Daily Archives: February 6, 2011


I’ve always found this a funny sort of little word. Its /sn/ onset sets it squarely in the midst of a number of words having to do with noses and nasal-toned things (snoot, snout, snore, snort, snot, snook, sniff, snuff, snivel, snoop, sneer, snarl) along with some unrelated to noses but that may seem to have some affinity of tone nonetheless (snag, snail, snap, snare, snatch, snazzy, sneak, snipe, snitch, snob, snub, snug) and some that may (or may not, depending on the hearer) seem unrelated (snake, snow). It has a bluntness in its /d/ ending, and it stares up at you wide-eyed from the page with its oo.

But what does it mean? And how is it pronounced? Well, the second question is not too hard – how it is, or anyway according to dictionaries should be, pronounced is not to rhyme with hood but rather to rhyme with mooed – making it sound like snowed said with a certain kind of Scottish accent.

The first question, on the other hand, is more of a trick than you might think, because it’s a moving target. We can say for certain that it’s always a doodad or odd and sod that is worn on or near the head. But greater specifics require context.

I knew it first as a hairnet – that bag-like sort of net that women may wear at the back of the head to contain long hair. They had some popularity during World War II; now they are mainly seen on strictly Torah-observant married Jewish women, Hutterites, and women from some other religiously conservative groups.

This is what I thought James Joyce was referring to in his poem “Bid Adieu to Maidenhood,” published in 1907:

Bid adieu, adieu, adieu,
Bid adieu to girlish days,
Happy Love is come to woo
Thee and woo thy girlish ways —
The zone that doth become thee fair,
The snood upon thy yellow hair.

When thou hast heard his name upon
The bugles of the cherubim
Begin thou softly to unzone
Thy girlish bosom unto him
And softly to undo the snood
That is the sign of maidenhood.

I thought it rather odd that he was obsessing on a hairnet and I wasn’t sure why he thought it to be so particularly a sign of maidenhood. (I also found his rhyme of snood and maidenhood every bit as off as his rhyme of adieu with woo and of upon with unzone – clearly dialectal differences.) But in fact he had a different sort of thing in mind, it turns out; we learn what from Walter Scott, in a note in his 1810 Lady of the Lake:

The snood, or riband, with which a Scottish lass braided her hair, had an emblematical signification, and applied to her maiden character. It was exchanged for the curch, toy, or coif, when she passed, by marriage, into the matron state. But if the damsel was so unfortunate as to lose pretensions to the name of maiden, without gaining a right to that of matron, she was neither permitted to use the snood, nor advanced to the graver dignity of the curch. In old Scottish songs there occur many sly allusions to such misfortune; as in the old words to the popular tune of “Ower the muir amang the heather”:

Down amang the broom, the broom,
Down amang the broom, my dearie,
The lassie lost her silken snood,
That gard her greet till she was wearie.

It was, in other words, a ribbon, which might have been braided into the hair.

But along with Scottish maidens and ultra-orthodox wives, there is a third set of people lately seen wearing snoods: soccer players.

No, they’re not wearing hairnets or hair ribbons. Somehow snood has come to refer to yet another thing: a neck warmer. They’re an in thing with some players, and FIFA is considering banning them – for safety reasons, they say, but I wonder if it’s just because they’re still frustrated about not being able to ban the vuvuzela during the World Cup and they want to ban something (no snoods is good snoods?). You can see this kind of snood pictured with articles such as the following, which American Dialect Society member Victor Steinbok drew my (and other ADS-L listers’) attention to: FIFA considering snood ban; Suspended pair fail with appeal bid and FIFA thinks snoods could be a danger to players’ necks.

We also see (and thanks to ADS-L member Damien Hall for this link) that it may have used to refer to a sort of cowl to go with an ’80s-style jacket: 80s New Romantic Gold Larme Jacket and Snood (note the reconstrual of lamé as larme).

So, I guess, if your hair’s nude or your neck’s nude, you can wear a snood; whether you should, and whether you will seem a snob or a prude, is another matter.


