Five common letters, four phonemes, one basic, short, Anglo-Saxon, but tangy word. It has a projectile feeling to it, almost more like a shot from an air-gun: the short build-up /s/, the launching /p/ (no aspiration, because there’s the /s/ before it), then the flight away, with the high sound receding into a mid-pitch echo, and the tongue in the act retracting like the recoil of an artillery piece.
But who spears these days? Well, aside from Britney, I mean. In fact, we all do from time to time, but not usually with a spear – it’s more an act in eating: with your fork or a cocktail plastic sword or toothpick, spear a pickle, a cherry, a spear of asparagus. And do you shake your spear? Well, I suppose it depends on what it reaps, and whether you have a spare.
Oh, those letters – there are 120 ways to arrange the letters in spear (assuming you use all five – once we start with selections of any four, things really go pear-shaped, and frankly I can’t be arsed), like five bits of food speared on a shish kebab, but when you parse them it pares the options. Still, the selection is not spare.
Neither is the set of uses of spear – the OED lists five nouns spear and three verbs spear, although some are obsolete (for instance the verb meaning “shut” or “confine” – unrelated to the noun we all think of first). Others trace their origins back to spire and seem to have shifted shape under the iconic influence of that similar-shaped thing; a spear of grass or of asparagus, for instance. But the spear that means “staff with a sharp tip” – and has throughout its recorded and recoverable history – gets around enough as it is.
And I don’t just mean Britney (who has the extra s anyway). For me, in fact, this word makes me think first of spearmint (a penetrating aroma but a soft one nonetheless) and of Cape Spear, Canada’s easternmost point. It also makes me think of a postmodernist production of Prometheus Bound I was in at the University of Calgary. One of the actors at one point was tasked with repeating the line “Sharp pointed spears” – and the actor chosen for this had a quite noticeable sibilance on the /s/, somewhat like a lisp, lending a vaguely Pythonesque tinge.
And of course there are various other usages and flavours that can get chucked in as well, ranging from the sporty (spear-fishing) to the theatrical (spear-carrier). But I think you get the point.
Thanks to Laurie Miller for suggesting spear.