bugbear

Ah, those foreign dictators. Such an annoyance they are, a thorn in the flesh of foreign policy. Of course, for their own people, they’re rather more than an annoyance. And when you have a person who lost an election but would not concede, deciding instead to invalidate votes from the regions that most strongly supported his opponent, with the inevitable violence and oppression following, well, he’s not just a bogeyman.

Meanwhile, the opponent, accepting victory, has taken the oath of office. But the defeated dictator has also taken the oath of office. Ah, full stop! How can you have two oaths of office articulated in two different places at the same time? It would be like saying, perhaps, /g/ and /b/ at the same time.

Except, of course, you can say /g/ and /b/ at the same time, and without competing claims. What are a couple of words wherein we do just that? Well, “what are a” (Ouattara) is paired with one of them: Gbagbo. Alassane Ouattara, you see, is the victor in Côte d’Ivoire, and Laurent Gbagbo the man who won’t hand over power. OK, yes, Gbagbo is not an English word, and many people seem to think they can’t say that opening /gb/. But of course they can, just as surely as they can say the middle /gb/. Or as surely as they can say a word that one could apply to Gbagbo: bugbear.

You may object that the /g/ and /b/ in bugbear are not being said at the same time. But actually they often are, even by Anglophones. Try this: say bugbugbugbugbugbug… You will probably find that your lips and the back of your tongue are coming to be closed at about the same time and to release at about the same time, so that as your jaw lowers there’s a sort of suction effect vaguely like the one you use to drink from a straw. So certainly you can say both /gb/ coarticulations in Gbagbo if you want.

But unaccustomed foreign consonant clusters are bugbears for most Anglophones – and speakers of other languages, too; English has in fact many consonant clusters that are simply impossible in other languages, and so loans from English get simplified as readily as loans to English do (sometimes by deletion, as in English strand becoming Finnish ranta; sometimes by insertion of vowels, perhaps along with alteration of consonants not used in the borrowing language, as in Japanese beisuboru “baseball” and Hawai’ian Kalikimaka “Christmas”).

But is it fair to lump consonant clusters in with despots? Can one word bear such a range, or does that bug you too much? Well, bugbear has over time undergone a weakening. It was originally an object of dread – a hobgoblin (hobgoblin – there’s another possible coarticulation!), apparently at first in the form of that feared animal, a bear (so yes, the bear means the critter). The bug is from Welsh bwg “ghost” and may or may not be the origin of bug “insect”. It also plays peak-a-boo in bugaboo.

Now, of course, an imaginary hobgoblin is an object of needless dread. But as bugbear weakened in terror power it strengthened in reality, so that now bugbear often refers to a very real and persistent annoyance – a thorn in the flesh, one might say, or even a bête noire. Which is what foreign dictators may seem to be in foreign policy terms, about as embêtant as an unexpected coarticulation. But for the citizens of their countries who want them to bug off, they can be much more of a big bad bane.

Thanks to Marie-Lynn Hammond for suggesting bugbear.

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2 responses to “bugbear

  1. Thanks for this, James! Because not knowing the origin of this word was bug-ging me so much it was becoming un-bear-able .Very clever and enlightening. And re the connection with Gbagbo, I hadn’t thought of the common consonants, but of course you did, you brilliant thing, you.

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