A vanishing syllable: Oh, had I a wooden bat

Controversy rages in the heartland: Should youth baseball leagues use bats made of aluminum - or of wood? Aluminum can turn a middling player into a power hitter, but some critics say all that power is dangerous to kids.

Controversy raged - briefly - on the copy desk: Are those nonmetallic bats that the critics want youth baseball to return to "wood bats" - or "wooden bats"? Inquiring minds wanted to know, as our story went to press last month.

The dictionary logic of "wooden bats" is unassailable. "Wood" is a noun; "wooden" is the adjective that means "made of wood." In a phrase like "wood nymph," "wood" is what's called an attributive noun, describing where the nymph lives, not what she's made of.

But the baseball guys in the newsroom say the lingo is "wood bats." A search at Googlefight.com, which exists to help with comparisons like this, has just brought up 33,100 hits for "wood bats" vs. 25,100 for "wooden bats."

Here's some informed speculation about what's going here: In the beginning, all bats were made of wood. But the emergence of aluminum bats around 1970 forced the coinage of a retronym, a new term to describe bats that were not aluminum (same process for "acoustic guitar" and "analog watch").

But is that bat wooden - or just wood? That "en" ending, which signals an adjective meaning "made of," is disappearing from the language. "An earthen pitcher," for instance, is one made of "earth," or clay, as we are more likely to say nowadays. Other examples: I need to polish my oak (not "oaken") bureau, and to pick up some silk (not "silken") thread to sew a button back on my blouse.

Another way of saying this is that we're relying more on attributive nouns nowadays - witness our friend the wood nymph.

Whatever. Just as it became necessary to connect the terms "wood" and "bat," that little syllable "en" started heading for the showers, and the phrase on the lips of the people is "wood bat." Had aluminum bats established themselves earlier, "wooden bat" might today be the more popular term.

I find myself reluctant to let go of those adjectival "en" endings altogether.

Why so? They soften the rhythm of a phrase into the natural iambic meter of English (ta-DA, ta-DA): "a golden thread." The "en" lives on in the metaphorical meanings of many words: "a wooden speaker" or "a leaden sky" (vs. "lead paint"). The "en" seems to go into the realm of the poetic, or at least folkloric: "Don't take any wooden nickels" (ca. 1920s).

Replaying in my mind's ear the "en" words I've known, I remembered one I haven't thought of for years: "olden times." It was a term my playmates and I used as children, still in single digits, before we'd had any "history" in school (prehistoric?) We used it to try to sort out the different layers of the past we were being exposed to, through family lore, of course, but also via television, movies, and (this being southern California) theme parks. "Olden times" covered that period definitely outside personal memory but possibly within living memory of parents and grandparents.

The phrase sounds utterly quaint today, and maybe it did then, too, without my realizing it.

The young friend with whom I most associate it had family roots in Tennessee, and I may have unwittingly picked up a regionalism. I'm glad to be reminded of "olden times," before it slips completely back into, well, "olden times."

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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