Monthly Archives: January 2009

thixotropic

Will this thick word become liquid as its trips on your tongue? It has a sliding mechanical sound, like a bolt-action gun being cocked, or perhaps like wet shale on a cliff disturbed by a trekker. There are two strong overtones: thick and tropic. Ironically, thick is etymologically unrelated but has some kinship with the sense, while tropic comes from the same Greek as Tropic of Capricorn but thixotropic has nothing much to do with tropical climates – unless you consider that guar gum is thixotropic, and guar grows in the tropics. Crosses and dots crop up on the page – two t’s, an x, and two i’s – but also round letters, two o’s and a c, plus a full ascender (h) and a descender (p). It’s like a thicket of ink with a dual nature. And if you shake the thicket? Ah, that’s the ticket. A thixotropic gel will become fluid when agitated and revert to gel when left to stand. More things have this property than you might think. Some flow in your body; some may stick to your boots. If you touch one, will you turn? It would be fitting – the word does come from Greek thixis “touching” and trope “turning.”

claret

A word that may be less clear than it seems. Those who have not seen this word before may wonder if it is a woodwind or brass instrument. Those who know it to be a term for red Bordeaux wine may be tempted to pronounce it as a French word, with accent on the latter syllable and an unpronounced t. But you will find it is of that peculiar class of shibboleth where, if you don’t know and try to sound like you do know, you will more likely reveal yourself as not knowing than if you hadn’t tried. A parallel may be drawn with certain terminological distinctions between “upper-class” and “non-upper-class” English: if you say wealthy instead of rich, classy instead of smart, recollect instead of remember, perspire instead of sweat, pardon instead of what? and preserve instead of jam, you will sound like a mere Hyacinth Bucket, sounding “out” by the effort you make to sound “in.” Likewise, claret may be based on a French word – clairet – but it’s English now, I feel forced to declare it. A clairet (the French word), anyway, is a pale, pale version of a red wine, as they used to make them in France until the latter 1600s, the name coming from clair “clear,” whereas a claret (the English word) is a full-bodied, dry red Bordeaux of the style that was introduced by such châteaux as Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, and Margaux in the 1700s, and is often contrasted with the lighter (but not clairet) reds of Burgundy. But we don’t really drink “claret” in North America; we just call it Bordeaux. And from that name we expect a wine of some quality, whereas claret can as easily refer to a wine meant to be drunk in quantity, as it in turn likewise betimes makes the barristers and solicitors in John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories. But how does this word taste on your tongue? It starts with the same vocal gesture as glass – and glug, and a bunch of shiny words – but voiceless, making it thirstier and closer to clear and class. If you say it the British way, the tongue then taps its tip twice, like a simple signal on the counter to the barman, but in North America the r is a liquid – ironically, the tap then comes from the liquid, whereas in a bar it’s the other way round. But, again, lest this word’s bouquet make you a Bucket, remember that your claret will be poured not from a pitcher or a ewer but from a claret jug.

mulct

Will a mulct make you feel milked? It might. This word’s pronunciation might make one think of a choking – perhaps you start to say money or much or mulberry and a hand suddenly grabs you under the chin, squeezing as though your head were an udder. But, really, what is this collection of letters and sounds we’re looking at? The overtones include mulch, mull, milk, munch, perhaps words such as cult and clot… It has a pair of voiceless stops at the end, and those after a liquid rather than a vowel, too, so it does rather clot up, as though one had just licked a spoon clean of its almond butter. But where would you hear it? Well, lately, not much of anywhere, it seems; wordcount.org, a ranking in order of frequency of 86,800 words of British English usage, doesn’t have it at all. But older litarature will use it more often, which is fine enough. As is a mulct – often fine more than enough, actually. It comes from a Latin word meaning “fine, penalty,” but has evolved over time, as both noun and verb, to refer most often to an arbitrary, extortionate, deceitful, or at least rather painful fine – or, betimes, the sort of forfeit one has to pay for some infraction of arbitrary college or club rules, the sum of which will be used for the purchase of, say, claret for the general.

haggis

Now, here’s a word that has a definite flavour to it! Even people who have never tasted its object are likely to know of it: the great Scottish dish, Scotland’s contribution to world cuisine. Robert Burns wrote a humorous ode to it in language even chewier than its subject. But many people are loath to actually try haggis; they see this bulging sheep gut filled with a mixture that they have long been assured is the culinary equivalent of bagpipe music (certainly both require a good set of lungs). Actually, it is quite savoury, more so than many a sausage, and has a very nice texture, thanks in part to the cut oats that bind it. The word, too, may seem off-putting, but give it a taste and you might like it. Admittedly, it brings notes of hag, haggard, and haggle – words also consistent with stereotypes of Scots – but any word with a gg in the middle is likely to have at least a slight silly or happy overtone (you giggle? bugger off). Huggies is not so far off. It also makes a vocal gesture similar to a kiss and I guess – starting back in the throat, stopping at the velum and bouncing to an alveolar fricative. And it starts with a sigh and ends with a hiss. And then there’s Paul Haggis (no relation), who has certainly written and directed many TV shows and movies that are rather to many people’s tastes. Of course, he’s not Scottish. But, then, neither is the word haggis originally – nor its referent. The word is commonly thought by etymologists to have come from a word meaning “hack” or “chop,” though there is disagreement whether the word it comes from is Scandinavian or Norman French, and haggis was actually a popular dish in England up to around 1800 (as it happens, Burns wrote his “Ode to a Haggis” not all that long before then). In fact, a more native Scottish invention would be the deep-fried Mars bar (a.k.a. Mars bar in batter), which was invented in Stonehaven (where Burns holidayed two centuries earlier) and is well in keeping with the modern Scots tradition of battering and deep-frying almost anything, including pizza… and, of course, haggis.

