I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Tom Priestly.
If you are told that one of the synonyms of obloquy is billingsgate, you may still be in the dark (although maybe, if a British Londoner, starting to get interested in buying fish). Let us first examine the word obloquy. The web-site I use for this sort of thing, itools.subhashbose.com/wordfind/, tells me that there are twelve words ending in –quy, eight of them indeed ending in –loquy. The other four I shall quickly dismiss: cliquy “like a clique” (which I would prefer to see spelled to show the noun it comes from, cliquey); cheque (a variant spelling of an old heraldic term for “chequered”); exequy and obsequy, both meaning “funeral ceremony”.
The eight loquy words vary from quite common to extremely rare. All have something to do with talking – Latin loqui meant “speak”: think of loquacious. Most people will know soliloquy — “talking to oneself” – and probably colloquy “conversation, dialogue”. As for the six others, the meanings of most can be guessed from their first components. Somniloquy (“the habit of talking in one’s sleep”) is handy, but ventriloquy or “stomach-speaking” is a rather unnecessary variant of ventriloquism. Its thoracic counterpart, pectoriloquy or “lung-speaking”, requires an annoyingly long definition: “transmission of the voice sound through the pulmonary structures so that it is unusually audible on auscultation of the chest…” and so on. If someone ever dares to auscultate my chest, I will certainly not refrain from pectoriloquizing! However, I suggest that two in this word-group should be used more often, at least when we refer to our politicians. Most of this group of (un)worthies need to be forcibly trained in dulciloquy (“a soft manner of speaking”) and even more forcibly restrained, maybe fined even, if they indulge in multiloquy (“an excess of words”). In all of these words, we can see the transparent connections: solo, collate, somnolent, ventriloquist, pecs, dulcet, and multitude, for instance.
But what about obloquy? It looks stranger than its seven –loquy fellows, and may even invite a mispronunciation (oh-BLOKE-ee or even oh-BLOKE-wee). Worse, the ob– prefix is obscure, OBjectionable, OBlique, OBnoxious even; it is far from OBliging and OBtainable. Indeed, with its bilabial it OBstructs the mouth immediately with its first syllable, before allowing the lateral and the velar to hurry along behind it. Whereas most of the other –loquy words have a pleasing rhythm — dee-DUM-dee-dum, and the like — this one tails off into its final –ee. And its meaning is not OBvious!
Its strange appearance and sound are in fact suited to its meaning, which is unpleasant. The ob– is the Latin prefix for “against”, so its basic meaning is “speech directed against [someone]”. It occurs just once in Shakespeare: “He did upbraid me with my Father’s death; which obloquy set bars before my tongue” (Henry VI Part 1). More recently Evelyn Waugh: “Of course in order to earn a living…” (as a writer, he meant) “…it is unavoidable that one exposes oneself to ridicule and obloquy now and then.” But let us get back to politicians. In the province which is my home, we have (April 2012) just had an election. One of the candidates was detected, in a blog he wrote last year, writing that homosexuals would “burn for ever in a lake of fire . . . and that is a fact.” But as Daniel Moynihan once wrote, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own set of facts.” Not only was this person soundly defeated in the election, but his party leader is now said to have lost several parliamentary seats because she refused to denounce him. And he is relevant to this piece of word-tasting because, boy, did he attract an enormous amount of obloquy! Or, as defined: “verbal abuse, detraction, reproach, disgrace, notoriety, opprobrium, invective”, …and “billingsgate” too (since that is the name of the London East End Fish market, and this is what the fish-sellers were renowned for: hatchet jobs on their competitors). This would-be political persons utterances certainly made many people obloquious (a real word), and many showed that they were fine obloquists (a word I have just devised)…