Aid from the Magic Kingdom

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Will legendary beings step in where the politicians have failed?

"Missouri: Flood Damage Dwarfs Repair Budget", NYT (AP) 9/15/2011.

Reader AG, who sent in the tip, hopes so. He's been fantasizing about those flood damage dwarfs, toiling with little fiscal hammers and tongs at their forges in the caverns of the Ozarks.

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. LDavidH said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 7:39 am

    Obviously not related to the ones Tolkien wrote about; they are "dwarves". That form is apparently generally acceptable anyway, according to the Concise OED.

    [(myl) Sigh. For more than you want to know about this question, see "Dwarves vs. Dwarfs", 1/3/2004. Short form: Tolkien used "dwarves" because he didn't think he could get away with using "dwarrows":

    It should be dwarrows (or dwerrows), if singular and plural had each gone its own way down the years, as have man and men, or goose and geese. But we no longer speak of a dwarf as often as we do of a man, or even of a goose, and memories have not been fresh enough among Men to keep hold of a special plural for a race now abandoned to folk-tales …

    And for more about the modern spelling of non-legendary forms, see "Dwarves taking over England", 2/11/2011. ]

  2. Marc Leavitt said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 8:16 am

    I've always had a bit of confusion about this plural form. Hooves, hoofs? roof, rooves? dwarf, dwarves? Meriam Webster gives hooves as a preferred, hoofs as a secondary spelling; roofs as primary, rooves as secondary, and nearly archaic.I've always spellt all three in the accepted (first spelling) way, and almost always pronounced them with the (vs) form. This may be attributable to my dialect (NY-NJ Metro), but that's just supposition. The New York Times style of capitalization, I think, contributes to the confusion in the headline. It "might" be less confusing if dwarfs were not capitalized.

    [(myl) Some "crash blossoms" can really lead readers astray, or leave them semantically stranded, but this headline is amusing, not confusing.]

  3. Peter Buchanan said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    In Old English dwarf was either dweorg or dweorh (cognate with Old Norse dvergr), and would have generally ended with a voiceless velar fricative. In Middle English this sound changed in a variety of ways (so we get draught and laugh but also night and through). The variety of spellings in the OED is a reflection of these shifts in action. Given that it wasn't even stable in the singular, it's hardly surprising there wasn't any uniformity in the plural!

    At the same time (we're talking about a five hundred year period) as all this was going on, the inflectional system in English was beginning to lose vowels. In OE fricatives were voiced intervocalically, and since the OE inflections mostly began with vowels, this meant word final fricatives became voiced in most of the declined forms. So, for roof, OE hrof became hrofas, which would have been voiced. Over time -as>-es>s. Once the vowel was dropped from pronunciation of plurals, there was no phonological reason for the word final fricative to be voiced except for analogy to other forms.

    When people voice dwarf, it is by analogy with forms like roof, hoof, leaf, and most importantly, elf (all words which existed in roughly the same state in OE, hrof, hof, leaf, aelf). But the closer relation for historical purposes would be other words which ended with a velar fricative that became a labiodental fricative, like laugh or cough, where the f sound developed much later. I can't easily find information at the moment on whether or not people voice either of these words in their plural forms, but I feel certain they do so much less than with the other words (but I don't want to rule out the possibility). If the word were spelled dwargh and pronounced the same way, would we still feel the urge to voice the plural?

  4. John Walden said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    "This headline is amusing, not confusing"

    It might be that there's a budget for the repair of flood damage dwarfs. A sum of money could have been allocated for fixing up and repainting some plaster ones.

  5. Brett said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    @myl: Actually, Tolkien just thought that the correct plural was "dwarves" when he wrote The Hobbit. This may or may not have been influenced by his greater than average knowledge of English morphological and etymological patters. The relevant citation to one of his letters is given in the comment by Eugene van der Pijll at (although I cannot verify the citation myself at the moment). The note about "dwarrows" in The Return of the King was an after-the-fact explanation, couched in (what I thought was) rather obviously snarky language.

    [(myl) Indeed. A direct link to Eugene's comment is here.]

