Daily Archives: February 20, 2012

plump, steatopygian, zaftig, buxom

“Last time I buy leather from him,” Marilyn Frack said. She was recounting with dissatisfaction the acquisition of her latest black leather jacket and skirt. “He called me plump.”

I sucked in my breath and raised an eyebrow. It’s true that Marilyn isn’t exactly a stick figure, but that did display poor judgement on the part of the salesman.

Pleasingly plump,” Edgar Frack, her other half, said. “I do believe he misjudged.”

“It’s not that I think I’m skinny,” Marilyn said, “nor would I want to be, but plump is just not right. It suggests fat, round about the middle. Like a big plumped-up pillow. Or a purple plum. Or a pink lump. Someone who just plumps down on the couch. I get out and around, you know.”

Yes, you do, I thought, but said nothing. Maury, also sharing a bottle of wine with us around a high table at Domus Logogustationis, added a little lighter fluid to her flame. “Not that etymology is any guide to current usage,” he said, “but there is also the fact that plump comes from a Germanic root originally meaning ‘crude, clumsy, stupid’.”

“I think the salesman was plump!” Marilyn snorted. Then she snorted back the rest of her glass and refilled. “Then there was that guy – do you remember him, Edgar? – who thought it would be amusing to call me steatopygian.”

I remembered that guy. He was a guest at one of our word tasting events. He fancied himself witty, but he leaned a bit too far towards the rude in erudite. I seem to recall him having to leave early to remove a wine stain from his shirt.

“It doesn’t matter how expensive the word is,” Marilyn continued, “it still means ‘fat ass’.” True: from Greek στέαρ stear “fat” and πῡγή pugé “buttocks”.

“It sounds a bit like a dinosaur,” Edgar added. “Or an obese prehistoric bird.”

“Some people like large buttocks,” Maury offered. “Some cultures value them quite a bit. I’m not saying that you have a lot of ‘booty,’ but if you did, there would be fellows out there who would want it.”

Marilyn leaned close to Maury and purred into his ear, “Leave the booty for the pirates.” She lingered a moment or two longer, just to make sure he was beginning to feel nervous, and then settled back onto her stool. “They don’t call Dolly Parton plump or steatopygian.”

“That’s true,” I said. “They do call her zaftig.”

Marilyn pondered this for a moment. “Isn’t zaftig just a Yiddish way of saying ‘fat’?”

“Not really,” I said. “Nor even necessarily ‘Rubenesque’.”

Rubenesque in Yiddish refers to a sandwich,” Maury interjected.

Zaftig means ‘juicy’,” I said. “Dolly Parton, Gina Lollabrigida, Marilyn Monroe, all zaftig. You might recognize Saft from German – as in Orangensaft, ‘orange juice’.”

“Thus referring,” Edgar said, “to someone you would like to squeeze like an orange.”

“But that zed,” Marilyn said. “Zaftig seems a little too zany. Or like Ziegfeld of the follies. And it’s an anagram of fat zig. No, I know what I prefer. Buxom.”

We all nodded. This was the perfect word for her figure. “It occurs to me,” I said, “that if we pronounce the u as in rude and the x as in xenial, then b-u-x-o-m can be said like ‘bosom’.”

“I like the x,” Marilyn said. “It sits in the middle like in a cross-your-heart bra. And the /b/ is like breasts about to burst out of a bodice. It’s happy, smiling, pleasing.”

“Goes with wench,” Edgar added. Marilyn seemed to like this.

“The xo recalls a kiss and hug,” Edgar continued.

“And right in the middle of a bum,” Maury observed.

“Well, then,” Marilyn said, “kiss and hug my bum. Now, how did that limerick go… ‘I know of a lass who’s quite buxom; You should find her and go try your luck some. You won’t have to chase Her all over the place; Guys she likes, she just throws down and—’”

She was cut short by Maury having a sudden coughing fit from having aspirated some wine. She reached over and patted him on the back. “Dear Maurice,” she said, “surely you’ve heard naughty limericks before.”

“Yes,” Maury gasped, and cleared his throat. “I was just going to add that the limerick matches well with the etymology of buxom.”

Edgar pursed his lips and glanced upwards, pensive. “On the model of winsome, fearsome, noisome, bothersome, and so on, does it mean prone to bucking or to being bucked?”

