tang

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!).

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