Ah, swim – it’s a fluid word, lacking in liquids (/r/ or /l/) but with a fricative /s/ and a glide /w/ and a nasal /m/. It seems more sustained at the end than swing, more immersed than slim, more muscularly controlled than sweep, more in the water where swan is on the water… And you can see waves in the w and m and perhaps some indication between them of the difference between front crawl and backstroke – or between butterfly and breast stroke. And the s and i? The i is the swimmer, for sure, and the s may be the flip and twist when turning to change directions.

Well, that’s what I’ve been seeing over and over as I write this. I’m watching the Olympics right now, and there are double helpings of Phelps and lakhs of Lochte and, well, we’re swimming in swimming. Freestyle, backstroke, the insane butterfly and the weird-looking breast stroke, plus medleys and relays, all in the several multiples of 50 metres… plenty of races and plenty of medals to be had. A marathoner might train all year and have one race for one chance at gold. A swimmer no less but no more fit might have a shot at a chocolate box of them.

Which is not to slur swimming as a sport. I can run miles and miles but still have trouble swimming more than 100 metres without pausing, while my lithe wife puts in 40 lengths just for recreation. During the summer we make it to the pool often, and it all goes swimmingly; by Labour Day I’ve built up better pecs and deltoids, and then they atrophy over the winter. But swimming, for most people, really is the eternal summer sport: warm weather, water, immerse yourself and swim in the amniotic suspension of the pool or lake. Do not speak of winter. The future is the future and the past is the past, but in the swim of things you go with the flow and you don’t look back.

Speaking of the past, tell me what past tense and past participle you use for swim. Thinkfast! Are you sure? Have you always been sure? I would say I swam yesterday and I’ve swum already today, but there is anything but unanimity on this in the historical record. The Oxford English Dictionary’s historical citations have instances in the past of swum as simple past tense, swam as past participle, and even swimmed as one or the other. Even if you use the “correct” form, you may feel you’re swimming against the current – but I wouldn’t say it’s sink or swim. When you look at the etymology of this word and at its various cognates among the other Germanic languages, every single vowel shows up in one place or another between the sw (sometimes sv) and the m.

Try them all and see how they feel. Say them one after the other: swim, swam, swem, swom, swum… Watch your mouth as you do that. Tell me what the gesture reminds you of.

Know what it makes me think of? The breast stroke.

6 responses to “swim

  1. Very much enjoyed this and yes, substituting the vowels immediately made me think of breaststroke too!

  2. Is the sound of ‘w’ not considered a liquid? I’m untrained, but I’ve always classified ‘r’, ‘l’ and ‘w’ together.

  3. (I suppose a better way to phrase that question would be “What’s the difference between a liquid and a glide?” but I can probably look that up…)

  4. Glides are basically vowels that are a bit more constricted (perhaps) and are used as consonants — i.e., not as syllable nuclei. Liquids are not versions of vowels, although they (like nasals and unlike glides) can be syllable nuclei (as in the second syllables of bitten and bottle in casual speech). Glides also don’t touch the tongue to the palate, whereas liquids may (but don’t always).

    But it can be a rather complex and cussèd matter and there is still debate on it, as witness this interesting paper I just found: http://people.ucsc.edu/~padgett/locker/glides07.pdf

  5. Wow, that’s quite detailed.

  6. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Mars, Olympics, and more | Wordnik

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