False Phoneme Families

I read The Cure for the Common Thursday and was dealt a sharp rap with the fact that no one – well, hardly anyone – hems without also hawing.  Why might this be so?  Thalia posited that perhaps “hemming and hawing are equivalent to inhaling and exhaling: do one without the other AND DIE.”

But that seemed a tad excessive for how the phrase is used, so I looked it up and found that hemming, in this context, is *somewhat* related to inhaling (more closely than it is to sewing, at least).  More specifically, it is the clearing of the throat in preparation to declaim upon some Great Matter.  Hence the High Inquisitor always appearing with a little “Hem, hem” that meant she was about to deliver another Educational Decree of Doom.

However, should the would-be elocutionist fail to elocute, and fall back on a sound often heard during the search for a hard-to-find word, then he (or she) is guilty of hawing, which might be rendered as “er,” “uhh,” “ah,” or any other number of vowel-laden sounds.  So  the person who hems and haws first charges forward! – then falls back – lunges on! – slinks back – and so on.

Not too surprising, thus far, and a relief to those who figured that avoiding all hemming brings the fate of a lemming to the orator, stemming from speakers condemning his habit of phlegmming, or coughing out phlegm.

But “haw” means other things besides “an inarticulate utterance.”  To haw is also to turn to the left; a haw could signify a hawthorn shrub or its fruit; and since such shrubs could enclose a yard, a haw can be a yard as well.  That said, the oddest definition by far is “the nictitating membrane of a horse or other domestic animal.”

Nictitating!  What a thing for a horse’s membrane to do!  It sounds positively indecent, somehow; Thalia and I concluded that it looks like it has something to do with nicotine and something to do with lactating…hardly a term for polite society, and I must beg your forgiveness for having examined it so far already.

…except I mustn’t, as it really means “wink.”

What a notion! Why should I be nictitating at my own daughter, pray?


5 thoughts on “False Phoneme Families

  1. I maintain that “hemming” and “hawing” are inseparable because of the alliteration. Think, for instance, how absurd and anticlimactic “The Last Frontier Sounds”. “The Final Frontier”, while meaning the same thing, is full of excitement and hope! Thus proving that alliteration can at times communicate more full than the intended human experience!

    • Uh oh. Am I a senseless blockhead if “Last Frontier” rings with a majestic flavor of decidedness and destiny, whereas “Final Frontier” sounds to me like a Final Fantasy game mixed with slogans from some era of American history now half-forgotten?

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