Update: We may have guests from the Worcester area, likely because I used the word "Worcester" in this post. The closest I lived to Worcester was Sudbury, but we may have others among the regulars. This blog usually focuses on language history, book reviews, and cultural/political commentary. Recently I have been railing against the perfidy of the Arts & Humanities Tribe in America. Thank you for dropping by.
Readers from northern New England will appreciate that I once found someone's place of birth entered in the computer as Wusta, MA. It took me a moment. Obviously, the person entering it wahnt from around heah.
We think of syllables as being a quantum phenomenon, coming in discrete packets. It's either one syllable or it's not, there's no such thing as a half-syllable, we think. Consider the word "barrels." All of us tend to swallow that second syllable a bit. Even someone such as I, who has an overprecise pronunciation even in everyday speech, would say "barruls," but very nearly "barr'ls." At the other end people in some regions come perilously close to saying "bairls;" yet not quite. There is a whisper of a second syllable even then. If the two extremes of pronunciation are 1.2 syllables to 1.8 syllables (there's nothing official about that. I just made it up), then calling it a one-and-a-half syllable word makes sense.
In fact, an enormous proportion of our words are like that. The gradual elision of unaccented syllables is how we get from "God Be With Ye" to goodbye, or to the pronunciation Wuster from the original spelling "Worcester." Learning phonetic reading and having dictionaries fools us into thinking that a syllable is an either/or thing. Jeet? for "Did you eat?" is one of those things that people learning live English learn, as opposed to those learning it in school somewhere. This is true of every language, which is why you thought you knew French but could barely understand anyone in Nice.
Writing slows language change. Otherwise, jeet would become the normal word in a generation.
Many children say "wheelbarrel" instead of "wheelbarrow." Not until people see it in print do they start to change this. Unless you had especially persnickity parents who corrected you on such minor solecisms, you probably did not even hear the difference until you saw it in print. And why would you? The item in question looks as if it could be related to barrels somehow. Half a barrel on a wheel: wheelbarrel. If your ear happened to catch the slight bear-o difference, your young brain would find nothing to fasten it on. There's certainly nothing about bears or bare things about it.
If it weren't in print, we would have switched to wheelbarrel long ago. "Barrow," if we have heard the word at all, means a mound or hill. It pretty much went out of use centuries ago, but archaeologists brought it back for technical purposes. It had pretty much lost any other meaning until Tolkien, always searching for archaic words to embed a sense of long history into his naming and narrative, brought it back for barrow-wights (wight is person or creature) and barrow-downs.
We leap to the conclusion "ohh, wheel-barrow! to wheel something up a hill!" but we would be wrong. Okay, I leaped to that conclusion years ago and I was wrong. This is a completely different kind of barrow, from a completely different root. That second kind of barrow comes from a root meaning "to carry," and is related to bear, bier, borne, born, bairns, and those sorts of carrying and children things.
The first kind of barrow comes from a root meaning a high and/or fortified place. Thus German Berg and Burg, and our iceberg. Tacking b-rg on to the end of names is common in Germany and Scandinavia. By the time the root was brought over by Angles and Danes to England, it was already -bury (Avebury, Shrewsbury) or even -by (Granby, Derby). And here we come full-circle again on the partial syllables. Danbury has two-and-a-half syllables. If it weren't written down it would have become "Danbry" centuries ago.