Tag Archives: phonaesthetics


Finagle: procure by deceit or trickery. Tangle your fingers into it and snag it away. Or talk it out of someone with your gift of the Blarney.

Supposedly finagle comes from an earlier English word fainague, from French roots meaning ‘act’ (feign) ‘sick’ (ague). Never mind that acting sick has to do with indolence, not with procurement. Never mind that I can only find this word fainaigue as the conjectured etymon of finagle. I’m not saying that there definitely was no such word; I’m just saying “Hmmmmmm.”

The first documented use that I (or Oxford) can find of finagle in its modern sense is a 1926 citation from the USA. Google Books gives me further hits that show it was established in use in the USA (though as a colloquialism not familiar to all readers) by the 1930s, though some claimed it came from England. Oxford seems to think it came first from England but doesn’t produce evidence. Wiktionary presents it as American. There are also a couple of variant spellings, presumably from people who heard the word said and spelled it how they thought it was likely written – phenagle is notable, because it shows the cod-sophistic association of ph.

So can we finagle some kind of explanation for this word’s presence in our language?

I should say that there are earlier hits for Finagle in Google Books. It appears as a name in two works of short fiction of the 1800s. The first, in a volume dated 1821, Winter Evening Tales Collected among the Cottagers in the South of Scotland, by James Hogg, makes it the name of a town in the south of Scotland. The second, appearing first in Scribner’s Monthly in summer 1872, in a story by John S. Barry, makes it an Irish family name. The latter, titled “Shane Finagle’s Station,” is as thorough a slander of stereotypes against the Irish as you would ever wish you had not cast eyes on, and it features an assortment of peasant rogues blathering their way through catechism and confessional before ending with a massive drinkfest. But there’s nothing other than bare resemblance of form to link these Finagles to our word finagle.

Also, there’s nothing in those two fictions to say how the names should be said, and one could easily imagine a stress on the first syllable intended – compare Fingal and Finnegan, after all. With our word today, on the other hand, the stress is decidedly on the second syllable, and phonaesthetically, that makes an important difference.

Consider if the stress were on the first syllable. The word would have the same kind of pattern as miracle or risible or any of a number of other tumbling trisyllabic words with various effect. The most important bit would be the fin. But as it is, that’s just a flick of the fingers as they reach to grasp the main business.

And the main business has a –gle on it, one that has a stressed syllable right before. There are many words of that form in English, some with before the gand some not, but have a look at this selection: boggle, bungle, dangle, dingle, dongle, newfangled, gaggle, gargle, giggle, goggle, gurgle, haggle, inveigle, jangle, juggle, mangle, mingle, muggle, snaggle, spangle, squiggle, straggle, struggle, tangle, tingle, toggle, waggle, wangle. Nearly all of them are formed with the old –le frequentative suffix, used to make verbs referring to repeated action, but there’s something more in many of them: a certain disorder, disarray, loose motion, or chaotic or uncontrolled or messy nature. There are certainly words of the –gle form that don’t match that meaning at all – beagle, eagle, and triangle come to mind – but we form impressions of what senses go with what sounds mainly from general habitual association, and we can always allow exceptions for familiar words.

There is, I am inclined to think, some sense of complication and disorder in what’s meant by finagle. Consider that Webster’s Third New International defines it with reference to other terms that include wangle and swindle, which have similar phonaesthetics (swapping the in for does change things a little, but they differ only in the tongue’s contact point when saying them). It’s not to say that the word sprang up just because the form demanded it! But when people confect terms, the ones they choose and the ones that stick tend to have sounds that catch on for a reason.

And often more than one reason. Let’s be honest: finagle does have a bit of an “Irish” sound to many English-speaking ears, doesn’t it? I don’t think it has any real “French” sound, fainaigue be damned. But the idea that some Blarney-tongued dissolute Finnegan might charm something out of someone by finagling– well, it doesn’t altogether run against English-speakers’ easy-minded stereotypes, and it goes with the –gle association too.

