Metered spellings

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Today's Frazz:

Two follow-up questions:

  1. What determines the rhythm of spoken spellings? How consistent is it for a given word?
  2. What metrical scheme does Caulfield have in mind, given the pattern S w w S w w S w w S ?


  1. Rick Rubenstein said,

    March 28, 2022 @ 6:19 pm

    I grew up in the oft-misspelled city of Cincinnati. My terrible mnemonic for getting the spelling right was "It has the same rhythm as the Mississippi one except the ending, which feels all wrong because there's only one T".

  2. Julian said,

    March 28, 2022 @ 7:06 pm

    A classic question for a quiz night: 'How do you spell "Woolloomooloo"?' [a suburb of Sydney Australia]

  3. Christopher Henrich said,

    March 28, 2022 @ 9:36 pm

    When I moved to Tillinghast Place, I

  4. Daniel said,

    March 28, 2022 @ 10:04 pm

    When I went to school in Sydney, I was taught that the secret to spelling Woolloomooloo was to remember "sheep toilet cow toilet". Wool loo moo loo.

  5. Michael M said,

    March 28, 2022 @ 11:50 pm

    I always spell out Mississippi with an anapaestic meter, as though there's a syllable missing at the beginning, it sounds good 'cause all the I's are stressed – m – I / s – s – I / s – s- I / p – p – I

  6. cameron said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 1:10 am

    if called on to spell Mississippi, I'd recall the rhythm of the chorus to the classic song "Mississippi Delta", by Bobbie Gentry

  7. Laura Morland said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 3:35 am

    There used to be an Australian bar here in Paris called "Woolloomooloo," and my godson's father, a native of Sydney (and a professor at Penn, as it happens), looked at me as if I were nuts when I pronounced it "WOOL-loo-MOO-loo."

    I countered, "How in the world could I possibly know that it's pronounced "Wool-loo-moo-LOO?" (Who would guess that it ends in an anapest?)

  8. David Frier said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 5:51 am

    Another vote for the Bobby Gentry classic.

  9. Ross Presser said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 8:17 am

    Jean-Michel Jarre taught me the word Woolloomooloo, but he says it incorrectly, like Laura Morland stated.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 8:41 am

    I could not have spelled "Wooloomooloo" correctly if asked, but it would seem that I would have pronounced (or at least stressed) it correctly because I would have patterned my pronunciation on "hullabaloo" (/ˌhʌl ə bə ˈluː/).

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 9:02 am

    Like I suspect many Americans of my generation I first became aware of Woolloomooloo in my teens via Monty Python's "Bruces sketch," which is set in the (apparently fictitious) University of Woolloomooloo's philosophy department. But I don't think I devoted any thought into how it ought to be prescriptively spelled, and indeed unofficial transcriptions of the script for the sketch you can find on the internet exhibit some orthographic variation.

  12. David Morris said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 3:25 pm

    The first recorded spelling of Woolloomooloo was Walla_mool (Anon, handwritten notebook, Vocabulary of the Language of N. S. Wales c 1790).

  13. Chas Belov said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 3:27 pm

    Hmm, I consider it dactylic with the m as a lead-in


  14. Victor Mair said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 4:18 pm

    This is how I remember it:


    It just rolls off the tongue.

    Cincinnati is harder for me.

  15. Mark Young said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 6:01 pm

    The meter Caulfield suggests works fine for Cincinnati.


  16. Josh R. said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 7:15 pm

    My mother taught me the spelling of Mississippi with the old chant:

    M, I,
    crooked letter, crooked letter, I,
    crooked letter, crooked letter, I,
    humpback, humpback, I.

  17. Arthur Baker said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 8:39 pm

    Greetings from Sydney. Woolloomooloo has the same stress pattern as hullabaloo, Kalamazoo, didgeridoo, bid her adieu, big ballyhoo, how do you do, room with a view, over to you, wouldn't say boo, locked in the loo, and the children's game Skip-To-My-Lou.

    About 40 years ago I shared a house in Sydney's Potts Point and had a room with a view – of Woolloomooloo.

  18. Michael Watts said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 8:52 pm

    Spelling "Mississippi" was an activity you might be challenged to perform (by other students) at my elementary school, and there was a standard rhythm to it.

    I might represent that rhythm as M – i – s – s – I – s – s – i – P – P – i. This does not break down easily into a standard classical meter. It suffers from Ovid's problem of having too many unstressed syllables in a row.

  19. Michael Watts said,

    March 29, 2022 @ 9:08 pm

    Greetings from Sydney. Woolloomooloo has the same stress pattern as hullabaloo, Kalamazoo, didgeridoo, bid her adieu, big ballyhoo, how do you do, room with a view, over to you, wouldn't say boo, locked in the loo, and the children's game Skip-To-My-Lou.

