Daily Archives: July 29, 2009


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.