Monthly Archives: March 2009

slattern

Does this word have a misogynistic edge? Perhaps so, although it does at least embody the expectation that women are usually neat, clean, et cetera, in designating an exception to that. Men, it seems, are sloppy and dirty more as a matter of course, and so one is hard put to come up with an equivalent males-only word. To the word, anyway, if it’s not too distasteful: does it present a picture of a sleazy, sly or sullen slut peeping through spattered slats, with ladders in her hose and her slip in tatters, along with a smattering of other unflattering details? Phonaesthetics do aid the connotations. And if this word seems rather close to splatter, well it should: though they may or may not have arisen independently, splatter and this word’s source, the dialect verb slatter, are both imitative – onomatopoeic and generally phonaesthetic – words signifying much the same thing. From that comes slattern to refer to a woman of untidy habits (yes, indeed, why only a woman? but there you have an eye into British cultural history – this word has been applied to men, but only very rarely), and, as with the apparently unrelated (though again so similar!) slut, looseness of physical hygiene was extended quite readily to looseness of moral character, as of one whose mattress rattles in rentals as she natters… I leave further exploration of the unflattering patterns of sl words and the various effects available with att and ern to the reader as an exercise.

velleity

This word inspires in me a fleeting wish to seek out music sung by Elise Velle. Others my be more inclined to muse on acts of villainy or levity. But their lives lack vitality who linger at the level of velleity, which is veiled volition – a wisp of a will, a thought sans thelemite. The crossbow of desire is furnished, but velleity does not give the order to level it. That obscure object of desire, be it elle or it, notches in at v and takes root at y, but does the root lead to germination or does it wither on the vine? The e‘s are like heavy-lidded eyes, but is the ll a nose for business or simply a chimney through which impetus goes up in smoke? Thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and, as those condemned by Rousseau, we mistake velleity for resolve. This word has come to us little changed from Latin; its root is velle, verb: “will, wish.” Its euphony lives at the lips and alveolar ridge. It is pretty, perhaps, but rarely seen in action.

tentiginous

Aren’t you itching to know what this word means? Does it keep you on tenterhooks? Does it perhaps signify a genius in a tent? Someone who is an indigenous ten? Tense? Feeling an igneous twinge, at least a tinge? All gin and tentacles, tentatively touching us? The options may be a bit vertiginous. And pardon me if I seem a touch tendentious, but I want to cross the t‘s and dot the i‘s… and round the n‘s, I guess. This word seems to want two: it has two each of t, n, and i, and when you take those out you’re left with ego leading into us. So what does ego want of us? Well, like this word, it wants two. Boy, does it ever want to! It is seized with a fit of cupidity – of tentigo, an equally disused word, meaning “priapism” or simply whatever kind of “lust,” from the identical Latin word. And when you have tentigo, you tend to go… but isn’t it so much better than lentigo, even if it, too, means showing your true spots?

opprobrium

Would it be appropriate to say the experience of opprobrium is as pleasant as having your opposite probed? (Or, as probrium suggests, having a probe in your – oh, right, family readership.) Certainly the word has all the uptightness of probity with none of the redeeming moral character in its referent. If you’re wondering whether it’s related to opposite or probity, the answer is yes and no: yes in the op of opposite, which is from Latin ob “against,” and otherwise no. The pro in opprobrium is the same as in pro bono (the kind of legal favour you might need if you find yourself in opprobrium): “for” or “towards”; the brium comes from a root meaning “bear” and a Latin neuter case ending (and you’d better hope the judge in your case is neutral, given how public opinion is against you). The ten letters of this word give us two o‘s – oh-oh! glaring eyes? – and those two p‘s and a b, which look kind of like two thumbs down, one thumb up (is that a thumb pointing up? ooh…). The double bilabial-plus-r, with the um at the end, in North American speech (with the retroflex r‘s, as opposed to the gentle trills of the more British style) gives it a sound somewhat like a judge making an official cough followed by a throat clearing – and from there, of course, one proceeds to the sentence.

