Monday, 6 September 2010


‘Lynneguist’ (Lynne Murphy), in her always-entertaining blog separated by a common language, currently discusses British and American words such as squidgy podgy pudgy splodgy dodgy.

It turns out that squidgy, which is apparently British but not American, dates back only to 1973 in its current meaning of ‘moist and pliant; squashy, soggy. Esp. of food’. In a different meaning, ‘short and plump; podgy’, it has been around a little longer, since 1891, and is first attributed to Kipling. (Why did Princess Diana’s lover give her the nickname Squidgy? She was not short and plump, but rather tall. ‘Moist and pliant' would seem to fit the bill better.)

Kipling also supplies the first OED citation of squdgy [sic], which Lynne aptly characterizes as “a word that looks like a typo”.
Why does it look like a spelling mistake? Because in English the letters <qu> are a digraph representing kw or sometimes k, and are always followed by a further vowel letter: quantity, question, quick, quorum, obloquy. The vowel can be silent, as in antique, but it’s got to be there. But in squdgy it isn’t.

Excursus: the third word in the name of the village Stow cum Quy in Cambridgeshire looks odd, too, but actually fits in with the usual pattern. (Most sources say Quy is pronounced kwaɪ, though Wikipedia currently disagrees and goes for kaɪ.)

Since squdgy is pronounced (by those who use it, of whom I am not one) as ˈskwʌdʒi, logically it ought to be spelt squudgy. But the doubled u looks odd (despite the familiar Latin words equus and vacuum) and is hence avoided.
There seem to be no other words that contain the sequence of sounds kwʌ.
The historical explanation is no doubt to be found in the fact that ʌ used to be ʊ. The sounds kw can be followed by most vowel sounds (queen, quick, quest, quack, qualm, quantity, quorum, quirk, equate, quote, quite, (quoit), queer, square), but never by ʊ uː aʊ ʊə. One of these, , may be an accidental gap, but the other three seem to show that you can’t have a close back vowel after kw.

The only other word spelt with qu followed immediately by a consonant is Qu’ran, Quran, alternative spellings for Koran. Here of course the letter q constitutes a transliteration of Arabic ق, as in the u-less Arabic borrowings qat, Qatar, qibla.

My favourite Chinese beer, Tsingtao / Qingdao 青岛 1tɕʰɪŋ 3tɑu, English ˌtʃɪŋˈdaʊ, has nothing to do with the case.


  1. There's squidgy, of course. I dislike squdgy. That leaves squudgy and skwudgy and scwudgy, it seems.

  2. Wouldn't *squodgy have been a possibility, given that /ʌ/ can be written 'o'? I know the 'o' spelling is normally only used before 'n' and certain other letters (not 'd'), but surely that would be a less serious rule violation than letting 'qu' represent /kwʌ/?

  3. Q also represents /kw/ in Qantas. The name dates from the early days of acronyms and I surmise the marketing people felt inserting a non-initial U in Quantas would have been a bigger cheat. Time and has proven them wrong.

  4. Lipman said...
    Not productive anymore.

    And squodgy doesn't even need an asterisk. It's another word entirely: OED squodgy a, colloq. (ˈskwɒdʒɪ) [Imitative: cf. SQUASHY a.]
    Soft and soggy; squelchy.

    It seems there were Romans who agreed the doubled u looked odd (equus, vult etc being given the variants equos, volt etc, or rather EQVVS, VVLT etc being given the variants EQVOS, VOLT etc).

    But squdgy is of course ridiculous. It's one trivial orthographic absurdity too far. OED apparently could find any evidence that would justify even listing squudgy. Has nobody got the courage to give it some?

    John, even if you are not one of those who use squdgy, couldn't you be one of those who use squudgy?

  5. The least offensive spelling might be *skwudgy.

  6. I find squudgy the least revolting of the available spellings, personally. I'm able to tolerate the double "uu" just as long as I don't have to deal with a sequence of -quC-.

  7. Lipman: "It seems there were Romans who agreed the doubled u looked odd (equus, vult etc being given the variants equos, volt etc, or rather EQVVS, VVLT etc being given the variants EQVOS, VOLT etc)."

    I thought the difference between equos and equus was the difference of Old Latin and Classical Latin.

  8. That's what I thought, too, and this is an exception already. Should have been *ecus, because you can't have qu in front of close back vowels in Latin as a rule. Reminds me of something. (mallamb was just quoting me, by the way.)

  9. iirc Old Latin equos was a back formation from the locative equi (on horseback)

  10. Well, I guess the Latin orthographies are all a bit more complicated than any of our above statements could have encapsulated. Some of you may have found out a bit more about them than I am prepared to try to, but I will try to be less flippant than in my last post. I have always assumed that the o spelling was not really just for the purposes of aesthetics or even legibility, but to reflect the real sense and indeed function of a semivowel there, which raised the sort of problems of representing relative degrees of approximation (to wit to woo, or yet to yield) which have been being discussed on here re linking semivowels etc.

    And the something that *ecus seems to remind me of is that ECVS is attested as well, and probably shouldn't have an asterisk either.

  11. Thanks for the link and the great discussion, John!

  12. I remember seeing in one of my Latin dictionaries (I don't have them on hand at the moment) that for pretty much every word containing "quu", "cu" exists as a variant forum: "ecus" for "equus", "aecus" for "aequus", "secuntur" for "sequuntur", etc.

  13. Lazar,
    And I remember seeing all over the place that the reverse is also sometimes the case: "quum" or of course "quom" for "cum" etc.

    BTW I don't think OED has dug deep enough with 1973 as the first date for squidgy's current meaning of ‘moist and pliant; squashy, soggy. Esp. of food’. For the etymology it only says Cf. SQUIDGE n.¹, the entry for which gives the etymology "Imitative. In dial. use also denoting ‘a shove’ and, as vb., ‘to squeeze’." (my italics), and the definition "The sound made by soft mud yielding to sudden pressure", with the first quote from 1897, but the entry for this verb SQUIDGE has "1. To squeeze; to squelch or to mix roughly; to press together, so as to make a sucking noise", with the first quote from 1881. And that verb and its derivative squidgy were certainly around in my childhood (Home Counties, not dial.) – though perhaps I used it most when talking to cats: "I'm going to squidge those paws" or "What deliciously squidgy paws!"

  14. *Qu’ran → Qur’an

  15. There seem to be no other words that contain the sequence of sounds kwʌ.

    The OED also has sqush: 1. intr. To collapse into a soft, pulpy mass. b. To squelch, squeeze messily. Uses by Mark Twain and Ezra Pound are quoted. Again they omit the second u.