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From Felines to Street Drugs to Zero Phones: <cat>, <methcathinone>, and <ephedron>

From Felines to Street Drugs to Zero Phones: , , and

You never know where a word study will take you.

A while back, my oldest and I did a word study on <cat>. While looking the base up in multiple online dictionaries, I noticed that <cat> is also a street name for a drug called <methcathinone>, which I looked up and discovered is also called <ephedrone> from Ephedra + one.

Fast forward to the past few days when I learn that the grapheme <p> can spell [f] before a zeroed <h>. Graphemes cannot cross morphemic boundaries. Take <ephemera> as an example. <ephemera> comes from ep- meaning “on, upon, above,” hemere meaning “day,” and -a meaning “word-forming element in names.”

ep + Hemere + a -> ephemera
ep + Hemere + al -> ephemeral
ep + Hedr + a -> ephedra
hyp + Hen -> hyphen

While tweeting about teaching kids accurate and complete information about their spelling system from the start, I meant to type <ephedra> but wrote <ephedron> instead. I argued that kids could be taught that <p> can spell [f] from the start by introducing a word like <ephemera>. I first learned this word as an adult working in a library, but my kids (ages 8 and 5) learned this word recently while studying Andy Warhol. We can look at the <hemere> and the suffix <ep>, which is related to <epi>. I then typed, “We can also look at <ephedron>, which is also <ep + hedr + on>.” Related words include <polyhedron>, <octahedron>, and <dodecahedron> (which I first heard in fifth grade while reading The Phantom Tollbooth).

When the interlocutor of my Twitter conversation pointed out that she could not find <ephedron> in a dictionary, I realized that I had meant to type <ephedra>. I also knew that <ephedron> could be a word based on my knowledge of the English spelling system, so I did a quick Google search. I found the word <ephedron> used in to publish studies. Both papers also used the spelling <ephedrone>. I therefore looked up <ephedrone>, which lead me to <methcathinone> and back to <cat>.

Pondering the use of <cat> as a street name for <methcathinone>, I did some more digging. I discovered <methcathinone> is <meth + cathinone>, <cathinone> is <cathine + one>, and <cathine> is <cath + ine>. <cathine> is a psychoactive drug that acts as a stimulant and is derived from Catha edulis, or the khat plant. One pronunciation of <khat> is [kɑt], making <khat> and <cat> homophones.

Admittedly, I had been thinking <ephedrone> and had misspelled <ephedron> instead. Luckily for me and my developing spelling skills, <ephedron> is an alternate spelling of <ephedrone>. (As an aside, <ephedrin> is a less common alternate spelling of <ephedrine>.)

Clearly the primary function of English spelling is not to represent phonology. The primary function of English spelling is to represent meaning. From felines to street drugs to zero phones, English spelling is amazing.

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