One of 17
It is no secret that I dislike apostrophes and would abolish them if I had the power to do so. Hyphens, on the other hand, are a different matter. They have a useful purpose in indicating compound words. A Spanish-English dictionary is one that describes the two languages while a Spanish English teacher is a person of Spanish nationality who teaches the English language.
Hyphens seem to be disappearing. I regret this. However, they are commonly used to combine numbers and units: a 20-tonne lorry, a 40-year-old woman. Somehow something went wrong in the Guardian and we have this splendid correction:
An unwanted hyphen, introduced during the editing process, had us claiming in our print edition that the Villa Valmarana ai Nani in Vicenza, Italy, was “named for the 17-stone ‘nani’, or dwarfs, that surround the home” To clarify: there are 17 dwarf statues surrounding the villa, they are made of stone, and we’re not sure how much they weigh.
People outside the UK may not understand the point. In the system of imperial (sic) weights and measures, which is still commonly used there, a stone is equivalent to 14 pounds. That is pounds weight, not the country’s currency of pounds sterling. Seventeen stone is about 108 kg – rather a lot for a dwarf! The imperial system of weights as used in the UK (it is different in the USA) is:
16 ounces (oz) = 1 pound (lb)
14 lb = 1 stone (st)
2 st = 1 quarter (qr)
4 qr = 1 hundredweight (cwt)
20 cwt = 1 ton
An imperial ton is thus 2,240 lb (believe me, I learnt it all by heart at school along with rods, poles and perches for measuring land, and a mile is 1,760 yards, 5,280 feet or 63,360 inches). Coincidentally but conveniently, the metric tonne of 1,000 kg is equivalent to 2,205 lb. The two words ton and tonne are distinguished in spelling but are both pronounced /tVn/.
This is the avoirdupois system. Precious metals are weighed in the Troy system, where a pound is 12 pounces or 5,760 grains.
There is no likelihood of the UK adopting the metric system in any foreseeable future.
The plural of dwarf
The standard plural is dwarfs. J. R. R. Tolkien used dwarves in his books. According to Wikipedia:
The original editor of The Hobbit “corrected” Tolkien’s plural dwarves to dwarfs, as did the editor of the Puffin paperback edition of The Hobbit. According to Tolkien, the “real ‘historical’” plural of dwarf is dwarrows or dwerrows. He referred to dwarves as “a piece of private bad grammar”. In Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings it is explained that if we still spoke of dwarves regularly, English might have retained a special plural for the word dwarf as with goose—geese. Despite Tolkien’s fondness for it, the form dwarrow only appears in his writing as Dwarrowdelf, a name for Moria.
Tolkien used Dwarves, instead, which corresponds with Elf and Elves. In this matter, one has to consider the fact that the etymological development of the term dwarf differs from the similar-sounding word scarf (plural scarves). The English word is related to old Norse dvergr, which, in the other case, would have had the form dvorgr. But this word was never recorded, and the f/g-emendation (English/Norse) dates further back in language history.
Connoisseurs of this arcane subject will appreciate the alternating double and single quotation marks in nested quotations in both the above pieces from the Guardian and Wikipedia.
Image from magicoveneto.it