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The Ferrari span out of control

December 5, 2011

I heard this one on the radio this morning, in the context of the news story about the costly pile-up of Ferraris and Lamborghinis in Japan. Apparently it all started when a Ferrari span out of control. Now, span is an old and venerable past tense form of spin, going back at least as far the 14th century – in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the radical priest John Ball posed the famous rhetorical question, When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? However, it does not seem to be much used today; I don’t use it myself; I’m aware of its pedigree, but it sounds quaint and old-fashioned to my ears. Spun sounds more natural now.

There is a group of English verbs where the vowel mutates in this way to produce different tenses: sing, sang, have sung; swim, swam, have swum; sink, sank, have sunk etc; but they do seem to be unstable and have been so for a long time. Jane Austen often confuses sank with sunk, and John Betjeman wrote the lines He took me on long silent walks/ In country lanes when young/ He knew the name of every bird/ But not the song it sung (though that may have been rhyme-driven). I still observe the distinction myself in the above cases, but I think span is a lost cause, and that was why it was such a surprise – not an unpleasant one – to hear it on the radio today.

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  1. Maybe it’s become a regional thing? I’m from the midlands and I use span and swam and swang!

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