Daily Archives: April 17, 2013


Visual: This word has much verticality for one so brief. Of six letters, only two don’t reach up or down. There’s a dot, two sticks sticking up, one leg dropping down. Two sticks and one leg? Well, it doesn’t look like crutches. Actually, it looks kind of like a one-legged man hiding behind a curtain.

In the mouth: This is just not a dignified-sounding word when said with a standard North American English pronunciation. You may be familiar with the currently popular herp derp, an ideophone that conveys a sense of dopiness. Well, hirple starts with the same sound as herp. The heavy-breathing /h/ comes out of the throat only to curl around the retroflex /r/, like a deranged laugh, “hurr hurr hurr.” Then it stops at the lips /p/ and pulls back into /l/. In normal pronunciation, thr r n vwls n ths wrd. It’s just two syllabic liquids between the consonants. In accents that “drop the r,” such as standard British English, it sounds a little better.

Actually, in those accents it sounds like an odd way to say herbal. Of course it’s quite close to herbal in North American English, too, but the /p/ is more distinctive in that position because it pops forward from two liquids curled up in the middle of the mouth.

Echoes: Aside from herp derp, there’s herpes, herbal, hobble, and the various words that end in ple – people, pimple, scrapple, and especially purple. Remember: if you’re ever at a loss for a rhyme for purple, there’s always hirple – no need to interpol-ate a break.

Etymology: Alas, the etymology of this word is unknown. It’s been in the English language for at least half a millennium, though. The Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Its coincidence in sound and sense with Greek ἕρπειν is noticeable.” Yup, sure is, mm-hmm.

Semantics: Hirple means ‘walk lamely, limp, hobble, move with a gait between walking and crawling’. In other words, pretty much the opposite of hurtle, and definitely not compatible with hurdle.

Where to find it: Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Seamus Heaney… Heaney used it in his recent modern English rendition of Beowulf: “He is hasped and hooped and hirpling with pain, limping and looped with it.” You may or may not find that easier to read than the original: “synnum geswenced, ac hyne sar hafað mid nydgripe nearwe befongen, balwon bendum.”

How to use it: Carefully. The odds that your reader will know it off the top of the head are not high. By these lights, it should be a twenty-dollar word, but it’s so undignified and dialectal-sounding that it is not so much vintage or antique as just strange old stuff. This means that a certain literary crowd, the kind who crawl off to their lexicons at every new trouvaille, will love it. It will be a bug on the windshields of all other readers or, at very best, a rather limp little stunt.