It’s interesting, really, how a small change in sound can make a large change in meaning. Consider what you would think if I were to say “She had an elfin look.” Now consider what you would think if I were to say “She had an elephant look.” (You might think “Look where?”)
Really, although the spelling of the two words is a bit more different, there’s really no more than a /t/ at the end and an almost-not-there vowel after the /l/ to distinguish them. Well, of course, that vowel also makes a difference in the quality of the /l/ – say the words at normal speed and you’ll see: in elephant the /l/ touches with the tip of the tongue, while the back is not much raised, whereas in elfin the tongue most likely doesn’t touch the tip but it does raise the back. Another effect this has is to make the /f/ feel more like it’s part of the first syllable – as though it’s a snip out of don’t get yourself in trouble.
Well, anyway, this is a compact word with some spindly letters, and that matches two things elves are often thought of as being: spindly – though fat elves have been imagined (Clement Clarke Moore, in his famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a. “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” calls St. Nick “a right jolly old elf”) – and small. But even apart from Moore’s St. Nick, there has been a trend in envisioning elves as larger types, thanks in large part to J.R.R. Tolkien, whose elves are a long-lived, long and lean humanoid race, suitable for portrayal by Orlando Bloom and Cate Blanchett (man, if there’s not something for you in those two, I don’t know what-all). The result is a bifurcation, as people who aren’t fantasy geeks probably think of Santa’s elves and Disney’s elves, invariably small and with matching voices, while the Tolkien-influenced are more likely to think of them as larger and elegant.
But small or tall, elves have a look, and that look involves angularity of ears, eyes, cheekbones… Call someone elfin and it likely means they have that kind of angular look, perhaps with a bit of impishness and probably a low body-mass index.
Elves also have a certain modus operandi, and that involves sprightliness and spritelikeness, a kind of mischievousness that is a step above kittenishness. All of these qualities would seem to go better with elven than with elfin, given the angularity and vibrancy of the v; the effect of the f is a softening of sound and a featherlike flip of a letter, adding a lesser threat and perhaps greater femininity (ironic if so, since elven was originally the female of elf).
The one thing that is sure about elfin is that it conveys a taste of magic. After all, it can make an elephant disappear with just a slight change in sound… and it can come and go as it pleases: no need to make itself invisible; it can merely switch to Spanish and that’s the end of it: el fin.
Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting elfin.
And thanks to all who send in suggestions. If I haven’t gotten to yours yet, don’t worry, it’s in the queue – I have a backup of several dozen, and of course I like to pick one I have an idea for each day.