snake" on my checks for another month.

  20. Karl Weber said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

    @Lazar–Here is the instance you are looking for. Years ago I heard an interview with a Miss America who came from some southern state. The interviewer asked some kind of harmless question along the lines of, "What do you do to always look so perfect?" and Miss America replied by describing how one recent morning she was surprised by TV cameras arriving at her hotel room early, and she added, "And I didn't even have time to brush my hair or put on makeup–I looked like a horror!" Only she pronounced it "whore," causing the interviewer some embarrassment and confusion.

  21. Suburbanbanshee said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

    Every place I've ever worked that had a voice recognition phone tree, we've had complaints from practically every caller about how the computer can't understand them. The only sign of improvement was when people started to say, "She can't understand me," meaning the computer.

    To be fair, the beautiful diversity of American English is on full display when Americans pronounce numbers, and even more when they pronounce numbers in series, as with checking account numbers and routing numbers.

    People are a lot happier pressing numbers on their phones. A LOT.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

    From a colleague:


    The past couple of days I've been watching the BBC series "Wild China", which (as you may well know) is about China's wildlife, at least mostly. Well, in Episode 5 of Season 1, there's a bit of prologue about the Han Chinese people, and in his posh BBC voice the announcer informs us that the language "the Han Chinese people speak is Mandarin, which is the oldest language in the world". This from the BBC. It never ends.


    Good grief! Mandarin is the youngest of the Sinitic languages, and Sinitic itself is much, much younger than many other language groups on earth.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 11:01 pm

    From the same colleague as the previous comment:


    Whores? That's pretty amazing. I guess I hadn't realized how careless the Brits could sometimes be. That bit I mentioned about Mandarin is really only perhaps the worst example of how the BBC editors have completely uncritically parroted back Chinese cliches about such things as the Great Wall and the like. A lot of "Believe it or Not" superlatives and not much fact checking. (e.g., Yunnan has always, or at least for thousands of years, been part of the Han Chinese homeland.)


  24. Bobbie said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 11:11 pm

    Years ago, there was a night club/restaurant in Norfolk Virginia called "The Oar House". There was LOTS of commentary about the "racy" name even though the word Oar is not locally pronounced like Whore, but said as a phrase it came close.

  25. Terry Hunt said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 10:01 am

    @ Ben Hemmens:

    Hence (as I'm sure you know, but others may not) one of the nicknames of Dublin's public sculpture Anna Livia, representing the Spirit of the River Liffey – "The Whore in the Shower" – which in a Dublin accent rhymes tolerably well. (Her more officially tolerated nickname is "The Floozie in the Jacuzzi".)

    While I'm on the subject, I can't resist mentioning another Dublin statue, that of Mollie Malone, aka "The Tart with the Cart."

  26. S T from Toronto said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    Here's an example of whores/horse confusion in an American/Irish context:
    Straight from the horse's mouth

  27. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

    @ Ben Hemmens: Since we've previously established in another thread your insight not only into IrEng phonology but also on what rock bands teenage boys in Dublin in the late '70's would have been aware of, can you enlighten us on what the first syllable of Horslips is homophonous with for those IrEng speakers who maintain these various horse/hoarse/whores distinctions?

  28. Ben Hemmens said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

    I pronouce Horslips the same way as I pronounce horse. Rhymes with Morse.

    I don't know what they would call them in Tipperary because the only person I know with a proper Tipperary accent (in fact, he'd probybly kill me for saying that, he's really from the other side of the Kilkenny border) is much too young to have known who they were.

  29. Graeme said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 10:40 pm

    Since we all mishear things; and mostly giggle at the resulting eggcorns – why should the deaf be denied this merriment by having a perfect transcription of oral broadcasts?

  30. Judy Delin said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 7:45 am

    One of my favourite pre-election BBC radio news interviews – a politician defending some MP charged with lack of action on some issue or other.

    'It's something the minister simply CANnot be arsed to do.'

    Well, it works if you don't have a post-vocalic R.

  31. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 10:27 am

    I have heard that 'Horslips' is derived from 'Horsemen of the Apocalypse', which means that a pronunciation as in 'horse' would make sense.

  32. George said,

    February 4, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

    @ Terry Hunt:

    For me (a local), it was always "The Whore in the Sewer".

    @ Andrew (not the same one):

    Yes, the Four Poxmen of the Horslips.

  33. Ken Brown said,

    February 5, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

    IIRC on the "Live in Belfast" album both band and crowd say or chant "Horslips" with much the same syllable as this south-east Englander uses for "horse".

    And its not just Dublin where "whore" rhymed with "sewer". I know people from Mayo and Down who say it.

  34. Norval Smith said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

    @Eric P. Smith You forgot to mention the linguistically most useful [ɒɹ – oɹ] distinction in Scottish English: aural – oral.

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