Daily Archives: March 17, 2010


What! Apoplectic! Apoplectic!! APOPLECTIC!!! Aaaghkx…

Oh, isn’t this just the perfect word for a sputtering fit? Four voiceless plosives, at least two of which are typically aspirated – and in one of which the aspiration spreads onto the following liquid like flames onto a puddle of gasoline: listen to the /pl/ as you say it, and think of the last time you lit a gas barbecue. And then in the next, the /kt/, the back and tip of the tongue are touching the top of the mouth simultaneously, which can make for extra pressure in the release – even a pop, or at least a tic. It’s a one-two punch: hold your hand in front of your mouth as you say this word. You’ll feel one puff (or two in close sequence) of air towards the top of the hand, and then one down by the bottom or on the wrist, thanks to the different tongue positions at release. Vocal fireworks! And the possibility of a little release of spit! It even has a suitable look to it, with those p p like ballons on sticks popped at the c c, perhaps.

These days, this word is used pretty much entirely for “bustin’-a-vein furious.” But it – or rather apoplexy, the word from which it derives – was once a standard medical diagnosis. And a common one: it was credited with laying low people from Al Capone to the Dowager Empress Cixi, from Louisa May Alcott to William Lyon Mackenzie, from Felix Mendelssohn to Catherine the Great, and two US presidents too: Wilson and Harding (that’s another one-two: Harding was right after Wilson). And what did it refer to? Why, bustin’ a vein. Or, more generally, any death following on sudden loss of consciousness – typically due to a ruptured aneurysm, but also possibly due to some ischemia, even heart attack.

The term is not used now in medicine, but it remains useful for states of extreme fury or similar. There aren’t really suitable adjectives formed from heart attack or stroke, after all, and they remain too potentially literal; this word is known to be figurative, it’s a nice direct adjective, and it has such a perfect sound. It is often followed by fit, which is a perfect fit, sound-wise; it can also be followed by rage. On the other hand, perhaps with a nod to its literal sense, it is often preceded by practically or nearly.

I learned this word in my childhood, but first I learned apoplexy, and in an unusual instance that gave it a different tone for me: the classical Greek painter Zeuxis was said to have laughed so hard at a painting of an ugly woman that he died of apoplexy. So apoplexy and paroxysm have always seemed kindred to me. But, pace apoplectic Zeuxis, apoplectic has ever had the capillary-popping rage association, especially since it was often applicable to me in my childhood: I had a terrible temper. I might have taken the word as an admonition of sorts, since at least one of my ancestors died of an aneurysm (thereby leaving a constant little worry at the back of my mind).

You probably have figured out that this word comes from the Greek, with its apo at the beginning. Apo can mean “off” but it can also, as a prefix, mean “completely”. The rest of the word comes from the verb plessein, “strike”. So to be apoplectic is to be struck down – felled by a stroke.

Thanks to Rosemary Tanner for suggesting apoplectic.


Hey, vacay, it’s like a playday and a soirée… What do you say? Oh, extra syllables are soooo last whatever. No need to “shun,” just let it trail off at the end into that creaky city-girl growl. It’s a lay-back-and-check-your-nail-polish kind of sound. You just, kind of, vacate that last syllable, y’know? And that [eI] diphthong ending may be catching on. Oprah decided to name a certain organ the va-jay-jay, for instance.

Vacay also looks like a place to go on vacay. There’s Rum Cay, Sandy Cay, Mira por vos Cay, why not Va Cay? (Or, with the pronunciation, Vay Cay? Maybe it’s off Miami Beach – Oy Vay Cay!) Or it could be on some Spanish island: vaca y… “cow and ” what?

The word is almost neatly symmetrical; the v shapes are like martinis or upside-down umbrellas or swaying palm trees or deck chairs seen from above, the c like a glass of beverage or a table seen from above… the tail of the y gives it that extra sway, or perhaps it’s draining away something: stress, rain from a storm, final syllables…

If the word seems to engender an empty stare or an empty desk chair, or if it bespeaks an empty mind or an empty wallet, well, it is from vacation, which is ultimately from Latin vacare, verb, “be empty” – or (I like this better) “be free”. Free as a bird! Vacay? Okay…

And how did this relaxed, quasi-urbane, Paris-Hilton-sounding word come our way? Its primary vector seems to have been the ciné: Legally Blonde, starring Reese Witherspoon. “You mean, like on vacay? Road trip!” Give the girl a standing ovay…