Daily Archives: January 16, 2012

xylol, xylyl

Yes, you’re right, I’m doing these words because of how they look. Seriously, xylol looks like a web-geek way of referring to a “guy joke” (laddish humour), since xy can refer to male chromosomes (while xx is of course female, but XXX would be laddish for sure), and lol is “laugh(ing) out loud”. I think lol also looks kind of like the entrance to a temple – or perhaps to a tunnel, with columns or trees flanking it. And xy is also the ending of sexy and a few other things (such as apoplexy).

And xylyl? No lol, but otherwise even better. Nothing but straight lines! It’s almost architectural, like iron bridge buttresses. Or like the crossed swords and various other weapons of an enemy army heading your way – probably more in the line of how welcoming the word would be to many people’s eyes. Seriously, it starts with x, and then it has that ylyl. If you tried to say it with the usual consonant value of each word, [ksjljl], it would sound like a sound made by someone who’s being strangled. (Or a Czech name, of course.)

Because, really, xylyl? Ths wrd hs n vwls! Except that, as we know, it does. It’s not that, as is often said, “y is sometimes a vowel.” It’s that y sometimes represents a vowel. Letters are not sounds. A special thing about xylyl is that, while it has five tokens of three types of letters (types x y l, and there are two tokens each of types y and l), it has four distinct phonemes and five actual different sounds (counting a diphthong, /aɪ/, as one sound – it’s really a moving sound, one that starts in one place in the mouth and moves to another, but it’s not two sounds actually).

The first sound, /z/, is not even the sound x is supposed to represent, but in English we think we can’t say /ks/ at the beginning of a word. (It’s just a mental block, not a physical inability, but it’s quite a solid block for many people.) Then the y comes in as /aɪ/. Then the /l/ in its more front version (not as purely front as in some languages, such as Spanish; the tongue still rises a little in the back, and it touches at the tip but not around to the sides, usually). And then another y but this one standing for /ɪ/. And then that final /l/, which is actually an allophone – a different version of what we consider the same sound: the tongue is raised higher in the back; in many British accents the tongue doesn’t even quite touch at the front in the /l/ that comes after a vowel. So the International Phonetic Alphabet representation is /zaɪlɪl/, which is also kind of cute, but has nothing on xylyl.

Can you guess what xylol and xylyl are? The two are (unsurprisingly) related. If you conclude from the forest of x’s and y’s and l’s that these are chemical names, you’ll be right. The yl and ol endings are pretty reliable, modifications of Greek and Latin roots used as standard suffixes (the ol originally a reference to oil, but now often an echo of alcohol; the yl from ὕλη hulé, originally “wood, material” and seen in ylem as well). If I tell you that xylol is a synonym of xylene, you’ll be even more certain. But the xyl? Where have you seen that before? Right, xylophone. What’s a xylophone? The one you played in kindergarten may be metal, but originally they made their sound (phone) from wood: Greek ξύλον xylon. (Now, doesn’t that look like some sci-fi cartoon character, or a commercial product, or maybe some Niagara Falls attraction?)

So, um, xylyl is wood wood? Well, no. Wood comes into it in the original source of these (sometimes way back there, since they can also come from charcoal or petroleum). To cut to the chase, xylol is a clear solvent, not highly toxic (but of course don’t drink it), highly flammable, with a sweet smell that would probably seem oddly familiar to you; it’s used in the printing, rubber, and leather industries, among others; in dentistry, it can be used to dissolve gutta-percha, which is sometimes used for root canal treatments. It is actually a mixture of three isomers of dimethylbenzene, and if that means nothing to you, I’d say it’s best for you to look up further details if you’re interested, because it gets pretty abstruse pretty quickly.

And xylyl? It’s a radical formed by removing a hydrogen from an isomer of xylol. What’s a radical? A molecule (or atom) with an unpaired electron, which makes it highly reactive. It’s denoted by the formula (CH3)2C6H3, in case that means anything at all to you. Or it might be all Greek to you. Which would be fitting.

Words like this are examples of what makes English orthography so much fun and so much trouble. But there are so many different accents of English, and so much existing printed material, a complete reform of the spelling would be a senseless undertaking. There is no solution for English spelling. But there is a solvent: xylol.