Monthly Archives: July 2013

skink

This must be the present tense of something smelly, right? You know, skink, skank, skunk – just like stink, stank, stunk? Funny, when you have sink, sank, sunk, you’re in fluid, probably water, nothing necessarily fetid. But add that voiceless stop and the smell kicks in. (Less so with p: spink, spank, spunk? More punkish. And then there’s the musty recollection of Leon Spinks, for those who remember that he beat Muhammad Ali in 1978.)

Except that unlike skunks (and, imputedly, skanks), skinks aren’t notably malodorous. You might do better to kick off the second k and see the skin. What skin? A squamous one, no fur in sight. A skink is not like skunk or mink; it is a kind of lizard. Actually about 1200 kinds of lizards, if by kind you mean ‘species’. They vary quite a bit in size, appearance, the length (and even presence) of legs (usually short, though), and a host of other details, including how they give birth to their young (live? with eggs?).

But skink is such a nice and ready formation of sounds and letters, it’s not so surprising that there are several kinds of skink the word, too. The lizard gets its name via Latin scincus from Greek skigkos σκίγκος (note that gk is pronounced in Greek as we would pronounce nk – the actual sound is [ŋk], so we have the same manner of articulation in a different place, and the Greeks have the same place of articulation with a different manner). But there’s nothing keeping such a word from showing up in a Germanic origin too.

Such as a word for the shank (and indeed cognate with shank). It has come to refer to a kind of soup. And then there is another skink cognate with Middle Dutch schenk ‘cup-bearer’ and schenken ‘bear a cup; serve alcoholic beverage’. In fact, it’s two skinks: one a verb meaning ‘pour or serve alcholic beverage’, the other a noun referring to not the server but the beverage itself – often a weak, poor, or, um, thin kind. (There used to be a skink that referred to the server, but it’s obsolete.)

So much meaning, and in a word that isn’t really seen that often in common usage. Just like the lizard: variety, but short legs.

Royal baby names

My most recent two articles for TheWeek.com have been about the British royal baby name book – a rather slim volume. The first article talks about which names have been used and which are most popular:

A brief history of royal baby names

Will and Kate’s wee one will be the seventh British king to be called George

The second talks about where those names come from and what they originally meant:

What do the names of British kings and queens actually mean?

King Wealth-Guard, Queen Bitterness, and King Desire-Helmet, for starters

 

A synaesthete’s letter tastings

Mary Hildebrandt tastes words more literally than most of us do. She writes the following:

The first time I heard about synaesthesia was in Vladimir Nabokov’s book Speak, Memory. He associates letters, on the printed page and in his mind’s eye, with colours. I can remember how he describes the various blue tones of different “sh” sounds in Russian and in English. I am not sure if I made the connection between my own synaesthesia right away, but I was very interested, and I read about it on Wikipedia. I noticed there was an entry on “Lexical-Gustatory Synaesthesia.” I wondered, before clicking on the link, whether it was about the experience I have of taste-sensations with words, and indeed it was.

Some of my own tasting-notes of words and letters:

Ks, are hard and dry, like tannins, or like chalk. I remember being a child and thinking that the yolk of hard-boiled eggs never felt quite as pleasant as the tannic feeling of the word itself

Ls are chewy, like chewing gum, or sometimes soft… like a thick layer of melted cheddar cheese. “Chelsea” overwhelmingly, extremely reminds me of cheese, because of the “l” and how it’s offset by those vowels, even evoking a cheesy smell.

“Tortellini,” a word like “Minelli” (as in Liza), is very soft, and you could compare it to pasta.

Rs are similar to Ks and other hard consonants. But when offset with a soft “p,” hard vowels can also be very pleasant. I remember a glimmer of my unconscious synaesthesia when I had a teenage conversation with a friend about the “creamiest” word, which I thought was “prepare,” like liquid cream being stirred, almost like the soft Ps are being stirred by the hard Rs.

Yes, my tasting notes of “P” are certainly soft. A word like “petal” is like the soft, supple, juicy petal of an exotic flower, like how it would be to bite into it, or the mouth-feel of its thick, soft shape.

I never really thought about it until I was older, but I think I assumed that everyone “tasted words.” To me, it seems natural – you say letters with your mouth, the same place where you have different taste and texture sensations with your mouth while you’re eating.

I’m always interested to learn more about lexical-gustatory synesthesia if any of your readers have any tips for further information, or comments.

Thanks, Mary!

verecund

Unless you know Latin, this word is not very forthcoming about its meaning. It’s rather shy, or perhaps coy. You see that cund and probably think of rubicund and jocund and fecund – all adjectives describing tendencies or states: reddishness, humour, fertility. But what is this vere? Has it to do with truth, springtime, worms?