I’m not saying that’s where finagle comes from. I’m not even saying these things definitely had an influence on it. I don’t have data to support the conjecture. But if it had to come down to it, I think it’s an easier idea to talk someone into going with than many another might be.

How to write gleefully

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

There are times when you want to make your prose more lively – if not flagrantly flippant then at least glancingly gleeful. Your words could land with a thump or splash or flit by with a twirl, but they must be sprightly. You want to write like a child. Well, no, not like a child – children aren’t very good writers; their sense of sentence structure is a bit squishy and scrawny – but like a child would write if a child had the skill of an adult. You want to be extra expressive. Continue reading

The mp clan

My latest for The Week looks at phonaesthetics without ever actually using the word phonaesthetics (I thought readers might glaze over at the technical term). It also looks at an oddity in terms of distribution of sound combinations in English. It is…

The curious linguistic histories of ump, imp, amp, omp, and empt


Explaining the exploitation of explicit expletives

Do words have “bad apple” effects on other words by sound resemblance? Mmmmmaybe. If they do, one possible case is the subject of my latest article on The Week:

How did ‘expletive,’ ‘explicit,’ and ‘exploit’ become such sleazy words?




You can see the glint on the wall, a tingle on your retina, a tongue of light vibrating like the long tine of a tuning fork – a simple toning luminescence alighting lonely, lasting only a moment, not lingering. A gleam, a glimmer, a glancing glow, just a glimpse on the glassy glazing. Something you think you see for a moment, a movement, a brief brightness, as semi-soft and sudden as [g] and as light and liquid as [l].

There are so many words to do with light and shining things that start with gl. They don’t all come from the same source; they just all shine with the same brief light, that verbal glint of the gl phonaestheme. We choose the words we prefer, and we shape the words we choose. Language is a performance, and sometimes we like to do a little dance of the tongue and the sound to give a more vivid sense of what we’re describing – and when we do, we may prefer known choreography. We lean towards a gl for light, perhaps, or a sw for rapid motion or a sn for the mouth or nose. Then we pitch the vowel for effect: big and blazing as in glare, soft and cool as in glow, dark as in gloom, bright and shining as in gleam, medium and flat and hard as in glass, light and short as in glint… The final [t] adds to the shortness, too.

This word glint actually came from an older word glent, which basically meant – and came from the same Germanic root as – glance as in both ‘look quickly’ and ‘quickly bounce or strike aside’. The verb glint was well in use by the 1700s, but the noun glint waited until the 1800s to be glimpsed, although it glitters in common usage now.

It’s a word I think of more often than some. Not that I am exceedingly prone to having a glint in my eye (or perhaps I am, I don’t know; I don’t look at my own eyes); I simply see the glint on the wall as I wait for the subway at Eglinton station, flashing half-noticed before my eyes and fading back into the covering illumination, gentle but shifting and lambent – no, glimmering, barely superliminal.

A more delectable dictionary

Imagine a cookbook that only gave the ingredients for each recipe, with no instructions on how to put them together. Many dictionaries are like that: nothing but bare-bones denotative definitions for the words.

Now imagine a cookbook that included not just the instructions, not just different variants on how you can make the recipe, not even just menu suggestions and beverage matching suggestions, but also other recipes it would go with or remind you of or definitely not go with, and even things the food could or would make you think of – other dishes it would remind you of, other times and places and people.

I would like to have a dictionary that does all that for words.

Of course much of that is individual. Every word is one of Proust’s Madeleines, a key to places you have heard it and seen it and used it before. The way it sounds and how you feel about those sounds will provoke you differently from how it provokes others. But there are several aspects of a word’s extended meaning that users will have in common. Most of them show up in one kind of dictionary or another, but not all, and not all in the same place. Let’s look at how a dictionary that covers a fuller ambit of meaning and effect would handle… let’s say the words dude and fellow.


