Biopic man

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My embarrassing failure with respect to tiramisu was one of failing to analyse the internal structure of a word and thus see what its origin and literal meaning must be. It is also possible to overanalyse, and see inside a word structure that isn't there, and similarly miss the etymology and the meaning. The latter happened to my colleague Bob Ladd, though no one knows about it, because no occasion ever arose that would cause him to reveal it. Basically, his mistake was of the eggcorn variety, though with sound and writing reversed in their roles. If an occasion for his unmasking had ever come up, he would have revealed his linguistic foolishness through a ridiculous mispronunciation of a word he knew only from writing, to general mirth. Because it never happened, nobody was ever privy to his secret shame.

Until now, that is. He committed the inexplicable blunder of sharing his shameful phonological secret with a staff member of the one linguistic blog site that knows no mercy, the News of the World of the language sciences, the one-stop-shopping linguistic revelation site that is . . . Language Log. How could he be so foolish as to tell a linguistic journalist without saying "This is off the record" first? I have no idea. This is Language Log, not Needless Self-Humiliation Log. Language Log's duty is to its readers. Read on!

The word on which Bob faced his potential (and as from today, real) humiliation was biopic. He had seen it, and imagined it was to be classed with -ic words like biotic, bionic, and myopic, all of which are stressed on the o of the syllable before the -ic suffix. If he had ever had to say it, he would have rhymed it with myopic: [baɪˈapɪk]. He imagined that there was some relevant Greek root biop- that contributed appropriately to its sense.

But the word is, of course, nothing to do with the suffix -ic (nearly all the words formed with that are adjectives, anyway). Biopic is instead a combination of two back-clippings (you knew that). If you take the phrase biographical picture ("movie about someone's life"), drop the -graphical bit of biographical to get the back-clipping bio, drop the -ture bit of picture to get the back-clipping pic, and glue the two together, you get biopic. It's pronounced with the prosody you expect in a compound: [ˈbaɪoʊˌpɪk].

Bob had completely missed this etymology and the real structure of the word, just as a mere layperson might well do. Poor Bob. A disgrace to the phonology profession. And he knows it. Go ahead, laugh at him. Frankly, I don't feel quite so bad about tiramisu now.

Update: Language Log reader Bruce Lin tells me that he was on the BBC4 TV quiz show "Only Connect" recently (it's a what-do-these-have-in-common lateral thinking quiz), and heard the host, Victoria Coren, pronounce biopic with the stress on "op". He didn't think anything of it at the time, but after the program aired, Twitter commenters thought she had mispronounced it out of ignorance. So that might seem like something to lift Bob Ladd's spirit. But I don't think so. He's a top phonologist and phonetician; he doesn't want to be defended on the grounds that he's comparable to a TV quiz show host, now does he?

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