Daily Archives: June 20, 2013


This word is a lean little thing, but I think it displays some of the quality it names. To an Anglophone’s eyes, the accent on the é certainly adds to that: it looks dashing, ready to sally forth – in that musketeerish way one may think of the French as having. The word often seems to mean ‘flair’ or ‘verve’ or ‘panache’, but dictionaries describe it as ‘vivacity’, ‘impetuousness’, ‘dash’, or ‘ardour’. The smooth and quick liquid sound of the word adds an elegance. One may display élan by rushing forth and clearing enemy lines like an eland bull, but this word is more of an antelope, really.

Élan is seen in élan vital, a concept set forth by Henri Bergson, an idea of a kind of vital force in all things, a life force that wants to burst forth, an impetus against entropy. Bergson presented it as a hypothetical force behind evolution, but one may readily use it in a broader sense as that liveliness that wants to spring forth, to join together, to effloresce, to create – however intrinsic or emergent it may be.

Élan is also a brand name of skis, and of a few other things as well; it also gives me a taste of some other words: island; uileann pipes (a kind of Irish bagpipe); álainn, the Irish word for ‘beautiful’ (pronounced like “alling”); and the names Elaine and Ellen. Both Elaine and Ellen are considered to be versions of Helen, but there is some suggestion that Elaine may also come from a Welsh word for ‘fawn’ – at least the Elaine seen in Arthurian legend, where it is the name of several women, notably Elaine of Corbenic, who has some undeniable élan: she draws Sir Lancelot from Guinivere, bears him Sir Galahad, and shows him the Holy Grail (thereby restoring his sanity). It occurs to me that every Elaine I know has a certain élan… though, of course, that’s not a large or scientific sampling.

And where does élan come from? French, obviously, but specifically the verb élancer ‘rush forth’, which traces back to Latin ex ‘out’ and lanceare ‘throw a lance’ (from lancea ‘lance’). This makes it surprisingly similar to the word sally, another word for venturing boldly forth that has a coincidental overtone (extremely strong in its case) of a female name – and is also two syllables with a [l] in the middle. Bold words, full of ardour, and yet vital with a lithe femininity in form and sound, at least to my ears.


Visual: This is a nice mix of characters, with two googly eyes o o, a pair of columns l l, a dot on the i, and that wriggly g reaching below. So much fun and variety in a half dozen letters. Four loops, three sticks, a dot.

In the mouth: It may look like it should be said like “lol ego,” but officially (due to what Brits did to the long i’s in Latin) it’s like “low lie go” or “LOL I go.” So the tongue taps softly twice, makes a wave (concave to convex) in the diphthong, and then bounces off the back while the lips round. Rhythmically it’s an amphibrach.

Echoes: I’m sure you, like me, immediately thought of oligosaccharides. No? How about lollypop or impetigo, or maybe religion or ligament or log or goil? Or oil or googly or gigolo – or, of course, low, lie, LOL, I, and go.

Etymology: This is a Latin word, presented unaltered in the spelling but Anglicized in the pronunciation. The original Latin would be like “lo lee go” – which may well be the way it looks to you like it should be said. But when English shifted its vowels, it shifted how it rendered Latin vowels too.

Overtones: This seems a rather elegant word, doesn’t it? In a better league of words? Unless it’s a name for something unpleasant, like a skin condition – no, that’s impetigo. Actually it’s a name for a kind of thing many people (including me) like to eat. It’s a much more pleasant-sounding word than squid, although it may lose out to calamari.

Semantics: Taxonomically it’s a cephalopod. Yes, a loligo is a kind of squid (or actually a family of squids), one much fished for commercial purposes. It’s a flattened cylindrical squid, with a head that looks a bit like a supersonic fighter jet and two long side tentacles to go with its half-dozen shorter ones. It grows up to 3 feet long.

Where to find it: You won’t see this word on a restaurant menu; they’ll just call it squid or calamari. This is a word for the biologists. Pity, because it’s a nice word.

How to use it: You can keep it technical, or go for LOLs: “I’ve had a fascinating date. You are a gentleman and a loligo.”