saccade

Well, here’s another word to pull out of my sack and add to the word tasting note index. Run your eyes over it for a moment.

Now, actually, when you look at the word saccade, how do you look at it? Do your eyes stab it like a pickle fork and lift it in one piece? Or do they flick across it like a stone skipping on the water? We know that a word such as floccinaucinihilipilification is not likely to get the spear-and-go read; other other hand, in a sentence, common word clusters such as out of the or even as a result of the might be taken in with one stop of the eye – as perhaps might even longer strings of words.

Part of it will be the familiarity of the word, certainly. If you see a common long word or one made of familiar parts, such as, well, familiarization, it’s quite easy to take in; if it’s a new word, perhaps one made of unexpected combinations of letters, and maybe repeated letters, a word such as onychogryphosis or a name in a language you don’t know with letter combinations you’re not used to, such as (for the average anglophone) Przybyszewski or Cichiuciuc, you might have to jerk to a stop and hold your horses for a moment to get past the façade.

One way or another, when you sweep your eyes over something, it’s a good bet they don’t actually move in a smooth sweep like a bird flying over. Rather, they move more like a bird’s head when it’s looking around, skipping from spot to spot – or perhaps like the cicada its eyes are following. Those quick leaps of your eye from spot to spot are called saccades.

Now, saccade is an easy anagram of cascade, but clearly what it refers to is not smooth like a cascade. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the anagram didn’t leap out at you either, given the catching hardness of the cc in the middle – which may look like a pair of eyes looking off to one side, but is at least as easily seen as a couple of hooks. And with the a‘s on either side, acca, it has a hard knocky feel to it like one billiard ball hitting another. And a hard knocky sound, too, especially since the second syllable – which is the stressed one – sounds like cod rather than the end of okayed.

Where do they come up with a word for jerks of the eyes, anyway? Well, in this case, from French jockeys. The older meaning of the word is “a quick jerk of the reins to check a horse,” and it comes from French quite unchanged. Where did French get it from? Apparently from sac “sack” – presumably as in pulling something out of one.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting saccade.

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