“When I get home, I am going to flumf and have a nap.”

That was me this afternoon, after we had swum, steamed, been massaged, and had lunch with sparkling wine. In short, it was a spa day, and there’s nothing I want more after all that than to flumf onto the bed and snooze for a piece of the rest of the afternoon.

Don’t bother looking up flumf in a dictionary. It’s not there. So what. I just used it and don’t pretend you didn’t understand it. Sound symbolism and phonaesthetics are an inexhaustible well, especially in English.

What do words that start with fl tend to signify? OK, many of them don’t have any special meaning in common, or any evident connection between sound and sense (fleet, flint), but those that do often have a sense of loose motion (the flapping and fluttering of a flag, for instance). There is a soft looseness to /fl/, onomatopoeically.

And how about that umf? First we should note that I’m spelling it umf and not umph. We’re more likely to spell that set of sounds umph in English, but I find that a bit too weighty – simultaneously precious (because of the ph, heavily associated with expensive words taken from Greek) and hard (because it manifests a connection to p). I want to make it clear how soft and fluffy this bed is. And flumf has those feathery f’s bedposting it, and is only one letter from fluff. But that one letter is m, and the /ʌmf/ has a dull, dense heaviness to it. Words ending in /ʌmp/ have a solid tendency to be associated with heaviness and bluntness (bump, clump, dump, lump, slump, thump). That /m/ is resonant, and the /ʌ/ is a vowel that tends to be associated with dullness (“uhhhh”). So soften it to /ʌmf/ and you have a heavy but soft landing.

And since this is English, which so freely converts words of one type to another type, thanks to its minimal requirements of derivational and inflectional morphology (i.e., you don’t have to change the form of a word to change what you use it for), I don’t have to say “I’m going to fall with a flumf on the bed” (imitative noun) or “I’m going to fall on the bed flumf” (ideophonic adverb). I can just flumf on the bed. Which in fact I did, and remained there for a halcyon hour.

And now you have had a nice brief lesson in the nature and function of phonaesthetics. Want more? Lots more? I wrote a whole master’s thesis on it. The official conferral of my Master of Arts in linguistics is this Tuesday, June 21. Don’t bother coming (I’ll be at the office). Just read the thesis. Or anyway the abstract. Or the conclusion, which is better. It’s pages 141–144 here: http://www.harbeck.ca/James/Harbeck_James_C_2016_MA.pdf

7 responses to “flumf

  1. Jason B. Grant

    That was me this afternoon, after we swum, ….

  2. David Milne-Ives

    I was right with you, until your choice of a “halcyon” hour: the definition is tout juste, but my birding background doesn’t let me associate kingfishers with anything so loosely dreamy. Certainly the big, belted variety we get in Canada is the rattling, clamorous antithesis of dreamy, and even the little be-jeweled tropical varieties suggest only focussed, sharp-edged attention to the potential victims drifting below the mirrored surface of their own pools…

    • Halcyon – in classical legends, a bird said to nest on the sea, thereby calming the waters… sounds about right to me. Perhaps Mr Harbeck flumfed on a waterbed causing a ruckus whereby the halycon bird settled the waters.

  3. Congratulations on the MA!!! The thesis bits suggested for reading have had the effect of making me want to read the rest and I shall — what a delicious topic.
    Now about fluff. Here’s something from NZ poet Brian Turner, who is given to crafty manipulation of register and tone: …”there’s a blackbird sitting/ like a flumph of soot/on the wall and singing/ as the sun goes down.” I think the ph is a right here as the f is in your account of post-spa indolence. I think it’s because what we have in Turner is not only a verbal gesture mimicking an abrupt motion softened by feathers, but also an onomatopoeic suggestion of a puff of grubby gritty carbon blown from a flue under pressure. Ok, maybe just being way too subtle — but hat line stayed with me since I reviewed the volume years ago, while the rest became a pleasant but undifferentiated memory.

    • David Milne-Ives

      I imagine the NZ sort of blackbird has a thrushy repertoire, something deserving the designation of song. Here in western Canada, our (non-corvid) blackbirds are yellow-headed or red-winged, and their vocalizations are not so much melodic, as they are suppressed sneeze “flumpfs”. How many degrees of separation?

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