stenosis

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.

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