An important dimension of words is what they say about the speaker, the hearer, the subject, and the relation between them – what effect the speaker is trying to have on the hearer and what he or she is saying about what’s going on between them and any third party spoken of.

dude: Casual, informal. Friendly or mildly contemptuous, depending on overall relationship constructed. As an emphatic vocative, expressing some kind of amazement within a pointedly informal frame. (Read this good article by J.J. Gould for more.)

fellow: Intended to be neutral, but can be more formal, often with a taste of condescension.


Register is a key concept in sociolinguistics: your choice of vocabulary and syntax bespeaks a specific situation – it’s like putting on different clothes for different places and activities: clubbing, visiting family, working at the office, working in a hospital, etc. Words are known by the company they keep. Most dictionaries won’t go beyond saying something is formal, or colloquial, or medical jargon, if they go that far. But there is always more that can be said.

dude: Tends to be laddish, often with a sense of drug, surfer, or frat-boy culture; cowboy speech is also possible. Cannot be used for formal registers, except in archaic senses (meaning dandy or greenhorn).

fellow: Broadly usable, but in youthful and casual contexts may sound old-fashioned or formal. Suitable for friendly or pseudo-friendly versions of more formal speech. As a title (e.g., Fellow of the Royal Society), suitable for the most formal speech.


Many words have well-known travelling companions – common collocations, as linguists say. These are a word’s circle of close friends. There are dictionaries of collocations, often meant for students of English to help them know how to match their ties and socks, so to speak; there are also corpus databases that list words that tend to show up more often with them. Here are some results (mutatis mutandis) taken from www.wordandphrase.info:

dude: cool, fucking, sorry, funny, awesome, skinny, tall, like, weird, straight, ranch, dude, surfer, shit, fuck, chick, Chicano

fellow: senior, young, old, little, poor, visiting, postdoctoral, fine, nice, honorary, research, craft

Cultural references (including quotations)

Some words have the ability to call forth films or books or historical moments. Berliner can make a person think of Kennedy; cheeseburger can make many people think of endearing kittens with captions; frankly can call up Gone with the Wind. Traditional sources such as Bartlett’s should be complemented with current culture resources such as knowyourmeme.com and the auto-complete in Google searches (which can also be good for collocations). Note that fellow (noun) may arguably call forth references to fellow (adjective).

dude: Jeff Bridges as “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski (quote: “The Dude abides”); Dude, Where’s My Car? (movie); “Dude Looks Like a Lady” (song)

fellow: “Hail fellow, well met” (Jonathan Swift); “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” (Shakespeare); “fellow traveller” (mid-20th-century euphemism for Communist sympathizer); “Write me as one who loves his fellow-men” (Leigh Hunt, “Abou Ben Adhem”); “my fellow Americans” (standard in US political speeches)


Etymology is not inherent in our experience of a word; many people are quite oblivious to where their words come from, even as many – often some of the same – have the mistaken idea that a word’s “true” meaning is determined by its “original” meaning. But if you have an idea of a word’s origins, it will influence how you think of the word. This is true whether your idea is accurate or inaccurate. The words picnic and nitty-gritty are poisoned for many people who have false beliefs about their origins; the same people would never use bulldoze again if they knew where it came from – but most of them don’t. Many dictionaries supply etymological information, so I invite you to look it up on your own! And you will find that sometimes not all that much is known.

Rhymes and other echoes

Words will make us think of other words. Not just synonyms, which thesauruses and some dictionaries handily provide. And not just rhymes, which have their own dictionaries. There are other echoes that may contribute in some measure to the effect of a word – words that the word has some resemblance to in sound or appearance. Some non-rhyme examples:

dude: dud, dead, dad, deed, pube, dada, dildo, doobie, redo, stupid

fellow: fallow, follow, fuller, filler, fell, fail, allow, hello, willow, well, low, flow, cellophane


And then there’s the issue of the aesthetic effects of sound qualities, still a bit controversial, but some effects are well known, such as the association of high front vowels with smaller things.

dude: The main vowel sound is a low, hollow sound (it has the lowest resonances of all the vowel sounds), often associated with dullness and stupidity; the d sounds are not as crisp as t sounds but are on the tip of the tongue, which makes them comparatively light.

fellow: The e is fairly open and bright, while the l is soft and liquid, and the f is the quietest of the fricatives; the final ow is darker and more withdrawn but allows sustain.

