Daily Archives: February 10, 2010

brachydactyly

Oh no! Have you heard about Megan Fox? It’s terrible! She’s got this…

Who’s Megan Fox? Oh, you know, that sexpot who looks kinda like Angelina Jolie. Anyway, if you look at her thumb, it’s, like, really stubby! She’s got this condition! It’s called, uh, barky, bracky, uh…

Brachydactyly. Yeah, that’s it. So that’s really nasty, right? What does it mean?

Well, brachy is from the Greek for “short” and dactyl is from the Greek for “finger” (or “digit”). And the y is a suffix that in this case indicates a quality or condition. It shows up in words from company to courtesy to infamy to poesy to idolatry to, well, syndactyly, polydactyly, brachydactyly

So anyway, it means she has one or more short digits.

But while saying “short-digit-ism” or its equivalent might be fine for speakers of some other languages, it’s of course far too prosaic and plebeian in English. If it’s medical, technical, high-end, formally defined, et cetera, it really helps to have a nice polysyllabic formed from Latin and/or Greek roots.

So we have brachydactyly, which is, after all, a defined condition – or, rather, about a dozen defined conditions (indicated by letters and numbers, e.g., A1, D) with varying manifestations and severity; it may be a part of a syndrome, and it can also be a symptom of some other conditions. For most people who have it, it’s perhaps a bit unaesthetic (Megan Fox apparently had a thumb double – somebody else’s hand – for a closeup in a recent cell phone ad), but nothing more; in severe cases, it can be debilitating; if it’s part of a syndrome or another condition, that syndrome or condition could have some very bad effects that much outweigh the problem of a stubby thumb or toe.

But, now, let’s taste this word a bit more. The first thing we notice is that it’s a long word for something markedly short. We can also note that a dactyl – be it a finger or a three-beat metrical foot – has three parts, whereas this has five (syllables), made of a trochee plus – yes – a dactyl, peaking in the middle with the stressed dac.

Probably the next thing you will notice is those three y‘s. It’s as though one is looking at one’s claviform thumb and saying “Why, why, why?” There are five ascenders to go with those three descenders. This word sticks out in all directions – as though it has seven digits. And in the middle of that it has the ac and ac again, and the one other x-height letter, r. Thirteen letters in all… And quite a few words hidden in them, some rather arch, so you may want to be chary.

And how can it be at all pretty? The two non-y vowels are both that flat /æ/ sound – brachy rhymes with tacky, hacky, lackey, and assorted other generally unpretty words. The whole word echoes with “Yakety yak! Don’t talk back!” and maybe with Hacky Sack (the playing of which may be impaired by brachydactyly). It has a clicky rhythm like a skeleton tapdance, too. And it starts with this brach that looks like it has a jaw-jutting “ch” but gives that hard back [k] instead – dissonance right from the beginning, and an echo of brackish to add to it. As for the rest, you’ll probably think of pterodactyl before you think of dactylography. The yly helps that – it looks like a bat hanging upside down.

But for all that, brachydactyly is endearing to me. Why? Because I’m sure it’s the longest and most technical-sounding word many entertainment reporters will have to say all year. And they can’t even find an acronym or abbreviation to say instead!

pinchbeck

As much as I have reason to like names ending in beck – as my own does – I find this one a bit less than likeable. It’s the pinch, certainly, which induces a distinct physical recollection of discomfort. English got the word pinch from French pincer, and it has taken the tightness of inch (a small space, and we can see how it tightens cinch too) and blended it with the sharpness of pin. Its tone is not helped by such collocations as penny pincher and in a pinch. (Nor is it helped by nurses who say, just before sticking a needle in you, “You’ll feel just a little pinch.”)

The pinch in pinchbeck does not actually come originally from our word pinch, though (not that that matters much for the user who can still see it sitting there); Pinchbeck is the name of a place in Lincolnshire, England – a marshy area that has pumps keeping it suitably drained, and canals cutting up the countryside. Its name comes from Old English for either “minnow stream” or “finch ridge”; it was named a millennium ago, and has been inhabited ever since, so no one’s completely sure anymore, and in form it could have come from either.

But it matters less where pinchbeck comes from than who came from Pinchbeck: a progenitor of Christopher Pinchbeck, a 17th- and 18th-century London clockmaker. He was a very clever sort; he made a musical clock for Louis XIV and an organ for the Great Mogul. He also came up with an alloy of copper and zinc that looked rather nice and somewhat like gold, and that alloy has since borne his name. He used it to make affordable ornaments and jewelry for travelling (highway robbery was common in the literal sense in those days; now it’s what you pay jewellers). But some other jewellers got into the practice of passing it off as actual gold, and so Pinchbeck’s good name became tarnished by way of the devaluation of his eponym – pinchbeck has come to mean something cheap, tawdry, or counterfeit, and in fact by scarcely half a century after Christopher Pinchbeck’s death his name was being extended metaphorically to devalue all manner of things and properties, concrete and abstract.

Perhaps he should have seen it coming. Already by 1600, 70 years before his birth, pinchback was used to refer to a miser, and the best part of a century before that, pynchbeke – which would in modern respelling be pinchbeck – was being used to mean “miserly”. Were the users psychic? Had the future been adumbrated to them through some cosmic mystery? No, the word came about through ordinary English compounding – pinch, the actual word, and then beck from back or beak, it’s not certain. But essentially the same miserly meaning was also conveyed by other pinch compounds: pinch-belly and even pinchfart. (Pinch your nose!) So he was in a bit of a pinch from the beginning, the beck notwithstanding.