Last night Jon Stewart cracked a Cheney-heart-condition-joke with “defibulators” as the punch line. Now I’m not one to judge, but I had to point it out. Despite the 29K ghits that “defibulator” gets, and the 12K ghits that “defibulators” gets, Google still asks you if you mean “defibrillator(s)”. Oxford lists defibrillator under defibrillation.

There’s a parallel here with vascillations like nuclear/nucular and parap[a]legic, discussed a while back by Arnold Zwicky on Language Log and Eric Bakovic on phonoloblog. Both refer to a piece by Geoff Nunberg that links nucular to a morphological analogy from words like molecular and particular. Eric extends the discussion to parap[a]legic, suggesting a rhythmic analogy is better suited in this case. I added two cents there in a comment about the possible role of splitting the obstruent-liquid cluster.

Defibulator seems to fit both the morphological analogy and the cluster splitting accounts. Morphological analogy would attribute the appearance of defibulator to the extistence of other words that have the sequence –bulation, –bulate, or –bulator, and the absence of other words that have the sequence –brillation, –brillate, or –brillator. There are words like tabulate and discombobulate, but the only other word with –brillat– is apparently fibrillate. The cluster splitting analysis would attribute defibulator to an avoidance of the [br] sequence in defibrillator.

Seems to me that these analyses aren’t competing – they both presume a lack of rigid specification on the part of the speaker as to what the word is. So if the speaker is not quite sure what the word is, then a constraint against [br] clusters (usually violable in English) can have an observed effect. Emergence of the Unmarked in infrequent words?

8 thoughts on “defibulator

  1. Travis Bradley

    Two other examples come to mind that show an avoidance of [br] clusters: Febuary (< February) and libary (< library). February gets 2,570,000,000 ghits vs. Febuary’s 4,800,000. Library gets 3,160,000,000 vs. libary’s 3,450,000. In these cases, though, /br/ > /b/ can be attributed to dissimilation with the /r/ of the suffix, and, in the case of Febuary, further analogy with January. (See the entry on Could defibulator result from liquid dissimilation as well?

  2. Bob Kennedy

    Good examples – I wonder if there’s others out there. And yeah, I think liquid dissimilation might be involved too.

    To that end I got a small number of hits for “defillibrator”, in the area of 300.

  3. Ben Zimmer

    This sort of anticipatory dissimilation often happens with the /pr/ cluster as well, as in “imp(r)opriety” and “p(r)erogative.”

    But “Febuary” is most similar case to “defibulator”, since both simplify /br/ as /bj/.

  4. Trochee

    can’t resist the pedantry:

    I wonder if the spelling “vascillate” (in place of “vacillate”) is another of these errors-by-analogy, e.g. analogy to “fascicle” or “conscience” where latinate words use “sc” to represent /s/ or esh.

    For myself, I thought (until I looked it up just now) that the word was spelled “vaccilate”, on analogy with “vaccine”, perhaps. I had a pronunciation tendency to put a velar stop in too, which I will now attempt to quell.

    Just a meta-example of another of these cases where it’s hard to resist spelling/pronouncing like some other word we know better.

  5. Bob Kennedy

    Interesting point re: va{s}cillate, Trochee. I think the word that primed me for this was actually oscillate.

  6. david hill

    But is there no possibility of meaning for phono analogies?

    Lieberry: Place where all the books are willingly untrue.

    Defibulator: Scientology slang for the requisite machine.

    Nucular: Directed adjective for target of threatened or promised nuclear attack who is also lacking in truthfulness: ‘I’m going to nuke you, l(i)ar!,’ particularly in speakers of a West Texas dialect.

    Massatwosetts: Archaic, name for former English colony and later U.S. state priot to 1828; ie, when Maine achieved statehood. Also, Cape Cod slang for result of mix-up of multiple sets of golf equipment.

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