As bready as a baguette, with a hole through it like a bugle, this word’s object looks like an overgrown doughnut. But though its origin (by way of Yiddish) is a Germanic word meaning “ring,” bagel doesn’t present any simple roundness. There are the rings in b, a, and g, but always attached to something else, and e is a broken ring and l no ring at all. The word makes a nice design, sure, with the ascenders as bookends and the descending loop in the middle, but it’s hardly iconic. Its sound is straightforward, even blunt, perhaps chewy, with the two voiced stops and final liquid, bouncing front to back to middle – or, well, simultaneous front and back, with the tongue curving between constrictions at back and tip, the closest thing to a ring in the enunciation. But to add the crispness of voiceless stops, you need lox or cream cheese – a couple of common collocations (along with breakfast, toasted, shop, chips, plain, and of course New York, every one of which has at least one voiceless stop). Its echoes run from beagle through bigger to gable (imagine Anne of Green Bagels!). The word gets around – even if its object doesn’t get a round word.
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I have been chastized for not mentioning Montreal. But for the collocations I just surveyed the common collocations in the Corpus of Contemporary American English — which is, well, American, admittedly — and checked the clustering on clusty.com, which includes sites from all over, and Canada can easily get lost in there. No doubt for Canadians Montreal shows up near bagel more often, but I just didn’t happen to have it in the data I looked at.
I suppose I could also have found some way to mention the boil-and-bake sequence, especially since there’s a kind of euphony there: boil, bake, bagel.
Really good fresh bagels are, in fact, quite lovely. Most of the bagels I’ve ever had, alas, have been oversized and room-temperature. And a few have been undersized, hard and cold. Pity.