Monthly Archives: January 2013


What is the softest sound in English? The one most like a very fluffy feather duvet?

To my ears it’s /f/. Yes, /h/ is in some ways softer, but that’s the softness of a breeze. I’d rather lie on a fluffy duvet than a soft breeze.

Now, what do you associate with being hit with the hand, open or clenched? Anything soft?

Well, yes, perhaps there’s a scuffle, a brushing and grasping of clothing before the bruising and bone-bopping. Two bodies engaged in a physical confrontation may come into close contact like letters in ligature, fi or ff. But the swinging fists, cuffing each other’s heads? Hard like a voiceless stop – a knuckle tap like a /t/, a solid knock like a /k/.

Perhaps the fists swing through the air with a rustling of fabric, and the person hit falls back with further friction. Perhaps a pugilistic confrontation really can sound like “fisticuffs.”

But does it have to? Well, of course not. Onomatopoeia is not the sole basis of language. And it just happens that the word we have for a closed hand, claviform, is fist, a word of Germanic origin that comes by way of the Old English strong feminine noun fyst. And one word we have for striking a blow with the hand is cuff – we tend to think of this as a backhand now, the sort of thing that might actually make a “cuff” type of sound – a word that appears to come from Germanic but may have an ultimate Hebraic source, the OED says coyly. (Note that it’s not cuff as in ‘sleeve collar’ – and fist-to-cuffs, which I have seen, is just not it.)

And so we do the sort of handiwork to which we are often wont: we take two words and, playing on assonances, make a compound analogous to another one – such as handiwork. Handy work? Fisty cuff. (Fisticuff was at some earlier times spelled fisty cuff.)

You don’t normally see or hear reference to just one fisticuff. Somehow such a lengthy and scuffling word is not quite right for a single bop to the brainbox, is it? Instead we get a five-dollar word for a fistfight: “It now and then happened that the literary gladiators came to actual fisticuffs.” (J.A. Symonds, Renaissance in Italy.) There is something of the Victorian waistcoated bare-knuckle boxer in this: it has a formal or old-fashioned edge, or anyway a certain detached erudition. I can picture Snagglepuss saying it: “Heavens to Murgatroyd! Fisticuffs even!”

And it does, after all, have a sonic infrastructure of physical stuff, sticks and staffs and fists and some selected expletives (stronger than “Suffering succotash!”). It is also a pleasure to say, cycling from bitten lip to hiss and tap on tongue tip to kick at the back and then again the opening fricative. It has rhythm, a dactyl time-step like a little soft shoe. It plays so effectively with words like confiscate and suffocate and even sycophant, plus stick shift and scoff at and so much more.

Give it a try: The sycophant was fixated on the efficacy of resorting to fisticuffs. Stephanie Escoffier can scoff at my fractured stick, but it effected sufficient deflection when I was engaged in fisticuffs. Not glorious prose styling, but an engaging oral exercise. And fair enough: a most common kind of fisticuffs now, it seems, is verbal fisticuffs.


My taste of this word is likely different from that of at least some other people, thanks to the context in which I first saw it.

Gobbet is not a common word, so if you see it used a certain way, that usage can make itself pretty comfy before it has too many occasions for it to be revised. Its strong tastes of other related words can play a role in this too. So when I first saw the phrase “gobbet of phlegm,” it was easy to picture a big gob of a loogie the size of a gobstopper being disgorged via someone’s disgusting gob (mouth), perhaps into a goblet.

It happens that, even though this sense does not appear as such in the dictionaries I’ve looked in, the collocation gobbet of phlegm has a certain currency – Google lists “about 29,200 results” when I search the exact phrase. If you search it, you will find quite a number of hits of fiction – gobbet is one of those words a person is unlikely to use in ordinary conversation but may take the occasion to drop into fiction with the idea that it will contribute to a rich, evocative literary style. Whether that idea is accurate I leave it to you to judge in each case in which you read it – Google it yourself and judge from the gobbets that appear.

No, no, I’m not being disgusting. The thing is, gobbet does not have ‘gob of phlegm’ as a standard (dictionary-recorded) sense. The sense in which I have just used it is a sense that has come into use in the past century: ‘brief literary fragment presented for analysis, translation, or discussion’.

But that is not the base sense. Let’s get to the meat of the matter: a gobbet is a mouthful of meat, or anyway a chunk of food the size of a mouthful – an amount you could hold in your mouth while saying gob but not while saying the et. The word comes from French gobet, related to the verb gober ‘swallow’. It’s been in English since the 1300s.

There really is something stuffed-mouth about that gob, isn’t there? And it has a kind of ugliness to it, too, manifest in goblin (which is unrelated). Even goblet, which bespeaks rich ornamentation, is – I find, anyway – much more susceptible to images of ugliness and fugxury than, say, chalice. Add that little tail et, which gives it perhaps a slightly more literary and less common air and echoes an imperative, “Gob it,” and you have a lexical equivalent of a gross lump with a little bow on top.

