Monthly Archives: July 2009


This is a word that seems suited to a skeleton. It has the racket of erect and rickety (a word that may suggest rigidity by sound, but actually rickets, the disease it’s named for, involves softening and bending of the bones) and a hint of rigid and strict, perhaps the unbending spininess one thinks of with cactus… It also has a rhyme of ictus (the downbeat of a measure of rhythm) and perhaps a hint of Alan Rickman. But the weary sneer of the latter does not exemplify the object of this word. If you’ve seen this word, you’ve probably seen it referring to the grin on a skeleton, or to some similarly rigid grin; there’s even a death metal trio called Rictus Grin. One might expect that it comes from a word for “grin” or perhaps has some relation to rigid. Actually, it comes from the Latin word rictus (comes from? is, borrowed unaltered), meaning “open mouth” or “open jaws,” and that in turn is the past participle of the verb ringi, which means – wait for it – “open the mouth wide.” So the key feature of a rictus is the gape, as of one with lockjaw. Which is a little ironic in that one can’t say rictus with jaws agape; in fact, the /kt/ in the middle manages to force a full-tongue press to the palate, and the rest of the word requires a strictness of stricture. Scramble this word and you get rustic… but rictus seems less sticks than Styx.


Does this word refer to a sister who does stenography? Or does it sound somehow dinosaurish? Well, there is a steneosaurus (a word “badly formed (after Teleosaurus),” Oxford says), but one is probably more likely to think of stegosaurus. But stegosaurus uses stego from Greek stegé “covering” (like stegos “roof”), whereas the steno root comes from stenos “narrow.”

Narrow? Well, the dinosaur has a narrow beak. And, while life in a steno pool (a job that pretty much doesn’t exist anymore) was probably rather narrow, stenography – which means “shorthand,” as in those quick forms of minimalist cursive writing designed for taking notes as people talk – was thus named (by 1602, when it appeared in a book title) just because it took up less space on a page. (It is not to be confused with steganography, which means writing hidden messages and secret codes, and is from the same root as stegosaurus).

OK, but, really, this is all getting a bit thick. What the heck does stenosis mean? Well, one could say it does mean “getting a bit thick,” if by “thick” you mean that the walls of some passage in the body – the mitral valve, the larynx, the spine, or the pyloric sphincter, for instance – are thickened and the result is that the passage narrows. (Other factors can cause stenosis; the mitral valve may simply not open wide enough, for example.)

And if you have noticed – as you undoubtedly have – that stenosis sounds rather like kenosis, which is used to refer to Christ’s at least partial renunciation of the divine nature in incarnation, then actually there is a link: kenosis means “emptying” (and so connects us to Buddhist concepts too, but let us mu-ve on), and emptying is one thing that doesn’t happen well when there is stenosis. Or, anyway, it happens in the wrong direction. If you want details, you can look up pyloric stenosis yourself; it’s unappetizing and I’ll spare those who don’t want to know. I had more than enough of it in my infancy anyway. (Happily, it’s surgically reparable; otherwise I wouldn’t be writing tasting notes now, I dare say.) And if you are now thinking of sthenia, again it’s the opposite – asthenia, “weakness” – that stenosis tends to cause.

But how do you like saying this word? It’s all on the tip of your tongue; the only thing that involves the back of your mouth, really, is the raised back of the tongue in the /o/, and for that you balance by rounding your lips. So it keeps the tongue in a pretty narrow range, even more so because there are only mid and high vowels (nothing like in stall or stand). But your nose sits in the action, closed for the stop [t] and open for the nasal [n].

And to look at it? Quite innocuous. The nastiest anagram is stones (which is a different health problem anyway), or maybe ESSO snit or stein SOS, the one a gas hissy fit and the other a beer emergency. Eight letters, three-two-three in syllables, bookended with s‘s and with the little rises of t and i just inside. Not too narrow or crowded. Maybe a little clinical-looking because of the osis. But, really, not the kind of word that would make you sick. You’d think.


Ah, tibia and fibula… sounds like part of a wind section in an orchestra, or two sisters from a Russian story, no? And indeed tibia is the name for an ancient flute or flageolet. But that’s not its common use now. The tibia and fibula are the two leg bones between your knee and your foot; the tibia is the one in front. I came to know this word when I was twelve, in the phrase spiral fracture of the left tibia – which turns out to be a common enough injury among skiers whose bindings aren’t properly adjusted. Like me at the time.

But aside from being essential to such activities as walking, the tibia is a bone with a rather nice name, no? It has the pretty daintiness of tiara, which it also resembles in form, the b rising in the centre flanked by the diadems of the i‘s and on the sides the t and a. It sounds like a bone only a pretty girl could have: the petite edge of the ti at the beginning and the feminine ia ending… which is also seen on names of countries and other places. Could you see yourself flying from Namibia via Colombia to Tibia? My, that capital T makes it seem like the sister of Tiberius (and perhaps more harpy than ingenue). Well, it is a Latin word, anyway, come to us unchanged, no bones about it. Actually, two bones, one in each leg. But tibia or not tibia… couldn’t you just call it a shinbone? Of course: a nice, sturdy, masculine, Saxon word. But a shinbone is for kicking. No one kicks or breaks your tibia. It just wouldn’t be right.


