Monthly Archives: August 2009

sweatxedo

I had no awareness of seeing or hearing this word before seeing it in a letter reprinted in the September 2009 issue of Harper’s, but it presented a guessable picture:

But it is imperative that we all fight the good fight, get involved now, and resist the urge to become sweatxedo-wearing yuppies who sit on the sidelines in L.L. Bean chairs sipping mocha-latte-half-caf-accinos while discussing reality TV and home decorating with other feeble-minded folks.

Still and all, what a fascinating blend, I thought: sweat from sweatsuit cross-bred with tuxedo. And that tx! An honest attempt to say it as written would give one’s mouth a peanut-butter moment, perhaps producing some sternutatory sound.

I wondered whether the writer of the letter – Michael Kinahan, a girls’ soccer coach who intended it as a bit of dry satire and found it unappreciated – had invented it himself. A Google search turned up mostly references to that letter, which was written in 2009, but also a hit from 2005 and one from 2008. Say what? How does a word just pop up above the surface three times so widely spaced, like Nessie sightings?

The answer is that each one of those instances was an independent misrendering of Sweatsedo, a brand name for a tracksuit (I mean sweatsuit!) company whose togs are certainly aimed largely, if not entirely, at a market that may never work up a real sweat, and if they do wouldn’t want to mess up their nice velour Sweatsedo with it. They call their apparel leisurewear, and it was inspired by the rather baggier velour tracksuits of hip-hop stars. They got a big boost when that icon of taste, Kevin Federline, chose to outfit himself and his groomsmen in white Sweatsedos for his 2005 wedding to Britney Spears. (Is this a time to mention that Federline appears to be an anglicization of German Federlein, “little feather”? I bet he looked like a big plume in his white Sweatsedo – but I wouldn’t call it a display of panache.)

But sweatxedo is not the brand name, and now, thanks to the popularity of the letter (much blogged before Harper’s printed it), it looks to be on its way to a part of the colloquial language. So let’s give it a good tasting.

That tx surely snags the eyes, no? By itself tx often stands for thanks, but here it’s written to be pronounced somehow, and the x seems especially fitting at the point of juxtaposition, like a little cross-stitch at the surgical join. This portmanteau word definitely is something of a blivet (in Vonnegut’s definition: ten pounds of, ah, fertilizer in a five-pound sack). It begins with that unclean, lower-class word, emblem of hard work (by the sweat of one’s brow), an Anglo-Saxon word all the way, but also, in this case, understood as a clipping of another compound, sweatsuit (if they had called it a tracksuit, their brand could have been Traxedo, but sweatsuits have long been called sweats for short whereas tracks is just the plural of track). Married to that in a stranger match than K-Fed to Britney is the back end of tuxedo, commonly seen as emblematic of the utmost in taste and formality.

About which permit me a small digression, as I own two tuxedos and two tailcoats. When I’m wearing white tie with tails, I very often hear others refer to it as a tuxedo. But it’s not: a tuxedo doesn’t have tails – it’s just a decent-length jacket straight across the back – and it’s more commonly worn with black tie, a notch less formal. The tuxedo jacket was first introduced to America as a less formal bit of evening wear at a club in Tuxedo Park, New York. And where did this place name Tuxedo come from? Lenape Indian tucseto, which meant either “place of the bear” or “clear flowing water” (there are still Lenape Indians; perhaps one of them could clear this up, or maybe it’s homonymous – or maybe Lenape has changed too much in the intervening centuries since the place was named). Well, anyway, we know it’s not “place of the bare.”

So here we have a word the etymological trail of which is clear and present. How lovely! And it manages to kick English phonotactics in the teeth with its spelling (though I imagine one would not often hear [tks]!). Not only that, it does so as a reflexive correction of a form that more overtly displays the phonology – since x is phonologically /ks/ and is not truly treated as a single sound like the affricates written ch and j are. The written form truly does influence perception.

This word is a fish-and-fowl conjunction of high and low, something practically born for derision. The brand name – Sweatsedo – has a certain softness to it (like their goods), but sweatxedo has a hard ludicrousness that underlines the inanity of the image presented by Michael Kinahan’s letter – and by K-Fed taking casual formal just that extra step. Ah, no, tx.

uvula

Look in the mirror and say la. Hold it – laaaaa – and open wide. Do you see that thing hanging in the back between the molars, sort of like a v between u and u? Well, OK, the molars are far to the side and all you really see is an arch with a thing hanging down like a single small grape on a vine (in fact, uvu looks more like a plunging neckline, doesn’t it?). But, as you may guess I’m about to say, that thing is called the uvula.

