ecchymotic

You want an author with a taste for the words of the English language and how they fit together? I recommend Vladimir Nabokov.

Yes, Nabokov, that great nabob of books, who grew up in Russia – though he could write English before he could Russian. Nabokov, author of Lolita, which, aside from treating a topic that is still shocking today (and incidentally providing a useful eponym to certain kinds of classified ads and websites), opens with a little word tasting on Lolita. (I’m not going to quote it here. Go read it, for heaven’s sake.) A man whose prodigious vocabulary was matched by an ability to string these marvellous ingredients together into some of the most sapid sentences ever set in type. He truly squeezes the juice out of words to make the ink of his page.

It is in a work of his that I confess I have yet to read that you will find today’s word. I was talking with a fellow regular passenger on the bus recently, a school teacher, and she was reading his book Speak, Memory, in which he described his governess’s hands thus (you can read a longer quote at the blog Riverside Rambles):

In our childhood we know a lot about hands since they live and hover at the level of our stature; Mademoiselle’s were unpleasant because of the froggy gloss on their tight skin besprinkled with brown ecchymotic spots.

I want you to read that whole sentence out loud. Do it carefully. Savour the words. Read it out again. Find the sound patterns and the rhythms. The sounds feed forward and back like sephiroth: live – hover – level – stature; froggy gloss versus tight skin; not sprinkled but, for rhythm and to foreshadow brown, besprinkled; the echo in ecchymotic spots; the rhythm of that whole last clause: Mademoiselle’s were unpleasant because of the froggy gloss on their tight skin besprinkled with brown ecchymotic spots. You see? It holds a three-beat rhythm that it interrupts at the most important parts with a shorter, punchier cut rhythm. (I cannot resist suggesting that Nabokov may have been extra sensitive to rhythms since the Anglophone world is full of people who say his name with the wrong one – it’s really Vladimir Nabokov [with the final v said “f”], not Vladimir Nabokov.)

In all that, there is really just one word that most readers will not know. They can tell from context what it must mean – and just as the spots are icky or yecchy, the word, too, is the yecchiest, stickiest one there, and it has a sort of unappealing peeling ugliness. The cc is like eczematous scales (though ecchymosis is not eczema); its heart holds most of chyme (related, as we will see, though stomach juices are not involved here) and mote (though an ecchymosis is not quite that either). It starts with ec and ends with tic – but while the usage of language here may be ecstatic, there is nothing ecstatic about ecchymosis. Nor, in spite of the rhymes, anything erotic or psychotic. Exotic, perhaps.

But if you want to squeeze the juice out of this word, well, you have an etymological basis. Ecchymotic is formed from its noun ecchymosis, which comes from Greek ἐκ ek “out” plus χυμός khumos “juice” – the Greek verb ἐκχυμοῦσθαι ekkhumousthai meant “let or force out blood”.

Which means that the spots on the hands of this governess, Mademoiselle O, were not liver spots or freckles; they were hematomas, or at least something caused by the rupture of capillaries. Nabokov was fluent in French – indeed, he learned it at the hand of Mademoiselle O – so he certainly will have known the French word ecchymose, which means “bruise”. Which is what ecchymosis generally is. It’s something caused by ruptured blood vessels under the skin (but a larger spot than you get with petechia), and that’s going to be a bruise as a rule. The blood pools into the tissue, phagocytes and macrophages eat the red cells, and the ruddy hemoglobin is converted to bilirubin, which is blue-green; that is then converted to hemosiderin, which is brown. And the process is converted into the word bruise, which is typically black and blue, or the word ecchymosis, which is purple.

Nabokov will also have known very well the common French word for ecchymosis: bleu. A bruise is a “blue”. Now read again what he wrote: brown ecchymotic spots. So these were not fresh bruises; they were blood that was long pooled there. I am inclined to suspect that these were really telangiectasias, little spider veins, that had burst. Manual aneurysms. But there’s more to writing a good sentence than just choosing the most clinically correct word. If you want to construct a succubus of prose, ready to seduce your reader, you must feel the flow of the sounds. It is not that your prose must be immaculate; it is that it must have the spots in all the right places.

I should mention, as a postscript, that I showed the school teacher – a woman named Reet of Estonian extraction – my book, Songs of Love and Grammar, and she bought a copy. And, oh! By the way! It’s now available on Amazon.com – though if you can get it through Lulu.com, that’s better.

One response to “ecchymotic

  1. No, I’m pretty sure Nabokov’s use of ecchymotic was accurate. His description fits what I have on my hands. They could be called purple, based on a close inspection, but by contrast with the surrounding skin, and especially after a few days, they could be described as brown. And telangiectasias look nothing like these.

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