Daily Archives: June 15, 2009


Perhaps you have a lodger, a pudgy old codger named Roger, grey as a badger, who likes to adjure you to judge his tadger larger than any other gadge’s, and he keeps at you, a real noodge… Not only does he badger, it’s like he has a badge on his forehead: a great big L for “loser.” Do these words, this verb badger and this noun badge, have to do with the critter called badger? You betcher! Badger, badger, badger… it mushrooms! It seems that the animal’s forehead fur looked like a badge, or anyway that’s the best stab etymologists can make at it (but they’re also still burrowing for a source for badge). Is the badger ill-tempered and persistent, constantly bad and generally saying grr, known perhaps to have barged into tea and grabbed a scone unbidden? Well, it was long axiomatic that a badger, once it bit, would not release till its teeth had met. But it’s at least as likely that it was the badger that was being badgered… by people. They weren’t treated, ah, very nicely. But anyway, to the word form before us: note the two ascenders on b and d, rising up like the stripes on a badger from the eyes. It takes more imagination to see the a as a pointy snout and the ger as somehow the rest of the creature. The sound could work: the opening [bæ] is an incipient baring of the teeth, a release of bitterness, and then there’s the tongue-bite of the voiced affricate followed by the growling [r]. But of course there’s not such an impinging tone in, say, budgerigar. Unless the little blighter won’t shut up.


This word blends and clips voices but brings them together as they come out of the mouth. Its first part is lip, a word that, in various variations, has shown up throughout the Indo-European languages: Latin labium, Persian lab, Swedish läpp, Old English lippa… So many lips in so many tongues. It may look as though there are plural lips, but the s turns out to be the start of synch, also spelled sync. The spelling, at odds with the pronunciation, gives a clue to the source of the second part; it may sound like sink but it is without basin – it’s from Greek, though it’s cut off in half-time. The syn is “together,” which is fitting, as it brings together the lip and the ch. The ch is the start of the root chron, referring to time; synch is short for synchronization, a word that many people don’t have time for all of. But if the time is out of joint, then simply disjoint it and adjoin it. Take the tip of this dactyl and touch it to your lips: ssshhhh! Loose lips sink ships!

After all, when you lipsynch, it is not your voice, or at least not then and there; you bring your face, your movement, to be spoken through by the absent breath. You are bound by these vocal cords. Together your vision and the sound form one of those loose lipsynch ships, a raft of blind voice and dumb show. But to be the smokesperson, the mirror to nature, you must do it without mixup or slip. You are like a spy for the voice, the linch pin of the fantasy for the audience. You are the s of this word, the joining of fully present lips (but less there than seems) and the voice spread across time, seemingly together but clipped from another moment. Words come from the fabric, shiny clips chins ply… You are the ventriloquist’s dummy, a warm prosthesis for an absent speaker. It may seem like a fish tied to a fowl, this cooperation of English and Greek, but this love of language is the language of love: it is no sin for lips to come together in – or out of – time.