Daily Archives: January 14, 2015

stertor, stertorous

He got on the elevator just before the doors closed, that guy. Him again. An inch or two taller than me and probably 1.4 times my weight. A bit socially odd and hard to read; always seems like something is nettling him a bit.

It’s an elevator ride. Twenty-something floors. Stare at the door, the floor. Sometimes people talk. Fortunately not this time. But as soon as he exited the elevator, five floors before my floor, I pulled out my phone and made a note:


His most salient characteristic, you see, is that his breathing is very audible. Very. With occasional mouth noise, but mostly through the nose.

Usually if I’m in the elevator with someone who makes that kind of noise breathing, that someone is a dog. Probably a little bulldog.

More often when you hear a person breathing stertorously, you’re in their bedroom. Or near them on a bus or airplane. Or in church. Or maybe a meeting at work.

Stertor is loud breathing, one could almost even say stentorian breathing. Constricted breathing. Breathing as of one asleep. In particular, breathing like snoring, although it can be gentle snoring. Stertorous is the adjective. Of course.

The word stertorous does not have a gentle sound to it, does it? It sounds strained, terse, tense, tortured perhaps. There may be a stutter, but a restricted one, ingressive.

Here, do this: whisper “stertorous” as you inhale. Presto, stertor. Even better, move your tongue back a bit in your mouth, as though you’re about to clear your throat, and do the same thing again. Yeah. Like that. That’s some serious stertor. Not so much sonority as snority. Or just snorty.

That works particularly well if you’re a typical North American or someone else who uses the humped-up-tongue /r/. In that case, both syllables of stertor have no real vowels; the peak of each is a syllabic /r/: [stɹ̩ɾɹ̩]. (Doesn’t that transcription look like it could be a visual representation of snoring?)

The word stertor comes straight from Latin, of course. The Latin noun is formed from the verb stertere ‘snore’. That happens to be an anagram of resetter, as in resetting your sleep or your alarm, but I doubt the ancient Romans foresaw that fact. But of course stertorous is an anagram of sot rouster and rests or out and torture SOS and rots so true and to trousers and…

Well, anyway. It may be a sound often associated with sleep or coma on the part of the person (or dog) making it, but for those of us hearing it at close range, it is rarely ours to rest.

A rant on censorship

A bit over a year ago I went on a Twitter rant about censorship. Then I made an image of the entire text so I had it in one place and tweeted that. Today Daniel Trujillo asked me about it. I found I hadn’t ever posted it here. So I dug it up. Here it is; you may have to click on the link to see the image. Maybe later I’ll convert it to real text rather than an image.


Say you’re writing a text for an introductory course, something just to make sure students are prepared for higher education in the subject. You want to use a diction proper to the level, right? Maybe some eidetic imagery? You wouldn’t want to prop up your vocabulary with opaque sesquipedalian escapees from an encyclopaedia. That’s not the proper way to do it. Might make you look like a professor, but won’t make you look like a pro at preparatory communication.

But every so often you’ll get a text, or at least an opening section, that will declare itself propaedeutic. “This course is propaedeutic for the more advanced study,” perhaps – or, as a noun, as in John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, “We can pass from this simplified propaedeutic to the problems of the real world.” Simplified except for what you call it.

It’s a word for those who consider teaching to be a bit infra dig; they want to be paedagogical. This is a serious course of study you’re embarking on, as witness the lexically luxuriant luminary who will be Virgil to your Dante (and remember, Dante went through Hell first before getting to Heaven). Switch on your academic propeller beanie; this is just the warm-up act.

It’s an impressive and almost balanced-looking word, propaedeutic. The paed could rotate 180 degrees and look much the same – in fact, write it with the digraph, pæd, and it would look the same. You could spin it like a propeller, and in fact “propaedeutic” sounds a bit like an old prop plane starting up. The p at the very start of propaedeutic would do well to be matched with another d at the end to make the whole word spin, but we just get c, which is literally 1 short of d, so we miss the stem – preparation not finished, I guess.

The pro at the start is the pro that means ‘before’, from Greek προ, which also helps us know it’s proper to start this word with “pro” and not “prop.” The paed is the root you see in words relating to children (from paedagogy or pedagogy to rather less pleasant ones); here, it’s part of a word for ‘education’: παιδευτική paideutiké, whence the eutic as well.

Not a great start to an education to start with a word you need an education to know, though, is it?

Well, it could be worse. It could always call itself cataskeuastic.