Monthly Archives: October 2008

sesame

A flavourful word with notes both exotic and quintessentially American. You probably learned this word when you were very young, and you may well have thought it had two syllables and sounded like it meant “view identical.” But you quite likely heard it even before that, as the name of a street. A piece of New York childhood (archetypal even for those of use who grew up in locales utterly different from that of the show), but we’re told that to get there is a magic carpet ride. Well, your magic carpet, when hearing “sesame,” might expect “open” before it – and then, instead of American mornings, you’re on Arabian nights. And perhaps you’ll end up farther east still and the word that comes with this one will be “oil” – of which a little drop goes a long way. And always, everywhere, you will find this with “seed.”  And such a small seed, but such strong flavour in the oil, and so well travelled! Well, so says me. The word comes from all over – our English version takes the spelling from the French version but the pronunciation is guided by Greek (English style). So go down the street, open the door to the store, and get some snacks – or some halvah or tahini.

meretrix

Lest you be tempted to think there is merit in this word’s object, be assured it is mere tricks. Those two e‘s are the heavy-lidded sloe eyes that spy you on the lamplit streetcorner; follow your eyes farther down and you see the x of fishnet-stockinged legs. Hello, sailor; call me Trixie. How can a word sound so shiny, fulgurant, coruscating, when it stands for something so often vulgar and coarse? But the word does have something of merit in its origins – merere, Latin for earning money, is the root of both meretrix and merit. And how often do we, after all, go for the superficial, the candy lip gloss, the easy endorphins? Just remember that the sirens on the corner are often followed by the sirens of the cruiser.

scabrous

A word that runs on the tongue like a hand going across a rough surface with little snags: it has a sound of sliding friction at start and finish, but in between catches on a point, then rubs against a little knob. Looking at it, too, you see a smooth top but for one scraping point up in the middle. This word does not lack for unpleasant echoes: not only the obvious scab and scar, but resonances of stab and other wounding words that end in voiced stops: dig, snag, grab, jab, squib, crab, and so on. But it also draws on the full strength of that expansive a, which is like a blast of hot, dry air through a word – and that may be fragrant, even flamboyant air, as in “fabulous,” or it may be a jet of sour gas, as in “nasty.” This word comes from Latin scabere, meaning to scrape or scratch, and first described a rough surface that does just that. But it has come to be more common in reference to writings, wit, and other words – specifically ones that are caustic, harsh, abusive, abrasive, repulsive… ones that would leave a scab (even though “scab” is not cognate).

sherbet

This word could sound like a a reliable wager but comes across more like an agreement with reservations. To some it may also sound like a pack-bearing Himalayan or a whispering frog. Its bivalency extends to its meaning: originally a drink of fruit juice and water, sometimes cooled with snow (a Byzantine slushy, perhaps), and still used for that at times (or for a fizzy fruit-flavoured drink), but now also an ice-cream-like dessert made with water instead of milk. The duality extends further: it has a fraternal twin, sorbet, which comes from the same Turkish and Persian word (sherbet or shorbet) and means the same thing as the newer meaning of sherbet (for another dollar or two). The Turks and Persians got their word from an Arabic verb meaning “drink.” One thing they all have in common: the slurping noise one may make while consuming them, which is like the sound you make when offered one: “Sure!” But why not?

conjunctiva

This word sounds, perhaps, like a comic-book villainess (succubus, perhaps) who wields ampersands and marries people forcibly. But in truth, the eyes have it. So do the i‘s in this word – you may think there is only one, but the j, in English history (and Latin roots) whilom an i, is really an i-lid in closed position. And the conjunctiva would thus be on its inside. But what is this conjunctiva, famous mostly for the infection to which it is prey (conjunctivitis)? Is it junk, is it a con? No, it’s a juncture, a joining together – the “and” between eyeball and eyelid. The full Latin is membrana conjunctiva, which means our noun was their adjective – but, in the body, a conjunction no less.

lush

A soft, wet word to fall back into. It starts with the loving lick of a lateral liquid, peaks briefly with the most neutral and relaxed vowel available, and slides softly into sibilant susurration, like easing yourself from a large lotus leaf into a fresh rainforest pool. If it seems utterly lazy and relaxed, that may be because it comes from the same Latin source as French lâche and English lax. It may leave the mind heading towards luscious, and it seems like the love child of love and hush – and a soul brother to plush, though they’re not cognate – but it also has a shadowy alcoholic second sense. It is often seen lately in the company of lipstick, though it can still be found with tropical vegetation.

metonymy

A companionable word needed by all, from the crown through the suits on Bay Street to blue-collar Main Street, but not so well known outside the ivory tower. It has a somewhat homely roundedness of soft nasals broken up by one crisp, pointy t. It may make Muppets fans (and others) think of “Mahna Mahna.” It could echo autonomy, but that word is open and clear where this one is covered and mutters. It may seem self-absorbed, starting with me and ending with the sound “me,” but its meaning is unavoidably self-effacing. It can’t avoid an arcane appearance with its twin y‘s in the back half (separated by an m like a comb between cowlicks). The ton in the middle may add some weight, though it has the most open part of the word, at least where tongue and lips are concerned, and it has a sound more echoing tawny. Word lovers are likely to recognize the onymy, but there is the risk of confusing it with onomy, as in astronomy; this one is as in pseudonymy – it refers to a thing done with words. And have you met the met? You have quite often, in its full form as meta, from the Greek for “with,” “after,” or “between.” So this is a word for using the word for something that goes with what you’re really referring to. Every blue-stocking should know that, but even a rough-and-tumble hired gun could use it.