It seems so shifty. The v is a v-neck, revealing some, concealing the rest, leading the eyes to a point where they must be cut off. The e and e seem like the shifty, peering, evading eyes. The r somehow looks to me not like a nose between the eyes but like a pistol holstered. Right in the middle! What could it mean? The c gets a line and stops up as d; the open u flips and becomes the closed n (unless you look from beneath). You thought this would be easy but this word wants to throw you a curve to the end.

So you say it. You start by biting the lip – such a shy or coy gesture – and then the tongue lolls up and down but knocks at the back before finally ending on the tip. Ah, what is on the tip of your tongue? It may be verecund but it is not very kind!

Well, here is the key: the Latin etymon is vereri, verb, ‘fear, reverence’. So this word means tending to fear? Close enough… what it means is ‘shy, bashful, modest’. Or – and this is to the others as a kitten is to a baby bunny – ‘coy’. Coy indeed… making people run to a dictionary to find out what you, in your ostentatiously erudite way, are saying.

marlock

Is this a warlock with wings folded? A witchy marlin? One of H.G. Wells’s morlocks? A place like Porlock, whence an importunate visitor supposedly came to Coleridge and interrupted the composition of “Kubla Khan”? Some mixture of Moriarty and Sherlock? Or the device with which one or the other conserves his preserves? Is it a mackerel? Or is it just a red herring, a mockery?

With each successive look, the sense seems to pull back and vanish, like Eurydice falling back into Hades or – more pertinently – like the enunciation of this word, starting cushiony at the lips /m/, rolling through liquids at the front and middle of the tongue /rl/, and then knocking quickly at the back /k/ on its way out.

Do you clamour for the sense? Do you hope you will have more luck with etymology than with sound? It depends on which tree you bark up. If you bark up the Austronesian tree, you will get an Australian Aborigine word marlok for a kind of eucalyptus tree, small and shrubby, similar to a mallee and having a smooth-bark version called a moort. Marlok is anglicized to marlock by those who have reason to call it anything.

But if you bark up the Indo-European tree, you get a verb meaning ‘frolic, dance, play around’ and an apparently related noun meaning ‘joke, prank, caper’ but also ‘flirtatious glance’. The origin of this word is unknown, but it’s a regional usage in northern England, which suggests to me that it may have a Scandinavian origin (northern England has a fair bit of this, as it was under Danish rule or influence for a fair while a millennium ago), or it could be a toponym (like Donnybrook and Bedlam)… except that there is no place called Marlock or anything like it in northern England.

Well, we may marlock all we want with this word, but in the end we have an etymological marlock. The question that then remains is whether by that we mean a prank… or a flirtatious glance?

ecphore

What does this word bring to mind?

The e and c seem jammed together at the beginning, perhaps a sequence from half-closed e to open c, causing the p to release, raising its stem and opening its loop to h, but after that it’s different – the o may be the open eye of surprise, the r the realization, and then e… the return to the beginning, perhaps?

What is “ec”? Hmm. That question is posed by the psychologist in Equus. He at one point enters as the young protagonist is incanting “equus, equus, eq—” (stopping abruptly on seeing the doctor) and in a later therapy session he asks, “What is eq?” The beginning of equus, ‘horse’. But what is ec? The beginning of ecstatic, eclogue, eczema, eccentric, ec cetera… sorry, et cetera.

Which is what? A certain éclat? A burst of éclair? It is actually from the Greek root ἐκ for ‘away’.

And phore? As in semaphore, chromatophore, and many others, including the pher in such things as the name Christopher. It is from Greek ϕέρειν pherein ‘carry, bear, bring forth, disclose’. But those words are nouns. This word, ecphore, is a verb.

I don’t want to get carried away here, but it does look like ecphore means ‘get carried away’. Or perhaps ‘carry away’.

Hmm, or ‘take back’? Oh, that takes me back. Song cues have a way of doing that for me. I immediately think of the end of “Cry, Baby, Cry,” from the white album by the Beatles: “Can you take me back where I came from, can you take me back…” Ah, yes, song cues are to me as the madeleine (actually toast dipped in tea) was to Marcel Proust. (Has any of you actually read that book? I haven’t. I just know the triggering moment. The rest looks awful long.)

And I won’t take back ‘take back’. Nor should I. What the heck phore? It’s apposite: ecphore, the verb, means (per Oxford) “To evoke or revive (an emotion, a memory, or the like) by means of a stimulus.” Just as the sound /ɛ/ at the front of the mouth leads to a knock at the back /k/ and then a sudden puff and opening out the front /fɔ/ before pulling back again into an echo /r/, the taste or touch or thought of one little thing can ecphore a feeling or image of an experience.