Of course you can speak of gobbets without being disgusting or thinking disgusting things; you can draw on the higher-toned influences of goblet, for one thing, and write of gobbets of meat and goblets of wine and then you just have a feast with gobs of food in the positive sense – something you can gobble gladly. You don’t need to go down the gross road. But it is easy to do so.

As witness the only definition for gobbet in Urban Dictionary, a source you can always count on to go down roads congenial to the minds of 14-year-old boys: “A chunk of human remains that has drifted ashore after a shipwreck disaster. From the old days when piracy was common, as was sighting dead bodies on the banks of the oceans.” I’m thinking whoever wrote that probably saw the word in just that one context – evidently a book on pirates, and one that we may suspect played up the gore somewhat – and from that inferred a greater specificity than actual usage reflects.

I must admit I’m surprised that Urban Dictionary doesn’t have anything on the phlegm sense. I take this as just more evidence that this is an uncommon word. Of course the phlegm sense is not recorded in dictionaries and so is not really a “proper” usage – more of a grabbing and stuffing according to sound association. But it’s not altogether inappropriate, as long as the amounts referred to are mouth-sized.


Visual: A not-too-long word with a lot of curves and a few straight lines. The ol looks a bit like the b mirrored in a ripply lake, or vice versa. Depending on type face, there may or may not also be some echoes of shape between the g and the a.

In the mouth: Not a crisp word, nor an especially fluid one – aside from the ending liquid /l/. It’s more of a leaping or capering word: in saying /gæmbəl/ you start at the back of your mouth and immediately bounce off the front, landing at last on the tip of the tongue and holding. The voiced stops and nasal give it a padded, perhaps gummy feel, though that is of course affected or overshadowed by the sense of the word.

Etymology: From the French gambade ‘leap, spring’, which comes from Italian gambata, from gamba, leg. There was probably some confusion between the ade ending and an auld ending leading to the current English form. It is not apparently related to gamble, though there may have been some cross-influence.

Collocations: Gambol is not a word that has specific travelling companions (no, not even take a gambol), though it is known to be used more with children and animals than with adults. It is also not a feature of many quotations, though Hamlet does use it in an odd way, to mean something more like ‘leap’ or ‘flee’: “Bring me to the test, And I the matter will re-word, which madness Would gambol from.” Elsewhere (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice) Shakespeare uses it in the more expected sense.

Overtones: The resemblance to gamble is unmistakeable and the possible cause of mistakes. This makes gambol a better word for writing than for saying, and when saying it one may overpronounce the second syllable for clarity. This word also has tastes of gumbo, gable, amble, and the whole family of mble words, such as crumble, tumble, humble, resemble, grumble, et cetera, plus symbol.

Semantics: Leap, spring, cut a caper – in dance, in sport, or wherever. Both noun and verb gambol exist.

Serve with: This word shows up here and there in places where you will think, “Hmm, that’s a word I don’t see all that often but that seems to take a nice bounding turn on the page.” It’s a high-toned way to speak of frolicsome movement, and it reinforces a literati in-group because it’s the sort of word that will likely be taken by “those who don’t know better” to refer to something else (specifically betting). Using it has the same kind of effect as a subtle name-drop: “While I was talking to Chomsky after his lecture, there were dogs gamboling in the park beyond the window.” You might say, thus, that it is a stylistic gambol – and a stylistic gamble.

A Word Taster’s Companion: Stop! What are you doing?

Today: the eighth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Stop! What are you doing?

Stop. No, that’s not an order, that’s a manner. If no air can get through the mouth or nose at all until you release the consonant, that consonant is a stop. All the consonants in decapitate are stops, for instance. Our English stops are voiceless /p/, /t/, /k/ and “voiced” /b/, /d/, /g/. Why did I just stick scare quotes on “voiced”? Because you don’t really keep your voice going during the time your mouth is stopped up. Not usually, anyway. Try it with holding a /b/, /d/, or /g/ and trying to make a voiced sound. Sounds like you’re stifling a sneeze – or something worse. No, the usual difference is actually in how close before the stop the voice stops and how soon after releasing the stop the voice starts again. (Linguists call this voice offset time and voice onset time.) We also tell the stops apart by how long the vowel is before them, as I mentioned in “The vowel circle.” The differences are small, but they’re enough to notice.

Now, let’s get some exercise.

Say picket, kaput, tip-top; doggèd, bagged; debit, batted. Pay attention to your tongue as you say them. Emphasize them. Get a feel for the sound.

