Conservation of orthographic gemination, again

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Earlier today, BBC News wrote about the latest #sharpiegate development: "Trump Dorian tweets: Weather staff 'faced sacking threat' over Alabama", 9/10/2019:

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had threatened to fire senior staff at the federal weather agency unless they backed President Donald Trump's claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama, the New York Times reports.

It says this led to last week's statement by the agency, disavowing an earlier position by a regional office that the US state was not at risk.

The acronym NOAA (for "National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration") occurs six times in the article. But there's one apparent slip of the fingers resulting in "NAOO":

Presumably the writer's brain intended "NOAA", but their fingers (really their forebrain/basal ganglia circuits, I guess) generated "NAOO". What's interesting about this is that it preserves the pattern of letter identity XYZZ, while swapping the identity of letters Y and Z.

For some examples where letter sequences are retained but gemination patterns are swapped, see "Conservation of (orthographic) gemination" (3/29/2004) and "Conservation of gemination: Another example" (6/7/2004).

Examples like NAOO seem to be simply lapsus digiti ("slips of the fingers"), more complicated versions of "teh" for "the", while some of the other cases (like "Atilla" for "Attila") may be higher-level errors, where the writer simply mis-remembers the spelling in a way that misplaces doubled letters.


  1. Rodger C said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 6:43 am

    (like "Atilla" for "Atilla")


    [(myl) Um, yes, exactly…]

  2. Francois Lang said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 8:04 am

    More about this story in the NYT at

    Ross threatened to fire only his boss' political appointees at NOAA.


  3. Robert Coren said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 9:40 am

    @Francois Lang: "Ross threatened to fire only his boss' political appointees at NOAA."

    According to my understanding, those are the only ones he has the power to fire.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 10:20 am

    I'm curious why the BBC put quotes around 'faced sacking threat' in the headline, since as far as I can tell neither Ross nor the people he (allegedly) threatened used the word 'sack'.

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 11:56 am

    @Gregory Kusnick: Surely that's just the headlinese convention of using quotes to convey that they are not necessarily saying that what is inside the quotes is true. In effect, they're reporting someone's assertion, not the substance of the assertion. The point is to protect themselves from libel charges, not to quote someone's words exactly – after all, faced sacking threat is clearly already headlinese, not something an actual person would ever say. Once you accept that degree of abstraction away from the precise details of the actual words the quoted person used, then dialect-specific substitution like Br.Eng. sack for Am.Eng. fire seems like just what you'd expect.

  6. BZ said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 2:15 pm

    It looks like they fixed it. However, it still says "The NWS is part of the NOAA". In my idiolect NOAA does not take an article. It's the only mention of NOAA where it would make any sense to use an article, if it were needed, so it's unclear whether it's a one-time slip or the writer thinks it's correct.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 2:49 pm

    Well, were I to use it, "NOAA" would require the definite article, since (unlike NASA) it is not in my vocabulary and I would therefore need to look it up in order to understand it before I could use it. But the remainder of that sentence makes little sense to me : "is the branch of the commerce department". "The <something> branch" I could understand, but in the absence of a <something> I would expect "a branch".

  8. Matthew L Juge said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 3:11 pm

    Or lapsus digitorum, depending on how many fingers were involved.

  9. BZ said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 4:29 pm

    @Philip Taylor
    How does not being in your vocabulary change whether something needs an article or not? And anyway, NOAA is spelled out earlier in the article, so you should already know what it stands for by the time you reach this sentence.

    I agree about "the branch". Didn't notice it for some reason.

  10. Markonsea said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 6:12 pm

    @ Philip Taylor / BZ: "the branch:.

    Now THAT looks to me like Editing Remanence.

    Original text will have been "… the branch of the commerce department resonsible for weather services" or the like, and an editorial operative realised they were repeating themselves, truncated the sentence, but overlooked the "the".

  11. Rebecca said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 7:49 pm

    I wonder if the writer pronounces it as N-O-A-A, instead of as it commonly is here, as “Noah”. If so, I would think that that might contribute to scrambling and then mistyping the initials.

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 10:41 pm

    I don't see that the pronunciation would have any big effect in this case. After all neither suggests the spelling 'NAOO'. But the change of all the vowels srongly indicates that this is not just a typo.

    On the other hand, for one of the old examples, 'Atilla' for 'Attila', pronunciation surely does play a role – I doubt that it would be nearly so common if people used first-syllable stress.

    k_over_hbarc at

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 4:41 am

    BZ ("How does not being in your vocabulary change whether something needs an article or not ?") — I did not mean "needs" in the absolute sense, I meant "would I assess it as needing/taking an article". Since the word is not in my vocabularly, I was unaware that it was an acronym, would have assumed that it would have been spelled out in speech, and thus followed the "CIA" model rather than the "NASA" one.

  14. Rachael Churchill said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 6:19 am

    @Philip Taylor Are you saying that whether an initialism takes an article or not depends on whether it's pronounced as a word or spelled out as letters?
    I really don't think that's right. This blog is sometimes called "LL" (not "the LL"), and the FTSE is usually pronounced as "the Footsie".
    Whether a given initialism is pronounced as a word or not seems to depend largely on how easily the letters lend themselves to it, and can change over time, or between dialects.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 6:32 am

    All very true, Rachel — I recant of my heresy (but would still probably write "the NOAA" and mentally pronounce it as /ðiː en oʊ eɪ eɪ/ were I ever to need to do so).

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 11:46 am

    I think "Atilla" is due to common paroxytone mispronunciation of Attila.

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    September 11, 2019 @ 8:20 pm

    I believe that is what I just stated, so you would be plagiarising me. That pronunciation is the only one I've heard, so I'd hesitate to call it a mispronunciation, but, yes, historically it should be first-syllable.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    September 12, 2019 @ 8:24 am

    "Plagiarising" seems a little strong to me, Andrew. "Repeating", maybe, but would you not agree that it is quite possible for two contributors to reach the same conclusion independently ?

  19. BZ said,

    September 12, 2019 @ 2:06 pm

    I have heard that people who work in the FBI and the CIA (and possibly some other three letter agencies) don't use an article when referring to their employer or each other's employers.

  20. Andrew Usher said,

    September 14, 2019 @ 3:43 pm

    That's a well-known shibboleth, at least for (the) CIA.

    Philip Taylor:
    Yes, that seemed like a strong statement, and really I can't claim originality either as it's a pretty obvious conclusion. But I am irritated when my meager contributions get 'overwritten', even if accidentally, by others. One should read all preceding comments, at least enough to see if they are relevant, before writing one's own.

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