Today’s question: In terms of effect on the hearer, is sounding like something as good as actually meaning that something? We know that if a person doesn’t know the meaning of a word, they may decide on the basis of what it sounds like. But what if they do do know the meaning? Is the phonaesthetic or visual effect as good as if they didn’t? To what extent is resonance tantamount to significance?

We have, over the years, covered some words that have had their meaning influenced or even determined by what they sound like, and other words that have sounds and tastes and overtones apparently quite at odds with their meanings. Today’s word is more towards the latter set. As word taster Elin Cameron says, tantamount “doesn’t sound like what it means. It sounds military, like a bugle call and command to an army, and I think it looks like a line of soldiers on foot with standard bearers on horseback at each end and one part way along.”

Yes indeed: the bugle, tan-tan-taraa, leading the soldiers in a paramount moment, all perhaps perched high on a promontory like a catamount, ready to charge down. The patter of the drums, a rat-a-ta-tat-a-tattoo, thundering like timpani or perhaps clamouring as tam-tams. A regal tantrum on a mountain, ready to issue forth in tandem on their mounts from a camp of tents. But, again: are these massed forces of phonaesthetics and paronomasia tantamount to intimating the overtones? We must believe that tantamount can be used without a rant on tarantellas and tarantulas. But the more usable overtones – do they not creep in?

I certainly think it’s hard to use a word such as tantamount without a thought to the perky, percussive sounds it has. We could always say as good as rather than tantamount to, of course. And we often do. But tantamount has a sound that is not simply officious or belligerent. It carries extra savours for those who know French: tant, “as much”, and amount, the English word, first a verb and then a noun and only finally then an adjective, tracing back through French to Latin.

Not that etymon is tantamount to meaning. But meaning is certainly strongly subject to patterns of usage. Tantamount is normally followed by to: we get tantamount to saying, tantamount to a declaration of war, tantamount to suicide, tantamount to death, tantamount to suicide, tantamount to torture… In other words, “You might as well do it; you’re already there.” If you have the troops ready to swoop, it’s tantamount to open war…

One response to “tantamount

  1. An odd collection, the words ending in ‘-amount’: ‘tantamount’, ‘paramount’ and ‘catamount’. The ‘mount’ in all of them really is a mountain, for the word ‘amount’ comes through old French from the Latin ad montem, ‘to the mountain’, i.e. ‘going up’. A catamount is a wildcat, a cat of the mountain; this big fierce fluffy tabby still roams in Scotland, and is used as a heraldic device.

    But the ‘amounts’ are not nearly as unruly as the chaotic ‘shaw’ family:
    ‘hernshaw’, a young heron, from French héroncelle
    ‘bashaw’, a pasha (Turkish, from Persian padishah, ‘great king’
    ‘rickshaw’, from Japanese jinrikisha, ‘man-powered vehicle’
    ‘trishaw’, a tricycle rickshaw, hybrid from above
    ‘cushaw’, a winter squash, origin unknown
    ‘cumshaw’, a bribe, from Xiamen Chinese kam sia, ‘grateful thanks’
    ‘kickshaw’, a trifle, jocular corruption of French quelque chose
    ‘scrimshaw’, carving on whalebone, origin unknown
    ‘wappenshaw’, a review of troops, Scots = ‘weapon-showing’
    ‘Bradshaw’, a railway timetable, eponym from the compiler George Bradshaw (= ‘broad wood’)
    and, of course, ‘pshaw’, an expression of contempt, onomatopoeic.

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