This clearly isn’t an onomatopoeic or haptically iconic word; it would be more like grgrgr if it were, since the uvula is back where one makes gargling sounds. In fact, that choking-on-it stop found in some languages (from the sandy – Arabic – to the snowy – Inuktitut), often transliterated as q (as in Iqaluit), is called a uvular stop. But the two written consonants in this word are up at the front of the mouth, and the glides leading into the vowels are mid-palate, although the repeating vowel – [u] – is indeed the English vowel sound positioned closest to the uvula, and the final vowel is, as we have seen, suited to the display of the same.

No, this word is the diminutive form of Latin uva, which means “grape.” It would have been a fun word to deal with in classical Latin, since in Latin – and in fact in English until the Modern period – u and v were not distinct letters. There was no consonant v; there was u, which was pronounced as a consonant as [w] and as a vowel as [u] and, in Latin, was written V. (“Small” letters came about after the classical Latin period, and u and v were, even in English, for a long time interchangeable shapes of the same letter.) So this word would have been written VVVLA and said [uwula]. Latin consonant shifting and English vowel transformations have long since altered our saying of it, so that now it sounds like a Singaporean imperative to look – perhaps to look at the back of your mouth: “You view lah.”

stook

Perhaps you mistook this word for stock or shook? If you took it for shock, you’d actually be OK, as shock is also used to refer to the same object. But that object is a stack or stock of sheaves or bales – that is, of grain. If wheat is bundled in sheaves and those sheaves are piled upright together in quasi-conical groups, those groups are called stooks; also, stook can be used to refer to triangular stacks of square hay bales turned on angle. The point of a stook is to let the grain dry and ripen, and thereafter it can be threshed (or thrashed).

So how does this thing get this name? Is it the stool-like shape? No. Are they reminiscent of a spook? No, but the word is. Must you stoop to make them? Irrelevant for etymology. Are they like a nose expecting a snook? Actually, if you think cock a snook, you chould come away from that with the cock as in haycock – which, being unbundled, is not a stook, however it may be mis-stooken. The echoes go on and on, but this word, anyway, is of Germanic stock, though not exactly Germanic stock – rather stûke. It’s a sturdy word, stocky even, quite opposite to the delicacy one gets from the sound of kotos (Japanese stringed instruments). It has a pair of angular letters for voiceless stops guarding the goggling oo, and is strengthened by the sliding in of the /s/. Its vowel sound being that of took rather than of spook, it lacks the length and lunacy of [u]. Rather, its sound is like that of the word stuck as said by a Yorkshireman: “Here! What’s the stuck in the middle of the field?” “That stook in the middle of the field?” “Yes.” “It’s a stook.” “Well, I see it’s stuck there, but what is it?” And so on.

Christie

Torontonians will know this word as a stop on the Bloor line, but let us turn from that. Let us turn also from Agatha and from auctioneers. And how shall we turn? With a wedge – the uphill ski slipping apart at the back so the skis form a piece of pizza, tips angled together rather than parallel, but weight as always on the downhill ski, and then the skis brought back to parallel, like spaghetti, by the end of the turn. Perhaps few people nowadays know this turn by the old-school name: Christie, or, sometimes, stem Christie. It’s a suitable-sounding word for skiing, with its crisp, crusty sound, with a hiss in the middle and a slight echo of ski in the end. One reason for its desuetude is the increasing obsolescence of its object, obviated by the greater ease with which parallel turns may be made now that we have shaped skis. And how did it get called Christie? Not by what they say at Mont-Tremblant if you cut them off while doing one (that’s hostie or any of several other liturgical references). No, Christie is short for Christiania. And who is or was Christiania? Not who: what. The capital of Norway, named after King Christian IV. You may now know it as Oslo. So wouldn’t that have been a better name for the turn? Perhaps more suitable for a full-on snowplow turn, but modified slightly: oh-slow.

melancholy

It’s not a word for a dog with a canteloupe, but it is humorous. You protest? Well, melancholy is, in its first meaning, black bile, one of the four humours (vital fluids of the body) believed to govern temperament: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Those with an excess of one or another were particularly humorous types, in the words of the 17th century: if you were phlegmatic, you were slow and stodgy; if you were sanguine (too much blood), you were very happy and optimistic; if you were choleric (too much yellow bile), you were too disposed to anger; and if you were melancholic – too much melancholy, black bile – you were, in modern parlance, depressive. The melan comes from Greek for “black” – you will recognize it in melanin, of which Northern European types like me have little, causing us to sunburn more easily and thus be at higher risk for melanoma, the diagnosis of which may surely be cause for melancholy. The choly comes from Greek for “bile.”

