cerumen

This word has a low, flat, thick look to it; every letter in it is rounded in at least one place, and none of the letters ascend or descend. It is rounder at the front than at the back, but it gets a bit of symmetry from the two e’s: each one a letter in from the end, poised flanking the middle like a pair of ears. And each of those e’s stands for an unstressed vowel; the main vowel is that long /u/ in the middle, making the heart of this word a “room”.

There is something about this homely word that makes me want to wax fantastic – to enter into the realms of fantasy created by such as Tolkien and Rowling, realms presided over by great long-bearded white-haired old wizards, almost superhuman (should I say surhuman?). It makes me think of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, mainly because of the sound of his name of course. It also makes me think of Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books, at least in part because of a scene in which, after talking with Harry, he eats one of Harry’s Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans and, on tasting it and discovering the flavour, says, “Alas, earwax.”

Yes, alas, earwax. You see, another thing all those old wizards have in common is hairy ears, and that makes me think of, alas, earwax. (Which in turn makes me think of Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax, who is also old and magical but has a few noteworthy differences from the Dumbledore-Saruman-Gandalf type.) And earwax is the more Anglo-Saxon word for cerumen. Or should we say that cerumen is the Latin-derived word (from cera, “wax”) for earwax. Voilà: we have moved from exalted wizards to Shrek.

It’s interesting that both words, cerumen and earwax, have round and soft sounds but with a sharper hiss at one end; earwax is more contrasty because it has the truly round rolling /rw/ and the crisp /ks/, while cerumen has just the soft hiss of /s/ and rolls on through a liquid and a round vowel to nasals. Also, earwax has that x, which always catches the eyes. And for ears it has a and a, not the e and e of cerumen.

I suppose it’s indelicate to use the word taste around words relating to bodily excretions, but, then, J.K. Rowling had that jelly bean, so I will continue: I find that cerumen has little tastes of serum and sermon and perhaps cumin, with a set of letters that may add to b t to scramble and make recumbent; the swapping of an i for an e would allow an anagram of numeric.

None of which really has much of any relation to earwax. But just as well. Earwax should be left alone; any otorhinolaryngologist will tell you that (the usual line they give is “Don’t stick anything smaller than your elbow into your ear”). It’s there as your ear’s natural crap-trapping and cleaning mechanism, and it gradually works its way out thanks to the movements made by the motion of mastication. You can think of it as like a glacier of your head – although glaciers are not as a rule so sticky (or, for some people, especially of some East Asian gene pools, crumbly).

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