Monday, 4 August 2014

Ukulele or Ukelele?

An article published in The Guardian on 27 July by the paper’s crossword editor Hugh Stephenson recounts how the use of alternative spellings by crossword setters provokes letters from incensed solvers questioning his literacy, and even his fitness to run a whelk stall.  Stephenson defends such orthographic licence by referring to legitimate alternative spellings in dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Chambers - the cruciverbalist’s ultimate authority. Having listed some examples, Stephenson concludes: ‘And don’t get me going on the many, many “correct” spellings of Ukulele!’  This heartfelt plea refers to a controversial clue of 2003 which gave the answer ukelele rather than the standard spelling ukulele, unleashing a ‘torrent of abuse’ from disgruntled solvers.  This made me wonder: how many correct spellings of ukulele are there?

Spelling Trouble entertains the troops with his ukulele

The origins of the ukulele lie in a Hawaiian development of an instrument introduced to the island by the Portuguese in the late 19th century.  The name is derived from the Hawaiian words uku ‘flea’ and lele ‘jumping’; since its introduction into English both ukelele and ukulele have been in frequent use.  Modern dictionaries prefer the ukulele spelling, but accept ukelele as an alternative – both are listed in OED and Chambers.  But what of these numerous additional spellings alluded to by Stephenson?  In an article of 2004, Stephenson claims that OED offers ukalele and eukaleli as acceptable variants, but this isn’t strictly true.  Both spellings appear within quotations listed under the entry, but neither is given as an  optional variant under the headword – as is the case with ukelele.  The first of these, ukalele, is found in a quotation from A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse (1919); modern editions of the novel now adopt the standard spelling ukulele.  The second appears in a quotation from Rupert Brooke’s poem Waikiki (1914): ‘Somewhere an eukaleli thrills and cries.’  Neither is cited from a work by a modern author; on this showing, neither could be considered acceptable in modern usage.
Despite this, there are are many examples of ukalele on websites and social media, most commonly accompanying painful recordings uploaded to YouTube by hopeful ukalele artists (I’m tempted to advise that, if you can’t spell it, you shouldn’t play it). The eukaleli spelling is much less common, although one tweeter labels it - rather hopefully I feel - the ‘hipster’s spelling’ (Do hipsters really play ukuleles?)  Searching online turns up a number of additional alternatives - ukealaylay is my personal favourite – but I shudder to think how The Guardian’s solvers would react to finding that in their crosswords.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.