Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Anybody Want a Peanut?

Posted by Neal on October 14, 2004

An anonymous commentator said:

The DVD Player/DVD part of this post recalls something I’ve wondered about for a long time: how come when two little peanuts are in their native shell, we call the whole ensemble “a peanut,” but once we remove the tasty morsels we have “peanuts” and a peanut shell?

I never thought about it, but Anonymous is right. As my Webster’s dictionary puts it, peanut denotes “the seed or seed-containing pod of the peanut [plant]“. Or more accurately, “seed-containing pod that actually still contains the seeds, not one that has just been emptied of them,” which as Anonymous notes, is called a peanut shell. So if I ate 10 peanuts, it could mean I ate 20 seeds (assuming 2 seeds per pod) if I’m using the “seed-containing pod” meaning, or just 10 seeds if I’m using the “seed” meaning. To someone counting every calorie, this could be even more vexing than the question of how many troops are in a troop.

Anyway, all this talk about peanuts reminds me of one of my favorite lines from nearly everyone’s favorite source of movie quotations, The Princess Bride. In one scene, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (André the Giant) play a game, where Montoya will say a line, and Fezzik has to reply with a line such that the two of them form a rhyming couplet. Their boss, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) gets more and more irritated with the game, until finally:

Vizzini: No more rhymes! And I mean it!
Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?

I always laughed at that line just because it wasn’t a perfect rhyme–the same way I laughed at Ernie on Sesame Street forcing nice to rhyme with eyes, or Tom Lehrer rhyming You will all go directly to your respective Valhallas with Go directly, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollahs.

Why isn’t it a perfect rhyme? The part of mean it that is intended to be rhymed is [in@t], where @ represents the schwa sound typically found in unstressed syllables in English. But the part of peanut that is supposed to complete the rhyme is [in^t], where ^ represents the “uh” sound heard in but or up. Very close, but not a perfect rhyme.

A few years ago, though, I realized that for some people, mean it and peanut are a perfect rhyme. Whereas I usually pronounce peanut with a secondary stress on the nut, others have no stress there at all, pronouncing it as [n@t] instead of [n^t].

The difference between [pin^t] and [pin@t] can be difficult to hear when someone is just talking about one peanut; it shows up better when they’re talking about peanuts: [pin^ts] vs. [pin@ts]. The first time I heard someone say peanuts and mistook it for penis, I knew for sure they weren’t pronouncing it the way I was!

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2 Responses to “Anybody Want a Peanut?”

  1. When we were kids, I remember we had a book in the house called “Where Did I Come From?”, which explained the basics of sex and childbirth. In introducing the word “penis,” the book said it rhymed with “peanuts.” And in introducing the word “vagina,” the book said it rhymed with “liner”!

    I found this much more perplexing than anything else in the book.

  2. [...] poisoner anticipated. That, of course, reminded me of this now-classic scene (in a movie I’ve written about before), in which this kind of second-guessing was taken to its logically absurd [...]

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