Tuesday, January 8, 2013

gauge

It's interesting to me how my relation to this blog has changed over time. Although there has never been any shortage of things I'm ignorant about, in the beginning, I would kind of have to catch myself out, not knowing something. These days, I realize automatically that I don't know something, and immediately know exactly what to do with that fact.

Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night and thought about a childhood memory. In the very early stages of literacy, I had a hard time with the word "gauge". Reading it, it seemed like it should sound something like "gog". Things we see and hear as young children often don't automatically translate into the same thing, so it was probably awhile before I could read the word gauge as 'gage'. As I write this, I realize that a lot of words with that '-ge ending have a soft "je" sound--beige, rouge. But it still doesn't help me understand the necessity of the "u".

Time to get into the etymology of the word, I think.

***

Dictionary.com says that a gauge is a device for measuring the magnitude, amount or contents of something, typically with a visual display. This aligns with my own sense that I started thinking about the word gauge while looking at some sort of gauge in my family car's dashboard. I'll have to check and see if that word is written there, next time I'm in one--which may not be soon.

In English, I don't think the noun gauge is usually changed to gage, but as a verb meaning to measure or weigh something, it is often written gage. Gauge comes through the usual Anglo French of the same spelling, but derives from the Old North French gauger or jauger. The best guess is that it goes back to the Frankish *galgo, which was a rod for measuring. There's a Germanic basis for this guess, with Old Norse having gelgja for pole or perch and Old High German having galgo. Perhaps somewhat gruesomely, this measuring rod beginning relates the innocent gauge to 'gallows', which goes back to another Old German word for pole, and probably farther.

I didn't find any clear answer about why the u is silent in all this, but one commenter over at the site English Language and Usage points out that the French sauf came over to English as "safe". Why vowel sounds change as they migrate from one culture to another is quite interesting, but well beyond my scope here.

At least for now.

11 comments:

  1. Interesting. I love these little tidbits that just really spotlight how strange a beast language really is. Thanks!

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    1. Right, Nate--the deeper you get into language, the better it gets, really.

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  2. I love this word and had a similar problem in youth in reading it, pronouncing it (in my mind, my inner reading voice), etc. A variant spelling of it IS "gage," also a word meaning a pledge or challenge (as in throwing down your glove as an invitation to a duel), and I used that spelling in a poem to suggest both words and their meanings, as in I am measuring you and my risk here, and offering my pledge to you...uh, Mr. Coyote, and...er, you win. Long story, short poem.

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    1. Kathleen, is the poem anywhere we can see it?

      I was thinking as I wrote the post that engage might turn out to be related to the alternate spelling of the word, but you have to stop at some point.

      I have to admit that when I spellchecked this post, I had spelled gauge wrong every single time--guage.

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  4. I used to spell it "guage." For some reason, that error is common. I wonder if the gentle gua- sound somehow feels right with a gentle, soft-g ending.

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  5. I wonder if people just want the a to be nearer to the -ge so that it reads -age? Since we don't know what the heck to do with the u anyway.

    It's interesting, because people don't usually get the word 'fault' wrong. And for that matter, they don't usually get the word 'because' wrong either.

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  6. I suspect you're right. People wo write "beleive" all the time, though.

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  7. The i before e thing can be tricky.

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  8. I still write wierd the wrong way.

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  9. I see that. Although I did have to check before posting.

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