This word may have something of a melodious air, with the two liquid l’s and the nasals run between them, but the melody is probably Melancholy Baby or something by Patsy Cline. Or perhaps by Marie-Lynn Hammond, who is herself an avid word taster and has spun out her thoughts on this word:

To me it’s one of those words that sounds like what it means… sort of endless and mostly kind of soft and dreary and amorphous, except for the hard ch – a little edge buried deep in the middle like the thing that might be causing the melancholy… but then there’s holy at the end too, though I know it’s part of choly really, but still, interesting…! Feeling melancholy was kind of a religion for me as an angst-ridden teen. When I was 15, I wrote a typical teen poem called “Poem in Grey” that began “Strongly, harshly, the wild wet wind…” and went on to describe various grey/forlorn nature images, and it ended “The opal of their melancholy is mine/Set forever in the silver darkness of my soul” – Well! Did I ever get flak for that from Sister Emma, my English teacher, for referring to my soul as “dark.” I guess unless I had a mortal sin on it, it shouldn’t have been dark, even silvery dark.

Instead, it seems, Sister Emma’s mood was dark – we may wonder if it, too, was melancholy, as mood is the noun perhaps most commonly modified by melancholy. One is tempted to speculate whether her anatomy was melancholy, too, but only by Anatomy of Melancholy, the 1621 work by Robert Burton. At any rate, she would not have been reading The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya even if it were available then; manga are not favoured reading of humourless, humorous nuns.

Do you have word tasting thoughts you’d like to share? They are welcome!

stoic

The first place I recall seeing this word was in a look at Marlon Brando’s career (which was not over at the time); the phrase was “stoic in On the Waterfront.” Somehow I understood the right pronunciation the first time, though there’s good reason not to; one might on looking at it imagine it sounds like most of the name of that most he-dude of skaters, karate-kicker on ice, the one who managed to hold it together in an Olympic performance in spite of having seriously pulled a muscle, only letting on with a wince when he stopped. But, no, Stojko is not in this one, even if this one has been in him. Who is in it? Zeno. Does that seem paradoxical? Well, let us draw near – to Zeno’s porch, where he sat and lectured. In classical Greek, “porch” is stoa, and so his group of ethically austere philosophers are known as the Stoics. In the simplest sense, the stoic line is: if you feel an emotion, stow it – Vulcanize yourself and be hardened. And, in common usage, it is not as likely that you will be or become stoic as that you will remain stoic, as though stoicism were the natural state. More particularly, your face will remain stoic. Well, there it is: keep that stiff upper lip. If the world says I cost, if you are in India and are beset by marauding dacoits, or if you seek coitus but find it does not involve u, then what is left but to be stoic?

whiffle

Now, here’s a word that communicates by sound. You can hear the the little whiffs of air blowing through leaves or perhaps puffing a piece of paper along. It’s fortuitous that the le suffix, a frequentative, turns the single action and single sound of whiff into the multiple action and multiple-sounding whiffle. It also gives it the air of whistle, which no doubt works well with Wiffle, as in the perforated projectiles. You can see the effect of the puffs of air on the ff as though through tufts of foxtail, and that dot on the i might be a holey ball on the way from h to l. Any word ending in ffle, be it sniffle or kerfuffle, of course carries a feeling of paper men wrestling in corduroys, or of similar frantic, furtive, or simply frequent puffs, buffeting, or susurrus, but this one does so more wilfully than most. One horsey person of my acquaintance has advocated the application of this word to that raspberry sound horses often make. The standard term for this act is blow, but that’s not really very good, is it? Nothing like nicker, for instance. Consider this the inception of a campaign for adoption of this usage. When you see a horse, simply say, “You do know how to whiffle, don’t you? You just put your lips together… and blow.”