Sounds like a word from, I dunno, Japanese, or an African language, or the corners of Rudyard Kipling’s mind, dunnit? Or a nickname for your friend Kim. But you probably know this word well enough. Come, now: what word comes before it? Demonstrate arms akimbo. Are your elbows crooked like the kick of a k, knuckles (m) resting on your hips (b)? Doesn’t your arm make a keen bow that way? No, keen bow is not where this word comes from, though the bow part might be related. Truth is, the trail on this one fades off in the fog of time. In 1400 we had it as in kenebowe; in 1611, it was written down a kenbow; 1629, on kenbow; and so on. The [n] assimilated to the [b] – it kept the nasal manner but moved the place to the lips – and the preposition, whatever it was, reduced and attached to the front. Now we have a nice, angular-sounding word, bouncing from the back of the mouth to the front, with possible echoes of Akela – what Cub Scouts call their leader, who we may feel sure sometimes stands with arms akimbo – and a bimbo, who may not have arms akimbo but your wife sure will if she sees you with one.


Is it a coin? It must be a coin, right, with all those o‘s like silver dollars and that sound like doubloon – is it pieces of eight? Nope. It’s the verbal currency of racism, pieces of hate. Octoroon refers to a person who is one-eighth black. And the o‘s might as well be a chorus of doom for a person it described when the term was current, in the US in the 19th century. The oon, to be sure, is the same one you see on doubloon – and cartoon, harpoon, balloon, festoon… All traceable back to a Latin nominalizing suffix that became on in French, one in Italian, and ón in Spanish. And from there it came to be, at least sometimes, this English oon. The word octoroon (earlier octoon) is modeled on quadroon, which means – you guessed it – a person who is one-quarter black. That word comes from Spanish cuarterón. But octoroon has a special vehicle for immortality: a play, The Octoroon, by Dion Boucicault, first performed in 1859 and very popular in its time (and still studied), in which a beautiful heroine (named Zoe) faces a terrible fate because she is part black. (The play was adapted from a novel, The Quadroon, by Thomas Mayne Reid, but the play was the more famous.) The play had two versions of its ending: in the version performed in England, Zoe marries the hero; in the version performed in America, she dies tragically, which conveniently avoided the on-stage depiction of an “interracial” marriage.


The taste of this word is like drinking the beverage mix name-branded after it: it starts sharp at the tip of your tongue and ends soft in the back of your throat. Voiceless stop gives way to voiced nasal. Analogously, the printed form begins with a point upward, crossed off, and ends with a loop downward. Such movement in such short space: three phonemes written with four letters. And the sound of the ensemble is metallic, resonant, like the tongue of metal it can refer to (as opposed to the “ting” of glass or a small bell). The tip of that tongue, pointed back at you, might bite like a gnat – or something much more mordant, such as a serpant, whose tongue can also be called a tang. The sting of pain can called a tang too, and the penetrating sense makes a metaphor that gives us our sharp-tasting or sharp-smelling tang, a word that has acquired a sweeter tartness thanks to flavoured crystals. And now if you taste a tang in a sauce sweet and sour, you may think too of the Tang Dynasty, which ruled China while Britons were speaking Old English (the 7th to 10th centuries) – or simply of any of the millions of people bearing the name Tang – though the vowel in that word is more properly farther back in the mouth. The English tang, best known as a noun, has verb forms for both the piercing metal (and sharp taste) and the metallic sound, and there is another noun tang, a type of seaweed. We have Scandinavians to thank for these words (tangs, guys!).


A word for curly-moustached villains hatching plots involving horrible things done to sweet, innocent young ladies. What nouns are most often seen after this adjective? Plot, purposes, activities. The word does not automatically signal its object phonaesthetically; a nef, perhaps belonging to Nefertiti, is nothing to fear, and the nefar sounds more like a foreign-accented version of never. The fari is likewise unthreatening if you think of fairy; it may be cause for greater caution if you think ferry and whether you can trust the ferryman. The arious may end precarious but it also ends hilarious. Just as villains rarely wear their villainy so boldly (“one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”) – never mind the twitching moustachio or the monocle and fluffy cat – this word has such a soft approach in the sound. It even conceals its origins a little: Latin ne “not” plus fas “that which is right, moral, etc.” Oh, the French cognate néfaste wears it more clearly, but néfaste does not mean quite the same thing; it signifies harm more by ramification than by villainy. The change of the s to an r in nefarious is a result of a phonological camouflage called rhotacism: the [s] medially voices to [z] and the [z] medially flaps (or trills) to [r]. A fricative in liquid’s clothing! Ah, and this underhanded rhotacism, this bait-and-switch, could be seen as a cipher for the surreptitious (and serpentine) eroticism of the melodrama’s villain. So subtle: have some Madeira, m’dear… and come up and see my etchings. Or my escutcheon.