December 18, 2005

what do you call a bird dog in christmas gear?

in his latest column "on language" william safire [new york times, 12/18/05] recommends some books on language, notably "the big book of beastly mispronunciations" by charles harrington elster.
Direct your attention to that hardy, inexpensive, red-leafed plant we see all over the place this time of year. I confess to having called it a point setter, confusing it with a crossbred hunting dog. The plant's name is poinsettia and is eponymous: J.R. Poinsett, a U.S. diplomat, brought it home from Mexico in 1828. "There is no point in poinsettia," advises Elster, playing on his other book's title, "There Is No Cow in Moscow." The plant's name is pronounced in four syllables: poyn-SET-ee-uh. Just because most of us think of an operetta about a vendetta against the stony Rosetta, there is no reason to drop the final i in poinsettia; as one pronunciamentor noted: "Setta is common, but wrong. Who says gar-dee-na or mag-no-la?"
the word "point setter", by the way, exists, but it is mostly used as a term for a medical instrument functioning as "a surgeon's third hand" or for a device used in fencing.

[if you'd like to know more about the history of poinsettias, check out the poinsettia pages hosted by the university of illionois extension]



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