Daily Archives: June 10, 2011


Look at the letter forms in this word. Excepting the t, and maybe the e, they slip and slide around – curve up, curve down, curl, make a ring, slither…

The sound of the word, for its part, starts with a thickness and stickiness (that velar nasal and stop and alveopalatal fricative, the tongue pressing softly in the back and then sticking and rolling forward to release finally, gradually, at the tip, the whole experience like stepping forward through mud) and then, after stepping through the open door of the lips and leaving a pucker behind, it slips into a hiss. It makes me think of the stickiness and hissing bubbles of stove-top cream of wheat just when it’s ready, or perhaps of thermal mud pots like Iceland’s Hverarönd (I have some pictures at www.harbeck.ca/James/iceland/iceland3.html).

But this word’s object is not quite like mud, though close, and likewise not quite like cream of wheat, though close. It’s not sticky or viscous, but it’s thick, like fat. Unctuous, from Latin unctum “ointment” (from unguere “anoint”), means “oily” or “greasy”, though it has a rich luxuriousness that you don’t get from oily or greasy. Those are both lighter, more slippery words. This… this is like goose fat, great gobs of goose grease rubbed in loops and rings all over your body, u u u n n c o e s s s (with a little t where two dabs cross over in the middle).

Does that image make you uncomfortable? The object of unctuous may well too, since it’s often used to describe not a substance but, as it were, what we might call a lack of substance – an oily insincerity: you’re more likely to find voice than any other word next to unctuous. You know the voice – it’s smarmy, it’s dulcet but not delicious; it’s the speech of a funeral director, perhaps.

Amusingly, unctuousness, though viewed poorly in English, is seen from the better side in French. The French, as we know, are not afraid of fat; they appreciate rich foods (partly because they don’t eat like starving dogs). So, as Polly-Vous Français notes and I have observed myself, onctueux is often seen in French advertising for smooth, creamy treats, of which of course France has many. (Polly-Vous finds the overriding flavour of unctuous unappealing and unappetizing, which helps her to eat less rich food, she says.)

Still, unctuousness is a thick and rich word, in its way delicious on the tongue – as Jens Wiechers (who suggested this note) says, “it somehow grows on you after a while and you wait for a chance to use it.” But here’s a question: why not unctuosity?

Actually, both unctuousness and unctuosity have been in English since the fourteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a first citation for each from 1398 – because they’re both from the same book. And, over the centuries, there have been times when unctuosity was the more common word. But now unctuousness wins out.

There are linguistic fads, of course, and the figurative uses of this word may figure into the choice: unctuosity has often enough been used to refer particularly to an oily religiosity, and it has a better echo of religiosity. But for the material thickness, unctuousness surely wins in its feel; unctuosity has that longer, wide open vowel in the middle, and a quick tap of a /t/ after that. It’s sort of like the difference between, say, olive oil (unctuosity) and butter (unctuousness). And while I like olive oil, nothing beats butter.

Well, no, I’m not comparing it to Nutella, they’re different kinds of things, even if they both have a certain unctuousness… Ah, zut, et voilà, j’ai faim.

(Translation: Oh, drat, look, now I’m hungry.)