Write this word in italics and you may see the w writhing in its spiral. The very juxtaposition of w and r at the beginning may invoke a mental entanglement: two sounds too similar to say in sequence. So we say the one, with its attendant lip-rounding, and think the other before it. And then the tongue writhes in the mouth, flopping like a fish from the retroflex [r] through the open [a] back to the press-up of [I], finally touching the teeth at the end. It starts like ride and rhyme (and write, right, and rite – or just almost if you do Canadian raising, which makes the diphthong start higher before a voiceless consonant) and rhymes with such nice words – blithe, kithe, tithe – but the lovely word it’s perhaps most like is the one it’s akin to: wreathe, and of course its noun wreath. It began (in Anglo-Saxon, straight from the Germanic) as a transitive, referring to twisting and turning, as in working a wreath; in Middle English it added the intransitive, which is the sense we normally use it for now. And how much less festive it has come to be. We need not blame its anagram wither anymore than its others, whiter and I threw. When, after all, do people writhe? In ecstasy, perhaps, but much more often in agony or pain. And what, other than human bodies, is writhing? A writhing, twisting mass of snakes completes the set of most common collocations for the gerund. I’ll take a wreath, thanks.
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