  6. Rubrick said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

    Veering entirely off-topic, and thus expecting to be purged: In light of Brett's comment (which matches my own understanding), I wonder what the first known instance of retconning is? Tolkien did a ton of it, A. Conan Doyle preceeded him… is there retconning in Shakespeare? Homer? The Odyssey seems a likely candidate. I suspect retconning has probably been around for as long as there have been sequels.

    [(myl) For readers not familiar with the concept of "retroactive continuity", there is a Wikipedia article, which notes that

    The first published use of the phrase "retroactive continuity" is found in Elgin Frank Tupper's 1974 book The theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg.

    Pannenberg's conception of retroactive continuity ultimately means that history flows fundamentally from the future into the past, that the future is not basically a product of the past.

    The first known printed use of "retroactive continuity" as referring to the altering of history within a fictional work is in All-Star Squadron #18 (cover-dated February 1983) from DC Comics.

    In a (Catholic) theological context, the retconning must be biblical.

    With respect to the matter of publication priority, Google Books finds a 1965 volume of the South African Law Journal containing this passage which uses the term in a somewhat different meaning:

    To hold that an admission of intercourse at any time raises a presumption of paternity is to incorporate into our law of affiliation proceedings presumptions of prospective or retroactive continuity — the assumption that a man who has once acted in a particular way will have acted in that way on all earlier or later occasions.

    There is no Wikipedia article for "anticipatory plagiarism".]

  7. Steve Morrison said,

    September 17, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

    I can verify the correctness of the Tolkien quote (except that the final "go with it" should be "go on with it"). I've also recently seen an example of "dwarves" used as a verb by the BBC News.

  8. Graeme said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 8:09 am

    Memo to NYT: "Missouri Flood: repair budget inadequate" saves a few characters, which is ostensibly the motivation that gives us crash blossoms.

    (I prefer to think that sub eds are just doubly tender for double entendres).

    ps: is more than one waif ever a set of waives?

  9. John said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

    As long as you expect the hyphen to be used (or not used, in this case) correctly, this headlines works well. For me, hyper-hyphen-aware, it read perfectly well, though I also immediately saw why it appeared on LL.

  10. Aid from the Magic Kingdom - English Teaching Daily said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 6:26 am

    […] Aid from the Magic Kingdom September 17th, 2011 | Posted by Mark Liberman in Crash Blossoms Will legendary beings step in where the politicians have failed? "Missouri: Flood Damage Dwarfs Repair Budget", NYT (AP) 9/15/2011. Reader AG, who sent in the tip, hopes so. He's been fantasizing about those flood damage dwarfs, toiling with little fiscal hammers and tongs at their forges in the caverns of the Ozarks. Aid from the Magic Kingdom […]

  11. kay said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

    Graeme – Having been forced to write numerous headlines (before the days of electronic page layout), I can tell you that SOMETIMES, you're looking for *longer* words to fill the space. It is not kosher to leave gaps of white space around a headline. The editor's aim is to fill the space given with a headline that makes sense and is descriptive of the article. If you used only shorter words, you'd have an aesthetically unacceptable headline. SOOO glad I am not in that profession any longer!

  12. George said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 5:58 am

    What I find odd in the headline is the use of the verb 'dwarf' in this particular context. It may be me, but I think of the verb 'dwarf' as establishing a relationship between two things that can be compared in a way that flood damage and a budget cannot be compared. So, for example, a building can dwarf another building or a car or a person or whatever, but they're comparable in terms of size.

    I can imagine referring to the cost of the flood damage dwarfing the repair budget but not to the flood damage itself dwarfing the repair budget. I think that any double take on my part on reading the headline comes more from that than from the verb/noun issue.

    But that might just be me.

  13. jan said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

    I wonder what the other plurals would be if they followed the
    dwarf-dwarrow pattern?
    Would they be words with a central vowel followed by r?
    tomato–tomorrow might be unlikely.
    quarry–quarrow–that might eventually become quarrel, in some dialects?
    court–corrow, becomes coral in some dialects?

  14. Chad said,

    March 6, 2014 @ 11:35 am

    Yeah, my first thought was that it was funny, but then I thought about it further and realized that the general pluralization of the noun "dwarf" is "dwarves" while "dwarfs" is the third-person singular of the verb "to dwarf".

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