Thursday, 29 October 2009

’un

I don’t know when or why one lost its weak form /ən/ in standard accents. It remains, with the spelling ’un, as a dialectal or jocular form. When I was a boy there was an evening sports paper called The Pink ’Un.

I imagine it was used only for dummy one after an adjective, as in a green ’un, a new ’un, a big ’un. That seems to be the position in those forms of English that retain it. I don’t think anyone would use it in contexts such as *I’ve got ’un, even though the dummy pronoun one in I’ve got one is normally unaccented.

Today’s Guardian has a picture of a small lemur with the headline Hallo wee’un, one of the worst puns for months. Since it doesn’t seem to be on their website, I have scanned it for your delectation.

8 comments:

  1. I wonder if hard-on is a fossilized instance of this reduced form. I heard my father (1904-1993) say /hɑrdn̩/ rather than the spelling pronunciation /hɑrdɑn/ that I use, suggesting that the underlying form is not hard on at all (which, if on is the preposition, would be a very peculiar sort of compound) but hard 'un ~ hard one.

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  2. John Cowan, thanks for that explanation, however speculative. It consoles me for the consternation that that particular expression caused me when I first encountered it in my teens. "Hard-on? Hard on what? That makes no sense!"

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  3. Thanks! I came to the same conclusion a couple of years ago, also after wondering what on earth that is supposed to mean etymologically otherwise. I'm not sure I ever heard anybody say the expression, just saw it written, mostly by Americans, and so the pronuncation of /hɑrdn̩/ really confirms it.

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  4. Not so sure about this. When I was at school the expression we used was "to have a bar on".

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  5. Yes, but bar is a noun, while hard as an adjective needs the dummy one. So it still would still be expected as "have a hard one on".

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  6. Since I've learned "hard-on" from reading it (including all the jokes/puns about the Large Hardon Collider), I have the spelling pronunciation.

    I'd interpreted parallelly with "freak on" or even "hat/shirt/shoes on" - something one wears. I think.

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  7. Of course the stress pattern is all-important and may confuse non-native speakers. This made me think of the Scottish equivalent, "yin", found in the nickname of the tall Glaswegian comedian Billy Connolly, "the BIG yin". Apparently he was (at least) once introduced by an English TV host as "the big YIN". I've often wondered what he thought a yin might be.

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  8. Doubtless the opposite of the small yang.

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