Daily Archives: January 29, 2015

dysdiadochokinesia

This word names a condition that makes it difficult to say this word.

OK, sure, fine, most people find it difficult to say this word, especially at first while your eyes and mind are still untangling it. Really, it’s like last year’s strands of Christmas lights pulled out of the closet, isn’t it? But once you pull apart the bits, you can string it out and trip it off your tongue. Here are the parts, all from Greek: δυς dus ‘bad’; διάδοχος diadokhos ‘succeeding, alternating’ (from διά dia ‘through’ plus δοχή dokhé ‘receptacle’); κίνησις kinésis ‘movement’; with the ia ending that we use to indicate a state. So dys, dia, docho, kinesia. Almost looks like a magic spell, doesn’t it?

Well, if it is, it’s an evil one. Dysdiadochokinesia is difficulty making repeating movements, such as tapping a foot, finger, or tongue tip. If you have it, when you try to say something such as “da da da” you vary the pronunciation and/or say it with excess volume and/or don’t move your tongue and mouth as one normally would in doing so. There are quite a few conditions that can cause dysdiadochokinesia, involving lesions on the cerebellum or frontal lobe or other nervous system damage (as in multiple sclerosis and Friedreich’s ataxia).

So, clearly, this word would be a challenge: /dɪs daɪ ə dɒ ko kɪ ni ʒə/. It taps the tongue tip three times in rapid succession – one on the stressed beat of each of the first three metrical feet – (/d sd d/), then the back of the tongue twice – both on off-beats, so faster – (/k k/), then two more different sounds with the tip (/n ʒ/). It does, admittedly, have an admirable alternation of vowels; between the consonants it makes a bit of a tour of the mouth. But the consonants beat like a drumstick, or the repeating note in flamenco guitar, as for instance in “Asturias” by Isaac Albeniz. Which dysdiadochokinesia – or any of several other kinds of dyskinesia – would render prohibitively difficult to play.

Of course, flamenco guitar is prohibitively difficult for most people anyway, because they haven’t developed the skill. Just like reading dysdiadochokinesia isn’t going to be easy for anyone on first try. (Man to doctor before surgery on his hands: “Will I be able to play the piano?” Doctor: “Oh, yes, not to worry.” Man: “That’s fantastic! I’ve never been able to play the piano before.”) The difference with this disorder is that it makes it difficult even if you know how and would otherwise be able to do it. Even the common abbreviation – DDK – would present a little challenge. How cruelly ironic.

Thanks to docsterx, commenting on my post on sputum, for suggesting this word and a few others I may yet get to.

jink

Is this the singular of jinx? It is not. Jinx comes from the Greek name for a bird. Jink is sound symbolism, expressive language. A jink is a zig or a zag; in Canadian terms, it is a deke. (Deke has a certain expressive something, but to my knowledge it is originally shortened from decoy, whereas jink is – by the evidence – not shortened from anything.)

A jink is an instance of jinking. Jink, the verb, means ‘dart jerkily’ or ‘make a quick, evasive turn’ – so as to elude capture or attack, particularly in rugby or aeronautics. Both verb and noun have been around since at least the 1700s. The origin, as I said, seems to be sound symbolism.

Sound symbolism? You know, that thing we do whereby we associate certain sounds with real-world things or actions, even if there is no actual resemblance of sound. Surely you have a sense of the difference between actions described with, say, tek versus pek versus kek, and jek and chek and then shek and so on. The different onsets have different senses of action: light, firm, hard, supported, strong, sliding… not that any one word would describe the difference with full accuracy. Likewise, everything can turn abruptly with a new vowel and with a new coda (final consonant or combination of consonants). Compare jek with jenk, jeshk, jesh, jet (which has other associations too, of course), jev, and so on; now change to jank, junk (strong semantic effect there), jonk, jink. Only one of those would really do for a strong, sudden action that covers some space quickly before slotting neatly into a new position.

Of course, echoes of words with semantic associations will always have an important effect. Jink? How about junk, Jenkins, jonquil, jangle, jingle, drink, chink, juke, Jenga?

Or how about hijinks? Or should I write that high jinks? It turns out I should – if I want to go with the origins (which are of no matter to most English speakers, because they don’t know them, but once you know them…). As I said, the word starts with a reference to deking out in rugby or similar sport. From that comes dancing, and tricking, and winning a game of cards (of a certain kind – spoil-five or forty-five – according to Oxford). And a drinking game, whereby the person who got the high roll of the dice – the high jink – would have to do “some ludicrous task” (Oxford) or drink a large bowl of some alcoholic beverage or, failing at the one, do the other. Hence high jinks for rowdy revelry and miscellaneous mischief.

I do prefer the spelling hijinks, as it happens, because of the iji with its nice symmetry and its three dots. But I recognize that the fun of the spelling has hijacked (not high jacked) the original form. Well, so be it. I’d rather hijinks put me in hiding than have low jinks in my lodgings.

What are low jinks? I would have thought they would be as boring as hijinks are exciting, but according to dictionary.com, low jinks are “merrymaking or horseplay that is less than tasteful.” Which actually sounds just like hijinks to me – if hijinks were tasteful, they wouldn’t be hijinks, would they? It seems as though low jinks has somehow made an unexpected sharp turn in sense.