Things That Keep Me Up At Night, Part I

I used to be an insomniac. From about age 12 until I became a regular exerciser at about age 25, sleeplessness was my unwelcome nighttime companion. I still suffered with bouts of it until last year, when I learned self-hypnosis (I know, I know . . . .but it totally worked!). Now, sleep is no problem.

Until last night. I wish I could say that contemplating the larger mysteries of the universe is what chases away dreamland, but my most recent episode shows that it is the larger mysteries of the English language that does it. And so, my six dear readers, if you are having trouble sleeping, this is a post that will, paradoxically, put you right in snoozeville.

So I’m lying there, thinking about a cute thing Madame Chaos said. As we were driving past the water tower, she gave me a glimpse into the desires of her heart as she said, “If we climb up the water tower, the firecracker chiefs will be mad at us.” Then the thought occurred to me: why is the plural of “chief”, “chiefs”, while the plural of “thief” is “thieves”? Then I thought of the other phonetic rhymes like leaf/leaves, sheaf/sheaves, and even the antiquated beef/beeves. But then I realized I should stick with the “ief” spelling, and thought of brief/briefs, belief/beliefs and grief/griefs (with the added interest of the related verb “to grieve”, which sidetracks me for a few minutes). And then I’m pretty sure “kerchief” can be pluralized both as “kerchiefs” and “kerchieves”. So, despite (or because of?) my years of teaching spelling rules and their inevitable exceptions, I find myself trying to come up with the rule for when a word ending with the phoneme /Ef/ changes to either /Efs/ or /Evz/. Then I start longing for my very own, unabriged copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to show me the evolution of each of those words so I can figure it out myself instead of looking it up online. Then I figure I should just get myself out of bed and look it up already so I can go back to sleep.

An hour or more later, I can’t find any rules specific to the /Ef/ phoneme, just the usual “a noun ending in an -f is usually pluralized with -ves.”

So this is my hard-won, sleep-depriving, self-made rule (are you asleep yet?): all the nouns ending in -ief are exceptions to the rule of plurals except for “thief,” which is an exception to this exception (and therefore keeps the rule), and “kerchief,” which can take either plural. Big sigh.

You’re welcome.

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