Daily Archives: August 5, 2011


Following on my note on unctuousness, Jim Taylor wrote that, for its wonderfully rich sound, he prefers oleaginous. He directed my attention to a limerick:

There was an old man of Calcutta
Who coated his tonsils with butta
Which altered his snore
From a thunderous roar
To a soft oleaginous mutta.

We can see, in this poem and in usages such as “Elvis’s tame musical taste vacillates between gospel standards and the oleaginous hits of Dean Martin” (from Vanity Fair, November 2001), that, like unctuous, oleaginous is often used figuratively.

But not always. It can easily be applied literally, as in this bit from the Tatler (July 1993): “Confit of duck with bean cassoulet includes a tasty and suitably oleaginous duck but bland beans.” Or this from the July 1915 Science: “A picture of trilobites and other oleaginous Cambrian crustaceans.”

For all three quotes I thank the OED. They all have something else in common: they are written with a particularly good feel for the sounds and the mouth movements. Just say it slowly: “suitably oleaginous duck but bland beans.” Love the lissome and occasionally crunchy alliteration of the Science sentence. This is a word that makes for a modern dance of the tongue and jaw.

It’s different from unctuous, to be sure. That word sticks and requires quite the effort to pull the mouth open, and it doesn’t open very far. Oleaginous is more like walking through a pool of olive oil. (You can see it coming slowly, like a distant oily warning.) The jaw opens smoothly, the tongue following behind before lightly tapping back at the tip. The /l/ is a liquid, and it’s palatalized here too. It seems almost absorbed into the flow – how close this word is to “Oh, yeah!” (Or “Oh, yeah, genius!”)

And such a vowel movement! But also vowels on the page. All five standard vowel letters show up, and o is there twice. But the only letter that disappears in pronunciation is the second o – otherwise, each one stands for a sound: “o-le-a-gi-n(o)us”.

This word makes me think of Olean, a city in New York State, but for most people it’s likely to bring to mind, well, oil. The ol(e) shows up here and there in words with oily senses. And well it should. It comes from Latin olea “olive tree” (whence much oil), and the aginous from a Latin suffix of relation.

You may or may not like this word, depending on your feelings about oil; at least it does not have quite the negative connotations of unctuous. I do like oil, in sensible measure, and olive oil in particular. But I also like this word just a little better for the verbal playfulness it seems to encourage, and just now for leading me to this quote from the book True Colours: “After wondering for the gazillionth time whether Dick Suris, the oleaginous, slimetudinous political consultant to Jack Stanton, was bugging our little power retreat…”

Slimetudinous! What a perfectly cromulent word.