Did you mean: brick block brick

Breaking news (to me): blick is an actual word of English.

Yup, I fully admit it. Until very recently, I never actually picked up a single dictionary and checked to see whether blick was in it. I just recall the feeling of my own first exposure1 to the example as being so effective that it never even occurred to me to double-check it. But now I see that Dictionary.com has a definition, as does the OED (if you have access). Prolly others, too, but why keep checking?

Of course, I recognize whether its actually found in any dictionary is not the relevant criterion for the example’s effectiveness. Jim Huang articulates the relevant criterion perfectly in these lecture notes (emphasis added):

(2) English phonotactics: brick, blick, bnick, sdpick.

These examples show […] whether a given sound sequence is a possible sequence in English even if you have never encountered the sequence before.

Still, I fell for the myth of the example, and wantonly talked about blick being a phonotactically-possible-but-nonexistent word of English. Mea culpa.

But I have to also admit to having gotten personally tired of the example by, oh, I don’t know, like the umpteenth time I taught it. So beginning some time ago, whenever I would introduce the brick, blick, bnick triad, I would very soon thereafter tell my class that both phonotactically possible but allegedly nonexistent blick and phonotactically impossible and supposedly nonexistent bnick have by sheer force of repeated use become words of my vocabulary, with the respective meanings “string of sounds that some sloppy linguistics teachers use to demonstrate the notion of a phonotactically (im)possible but nonexistent word of English.”2

To which I have to add from now on, in the case of blick at least: “Incorrectly, as it happens.”


1 Though nothing else about the exposure rings a bell. Was it in a class? Did I read it somewhere, or hear about it at a talk? No clue.

2 This definition abbreviates two definitions, applied anti-disjunctively.

About the title: Google’s good at April Fool’s jokes, but this isn’t one of them.

[ Hat-tip to Andrew Strabone. ]

6 thoughts on “Did you mean: brick block brick

  1. Benjamin Schmeiser

    I am glad you brought this up, Eric. I have heard this used as a nonce word before, yet I recall seeing it in a Nathaniel Hawthorne text, if I am not mistaken. Thanks for the update.

  2. Bruce Hayes

    Hi Eric, Good blick words can be hard to find. Adam Albright and I once made a spreadsheet in which the columns were English onsets, sorted descending by frequency, and the rows were rhymes, similarly sorted. We filled the cells by concatenating the onset of the column with the rhyme of the row. Almost the entire upper left corner of the spreadsheet ended up consisting of existing words! So it’s actually a bit tricky to find the perfect “blick word”; i.e. utterly phonologically normal, but never actually used as a word.

    In case you’re curious, the blick words that are most “phonologically normal” turned out to be “tane”, “Kie”, “keek”, “sare” and “hane”.
    For me, “Kie” is not blick, being the name of two individuals I know.

  3. Andrew Nevins

    There is actually an art-supply store in Kenmore Square in Boston called “Blick”. I once dropped off their business card in Morris Halle’s mailbox as a gag.

  4. Marc van Oostendorp

    For the record: I was looking up this blogpost four years later, and also did a check on Google. They now asked me: “Do you mean brick blick blick.

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