If you’ve read “Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes,” you know about the aspiration on the first sounds of picket, kaput, and tip-top. (If you haven’t read it, why not? Give yourself one demerit point and go back and read it. Honestly, how do you expect to be an expert if you skip things?) I’m talking about the difference between the /p/ in spit and the /p/ in pit. Also between the voiceless stops in still and skill and the ones in till and kill. Put your hand in front of your mouth while you say them if you want to refresh your memory. Don’t do it in public; people might think you’re checking your breath. Actually, you are, but not that way.

OK, now say a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket… Come on, faster!

Now say gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be… come on, pick it up!

You may have noticed something in picket a and gotta. Most North American English speakers will, in relaxed speech, turn [t] and [d] between vowels into a tap or flap of the tongue – so the dd in madder and the tt in matter tend to be indistinguishable much of the time (thank goodness for context). The IPA symbol for this sound is [ɾ]. The voice never actually cuts out on a tap, which is why people often think it’s just changing the [t] to a [d] – the tap is more like a [d], but it’s not one; it’s as much like a quick British “r,” which is why the symbol is the shape it is, [ɾ] (and why some North Americans think some Brits say “veddy” for very). But you may nonetheless say madder slightly differently from matter. This will be a subtle difference in the voicing length on the [æ], as I’ve mentioned: a vowel is shorter before a voiceless stop. But the difference can often be too subtle to be reliable.

What do stops feel like to say? They’re percussive, but the exact quality varies according to place and voicing. Listen to them as you say them: [p] is lower in tone than [k], which is lower than [t]. This is because of the size and shape of the resonating cavities when you release the stops. This makes [t] the lightest and most fragile-seeming of the bunch. That’s helped by its being on the tip of the tongue, which feels less substantial than the back of the tongue, which kicks with [k], or the lips, which pop with [p]. But the tip is also the most agile part.

Add voicing now – in other words, reduce the voice onset time after release. They’re [b], [d], [g]. They’re blunter, stickier. But they still have the same kind of differentiations as their voiceless counterparts.

But it’s not as though there’s some absolute intrinsic taste to each of them. It varies from word to word, and from speaker to speaker. Say them all several times and decide for yourself how they seem to you: pat kid bag, tap dig back, top dog buck, put big cod… Yes, part of it is in how they play with other sounds. And the meanings and other associations of the words, of course. Oh, we’ll get to that!

Next: The nose knows

A Word Taster’s Companion: The consonant line

Today: the seventh installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

The consonant line

If vowels are the blood of words, consonants are the bones. And while vowels are in a circle in the mouth, consonants are in a line, because they’re made by contact – or very close constriction – between the tongue and the palate, or the lips with or without the teeth.

Start by getting just a basic sense of what your tongue is doing. Move the tip of your tongue slowly from “th” (as in “thin”) to “s” to “sh,” then back forward. Now do the same but with voice: “th” as in “this,” “z,” “zh.” And back.

Now let’s go just a little crazier: saying “l” (as in “let”), make the same range of movement with your tongue tip. Does it tickle? Oh good.

What you’re doing when you do that is running your tongue tip between the back of your teeth and the back of your alveolar ridge – alveolar comes from the Greek for “wind.” Behind it is the hard palate. Keep curling your tongue farther back if you can and you’ll get to the soft palate, also known as the velum. This is where, with the back of your tongue, you say the final sounds in long, log, and lock. All the consonants in English are articulated somewhere in the line between there and the teeth and lips. (OK, except for [h]. And also the glottal stop, but that’s not a separate phoneme.) Some other languages go farther back.

Consonants may be linear, but they have several ways they can be made, so there are more of them. Linguists classify them by voice, place, and manner. The manner – the type of movement made – is what really makes them interesting. All good word tasters must mind their manners, and in the next six sections I will tell you the manners to mind.

First: Stop! What are you doing?


Cold-hearted orb that rules the night,
Removes the colours from our sight,
Red is grey and yellow white,
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion.

Thus runs the poem that bookends “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. The moon: that cold light that, like a magic wand, makes everything wan: its victory won, all is one, through the achromatopsia of dim light to the featurelessness of utter darkness. An object might, like a chameleon, change from colour to colour to colour, the shift passing imperceptibly.

But wait: the moon is wan, but the dark landscape is not, is it? Well, it depends on when that dark landscape is. Is it now… or is it half a millennium or more ago?

Pick up your copy of Beowulf and turn to line 702:

Com on wanre niht
scriðan sceadugenga.

‘Came in dark night to glide shadowgoer [or darkness-walker]’ – that’s a calque; a real translation is ‘He came gliding in dark night, shadowgoer.’ Well, never mind the syntactic weirdness of Old English. It’s that wanre – an inflected form of wan – that should not escape our vision. Grendel (that’s who) was not coming in pale or ashen or even leaden night. The Old English poets liked redundancy, repetition with variation, reinforcement of images (along with alliteration). The author was not saying that it was an uncharacteristically pale night. Ah-nope. The old definition of wan was, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it (in a definition that has a light taste of Old English alliterative reiterative verse), “lacking light or lustre; dark-hued, dusky, gloomy, dark.”