Yes, that’s true, get it right: a stimulus takes you back to the memory, but it ecphores the memory, not you. It carries it, and deposits it on you. The word truly does seem like the explosion or sneeze (“Ecphore!”) of a thought, a memory, a subroutine of feelings and entailments from the dark, musty storage basement of your brain. And the related noun is ecphory, not ecphoria. I don’t know why.

So there it is, all of a sudden. A smell, a taste, a song, a sound releases a flood of memory. You stand or sit, carried away, your shoulders twitching or fingers twiddling or head flicking back: such is the power of an eructation from the gastric tract of rumination and recollection. And I find words often have that power.

phronesis

Well you may ask whether it would be wise to use this word in ordinary discourse. It seems an affront, phonier than phrenology. What are we to make of it? Pick at its form and you may come up with an assortment bits that look like they make nephritis or sphere or rephrase, but nope. Well, yes, there is nope, and spore and hope and posher and quite a few others. But all of that will leave you none the wiser.

You can see that ph at the start, long a mark of a classical (specifically Greek) origin but also seen in recent times on some slang terms. We can assume this is not slang, since it’s not a respelling of an English word and it has Greek morphology, specifically the esis ending, which is common on words such as catachresis and hysteresis that only grad-school dweebs know or care about. (I was one. I know.) So what did it mean in Greek?

The Greek original, ϕρόνησις, meant ‘thought, judgement, wisdom, prudence’, et cetera and all that good stuff. It was taken into Latin to mean ‘wisdom’. In English, it first named a personification of wisdom. Now, when it’s used, it’s generally used to mean ‘practical wisdom, good judgement, sound understanding’.

So you can use this word as a hidden dagger if you want. “I feel that this proposal demonstrates an intriguing lack of phronesis.” You can generally take it on trust that your hearers will make an assumption about a word they don’t know. However, one or two of them might call your bluff – ask you or look in the dictionary. So perhaps don’t use it. I counsel phronesis.

ent

Ah, now, what might this word repres-ent? Could it be an ant, an insect, an ent-omological ent-ity? Or is it an ENT, an ear, nose, and throat doctor? If I look in the Oxford English Dictionary I find two words, one obsolete and the other obsolesc-ent: the first refers to a scion, sprig, or graft, and the second to an existing unity (as opposed to a nonent, which does not exist) – an ent has entity and is an entity, and a nonent has no entity and is a nonentity.

But if you find a token of this word in a crossword puzzle, it will be a Tolkien word, naming a treelike being, about four metres tall and slow moving and very long lived. Much larger than an insect; like a tree with ears, nose, throat, feet, legs, arms (branches?). Long past being a scion, sprig, or graft, and – thanks to the loss of the female of their species and the endangerment of the forests – close to becoming a nonent. A short word for a long being with a long life. A root with ramifications.

And what of the above was Tolkien’s source for this word? None of the above. He took it from Old English: a couple of references to enta geweorc, ‘work of giants’ – enta being the genitive of ent. (Ignore the orc in geweorc; it just became the ork in modern work.) So an ent was a giant. As it is in Tolkien, a special kind.

And why would Tolkien imagine a tree-like being, leader of a doomed race, guardian of a threatened forest? Tolkien had a great fondness for forests – he grew up in a sylvan area just outside of Birmingham, with the trees towering over him, characters in themselves. But by the time he wrote his novels, the trees and pond of his childhood were long gone, built over. The destruction of forests in Lord of the Rings is a replaying of that. And the ents are the champions and repres-ent-atives that the forests of the English midlands should have had, ents to save them from their ends.

Tolkien liked to write songs for his characters. You may remember a few of them from the movies. Treebeard, the oldest ent and the leader of the ent-ire group, sings a song, “In the Willow-Meads of Tasarinen.” It’s been set to music a few times. Here’s Christopher Lee performing it on YouTube: an old, slow voice with orchestration, a voice suited to a tree being. But now here’s a much younger, lighter voice, singing her own tune for it: Adele McAllister. There is nothing about her voice that seems like it might be an ages-old leader of a dying race; it is rather the fresh spring of new growth. And that also has its place: the scions, the entities – give throat, ear, and nose to them.

Incidentally, Adele McAllister has recorded a whole bunch of Tolkien’s verse. Listen to it all at soundcloud.com. You will also find from her bio, as I just did, that she is a drama student at Tufts University. If that sounds familiar, it’s because I was one too, in the graduate program. At least some things regenerate.

Mandheling

Does this word look like it needs – or has had – a little manhandling? Perhaps it was meant to be handling me or hand mingle but somehow lost its grip? Morphologically it’s modestly mystifying: there’s that ing that could be a verb ending, but it’s part of a ling that could be the old English suffix (as in earthling), but then there’s that ­dh – perhaps this is mand plus heling? But is that heling really healing or part of inhaling or what? And what mandates the mand? This seems like a curious mixture, perhaps an orphan word.

