Daily Archives: December 1, 2009

scintilla

Lady Scintilla, scantily clad, strokes your skin with a scented nail till a thrill ascends your sacroiliac. But the skill of this scelerate Scylla is not in palliating sciatica. No, she slaps her cat-o’-nine-tails and says, “It’s not a sin till ah say it is!” But when the sparks finally fly, you see it was nothing at all… And when they escort her into court, the jury abjure any injury; there was not a scintilla of evidence.

Oooo… scintillating? As well it may be. Scintillating means, originally, “sparkling”; scintilla is the Latin word for “spark,” now pronounced in English with the c elided into the s. It is used most often (and in English always has been) to speak of minute amounts, or more particularly to deny the existence of even minute amounts. Lawyers like it best: when I ask the Corpus of Contemporary American English to list the top words (not including a) found within two of scintilla, the top six, in descending order, are of (overwhelmingly), evidence, not, one, proof, and doubt.

This is a word you can drop into a dry context, a flat assertion, to add a thrill, a titillation; it’s an electric eel of a word, the ll its gills, the dots of the i‘s the sparks it sends. There really is something to send chills in that illa; never mind Godzilla, think of Dies irae, dies illa, Solvet sæclum in favilla, Teste David cum Sibylla (see – on YouTube – Verdi and Mozart, for instance).

And yet its object is a mere spark. Ah, but such a divine spark! Divine, in this case, by dint of its absence. One does not find or discern a scintilla; it is like the curious incident of the dog in the night-time (as mentioned in Conan Doyle’s story “Silver Blaze”: the dog did nothing in the night-time; that was the curious incident). And so it is the whip that does not crack, and its silence is salient – and thrillingly injurious.