Daily Archives: November 19, 2014


I loved this word the first time I saw it. It was somewhere in my pre-teen years, I remember, maybe around the time I learned the word dimethylpolysiloxane (an ingredient in a chewable tablet we took so we would fart less). How can an developing boy not be charmed with such gassy words? So long (sesquipedalian was a word I learned a few years later), so interestingly shaped, such a well-assembled sound set.

The word immediately made me think of my mother, just because of the mom right in the middle of it. (Hi, Mom!) But that whole sequence of nasals… Would you animate an abominable homonym for hominy or enumerate an anemometer? Or merely nominate the Mahna Mahna from the Muppets? That momanom is almost numinous; for word tasters, it’s nummy – om nom nom! And the sphyg. Tight and mysterious, like a sphinx’s sphincter, or asphyxiation by sphagnum… or a mercury spy (spy + Hg). So the word starts with a hiss, then moves on with a murmur, and finally taps off the tip of the tongue and goes.

What is it really, a sphygmomanometer? It’s a device for measuring blood pressure, typically used by a physician with a stethoscope. If you have had your blood pressure measured it was surely with one of these. An inflatable cuff is wrapped around your arm and inflated until it stops the blood flow, and then the pressure (the gas, I mean the air) is let off gradually while the doctor listens with the stethoscope for the blood in your brachial artery. The pressure is gauged by the mercury (like a thermometer) or aneroid dial; it is measured in mm Hg, which may make you think “Mmm! Hug!” but actually means ‘millimetres of mercury’. It’s a mercury spy on your blood pressure.

The doctor is listening for Korotkoff sounds: the sound of your blood pulsing through your veins. When the beat starts pushing through, it’s the systolic pressure, the upper number; when the pressure is low enough that blood is flowing through all the time, it’s the diastolic pressure, the lower number. Here’s a video (a bit quiet, though) on the Korotkoff sounds. Here’s another, shorter one that you can test yourself with. The sound might make you tense: quiet, with a beating heart. It might raise your blood pressure — also known as your arterial tension. High blood pressure is called hypertension.

I’m not going to say that the Korotkoff sounds add up to something like “sphygmomanometer.” That would be pushing it a bit much. But I should be kind and tell you that the main stress in the word is on the nom. The parts, all from Greek by way of more recent European medical scientists, are sphygmo, from sfugmos σϕυγμός ‘pulse’; mano, from manos μανός ‘loose, open, rare, sparse’; and meter, from metron μέτρον ‘measure’. A manometer is for measuring pressure in a liquid or gas; a sphygmomanometer is a manometer put to use for helping to measure the pressure of the pulse.

Blood pressure readings are typically done by doctors. For some people, having a test done by a doctor can induce what’s called white coat syndrome, and in particular white coat hypertension: the sight of the doctor’s white coat – or just your presence in the clinical setting – makes you tense and gives a misleadingly high reading. But I don’t know if there’s a special term for having your blood pressure go up at the sight of a long word. I wonder how many extra millimetres of mercury have been measured on pulses over the years simply due to the effect of seeing SPHYGMOMANOMETER on the device that’s measuring…

Thanks to Daniel Trujillo for suggesting this word back in April. I finally got to it.