Eject is a word that may fairly easily raise a slight smile due to the roughness, hazardousness, or indignity of its most frequent referents – a fighter pilot may eject from the cockpit, a boisterous drunk may be ejected from a bar, a skier whose tips jam into something suddenly may do a double eject from his bindings… The most genteel sense I can think of is the eject button on various media players, from cassette recorders to DVD players. The overtones of ejaculate and the derisive flavour of reject add to its rather improper flavour. And fair enough: it’s from Latin for “throw out” – e “out” plus jacere “throw”.

So ejective would be “able to eject” or “pertaining to ejection”, yes? Yes, but in particular it has a linguistic sense: it’s a kind of consonant. Now, it’s possible that you’ve never spoken an ejective consonant in your life, because English doesn’t have them and neither do any other European languages I can think of, but I rather think, given the way children – and to a perhaps lesser extent adults – play with sounds, that at some time in your life you’ve made the sound. I do think it’s quite likely you’ve heard ejective consonants. I say this because I think it’s quite likely that you’ve seen the movie Avatar.

James Cameron, director of Avatar, wanted the indigenes of the planet Pandora to have a developed language, one that would sound alien to audiences but at the same time be pleasing to listen to and not prohibitive for his actors to speak. He hired Paul Frommer, a trained linguist and business-school professor, who presented some options, and what was chosen was a phonemic set with noticeable use of ejectives.

So what are these ejectives? One stand-out word from the movie is sk’awng or, as it’s spelled in the standardized Na’vi orthography in the Latin alphabet, skxawng. It means “idiot” and is used several times. The ejective k’ gives the word a feel of some cartoon character being hit in the head with a hammer and his head ringing like a gong. You may remember it.

In the real world, ejectives are found in many languages, including a goodly number of African and American languages – Hausa and Lakhota, for instance. They are also present in Georgian (what they speak in the republic of Georgia in the Caucasus), and when I sang in Darbazi, a choir that sang music from the ancient polyphonic tradition of Georgia, what our conductor, Alan Gasser, told us to do was basically to say the consonant very emphatically. And then he demonstrated.

A demonstration goes a long way, but I can’t actually give you one here. But it’s important to know, first of all, that an ejective consonant is not just any forcefully produced consonant. It has to be a stop or affricate – the airstream has to be stopped for a moment – and the glottis has to close. Ejectives are not sternutatory – they’re not like sneezing. There is no force from your lungs. The force comes entirely from a buildup of air pressure in the space between your closed glottis and where your tongue has stopped up your mouth (I’m put in mind of a piston in a diesel engine). So an ejective is a stop coarticulated with a glottal stop, with a buildup of pressure and the glottal stop releasing after the stop.

That’s probably confusing to most of those reading this. So let’s do this: start with the word uh-uh, as in “no” (rather than uh-huh, as in “yes”). Say it. Now say it again, but build up some pressure in the stop between the uh and the uh as if you’re lifting something; make sure to be actually holding your breath and adding a bit of tension in there: uh-…-uh. Now say the word okay in the same way: ok…kay. Now try it with the the /k/ released with a sort of pop outward a half second before you actually release your breath: ok…k’…ay. You should be able to produce the same piston-pop effect with “p”, “t”, “ts”, and “ch”.

So an ejective ejects the air that has built up pressure between your glottis and your tongue. But of course in ordinary speech it’s not quite so emphatic. I’ve found a video that teaches some words in Adyghe (Circassian), a language of the Caucasus, and in some of them you can see how ejectives come out in normal speech and how they’re different from ordinary stops. Just look for the p’, t’, or k’ – the other places you see will have it just as a glottal stop, as in uh-uh.

And why, if we don’t have them in English and you’re unlikely to learn a language that has them, should you care? Well, you like the taste and feel of words and their sounds, don’t you? There is much to be learned from the various things your mouth can do that you don’t use it for. (I mean sounds it can make. Of course.) And we do occasionally make these kinds of sounds when speaking English, just for effect. So why throw them out?