Annals of error: water canons

In recent tweets from Hong Kong about protests and the governments attempts to put them down, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof repeatedly writes water canon instead of water cannon (both with /kǽnǝn/) — not an uncommon sort of spelling error, but somewhat surprising from an experienced journalist, and one that introduces an unintended misinterpretation, since it happens that CANON is the spelling of an English word (a number of different English words, in fact) distinct from CANNON. And that opens things up for little jokes about what a water canon might be. On Facebook I was responsible for one such joke, a bit of musical foolishness:

The reference is of course to the round “By the Waters of Babylon”. Though I doubt it’s effective against throngs of protesters.

8/31 tweets from @NickKristof:

Constant clashes this afternoon and evening in Hong Kong. Huge throngs taking over Central district, fires, police charges, rubber bullets, water canon with blue dye to stain and identify protesters, and crowds of residents screaming curses at the riot police when they pause.

Hong Kong police used a water canon truck and clouds of tear gas to try to disperse huge throngs of pro-democracy protesters. The water canon for a time used blue dye that would stain skin and make it easier to…

The many nouns canon. None of them anywhere near as frequent as the noun cannon. From NOAD:

noun canon-1: 1 [a] a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged: the appointment violated the canons of fair play and equal opportunity. [b] a Church decree or law: a set of ecclesiastical canons. 2 [a] a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine: the formation of the biblical canon. [b] the works of a particular author or artist that are recognized as genuine: the Shakespeare canon. [c] the list of works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality: Hopkins was firmly established in the canon of English poetry. 3 (also canon of the Mass) (in the Roman Catholic Church) the part of the Mass containing the words of consecration. 4 Music a piece in which the same melody is begun in different parts successively, so that the imitations overlap.

noun canon-2: [a] a member of the clergy who is on the staff of a cathedral, especially one who is a member of the chapter. The position is frequently conferred as an honorary one. [b] (also canon regular or regular canon) (in the Roman Catholic Church) a member of certain orders of clergy that live communally according to an ecclesiastical rule in the same way as monks.

The error. The most likely spelling for /kǽnǝn/ would have the medial /n/ spelled with doubled letters, NN, to signal that the precedng (accented) vowel is lax (A representing /æ/ rather than /e/ as in Damon and Karen). So doubled letters are the norm for spelling the medial sonorant, S1, in the configuration

V-lax  S1  ǝ + S2

(where S1 and S2 are sonorant consonants, n, m, l, or r). Some typical examples with lax /æ/: GALLON, PALLOR, STAMMER, BANNER, BARREL, BARREN. Similarly, SIMMER with lax /ɪ/, the name EMMON (Bach) with lax /ɛ/.

But, for whatever reasons, S1 in this configuration is sometimes spelled with  a single consonant letter. Some examples:

S1 is n: TENOR, TENON (as in mortise-and-tenon joints), CANON, the name LENIN; S1 is m: LEMON, TREMOR; S1 is l: FELON, MELON; S1 is r: BARON

There are contrastive spelling pairs, besides CANON / CANNON:

the names LENIN (Vladimir) / LENNON (John); LEMON / the name LEMMON (Jack), MELON / the name MELLON (Andrew); BARON / the name BARRON (of Barron’s magazine)

Given this situation, even practiced writers might inadvertently spell one of these words wrong on occasion, and for the names and rarer items (like TENON) might have internalized a wrong spelling as their own. But on the basis of general sound-spelling correspondences and on word frequencies, we should expect misspellings of CANON as CANNON, but hardly ever the reverse, at least from practiced writers. So Kristof’s WATER CANON spellings are quite the surprise.

Back in the old days of journalism, such misspellings occasionally resulted from reporters phoning in a story, which was then hastily transcribed on the spot by someone at the publication. In the circumstances, the reporter’s spelling abilities were pretty much beside the point, while errors of haste (and, sometimes, of ignorance) on the part of the transcriber were common.

But I’m assuning Kristof was submitting copy electronically from Hong Kong, so, frankly, I’m baffled as to where water canon comes from. But I view it as a gift.

Digression on Kristof. From Wikipedia:

Nicholas Donabet Kristof (born April 27, 1959) is an American journalist and political commentator. A winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, he is a regular CNN contributor and has written an op-ed column for The New York Timessince November 2001. Kristof is a self-described progressive. According to The Washington Post, Kristof “rewrote opinion journalism” with his emphasis on human rights abuses and social injustices, such as human trafficking and the Darfur conflict. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has described Kristof as an “honorary African” for shining a spotlight on neglected conflicts.

I think of what Kristof does as morally engaged journalism, with considerable care to make his judgments and opinions explicit.

By the Waters of Babylon. A canon — NOAD canon-1 sense 4 — about water. In captivity in Babylon, the singer sits down on the banks of the Euphrates and longs for the Zion they have lost. The lyrics:

By the waters,
The waters,
Of Babylon.

We lay down and wept,
And wept,
For thee Zion.

We remember,
Thee remember,
Thee remember,
Thee Zion.

The scene, as depicted in on the the many artworks on the theme:


(#1) By the Waters of Babylon by Thomas Bowman Garvie (1859-1944)

In my 6/22/10 posting “Rivers of Babylon”, you can read about gay disco music and musical versions of the story of the Babylonian captivity — two topics that aren’t nearly as disparate as you might have thought.

The canon in two performances, one historical, one quite modern:

(#2) Ensemble Sottovoce performing an arrangement of “Canon à quatre voix” by Philip Hayes (1737-1797)

The 18th century was a great time for canons; Mozart, for example, wrote quite a few, some notably vulgar. American grade school children are sometimes taught this one, because it’s simple and easy; I suspect they don’t get a lot of cultural context for it, though. (Given the opacity of the lyrics to the nursery rhymes kids learn with such pleasure, that’s probably not much of a worry.)

(#3) Don McLean, from American Pie (1971)

4 Responses to “Annals of error: water canons”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    (A representing /æ/ rather than /e/ as in Damon and Karen)

    Wait, what? I don’t think I’ve ever heard /e/ in Karen.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Oh, I’m guessing you have /e/ vs. /ɛ/ neutralized in favor of /ɛ/ (as also in Mary vs. merry), but you still don’t have /æ/ in Karen, as if the name were spelled KARREN (though some people do).

      Trying to talk about pronunciations when my readers represent a huge range of varieties of English is extraordinarily difficult and tiring, and I’m afraid I mostly fail. (I’m not willing to replace every cited pronunciation by an essay on the way some word is treated in dozens of different varieties. That would be technically accurate but useless.)

      • Robert Coren Says:

        I do in fact have /æ/ in Karen., and I didn’t know there were people who didn’t, although given the merry/marry/Mary constellation I probably should have. Live and learn.

  2. [BLOG] Some Tuesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky looks at cannons and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: