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!