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Lent  is a most unusual word. Germans call the forty day period between Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday by the perfectly reasonable name  Fastenzeit:  the time for fasting. The French, mishearing the Latin  quadrigesima, fortieth,  call it  Careme; whether they “hear” it as having anything to do with  quarant, forty,  well,  je ne sais pas.   The Italian  quaresima  (Italians do indeed pronounce  qu  just as we do) is closer to their  quarante, forty,  so maybe they get the connection.

Word of the Day But the English  Lent  has nothing to do with forty. It is our old word for springtime: when the days  lengthen.  Thus it is related to words from both the Germanic and the Romance stock: English  long , German  lang , Latin
longus . Well then—why isn’t it  Longth or  Lont ? How did that  e get in there?

And the answer is— umlaut.  That’s what happen when a vowel (German,  Laut ) turns around (German,  um ), often by the influence of a vowel in the next syllable. It’s common enough. Think of the vowel in the words  cat, hat, mat.  Say those words. Now use the same vowel—say it aloud—for  carry, Harry, marry.  Tricky, ain’t it? The vowel in  cat  is low: it’s pronounced with the tongue low in the mouth. But the vowel  at the end of  carry  is high and up front: it’s pronounced with the tongue near the roof of the mouth. So we anticipate the second vowel by raising the first, and instead of saying  carry, Harry, marry,  we say  Kerry, hairy, Mary.  At least, a lot of English speakers do: for them,  Larry  rhymes with  dairy.

Some Anglo Saxon adjectives turned into nouns by the addition of a suffix:  ith.  That eety-beety vowel in that suffix, that leetle  i,  changed the previous vowel. It moved the  of  long  up front and made it  e.  Then, after it had done its dirty work, it slipped away. So we have the adjective  long,  but the noun  length;  the adjective  broad,  but the noun  breadth;  the adjective  strong,  but the noun  strength.  It couldn’t do a job on the adjective  wide,  because the vowel was already high and up front (originally pronounced  weed ):  wide, width.  Avast, villain!

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