What 'Caws'es Us To Say 'Crowbar'?

By Rob Kyff

January 16, 2019 3 min read

Q. What's the origin of "crowbar"? — Al Cohen, Newington, Connecticut

A. A crow, a robin and a parakeet walk into a bar. ... OK, just kidding.

Five hundred years ago, someone probably did walk into a bar — an iron bar that had been curved at the end for use as a lever or prying tool.

The scenario might have gone something like this ...

John Ironwright (a burly blacksmith): "Sorry, bloke. I didn't mean to leave that bar out where you might walk into it."

Henry Bellrung (disoriented victim): "Thassh all right. Didchoo ever notish the en' of that bar lookshh like a crow's schnozzle?"

Well, OK, it might not have happened exactly like that, but a crowbar is so named because its bent end reminded someone of a crow's beak. "Crowbar" first appeared in written English in 1748.

Q. I have always thought the past tense of sink is sank, as in "The ship sank last night." However, I seem to hear more and more people use "sunk" as the past tense, as in "The ship sunk last night." And what about "ing" verbs, such as "spring"? Is there a set rule for the tenses of the "ink" and "ing" verbs? — Curt Guenther, Memphis, Tennessee

A. No, and that creates big problems for all of us. Most irregular verbs containing "ink" and "ing" do indeed form their past tenses by shifting to "ank" or "ang": sink/sank, shrink/shrank, stink/stank, sing/sang, spring/sprang, ring/rang.

But others do not. The past tenses of "slink," "fling," "sling" and "swing," for instance, are not "slank," "flang," "slang" or "swang," but instead "slunk," "flung," "slung" and "swung."

So, when we approach the choice past tenses of "spring," "shrink," "sing" and "sink," we have the past tense forms of these other words in the backs of our minds. Thus, we're tempted to say erroneously, "Yesterday, I sprung out of bed, shrunk the shirts, sung the song and sunk the boat."

And there's a subconscious factor that tempts us to give the "ink" verbs the wrong past tense: "Unk" simply sounds more forceful than "ank."

Which sentence, for instance, sounds more emphatic: "I sank the ship" or "I sunk the ship"? "You stank" or "You stunk"?

This must have been the psychology behind Hollywood's choice of the title "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" instead of the grammatically correct "Honey, I Shrank the Kids." Maybe they consulted a shrink instead of an English teacher.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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