threshold

Quick: how many h‘s are in this word? OK, now how many h‘s do you say? If you said “three” to either, please play again, as the coffee cup rim says. We write it with two, but we only say [h] once in it – and the [h] we say isn’t written. After all, th and sh don’t have a pronounced [h] in them; the h simply pairs with the preceding letters to make fricatives for which we don’t have a single letter (in the case of the opening th, we used to have one, but then European movable type was brought in, and they didn’t have it, so we no longer had it either). OK, so next one: what has threshold to do with threshing? Answer: thresh – really the same word as thrash – referred first to trampling with the feet. This was done to grains to separate them out. Then someone got the bright idea of using flails to do the job, and the acting of threshing (or thrashing) came to be thought of as beating with the arms (with or without an implement, in the extended senses). But the door part was already named. And the hold? What hold? Do you see a hold after thresh? I don’t, just an old. It’s uncertain where the ending of this word came from – in Old English it’s scold or xold from the s onward, and Swedish and Danish make the word tröskel and tærskel – but it has nothing to do with holding. That’s just a bit of reanalysis (a.k.a. folk etymology). Now, thresh has a sound somewhat suited to threshing, with its voiceless fricatives like flails whistling through the air, but it doesn’t really sound like a doorsill to me. But the thing about a doorsill is that it’s a point of transition. Ah, you know: those points of constriction where people just love to pause, blocking the way of those behind them. Pause? Hold on a moment. Yes, that suits: it’s a place where you stop and hold. And in the more metaphorical sense of any sort of limen, hold conveys the suspension, or the point where things start to take hold. Do echoes of fresh or pressure – or threat – come into play? Perhaps they may. And with what other words does threshold often come out to play? Consciousness, device, element, logic, function, switching: all attach to make compounds. Other words often seen in its company: aerobic and lactate (ah, exercise! runners know those ones), cross and crossed, below, above, exceed, step, hearing, pain, across, low, high, certain… And quite a few more, obviously below my threshold for noting them. Below? Yes, the metaphor has become a vertical one, with no image left of the doorsill. It, too, has crossed some threshold, it seems.

writhe

Write this word in italics and you may see the w writhing in its spiral. The very juxtaposition of w and r at the beginning may invoke a mental entanglement: two sounds too similar to say in sequence. So we say the one, with its attendant lip-rounding, and think the other before it. And then the tongue writhes in the mouth, flopping like a fish from the retroflex [r] through the open [a] back to the press-up of [I], finally touching the teeth at the end. It starts like ride and rhyme (and write, right, and rite – or just almost if you do Canadian raising, which makes the diphthong start higher before a voiceless consonant) and rhymes with such nice words – blithe, kithe, tithe – but the lovely word it’s perhaps most like is the one it’s akin to: wreathe, and of course its noun wreath. It began (in Anglo-Saxon, straight from the Germanic) as a transitive, referring to twisting and turning, as in working a wreath; in Middle English it added the intransitive, which is the sense we normally use it for now. And how much less festive it has come to be. We need not blame its anagram wither anymore than its others, whiter and I threw. When, after all, do people writhe? In ecstasy, perhaps, but much more often in agony or pain. And what, other than human bodies, is writhing? A writhing, twisting mass of snakes completes the set of most common collocations for the gerund. I’ll take a wreath, thanks.

disgruntled

“So how come there’s no gruntled, huh?” Well, guess what: there is, disused as it may be. Just look in the Oxford English Dictionary. But don’t expect gruntle to mean the opposite of disgruntle: the dis is here (as more often in Latin formations but occasionally in Anglo-Saxon ones of dispersion or undoing) an intensifier and perhaps signifier of direction, not a negater. Grunt, the root, is an onomatopoeic word for that noise hogs make. The le is a frequentative suffix, as we see in suckle, sidle, and a number of other English words. So gruntle is “utter a low grunt” and, for people, “grumble, complain.” And disgruntle could be read as “cause to go gruntling away” – or, more plainly, “piss off,” a sense it’s had as long as it’s existed. The form works well enough with the sense: the grunting, grumbling sound (with that classic animal gr), combined with the negativity and hiss of dis, and the disintegrative echoes of dismantled. And what sort of person is most often said to be disgruntled? Employees – especially former employees – and workers (need I mention that they are archetypally postal workers)? But also customers, fans, students, and even officers and voters, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English. And we know that disgruntled people, especially former employees and postal workers, don’t always stop at mere grumbling and grunting. In fact, this word, over time, has taken on an ominous, even baleful tinge, so that its use even flippantly can make one feel like diving behind a desk.