Daily Archives: July 23, 2009

nefarious

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.