Why do we pronounce Wednesday as though it was spelled Wenzday?
The problem with the English language is that it was invented by people who didn't actually speak English. Foreigners, in fact. Norwegians are to blame for the word Wednesday, which comes from Woden, which is another name for the Norse god Odin, whom we all know from reading the comic book Thor was a rather dour, overly powerful guy with a big white beard and a serious need to get on a jogging program.
The word Wednesday is not pronounced "Wed-nez-day," but rather "Wenzday," or even Wenzdee, though we vow never to associate with the kind of people who use the -dee ending. In British dictionaries, just to be wacky, the pronunciation "Wednzday" also is permitted, but we dare anyone to say "Wednzday." That first "d" should disappear unless you make a major production of it and talk like a fool.
The reason that we naturally elide the "d" is that it is a "stopped" sound, meaning that it cannot be prolonged, and it is followed immediately by a continuable sound, the "n", which is formed in the same part of the mouth, by touching the tongue to the alveolar ridge on the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. The d sound is made by popping the tongue off the alveolar ridge, while the n sound is formed by holding the tongue on the bridge and exhaling. To do the first and the second consecutively requires too much up-and-down business with the tongue.
(We are told that the sounds that can't be prolonged, in addition to d, are p, b, t, k, and g. At the same time some of us have questioned this official list. The q sound, for instance, seems impossible to prolong. We've been experimenting with all these sounds. If anyone out there happens to see someone walking around town making little consonant noises, just tell yourself, "Ah, there goes someone who works for Why Things Are.")
To make things even more confusing, we'll note that there is a hint of the d sound between the "n" and the subsequent "z". This is because the d sound rides the coattails of the n sound as the tongue lifts off the ridge. So if you want to be really picky you could argue that we pronounce the word "Wendzday." It's like the word "prince." The dictionary says that we pronounce it "prins," but you can actually hear a "t" in there, as though you were saying "prints."
Now, you may have noticed that in the word Wednesday there is not one but two elisions. The second elision is the e between the n and the s. ("Elision," by the way, is not to be confused with Elysian. That's some kind of a field.) Many words in English lose a lightly spoken vowel between two consonants; "every" is pronounced "evry." The unwritten, but spoken vowel between the d and the l in "fiddle" suddenly disappears when we say the word "fiddler." There is economy in such changes: Wednesday, like every, looks like it must be a three-syllable word, but in fact we get it out in a mere two. This saves labor.
Of course we don't know this stuff off the top of our heads. Our indubitable source is Arthur Bronstein, a phonetician at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of the pronunciation essay in the Unabridged Random House Dictionary. The real question is whether there were ever any Phoenician phoneticians. Hold that thought.
Why do tapeworms make you lose weight even though the tapeworm presumably is getting bigger and bigger?
We got this question from a professional funny man we know in Miami. His logic was that the tapeworm, which sits in your guts and steals your food, should gain weight in exact proportion to the weight you lose, so that there would be no net change when you stand on the bathroom scale. There is a certain logic to this, we must admit.
It is true that the parasite is in direct competition with the human for the nutrients in the intestines, and if the worm did nothing but grow larger and larger, there would be no change in the sum of the weight of the person and the worm. But the worm usually doesn't get much longer than about 15 feet -- notwithstanding the occasional 80-foot monster -- and that's only about half a pound's worth of worm. The rest of the energy that's metabolized goes into making eggs, and ... oh, never mind. Also there are these segments that break off and ... hey, what kind of sick question is this, anyway?
The fact is that weight-loss is not dramatic and, to the extent that it does occur, it is not due so much to the competition for nutrients as it is to the side effects of being occupied by a parasite -- it's so gross you lose your appetite. Our advice is to eat cooked food and avoid becoming part of some other creature's life cycle.
The tapeworm puzzle reminded us of a puzzle we heard recently. Let's say you crunch your car into a cube about one foot on each side. Then you take it on a boat out into a really small lake. You drop your car cube into the water. Does the water level rise or drop or stay the same on the shoreline? You make the call.
The Jeopardy theme song plays while you figure it out.
OK, we're back. The water level drops.
It's a question of density: We can presume that the car cube would be denser than the equivalent volume of water. When the cube is on the boat, the weight of the cube is the critical factor in displacing the water of the lake, via the hull of the boat. But when the cube is thrown overboard, the weight no longer matters (because the lake is no longer holding the cube up), and instead the volume of the cube is the factor that determines how much water is displaced. Since the cube has a relatively high weight but low volume, it displaces more when it is up on the boat.
There is probably some Euclidian or Newtonian law that we should cite here, but let's not and say we did. Why Things Are is happy to take questions from readers. Of course we immediately throw them in the trash. In fact, you probably have a better chance of winning the lottery than having a query answered here. This shouldn't deter you from writing. Address mail to Joel Achenbach, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington D.C. 20071.