Posted by Neal on August 16, 2008
Doug’s friend introduced him to an online game called Runescape. Doug informed me that the name is a compound of rune and scape when we were talking about the game a few days ago…
Me: You’re calling it Rune Scape, but maybe it’s really called Run, Escape!
Doug: Daaad, don’t be ridiculous!
Me: Well, I don’t know. I think run and escape make much more sense together than rune and scape.
Which is true. Scape is a noun, created as a backformation from landscape, that the OED defines as “a view of scenery of any kind, whether consisting of land, water, cloud, or anything else”. Anything else … such as runes? What would a runescape look like? I tried to find out.
Me: So does this game actually have runes in it?
Me: Really? What do they spell?
I figured he might know this, because we looked up the futhark alphabet when we wanted to decipher the inscriptions on the cover of The Hobbit. However, Doug admitted that the runes in this game weren’t really spelling out words; they were just magical symbols that you’d find here and there.
Doug also said that he would sometimes “find talisman”, which I mentally corrected to “find a talisman”. But when he kept saying talisman without a determiner like a or the before it, I knew something in his grammar was different from mine. All of a sudden I realized: Doug wasn’t saying talisMAN, he was saying talisMEN! He had seen talisman, interpreted it as a compound word, like mailman or salesman, and was now pluralizing it with the same irregular plural that all man-headed compounds get. (Aside: Why is the man in mailman pronounced /mæn/, while the man in salesman is pronounced /mən/? I don’t know, but since I’ve already written about that, I won’t dwell on it here.) Of course, I’m sure it didn’t make sense to Doug that a magical object should be referred to as some kind of man, or that there could be a kind of man known as a talis-man, but that’s folk etymology for you (or eggcornization, if you wish). It’s easier to have a word that you can make a tiny bit of sense out of, like talis-man, than one like talisman that’s completely opaque semantically.