throng

A word that sounds like, say, an arrow suddenly shot into a post in a crowded inn, but signifies something more like the crush of people mobbing to see what’s up – or to get out of the way. There certainly can be something thrusting or throbbing about a thr onset with a back vowel – or imposing, as in throne. The nasality of the ong may add a resonance or ongoing vibration, on the other hand (as in gong and song). Taste for yourself: what is the difference between mob and throng? Do you find mob muddy, heavy, thick, dumbly belligerent? And do you find throng massive, energized, aggressive? And do you perhaps get a more southern European sense from mob? You may not, but if you do, you at least have the track on the origins: mob comes from Latin mobile, from which it is shortened. The th starting throng should be a giveaway as to its origin: few are the languages from which English gets words with that sound, and comparatively few are the modern languages that use it – about the closest one to English nowadays is Icelandic, and it writes this sound with a thorn (þ). As did English, once upon a time, and this word began with one. But this word also began as a verb, as it still is often used – but before the verb throng, meaning “crowd” or, in an now obsolete sense, “press violently,” was the verb thring (and yet how different, how much thinner or finer or lighter, perhaps, does thring feel!). And thring also meant – means, for its use is attested in the last century or so – about the same thing. Its past tense and past participle were formed by ablaut: thring, thrang, thrung. Thrang became a verb of its own, as sometimes has happened – a past-tense form of a verb is used as a causative verb in the present tense: if you make a tree fall, you fell it. And the vowel ultimately moved slightly to make it throng. And does the throng move? Well, it may; it may also be found cheering; it may be a throng of reporters or a media throng; one may expect it to be huge… These are some words that have been seen in the company of this word somewhat frequently. And of course a throng of others.

ablaut

Well, who’d have thunk it? It’s ablaut time! A what? No, it’s not “a blot,” though those new to this word might see it thus at first. There is neither blot nor blat in it. It is not, for those in music, a blah ut either. In fact, toss away all those loud or messy bl- words. You can even forget about blue, although the German word for “blue” – blau – appears in the heart of this word. But at least German is germane: this word comes from modern German, ab meaning “off” or “from”and laut meaning “sound,” and the syllables split betwixt b and l. And that laut is not a lot, not phonetically anyway – think loud (or lout). Now, does that remind you of another word? Um, let me think… Yes, umlaut. You will probably think first of two dots, like snake eyes or headlights or fang marks on top of a vowel (or perhaps puncture marks from a Spinal Tap), but umlaut is first of all what those marks are there to signify: a fronting of a vowel under the influence of a nearby vowel. So is ablaut the opposite? Well, it doesn’t have a diacritic, and it doesn’t involve the influence of another vowel, and in Germanic languages it does tend to move towards the back; that great philologist Dr. Seuss gave us a prime example: “Stink. Stank. Stunk.” But actually it simply means a change in vowel to signify a change in inflection – in English, we use it in some verbs to indicate a shift from present to past to past participle, but other languages use other shifts for other changes. It’s no longer “regular” in English, and so we would not expect it to get new use, but it still occasionally does, sometimes to the dismay of those who see language more as a weapon than as a toy: bring > brung and dive > dove are examples that get up some people’s noses. They see them as a blot on the language – indeed, who’d have thunk it?

mofette

Be wary of any tuffet from which the the object of this word issues; you might want to give it a little miss. If this word makes you think of a female mofo, on the other hand, that would be closer, at least in desirability. This word, by itself, certainly seems soft and pleasant enough; there are overtones of muffin, fete, and feta, and there is that dainty ette ending. (On the other hand, Star Wars fans may think of Grand Moff Tarkin and Boba Fett.) It starts with a cushiony m and then has a puff of f in the middle – and that f rises from the word like a little wisp of steam. Fetid steam? In fact, yes – indeed, one might say mephitic steam, and one would be directly connected to the etymon. Does this mephitic mofette come from Mephistopheles? Well, the noxious exhalation may, but the words may not. Actually, it’s not clear where the word Mephistopheles comes from (Goethe, but where did he get it?). It is clear where mofettes come from – actually, they come from mofettes, which are not clear, but you know… That is, mofette can also refer to the fissure or fumarole from which the blast of CO2 issues forth. So it’s two for one, and mo’ mofette for your moola.