Obviously a dictionary that included all of this would be rather thick, and would take a long time to put together. Some of it might benefit to some extent from a wiki-style approach, though one does have to be careful. But any added attention to these aspects of how a word communicated would help us all be more fully conscious and engaged users of the language – and would surely make our words more delectable.

What’s “mor”?

My latest article for TheWeek.com ventures into phonaesthetics – specifically, why some of the most evil names in fiction have a little something “mor” in them:

Why is the ‘mor’ in ‘Voldemort’ so evil-sounding?

Voldemort, Mordor, Moriarty — exploring literature’s most sinister syllable


Visual: A short word, six letters, but with some vertical. It has an overall trend from upper left, with the f ascender, through the lower r and s mixed with the dotted i and high k, to lower right on the y descender. It has verticals, a cross-bar, curves, a hump, a dot, and diagonals: nary a thing missing in its quick frolic through typographical shapes.

In the mouth: It launches with the erupting embouchure of [fr], which may have voicelessness spreading from the [f] onto the [r] to make a sound like a rocket or the “sending” sound in Mac Mail. The lips then pull back in two stages: neutral for the first vowel, then pulling back wider at the end – after the tongue has hissed off the tip with [s] and kicked off the back with [k]. If it’s a rocket, it’s one that quickly launches through stages and goes off out of sight almost before you see it.

Etymology: Frisky (adjective) comes from frisk (noun), which comes from frisk (verb), which comes from frisk (adjective, obsolete), which comes from… um, there are two possible options. One is that it’s from the Germanic root that gives us fresh (and modern German frisch, which means the same thing). The other is that it’s from Middle French frique ‘lively, smart’, which in turn comes from Germanic. Either way it’s from Germanic and has danced around rather a lot, including looping a full circle from frisk adjective to frisky adjective like a dog chasing its tail.

Collocations: Often you feel frisky or are feeling frisky (never mind groovy), and may be particularly frisky; if you are frisky you are also likely young and may be a pup or a colt or even a goat (but not so likely, it seems, a kid).

Overtones: The word starts with the frothy fresh [fr], which shows up in a variety of words, including a fair few that are well served by saliva spraying forth from the mouth: fracas, frappé, fraught, fray, frazzle, freak, fresh, friction, frizzy, frolic, frosh, frothy, and frustration, not to mention frith. It then sharpens that feeling (like adjusting the nozzle on a hose from spray to jet) with the risky, which also smacks of whisky, whisk, brisk, and perhaps mist and disk and maybe even crispy. And if you look you can see the sky.

And then there’s that other common sense of frisk, first seen in the late 1700s: to manually search someone’s person by going through their clothes etc. while they’re still wearing them. I suppose if you were to do a similar patdown on your paramour he or she might find it rather frisky. Anyway, it’s directly derived from the verb frisk meaning ‘frolic, be frisky’, at least as far as anyone can see. And it may lurk in the background when this word skips across the lawn of your mind.

Semantics: Picture a puppy, especially a Labrador puppy. A little ball of energy. Incessantly wanting to play. Frolicsome. Wagging the tail with the whole body. Jumping up, licking, barking, running around. Frisky. Almost too much to handle. But happy!

Of course, anything or anyone particularly playful can be “frisky.” But among humans, it seems especially to connote a particularly sexual inclination: for puppy love substitute concupiscence – but you can retain much of the other described behaviour, if in some respects figuratively.