Daily Archives: December 29, 2008


“Out!” he raged, pointing the way. Ah, yes, the tone of this word is clearly set by its apparent constituents: out – beyond, as in beyond the pale, simply too much, but also the act of emotion in outcry and outpouring – and rage. It’s a word simply meant to be shouted! Especially with that out echoing shout and ow and now and then the growling r right after, going through the vowel to the teeth-clenching voiced alveolar affricate at the end. But why doesn’t it simply mean “rage out” or “rage more than”? Well, because the rage is really a mirage – in fact, it’s the same rage as in mirage: the nominalizing suffix -age with an r from the stem before it. Yes, the stem is outr! Outrageous, isn’t it! There’s no out in here either! But there is a similarity in sense between out and the source of outr, French ultre or outre: think ultra, as in utraviolet… “beyond.” One could say that an outrage is an instance of something outré, though the sense of outrage has always been a bit stronger than mere bad manners or bad taste. From the very first, it has signified violent or disorderly behaviour, a violent wrong done, or a gross affront – in short, a transgression (which is a going beyond). So naturally an outrage is something that would provoke an enraged outcry, and this has played quite nicely with the form of the word so that the second syllable is no longer said as in shortage (a word that has not come to be an antonym for longevity!) but instead gets an unetymological emphasis and “long” vowel (see my post on “long” and “short” vowels in English). And so, along with the preceding phrase “this is an” and a following exclamation mark, this word also hangs out in the same neighbourhood as howls, indignation, provoke, moral, widespread, shock, and of course public (for who else is raging out?).


This word has a sound perhaps reminiscent of steel shears cutting sheer fabric: the sh like metal against metal, the sliding ee subsiding to r. The tip of the tongue sheers away from the alveolar ridge as you say it. And, no doubt, the homophony with shear has affected its usage; nautical uses for curves of trajectory or form seem to have come from shear. But the two words are not etymologically related. They both come from old Germanic roots, but this one did not have to do with cutting. Rather, it started out as meaning “free and clear”; from that, it came to “lean,” “thin,” and “fine” meanings, which have remained with fabrics; finally, it arrived at its most common modern senses of “absolute,” “pure,” and such like. Its phonaesthetics no doubt affect its meaning. The individual sounds start with the opening expulsion of air at sh – used to hush or to express stress, caution, and exception (as at the beginnings of exclamations such as sheesh and similar) – and move to the high and tense ee, a noise made when standing on a chair to avoid a mouse or as a sound effect for a high-speed fall. The r may give a Doppler-effect sound of rapid passing. The tension of the tongue in saying the ee may have an analogue in the palms-up air-clutching gesture used with phrases such as sheer brilliance and sheer stupidity. This word also likely draws on its echo of fear – as well as of clear and sheet. You will know from the company it keeps that along with denoting purity and absoluteness it can connote a certain respect, even fear, on the part of the speaker. On the one hand there are sheer cliffs, which can inspire sheer terror and sheer horror in the acrophobic; on the other hand, there is sheer inventiveness, sheer willpower, sheer bliss, and a host of similar others: always strong attributes that lend to strong emotions. And then, of course, there are sheer stockings made of sheer fabric smooth like sheer ice and inspiring sheer pleasure or sheer folly.