sknx

First off: this is not a texting abbreviation for skunks, skinks, or skanks, not an initialism, and not the name of a rock group (that would be INXS or XTC or maybe NKOTB). It’s true that there are some SKNXs out there: one stands for Forum Skandenberg, which a Romanian competitive armwrestling forum; another stands for Saskatchewan Grain Car Corporation, and may be seen stencilled on the sides of some railway grain hopper cars. I don’t have either of those in mind.

But put those SKNX rail cars in mind for a moment. Imagine you’re at a level crossing somewhere in the prairies and your bad luck has gotten you stuck waiting for a long grain train to pass. Car after car rolls by in nothing like a hurry: SKNX – SKNX – SKNX – SKNX… Trainspotters might be busy writing down the car numbers, but you’re so unexcited. Your head gradually tilts back; your eyelids gradually lower. Try this while (or just after) you’re reading now: tilt your head back, relax your tongue near the roof of your mouth, and inhale. Relax some more and keep breathing that way. Perhaps let the airway through your nose close up and your tongue drift ever closer to closing up at the back of your mouth. At a certain point you will produce a sound…

And what sound? Well, it varies, of course, but let’s turn to the comics for an answer. No, I don’t mean zzz – I’ve heard enough people snoring, and not one of them really sounded like “zzz”. I’m thinking, rather, of the Blondie comic strip, for instance the one where Blondie is doing a crossword while Dagwood is recumbent on the sofa. She says to him that she needs a four-letter word for sleep. He replies, inconscient, “SKNX!”

Ah, yes. That‘s a sound of snoring. Of course the n really stands for the velar nasal, /ŋ/, that as a rule comes when /k/ follows and that we elsewhere write with ng. Or, rather, when said inhaling, it stands for a snort that doesn’t even have an International Phonetic Alphabet character.

It is much to Chic Young’s and Dean Young’s credit that they managed this bit of inventive insight while other strips tend to stick with the king’s new clothes of zzz. Of course, snores are often more drawn out than that, and Dagwood’s snores are often extended by several more x‘s: SKNXXXX-XXXX-XXXX, for instance. (Are the caps for volume? For emphasis? No, they’re caps because all dialogue in Blondie, as in most other comic strips, is in all caps. It’s a simple local orthographic choice. So really, in a non-all-caps context, I have no need to keep the caps.)

But is this a word? Well, if zzz is then sknx is, and some dictionaries – including The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, and the Random House Dictionary – include zzz as an interjection or a characterization of sleep. It’s onomatopoeia for sure, and it may even be an ideophone. Snoring itself is of course not normally uttered intentionally, but snoring itself is also not uttered phonemically (hence the difficulty of spelling it exactly). Reference to snoring, on the other hand, is as intentional and phonemic as onomatopooeic reference to any other sound, be it meow, squeak, grrr…

I like the look of it, too. The k reminds me of the tongue constricting the back of the throat, and the x is like so many cartoon eyes representing unconsciouness. But there is one question: how do you say it when you’re simply saying, for instance, “He was sknxing away on the couch”? It has no vowel, but it does have a syllable peak – the nasal between the two stops. But just saying it casually doesn’t sound right. My recommendation is to use an uncharacteristic airstream mechanism, a pulmonary ingressive one.

That means inhaling instead of exhaling. Oh, and tilt your head back too. And close your eyes and think of grain cars. Or, if you’re a trainspotter, of Romanian armwrestling.

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