Daily Archives: August 31, 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.”