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Weetos Faux Pas

A few days ago, Weetabix decided to release updated packaging for their Weetos cereal. What they ended up doing verged on (apparently unintended) comedy gold …


As you can see, the idea Weetabix was going for was to use cartoon characters to embody a range of positive qualities that the characters got by eating Weetos. So we have Buck Wild, Jean Pa Pow and… Big Baws. Now, this might not have caused a fuss in most places in the UK, but it did in Scotland because ‘baws’ means ‘testicles’ (colloquially, ‘balls’). It’s ‘baws’ because of a historical process of what’s known as L-vocalisation led to the /l/ being weakened and ultimately elided. It appears in a bunch of Scots words like fu’ (‘full’), wa’ (‘wall’) and ca’ (call), and it’s generally a very distinctive Scots feature (if you read Oor Wullie, you’ll see lots of it. Here, for example, he says ‘forgotten a’ aboot this’ in the seventh panel.). L-vocalisation tends to appear with back vowels rather than front vowels (although it does seem to be spreading in words like milk and bible).

Now Weetabix’s defence was that ‘Big Baws’ was supposed to be read as ‘Big Boss’, but I don’t think that explanation holds much water, for the following reason. Generally, the pronunciation of plural nouns marked with <s> varies depending on whether the segment preceding -s is voiced or voiceless. For example, the -s at the end of claps is pronounced [s] but it’s pronounced [z] at the end of clubs. Same with flags and flaps or capes and cabs. This is because the <s> ‘takes on’ the voicing of the preceding segement. If the segment is voiceless, the <s> will be voiceless as well. With words that end in <s> that are not plurals (like boss, floss, moss etc), however, generally these have [s], not [z].

In a word like ‘baws’, we have [w] (a voiced labio-velar approximant), which would suggest that the following <s> should also be voiced (going by the above reasoning). In that case, the pronunciation should be [bɔz], not [bɔs]. But <w> only appears in the orthography, not in the pronunciation, so then maybe Weetabix thought that since ‘baws’ ends in <s> but is preceded like a vowel (like moss and floss etc), it should be voiceless [s] (as you can see, I’m giving Weetabix a lot of credit for their phonological theory work here). In that case, ‘baws’ would be pronounced [bɔs], and the ‘baws~boss’ link becomes clear, despite the differences in orthography.

But alas, we have words like caws and saws and gnaws and yaws and draws and, well, you get the idea. All of these words have [z] at the end. Going by simple analogy, then, someone at Weetabix should have realised that the <s> in baws should be pronounced [z] and not [s] and that they could never get to [bɔs] by spelling it <baws>.

My theory is that they knew what ‘baws’ meant in Scotland and just decided to run with it, in the hope that the amount of publicity they would receive from the fallout would be worth the short term disadvantages (and to date, ‘weetos big baws’ yields over 40,000 hits on Google. Not a great amount, but when that’s nearly 25% of the hits for just ‘weetos’, it’s a sizable amount).

You’d have to say that Weetabix has big baws indeed….

– The Social Linguist

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Andrew Kehoe
    December 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    I think this is more an issue of spelling that pronunciation. The term ‘bawse’ (with an ‘e’) already existed before this Weetabix campaign (see http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=bawse). It was popularised by the rapper Rick Ross: http://www.gq.com/moty/2012/rick-ross-gq-bawse-of-the-year-2012. This clip shows how he actually pronounces ‘boss’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gLz_VoW9ww

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