Daily Archives: March 22, 2009

pulchritude

To my eyes, this is a rather ugly word. It brings to the eyes broken patterns of pulp, mulch, rude, punch, pull… In sound it tosses in a couple of the allophonic effects in English that non-English-speakers are apt to find unpleasant or vulgar: our aspiration of syllable-initial stops (the puff of air after the p that makes this like p’hulk) and our velarization of l – the tongue in an inverse arch, touching at the tip and raising at the back, like a stretching cat, raised even farther to the point of a voiceless choking by the following k. But this is not a word for some rude hulk; it signifies beauty, by grace of the Romans using pulcher to mean “beautiful” (perhaps they read Rosamunde Pilcher in a pull-chair? except that the ch is, of course, [k], and Pilcher was born in 1924). And so, by association with its sense, it manages to pull off at least the effect of a lace frill on a purse-sized pug or a set of long lashes with thick mascara on a wizened doyenne. And if you don’t focus too much on the aesthetics of the word’s form, you can certainly use it as an erudite-sounding compliment – but only if the hearer knows what it means. If she doesn’t, you could end up wearing Krug on your Versace, Taittinger on your Jones New York, or at least Freixenet on your Freeman’s.

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