helminth

This word has some lovely qualities, with its opening and closing voiceless fricatives and its liquid and nasals in between – all soft and lovely. Its associations add to that feel for me: the /hεlm/ makes me think of actress Katherine Helmond (famous from the TV shows Soap, Coach, Who’s the Boss, and Everybody Loves Raymond), of Helen of Troy, of Hellman’s mayonnaise and perhaps of the playwright Lillian Hellman (who has a lovely name but was perhaps not such a soft and pleasant person as all that). True, it also makes one think of helm, helmet, and Helmand (a province in Afghanistan), but at least those are all nice-sounding words. And the second half of the word, /mɪnθ/, has nice associations as well: echoes of mint, a rhyme with plinth (which may not be soft but at least has classical connotations) and (in English pronunciation) absinthe

The shape of the word is also notable. I don’t know whether you find it lovely or not, but it is a good collection of humped parts (n, m) and tall parts (l and, a bit shorter, i and t, and, with hump attached, h), like a colonnade with towers, perhaps.

Al together, it makes a word you’re not likely familiar with. It sounds as though it might name something from the Bible, though actually it’s taken from Greek, ἕλμινς helmins, combining form ἑλμινθο- elmintho-, naming pretty much what it names now.

And what it names now is surprisingly common, though much more so in less developed parts of the world. But, say, can’t we just ignore the sense on this one? The meanings of words are generally fairly arbitrarily attached to the forms of the words, though of course there can be interplay, and sometimes I feel like the meaning is really just some other thing that has attached itself to the form. Something that you’d really rather not have to think about.

And believe me, helminths are fairly high on the list of things I don’t like thinking about, let alone seeing pictures of.

Um.

They’re parasitic worms. There. Now I’ve said it. And don’t you wish I hadn’t?

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