gall

Dear word sommelier: If I have a sentence such as “I can’t believe he had the ____ to do it,” do I want gall, nerve, chutzpah, effrontery, balls, or something else?

Ah, now here’s a choice that really brings in the nuances that word tasters learn to discern. We will choose on the basis of the subtle tones a word gets from the various contexts of its usage – words are, after all, known by the company they keep – as well as by other words they have sound echoes of and by other senses of the word. So let’s taste these five words, one at a time, to see which one might fit your need.

First of all, if you feel like using the word unimitigated before the word, then your word is gall. Those two often travel together. But what we need to remember is that the use of gall to mean “impudence” is relatively recent – it showed up in the late 1800s – and particularly American.

Gall, you see, is what the gall bladder squeezes out: bile. And bile is a bitter thing. For most of the history of this old Anglo-Saxon word, figurative references were exclusively to that bitterness. We still use it for that reference, but mainly in the present participle of the verb form: galling. Something that’s galling leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. (Are gall stones galling? Usually one wouldn’t say so – unless, say, you had them when your dissolute uncle who ought to have every disease under the sun is as healthy as a horse, while you’ve been drinking wheatgrass every day for two years. So we can see that galling has the bitterness of envy.)

The bitterness (especially the spiteful or envious bitterness!) of galling is going to flavour the noun gall we’re looking at. If person A has the gall to do thing X, there’s more than a hint that thing X will be galling to some person(s) B (and perhaps C, D…). Person A might do X in spite of B, and B might be spiteful as a result.

One may also think that a thing one has the gall to do is a thing that will make someone else say, “Gaahhhhh!” But the stronger echo, I feel, is from all, with its expansive sweep – gall is likely to carry a tone of greater-than-expected magnitude, even completeness, and in particular an entirely undeserved and impertinent arrogation of that completeness. There’s also the effect of appalling. And probably of balls, too. (Not of small, however!)

Gall has the straightforwardness of being a single syllable, but it is very sustainable. Not only that, the /l/ here is that notably English allophone, where the tongue is raised at the back and the tip just manages to reach up to touch the alveolar ridge; the body of the tongue is thus in a straining U-type curve. And there’s a slight hint of choking in the constriction produced at the back of the tongue.

But, as mentioned, gall often travels with unmitigated. After all, sometimes a single syllable feels insufficient – it needs a nice polysyllabic wind-up to give it more punch.

One thing is certain: there is no great sense of admiration in gall. A recent New York Times editorial that displays it in full asperity (and uses galling too) is “.24 Karat Gall.”

Next up: nerve.

4 responses to “gall

  1. Pingback: balls | Sesquiotica

  2. Pingback: effrontery | Sesquiotica

  3. Pingback: nerve | Sesquiotica

  4. Pingback: chutzpah | Sesquiotica

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