    A preponderance of the evidence suggests that this pattern is -..- with the primary stress on the final syllable.

    But the examples don't all work for me. For hullabaloo I'd have -..x with primary stress on the first syllable. For "big ballyhoo" (unlike hullabaloo, this is not a term I'm especially familiar with, but I know the term "ballyhooed"), I'd have –.. with primary stress on the second syllable.

    Merriam-Webster supports my instinct on "hullabaloo", marking it with primary stress first and secondary fourth where "Kalamazoo" has the expected primary fourth / secondary first.

  20. Graeme Hirst said,

    March 30, 2022 @ 12:49 am

    Is it not normal to spell "Mississippi" as "M // I – double S // I – double S // I – double P // I"? This has its own pleasing rhythm. Do Americans really just say the letter twice?

  21. Bob Ladd said,

    March 30, 2022 @ 12:53 am

    @Graeme Hirst: Yes, they do. The "double [letter]" style of oral spelling is not common in the US. Having been in the UK for many years now, I'm completely used to spelling my name L-A-doubleD, and I have to remember not to do that when I'm in North America.

  22. Narmitaj said,

    March 30, 2022 @ 2:38 am

    I never have much cause to spell Mississippi, being from the UK, but I learnt how as a kid from a noisy TV cartoon with someone singing the letters with, I think, one of those bouncing ball effects to emphasise a memorable rhythm pattern that I have duly remembered ever since.

    M-i-S, S-i-S, S-i-PP-I

    or rather more like

    EMM-eye-ESS! ESS-eye-ESS! ESS-eye-PEEPEE-EYE!

    This was in Lebanon in about 1966. We had a couple of hours of English language (generally American) TV programming a day… some news, some cartoons, including Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse, which I have never seen anywhere else, some then-modern cowboy and space programmes like The Time Tunnel and High Chapparal, the odd comedy like Bewitched and Rowan and Martin's Laugh In, and some old 50s serials, also often cowboys or space, with speeded up horses and dramatic cliffhangers.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    March 30, 2022 @ 3:58 am

    It took me by surprise to have it made explicit that (we) Britons use "double <letter>" when spelling words out loud — this is something about which I have never thought, and I had to have several mental tries before I became convinced that it was almost certainly true. However, I am very aware that I use this same scheme when giving (e.g.,) telephone numbers ("oh one two oh eight seven two double seven two"), and there the rules are clear — it must always be "<n> double <n>" and never "double <n> <n> (or, worse still, "triple <n>"), although "double <n> double <n>" is fine — does anyone know whether there is a similar rule when spelling words out loud ?

  24. Arthur Baker said,

    March 30, 2022 @ 5:10 am

    Philip Taylor, giving phone numbers verbally is a complex topic. Methods differ from country to country, and I'm not sure there are any definite fixed rules, but most people seem to follow tacitly agreed ways of doing it, and one thing's for sure, the more you deviate from the common practice, the more likely is the listener to get confused. Some examples, where a comma indicates a slight pause, throughout:

    In Australia, the 10-digit number you quote (0120872772) would be grouped 2-4-4 and said as "oh one, two oh eight seven, two double seven two". (Although the prefix/area-code 01 doesn't exist here).

    In France, they'd group it 2-2-2-2-2 and say "zéro un, vingt, quatre-vingt-sept, vingt-sept, soixante-douze" – ignoring the double seven because it straddles a recognised boundary.

    Perversely, mobile numbers in Australia tend to be grouped differently: 4-3-3. They're all 10 digits and all begin with 04. So you'd get "oh four two one, double three nine, eight six seven".

    If a triple falls entirely within a recognised group, it's almost always said as "triple" (never "treble", that's British), but if you say "quadruple" you can guarantee the listener will query it and would have been much happier to hear "double eight double eight".

    I teach basic French to intending travellers and have to ensure they are completely familiar with ALL 100 two-digit numbers from 00 through to 99, because that's how French people almost always group long numbers – in pairs. 16-digit credit card numbers, same thing.

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    March 30, 2022 @ 5:31 am

    All understood, Arthur, and my sincere thanks for your most informative comment. The only thing I would add is that not all Britons seem to appreciate that British mobile telephone numbers consist of five digits commencing "07", which are unique to exactly one mobile telephone operator, followed by six digits. So when someone tells me (for example) that their mobile 'phone number is (e.g.,) "0797" (followed by seven digits) or "078517" (followed by five digits) it gets me really confused. I might add that when giving any British telephone number that consists of 5+6, I always punctuate it (both verbally and in writing) as 5+3+3.

    As to credit card numbers, why some web sites refuse to allow me to enter the spaces between the groups of four in which they are visually presented on every card that I have ever owned never fails both to amaze and to infuriate me.

