Put the palm of your hand right in front of your mouth. Say skill. Now say kill. Do you notice a difference? Try still, then till. Now spill. Now pill. Feel it that time?
It’s a feature of English phonology that we aspirate our syllable-initial voiceless stops. What that means is that when a /p/, /t/, or /k/ is at the beginning of a syllable – the very beginning, not after /s/ – and especially when it’s at the beginning of a stressed syllable, we puff out a little breath of air, like a short /h/ added after it – actually, like devoicing the start of the vowel. We do this even if the stop is followed by a liquid (/r/ or /l/). Try it with tree and plea.
Most languages don’t do this. (It’s a good way to sound like an Anglophone when speaking Spanish or French, for instance.) In fact, in some languages, the two sounds (aspirated and unaspirated) are considered as different as /p/ and /b/. This is why, in a language such as Thai (when you see it transliterated into the Latin alphabet), you see things like ph and th that seem to be said like p and t.
One quite marked bit of evidence of these aspirations is the sound they make when you’re speaking into a microphone. Most of us have had an occasion at one time or another to discover what “popping the p” means, possibly by doing it ourselves and possibly by hearing it at someone’s wedding or a high-school assembly. And you may have noticed spongey things that go over microphones to help prevent this effect. What are those things called?
That’s what Stephen Fry said, or words to that effect, when he and Hugh Laurie were in a recording studio some years ago: What’s that thing called? And Laurie said that it’s called a spoffle.
Several years after that session, Laurie and Fry were in the studio again, and the engineer came over to the microphone and said he was just going to adjust the spoffle. The what? Laurie asked, incredulous. The engineer explained. Laurie laughed and declared that he had made the word up on the spot.
So there it is. It popped into his puckish pate and he spat it out. Stephen Fry says so in his book Paperweight, and why would we doubt his word? It’s a perfectly plausible explanation, and there’s no other proposed etymology.
But if it’s just a word he made up, then it’s not a real word, is it? Well, it is now. It’s an industry-standard term, even.
It’s simple. There was a thing that needed a word, and someone made one up. (Well, it’s also called a pop-shield, but, really, spoffle is better. Anyway, we know that just about any absurdity about language, confidently asserted, can be very convincing; there’s a lot of rubbish – and some rather good stuff, now and then – floating around out there just because someone decided it should be so.) And spoffle seems a perfectly suitable word for a soft baffle to muffle the pop and spit of aspirations, given its sound and the words it sounds like.
Most people, remember, are not all that aware of the various meats that go into the sausage that is a word, and don’t really think about them that much even when they do; they just bite in and see how it tastes. Would we have words like chocoholic if etymological morphology were a primary consideration for the average user? Every now and then a made-up word just sounds right. Like blurb. Or grawlix. Because while words don’t always wear their sources on their sleeves, they always have the flavour their sounds give them (unless you can’t hear them, of course). And sometimes a word just, you know, pops.