“In fact,” Maury said, “the buck comes from Old English bugan, which has become bow. Someone who was buxom was easily bowed, and therefore compliant.”

“So the idea is the stereotype that chesty women are easy?” Marilyn said.

“No, actually,” Maury said, “from ‘compliant’ it came to mean ‘blithe’ and ‘gladsome’, and from that ‘healthy’, ‘comely’, and so on.”

“The perfect word,” Marilyn said, smiled, and sipped her wine. Then, just as Maury was in mid-sip, she leaned over, settling her chest into his shoulder, and purred into his ear, “Not that I’m not easy.” Maury gagged and coughed, spraying his wine over the environs, including his shirt and mine.

“You see,” Marilyn said, settling back onto her stool. “This is why Edgar and I wear black leather. It’s so easy to just wipe wine right off it.” She smiled pleasantly, raised her glass, and tossed the rest back.


What’s the difference between crackle and grackle? I don’t mean “tell me what the dictionary says.” Look at them and listen to them: the only difference is that first letter, that first phoneme, and in fact the only difference between the two sounds is that one is voiced and one is not. Indeed, it’s not even that much, since “voiced” stops just have less voice onset and offset time – we don’t actually use our voice during a stop in English, or in most other languages – and, in English, the voiceless stop is aspirated, meaning that in this word the /r/ after it is also devoiced. That’s it. So they should seem very similar words, no?

Well, as similar as grow and crow. Now tell me how often you think of those two words as similar. How about good and could? Gable and cable? Glue and clue? Grab and crab? Each of these pairs has just that one difference: /g/ versus /k/, voiced versus voiceless (and aspirated). Oh, they rhyme; easy to hear that. But so do tackle, wood, stable, blue, and flab, respectively. And the /g/ words hardly seem much closer to the /k/ words than those other rhymes do. The /g/ words lack the crispness of the /k/ words; they seem blunter, or more colourful, somehow a bit more like that guy in the loud polyester suit than like the lean woman in the black dress.

And, now, let’s imagine for the moment that both words, grackle and crackle, are onomatopoeic: we know what a crackle sounds like – a fire, a candy wrapper, a sparkler, a newspaper crumpled perhaps. What does a grackle sound like? More like some ugly bird, no? Or a toad?

Well, crackle is sort of onomatopoeic – it’s formed from crack, which has an onomatopoeic origin, and the le suffix indicating that it’s a bunch of little cracks in sequence. And grackle? It may be sort of onomatopoeic, but way back in its Latin origins. The word it comes from is gracula, which may be imitative of the sound of the bird it named.

Gracula! Goodness gracious! That sounds like it should be something black and vampiric, no? Well, it somewhat is. The grackle is a large-ish black bird, larger than a blackbird; it may be found flocking with starlings, though its sound is no murmuration – depending on the specific type of grackle, and the time of year, it might be something like “chewink” or “oo whew whew whew whew” or “jeeb” or whistles and whines… unpleasant in any event. And loud. Oh, and they are also known to imitate humans, though not as well as mockingbirds, with which they sometimes flock.

Ah, but its feathers are sombre, yes? Well, no, actually: they’re iridescent; up close, they shimmer with different colours. Common grackles even rub ants on themselves to add to the sheen. And grackles are aggressive and grabby. They eat pretty much anything. Even things that other birds had in their beaks just a moment ago. I gotta tell you, these birds can be like having the worst neighbours with the loudest party not just next door but coming into your kitchen. No wonder a guy named Michael Berry made a short film called Day of the Grackle about a guy grappling with a grievously grating grackle (view the trailer at www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfCRBW-V0V8 – it has a link to the full 15-minute version).

So avian Dracula indeed, eh? Oh, except that gracula was the Latin word for jackdaw. Which is a different bird. And in fact grackle in Europe refers to a different bird from the North American birds called grackles. Is the European grackle a jackdaw? No, it’s a kind of myna. Or actually any of a few different kinds.

So how the did the name shift? It seems that at first grackles were thought to be of the same family as jackdaws. Now, though, the North American ones are all known to be icterids, and most belong to the genus Quiscalus. But naw, dude, never mind the formal classification. That black bird with the loud voice and loud black feathers is a grackle. The name suits it.