Daily Archives: June 2, 2013


Visual: A small feast of loops, lines, curves, and zags. Those rare letters q and z always stand out, the z for its angularity but the q just for its rarity; the long, straight tail also exists on p.

In the mouth: A small, fairly smooth movement of the tongue. It starts at the back with [k], then pushes against the front with a vowel [ɛ] closing in to [ts], then a neutral vowel releases to let the tongue pull back just a bit to touch its tip with [l]. It may be like the pattern of a tapdancing shoe, or it may be like a finger making a simple two-touch caress.

Echoes: The qu and z together will likely call forth quiz and quartz; the sound is much like kettle and a little like kits and just vaguely like shptizel; you may think first of quetzalcoatl, the legendary plumed serpent of the Aztecs, which has the same quetzal in it.

Etymology: This is a Nahuatl word, converted to Spanish. In the original, it comes from quetz [kets] ‘stand up’, which was the root for quetzalli [ke’tsal:i] ‘large, brilliant tailfeathers’; that was added to tototl ‘bird’ in Nahuatl to make quetzallitototl, ‘bird with large, brilliant tailfeathers’. The Spaniards simply chopped the word’s tailfeathers (ironically cutting the bird morpheme and leaving the feather morpheme) and left it at quetzal.

Semantics: Yes, this is a bird with long tailfeathers, especially the male when in mating. It’s a bird with bright green plumage over most of its body, except for its chest, where it is red or yellow. The word quetzal now names any of several species, but the original and still the model is the bird now called the resplendent quetzal. That bird was revered by the Aztecs; it was illegal to kill one – they would be caught and their tail feathers plucked for use in high-status costume, and then they would be released again.

Where to find it: This is a word for a bird, and so will most often be seen when the bird is spoken of. But of course it can be used in metaphor, especially because of its place in Aztec culture. And the striking look of the word helps, as may the crisp progression of the sounds. “Is Keith a peacock, with his fine clothes? No, a quetzal, darling. Fit for adoration – and for catching, plucking, and releasing.”

Your iPhone is using ancient linguistic technology

If you have a smart phone, it’s quite a handy device, with a combination of features inconceivable two decades ago: phone, camera, computer, internet browser. All new things in the grand scheme. And yet we’re using ancient words to speak about them. Find out more in my latest article for TheWeek.com:

4 very old words for very new things