It may, however, seem familiar. It might give you a faint hint of almonds in the sound, but there’s another word that it’s often seen with that may make it more recognizable: Sumatra.

Sumatra, yes, that island of Indonesia. What do they grow there? Where do you see a label that says Sumatra Mandheling (or any of a few other spellings)? On coffee, usually in a coffee establishment.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. There are a few things that are often tasted with notes and fancy little rhapsodic descriptors. Wine, of course, is one. Words are another. People do it now with beer, though that can get a little precious. But, ah, yes, also coffee. We like to talk about the flavour of our drugs.

And Mandheling is a rather nice drug as they go. It is full flavoured, rich, spicy. Aw, heck, let me quote some tasting notes from different places on their particular versions of Sumatra Mandheling:

A uniquely rich and aromatic cup – spicy and gently acidic, with a truly rare body. (Balzac’s Coffee)

A creamy body and loamy sweet flavors. It also has all the wild jungle flavors and earthiness you would expect in a Sumatra. (Gen X Coffee)

A traditional volcanic and earthy Indonesian profile is complemented by bittersweet chocolate and subtle cherry and raisin notes. A sassy and spicy finish adds to the balance of this full-bodied, yet mildly acidic coffee. (The Roasterie)

This coffee sounds like my kind of coffee (it is). Heck, it sounds like my kind of person. Sassy, spicy, earthy, mildly acidic, a creamy and truly rare body, and perhaps bittersweet? What’s not to like, I say! To have such a taste as you are inhaling its healing aromas…

So, now, where does it get its name? It’s an alternate spelling of Mandailing, which is the name of a people in northern Sumatra. They don’t actually grow this coffee; there was just some confusion by an early European buyer of the coffee, it seems. Thus the word and its sense have both undergone some manhandling. But where does the word Mandailing come from? It is thought to come from mande ‘mother’ and hilang ‘lost’ – ‘lost mother’, in other words. Just as the word has become separated from its mother and joined another family. At least it’s in good company.

Glagolitic

I first encountered this word in a context where it named a thing from the dark mists of many centuries past in Eastern Europe, a mode of inscription of incantations to be seen by candlelight in dim ancient churches in forgotten valleys. Well, there it is: sometimes you learn about things first in horror movies.

And of course there are certain stereotypical images of medieval Slavonic churches. Even in the daylight, old Croatia, old Bulgaria, and thereabouts appear to the western mind as a place of tall rustic hats and rough clothes, stooped peasants and mildewy superstitions. Actually we can assume that the people then and there did find ways to enjoy their lives like people in most places and times. And the Glagolitic alphabet was for them not simply some collection of elaborately twisted sigils unlocking mystical verses for the illuminated.

Heck, an important thing about Glagolitic is that in Dalmatia (part of Croatia) it represented a very modern touch: the churches there, as of AD 1248, had permission to use their own language in the church service, and that language was written in the alphabet given it by Saints Cyril and Methodius. It is true that most people in that time and place would not have been able to read, but the scriptures and rites it recorded were hardly dark and foreign, let alone incomprehensible, for the people there and then. (Old Church Slavonic over time did become old and mystical and strange, just because the vernacular had changed; rituals always start as something fresh but, like the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, are valued by many precisely because of accumulated centuries of obscurity – a prophet is without honour in his home town, and a ritual is weaker if you can understand it clearly.)

The Glagolitic alphabet spread over much of Eastern Europe. But it was replaced in the common speech with the Cyrillic alphabet and, in some countries (such as Croatia), the Latin alphabet. So now it really does seem to our eyes like something hiding under the stairs in the dim basement of time. Have a look at it: www.omniglot.com/writing/glagolitic.htm .

It’s not helped, to Anglophone ears at least, by the sound of the name. To my ears, it certainly sounds dark and gigantic – or should I say gargantuan. We may think of the gulags – actually GULag prisons, if we wish to be etymological about it – or about glug, goggle, gaggle, blag, agglutinate, Golgi apparatus, ugly, stalagmite, Gollum… You can get pretty far into it. Because it’s a proper noun, the two g’s don’t look the same, and it dips down to a low g between the uprights of the l’s, then spatters off at the end with the dots of the i’s and the lower ascender of the t. The back-tongue voiced stops /g/ and the liquids /l/ give way to a crisper, almost glittering pair of voiceless stops /t/ /k/. The whole word goes three times between tongue back and tip.

But it’s foreign to us. It speaks to Slavic ears. Even the most foreign tongue is native to its speakers, and what seems dark is as clear as day. In Old Church Slavonic – once the vernacular of its land – the verb glagoliti means ‘speak’. You will hear and understand if you know how to listen.