  26. rodii said,

    March 30, 2022 @ 8:49 am

    Narmitaj: That's "M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I" by Bert Hanlon, Ben Ryan, and Harry Tierney, from the revue Ziegfeld Frolics, 1916. You can hear it here:

  27. Michael Watts said,

    March 30, 2022 @ 3:42 pm

    The only use of "double" while spelling that I'm aware of (as an American) is the overtly farcical spelling of "hell" as "H-E-double-hockey-sticks". It's not even possible to say "H-E-double-L".

    I'm aware of a tendency toward spelling numbers as if they were sequences of two-digit numbers (e.g. "twenty-five eighteen" for 2518), and I'll naturally use it for three- or four-digit numbers, but for longer numbers I'll probably use some other scheme. (e.g. "twenty-six thousand, one hundred and fifty-eight" for 26,158 [considered as a quantity] or "two six one five eight" for 26158 [considered as a sequence of digits].)

    American phone numbers are always grouped 3-3-4, as a relic of the time when the first group of 3 (the "area code") was usually omitted. The example would be printed (012) 087-2772, and pronounced "oh one two, oh eight seven, two seven seven two", with the caveat that it isn't legal for either of the first two groups to start with 0.

    Chinese mobile phone numbers are 11 digits long and grouped 3-4-4. (Technically, I believe landline numbers are shorter, but I have no experience with those.) They are pronounced as a sequence of digits triggering the special pronunciation of 1 as 幺 rather than 一.

  28. Narmitaj said,

    March 30, 2022 @ 5:49 pm

    rodii – ah thanks! I expect it is the same song, though I remember it sung with a lot more energy and emphasis in the cartoon. But then the character in the song is reporting on when he was seven, and in 1966 when I heard it I was eight, so maybe my memory is a bit off.

  29. David Morris said,

    March 31, 2022 @ 5:47 am

    We also have Turramurra, Parramatta and Cabramatta in the suburbs, and Wattamolla and Cabramurra further afield, all of which have the stress on the third syllable.

    Many years ago on an episode of The Amazing Race, the contestants had to make their way to the Queensland town of Mooloolaba, which one contestant pronounced with the stress on the third syllable. I laughed out loud but later pondered how any random person from another country was meant to know where the stress goes when they see it in writing.

  30. Narmitaj said,

    March 31, 2022 @ 7:59 am is probably the actual Mississippi cartoon I saw in the 1960s.

    Bouncing Ball Cartoon – Mississippi Song

    From the 1951 classic Paramount Cartoon series Screen Song cartoon, famous for the "follow the bouncing ball" songs, Drippy Mississippi.

    Lyric by Bert Hanlon and Benny Ryan
    Music by Harry Tierney

  31. Etv13 said,

    March 31, 2022 @ 11:03 pm

    I don’t know what parts of America these other folks are from, but I’m from California (well, sort of, I’m a Marine Corps brat) and I spell Mississippi M-I-double S- etc. so it’s plainly not accurate to say Americans never do that. I learned it from my mother, who was from Tennessee. My husband, a native Californian, spells “hell” H-E-double toothpick.”

  32. poftim said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 4:55 am

    Arthur Baker: "Perversely, mobile numbers in Australia tend to be grouped differently: 4-3-3."

    Same here in Romania. Although I have heard some (mainly older) people go with the French system (three pairs of two-digit numbers) for the last six digits.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 5:56 am

    What is the origin of "double hockey sticks" and "double toothpick" ? Are any letters other than "l" replaced by a visual simile ?

  34. Roscoe said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 8:57 am

    I can recall exactly one use of "double toothpick" to represent a capital L (as opposed to two lowercase ls): a message board post, circa 1998, referring to AOL as "A-O-double-toothpick." (Most likely a backhanded way of calling its user interface hellish; cf. the then-trendy term "AOHell.")

  35. David Marjanović said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 9:19 am

    What is the origin of "double hockey sticks" and "double toothpick" ?

    Specifically taboo avoidance of the word hell, which, along with damn(ed), is extremely taboo to fundamentalist Americans – as much as, or more so than, the most taboo words for genitals or excrement.

  36. rodii said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 11:04 am

    Philip Taylor: see above ("M-I crooked letter crooked letter I, crooked letter crooked letter I, humpback humpback I "). And of course there's "double u."

  37. Rod Johnson said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 11:06 am

    Narmitaj: yes, that was a pretty lackluster version! Yours is better, but I found it after I hit post.

  38. Mark Dow said,

    April 1, 2022 @ 3:44 pm

    Just a few years ago I learned this nice variation from a Louisiana native:
    "M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-in-your-I." Which also raises the tricky problem of spoiling a pun when you have to choose a spelling to write it down.

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