sheer

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.

2 responses to “sheer

  1. sheer
    Re: “This word also likely draws on its echo of fear … along with denoting purity and absoluteness it can connote a certain respect, even fear, on the part of the speaker.”
    As in Shere Khan? He’s the fictional tiger and chief enemy in two of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories featuring Mowgli. According to wikipedia he’s named after a Pashtun Prince (Sher Kahn Nasher) Kipling encountered on his trips to Afghanistan.
    There is also a Hindi word sher (शेर, pronounced [ʃer]) meaning “lion” (or “tiger”).[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shere_Khan

  2. Pingback: Think Connections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s