Amid the aftermath of verbal bacchanals, a bit of bad bearing can sometimes bring out interesting phonetic effects. One morning after a late night of wine, words, and song, as I was struggling with almond butter on toast, Elisa Lively – who really is, and sometimes a bit too much – came bouncing up with a book.
“Look!” she said, thrusting an open page spread between me and my bread. “Cachexy! It’s so sexy!”
She pronounced it like “ka-check-see.” I felt obliged to correct her. However, with my head thumping and my tongue cleaving to the roof of my mouth, I grimaced out something that was intended to be “ka-keck-see” but involved two phonemes not heard in English, one of them three times: the /k/ realized with not the tip nor the back but the full-on middle of the tongue against the hard palate, and the /s/ made by hissing out the sides of the mouth with the tongue still stuck to the top.
“Oh, yes, ‘ka-keck-see,’ I see!” she chirped.
“From Greek kakos, ‘bad,’” I said, having recovered my tongue, “and hexia, ‘condition.’ Means just that: general ill health, malnutrition, that sort of fun. That must be a medical book.”
“No, it’s philosophy,” she beamed. “The author is writing of a fin-de-siècle Weltschmerz.”
I have a fin-de-semaine Kopfschmerz, I thought, but left it unsaid.
“But,” she continued, “say it again! You said it really interestingly!”
“What, cachexy? Oh…” I made a weak smile and grimaced out the almond-butter version again. My head hurt a little with every exclamatory k.
“Aren’t those sounds from Hindi?”
“Well, no, I think the stops in Hindi that are like this are done more with the tip curled back rather than with the body. The hissing s, aside from being said in English by some with oral dysfunctions, is like a sound in Welsh, the voiceless lateral, ll, only I’m doing it with my teeth clenched, which makes the pitch higher.”
“Well, what’s really interesting about it –” she made some tries at it, sounding like she was suppressing emesis, which did not serve my guts well: “k! k! ks! – is that when you have your tongue full-on pressed like that it tends to make an affricate when you release it.”
“Mm-hmm. Yes. So our x, which is not an affricate, meets its two parts in the middle and becomes one.” I reached for my cup of tea and succeeded in causing it to fall and shatter on the floor. I stood wincing for a moment before searching for something to clean it up with. Elisa observed me and then reached down to help.
“Say,” she said, ever the observant one, “you’re looking a bit dodgy this morning. I hope it’s nothing bad?”
“A bit of a bad condition,” I said, trying to wipe up with my eyes half-open. “But transitory. Could be worse. Could be cachexy.” I couldn’t smile because I was wincing.
She couldn’t resist a little play with the sound, which, it turns out, is less charming from the receiving end at the wrong time. “Well, I hope it’s not catching. Should I call you a taxi?”
“No,” I said, warming to it in spite of myself. “Similia similibus curantur: like cures like. Just pour me a Metaxa.”