How, then, did this shadowgoer glide from oscuro to chiaro? How did it manage, under many moons, to shift its shade, its shape retaining?

It is not just that Beowulf was written in the Dark Ages and we have since passed through the Enlightenment. Nor, although wan may be related to wane, need we say the moon had waned and now has waxed. No: when we plumb the depths, we find a common element. We are led to lead. Plumbum. That dull grey element.

A wan thing is wanting in colour. It has the aspect of lead. If a thing is drained of colour, it takes on a leaden aspect. If a face is drained of colour by disease or death, it may be said to be of a leaden hue, perhaps: as observes Oxford, “Of an unhealthy, unwholesome colour; livid, leaden-hued.” That definition, which existed as an extension of the ‘dark colourless’ sense, is also obsolete – these dark and medium senses existed from the beginning of English to the 1600s. But by the 1300s, the ‘unhealthily pale’ sense had come into use. So we had a cross-fade of some two or three hundred years. Now wan is ‘pale’, or perhaps etiolated, bleached, lacking in colour or character: a wan smile.

By its brevity wan gains a myriad of associations. The most common collocation in the Corpus of Contemporary American English is wan na. Chinese? No, it’s just how they parse a colloquial compound – you wanna guess which one? But wan certainly shows in Mandarin: wàn, ‘ten thousand’, or wān, ‘crooked’, or wán, ‘whole’, or wăn, ‘gracious’, or wán, ‘stupid’, or wăn, ‘evening’.

In ten thousand evenings, with or without white satin, could you go from crooked to whole, from stupid to gracious? Oh, be wan – can no be? Come over to the dark side, the black’s wan. You will wander under moon-waxing welkin, beauty bleached by sky-swan burgeoning, greyed gules and white gold, illumination intending, deciding illusion.


People who read sheet music are likely familiar with sforzando, the dynamic instruction usually marked on the page with sfz, which might look like a logo for some luxury item but to me resembles the mark and sound made when swatting or stifling a small insect – not an inapposite impression, since a sforzando is a sudden bit of loudness, a thing that could make the audience jump.

Well, this is not that. There is only one letter of difference in the word, but smorzando is more of a smothering counterpart to the firework of the sforzando.

The difference starts in what you see on the page. It’s not typically written out in full in a score, but it’s also not written as smz. Nope, it’s on the page as smorz. So the first thing you think is likely along the lines of “S’mores! Oh yes!” Ah, toasted marshmallows and melting chocolate between graham crackers. Things are going to get mighty gooey mighty quick around here! And, to reinforce that, there’s a s’mores-themed breakfast cereal called… oh, yes it is… Smorz. Imagine eating a whole box of those! Smorz stupebit indeed!

But there’s our cue. Just as the actual line that I just punned on from the requiem is mors stupebit, “death will be stunned,” the morz in smorzando refers to dying. Well, in this case, not dying the death of deaths, but dying away. S’mores may be moreish, but smorzando is decidedly lessish. Here’s your musical lesson: smorz means ‘lessen’. Or, more precisely, smorzando means ‘extinguishing’. The sound dies away, getting fainter and slower.

You can almost see it, can’t you? Someone smothering a fire with a wet blanket: smorz, smorz, smorz. (It helps to remember that in Italian, and in this loan from Italian, the z is [ts]. So it’s “smorts.” Or, to be more in line with the Italian pronunciation, “zmorts.”) If a smorzando is well accomplished, you may be snoring by the end, your wakefulness also extinguished (until the person next to you swats you after one of your snorts).

Know what else is extinguished? The beginning of the word. Have you noticed how Italian has an assortment of words that begin with s followed by another consonant that we wouldn’t put s before in English? Aside from sforzando you may (or may not) recognize sbarro, perhaps sbaglio, sfortunato, sdraiarsi, sdegnare, sfogato, sfumato, sveglia, svolgere, or any of quite a few others. What many of these have in common with smorzando is that the s is what’s left of a prefix that used to have a full syllable – often dis. The di has faded away.

In some cases this dis is a negator; in others, it’s an intensifier. In the case of smorzando it intensifies or supports. Smorzando is the present participle of smorzare, which comes from dis and morzare, which is related to morire, which means ‘die’. It’s more closely related to a causative form – i.e., ‘cause to die’. So ‘extinguish’. ‘Snuff out’. ‘Smother’. ‘Force to plotz’.

Out, out, brief candle. You flare up with a sfz and then, over your embers, we cook s’mores (obviously this is a biiiig candle) as you die away and are ultimately extinguished… deliciously, of course: it’s all about the musical effect, the beautiful slow deliquium.