Now, there’s an eye-popping word. Seriously, what are the odds your eyes even know what to do with the phth – other than bug out at the sight of them? The first three letters even look like the sequence your eye goes through when seeing a cluster like this: e squint, x close tightly for a moment to readjust, o open wide! The forest of ascenders makes it hard to see the trees – and, for that matter, it’s not the most natural thing to type, either.
In fact, in the most common word using this root – Greek οφθαλμος, ophthalmos, “eye” – people tend to reduce it in the thinking and saying, away from the watermelon-seed-spitting double fricative followed by tongue-tip liquid and towards a pair of stops with much less sliding: ophthalmologist is often thought to be optomologist (and why not? their partners in trade are optometrists and opticians).
But today’s word is not common enough to get that sort of shop wear. Like ophthalmoscope, it has retained its fricatives. It’s a special word, kept in a velvet-lined drawer with assorted other curious instruments, some gleaming, some tarnished, to be brought out when one fancies just the right amount of erudition or scientific bent – words such as etiolated. Now, one may have few chances in real life to use it, but if one is writing fiction, one may of course create a character to whom to apply it.
Indeed, as Margaret Gibbs has informed me, in every one of P.D. James’s novels there is a character with eyes described as exophthalmic – and another character described as etiolated. (“You find yourself waiting for those characters so you can get them out of the way and start following the plot instead,” Margaret says.)
Now, you may have sorted out that ex means “out” and ophthalmic relates to the eyes. Does that mean that exophthalmic means “having lost an eye or eyes”? No – rather, that the eyes look as though they are straining to leave the head. That is, they are protruding. The condition, called exophthalmus, exophthalmos, exophthalmy, or exophthalmia (talk about four eyes!), is often called bug eyes or pop eyes. Not something you see all that much in real life, but it does seem appropriate to mystery novels, no?