Daily Archives: August 19, 2011


Some years ago, I was thinking about tongue-twisters and the features that could make them particularly tricky. I decided that a bunch of voiceless stops moving around in the mouth and switching back and forth, interspersed with some /l/s, could make a pretty tricky one. But why settle for hard to say? Add an extra level by making it hard to understand – the mental disorientation could only add to the difficulty, yes? So here’s what I came up with:

Pat, a pickled cataplectic klepto, takes Platonic plate tectonics.

Admittedly, the words are generally well known, even if their juxtaposition is odd: what the heck is Platonic plate tectonics? (Indeed, when I made the tongue twister, I was assuming that it didn’t actually exist. But in fact there was a paper titled “Platonic plate tectonics: On the regularity of the distribution of triple points on the earth’s surface” published in 1981 by A.J. Arnold and A.F. Siegel, using models based on Platonic solids to examine regularities in plate movement.) And pickled in its figurative sense of “drunk” is normally used as a predicate: “You’re pickled”; “Jane is a bit tipsy, but Jill is completely pickled.” It’s odd to see it in the modifier position.

But cataplectic is the one word that might not be familiar to many readers. Some will recognize that it must be cata+plect-ic and thus has a root in common with apoplectic, which would also mean that the related noun is cataplexy. All of this is in fact true. And the cata is the same one as in catacomb, catapult, catastrophe, catalogue, and catabasis – but no relation to caterpillar. It means “down”, and it’s from Greek κατά kata. The plexy and plectic come from πλήσσειν pléssein “strike”. Is there a connection to complex, simplex, and multiplex? Nope – that plex relates to Latin plectere, “intertwine, weave, braid”.

So… “strike down”. That doesn’t really help all that much, does it? You can guess (again by analogy with apoplexy) that cataplexy is a medical condition, and you’ll be right. But what? It had better be something impressive. Cataplectic sounds like a house of cards – of credit cards and ID cards and other plastic cards – collapsing, perhaps because the cat batted it. It carries a variety of resonances leading in different directions: electric catapult plectrum complexion clap apocalyptic… And it’s a long word, 11 letters standing for 11 phonemes in four syllables, the sort of thing that can make some people go all weak at the knees.

Which would be just the right effect. When someone goes all weak at the knees, that’s cataplexy. So is any other sudden transient loss of muscle tone, typically caused by strong emotion. If you find this word jaw-dropping, that, too, may be cataplexy. There are many other muscles that can be affected – indeed, the whole body can be affected. The awareness is not; you can watch yourself drop like a sack of potatoes. If you happen to be wearing plastic body armour at the time, you, too, may make the sound “Cataplectic!”

I don’t mean to make fun of it, really, though. It’s not exactly pleasant. And while it’s comparatively rare as a diagnosable condition, it affects most narcoleptics and it can also affect people who are in withdrawal from some antidepressants (it is typically treated with antidepressants too).

And, yes, in theory it could affect a klepto who is taking platonic plate tectonics. Even, or perhaps especially, if he (or she) is pickled.