lurch

When I was a kid, if I wanted to imitate the noise of something (e.g., a car) lurching to a sudden halt, the sound I would make was typically “Rrrrch!” (I suppose you could also spell it “Errrch!” but only if you remember that the nucleus of the syllable is a syllabic /r/, no variety of an e vowel.) The /r/, especially if high pitched, seems to carry a bit of the sound of rubber on road, and the closing affricate /tʃ/ is a classic catch sound, that of something that stops but not quite on a point. There’s a definite taste of screech. One way or another, this is one word that makes me glad I speak with a Canadian accent rather than, say, a British (or a Brooklyn) one. That syllabic retroflex, as infra dig as it may seem, has a certain tension.

Bearing all that in mind, lurch seems a generally sonically appropriate word. Of course things (and people) may lurch into motion, or side to side, rather than to a stop; the point is simply abrupt movement – originally a sudden leaning to one side. The headlong movement seems to work well with the /r/ and the abruptness with the /tʃ/. The one bit that may make you wonder is the /l/: is that not too soft, too liquid? For a truly abrupt motion, perch might perchance seem a better word, but that is instead a word for a place to sit, or the act of sitting on it. Well, maybe the /l/ is the lap of the sea, or maybe it’s the unnoticed lead-up to the big lean.

But what other words have this sound? And does it suit them? To find the answer, you may search, research, and ensearch from your perch, be it on birch or in a church, or just virch, but what you find will besmirch any theory of a phoneastheme here: the various words really have nothing in common other than the sound. I’m inclined to think that phonaesthemes – such as /sn/ having to do with nasal things – tend to show up in the onset, not the rime, of a word. Alas, /rtʃ/ leaves us in the lurch.

And in fact even lurch leaves us in the lurch. You see, the sense “sudden leaning to one side” dates only from the 1700s (and the verb “lean suddenly” to the 1800s), and its apparent progenitor is lee-larches, possibly from lee-latch. Meanwhile, two centuries earlier there was a game called lurch – not a sport, but a table game like backgammon, and it got its name from a Germanic word meaning “left” or “wrong”; if you lost badly, you were lurched (sort of like being snookered). The lurch, from that, is a position in a game where one loses very badly: either completely blanked or, for instance, with less than 30 at the end of a game of cribbage.

Yes, that’s where we get left in the lurch from: being stuck without help in a losing position (it does not necessarily imply that the person who leaves you in the lurch is your opponent – it could be someone who was supposed to be on your side). Nothing to do with jerks, except for the kind who leave you in the lurch. The phrase originated with a gaming sense now long forgotten; it’s just been lurching around since.

Oh, yes, there’s also a verb sense of lurch that means (and is probably related to) lurk. Well, there was one – it’s obsolete now too. It seems that the sense we know best has taken over. I’m tempted to speculate that it’s prevailing thanks to its phonaesthetic appeal. Of course, I have no solid data for that.

5 responses to “lurch

  1. I was not familiar with affricate. It comes from Latin affricāre: to rub against. Are you familiar with its detailed etymology and/or online resources for the same? 🙂

  2. I read about Onychophagia in Michael Quinion’s blog a few months ago. Now I read your piece. Both of the pieces are excellent! Yours indeed has more humor! Have you written about ‘Insouciance’ ?

    Have you reflected/ read or written about the etymology of On-side and Off-side of a batsman in the game of Cricket?

  3. How serendipitous that, just before reading this post, I read a post about the word zerk at Copyediting.com (http://www.copyediting.com/zerk-work-and-play). Zerk seems to me to be another great word for the sound of a speeding car screeching to a halt, or even just suddenly stopping short to (reluctantly, perhaps) avoid hitting a pedestrian. The original patent for the zerk listed it as a “lubricant-receiving nipple.” Thinking about screeching (zerking?) tires on pavement and then thinking about nipples might be a little uncomfortable, but, the zerk and its mechanical descendants probably, along the way, helped reduce noise from a car’s brakes and other engine parts.

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