wlat

Wlat? What? Or what with the hump of the h cut off? But that’s just wrong.

This word makes me think of the time I was working in a bookstore and had to take down a customer’s name. She was a middle-aged British woman; she said something that sounded to me like “(a) LOX” or “(th’) LOX!” This made for confusion in transcribing it, leading to her exclamation, in her Thatcherite accent, “You’ve got it wrong. All wrong.” Finally it became apparent that she was saying “(w’) LOX!!” – that is to say, Willox. I still recall her excessively high-contrast pronunciation with a certain amount of wlat.

So wlat means… well, think of the sound a person who is disgusted past the point of nausea makes. “Wlat,” perhaps? Ah, why not? I can’t say exactly where this word – meaning “loathing, disgust, nausea” – came from before it appeared in Old English as wlætta. It’s actually been out of use in English for quite a long while. As has its related verb, wlate (“feel wlat”). Even wlatsome (“provoking wlat”) is disused now. I mean, yes, we have loathsome, but while that makes the mouth pucker, wlatsome gives such a nice expression of appalled disgust to go with the wet smack…

Don’t you think its absence leaves the language a little flat? Sometimes extreme sentiments are better served by extreme words. Why not be flamboyant from time to time? If you wish to tickle the ivories of your teeth with electric lexis, make like Wladziu – Wladziu Valentin Liberace, I mean. Be a little outrageous when you’re more than a little outraged. Of course, Liberace was delightful, but, really, so is this word, in its high-dudgeon and phonologically confounding way. You can be like Wladziu when expressing wlat. Indeed, you can use ancient words as though the world were your fantasy or fairy-tale… if wlat makes you dizzy, be a Wlat Disney. Say not just “Blah!” but “Wlat!”

If you can make yourself say it, of course. The juxtaposition of the glide and the liquid is something one just doesn’t do… in English, anyway. I mean, it’s not physically impossible at all; if you hold a /w/ all you need to do is raise just your tongue tip to touch the roof of the mouth, then unround the lips, to move into /l/. We just happen to think of /w/ with an off-glide after, which would make /wl/ more like one of a score of sore swallows as one tries to drink a glass of water as slowly as possible. Or perhaps some repellent medicine.

But we can safely say that if the word had made it to the present day in continuing usage, the /w/ – and perhaps the written w – would be gone. So isn’t it nice that the musty old treasure chest of old literature and the foxing pages of the OED have retained it with its ancient form so that we may blow off the dust, wipe away the cobwebs, but perhaps keep the patina, and use it with relish in asperity like a battle-axe long kept in the family – hacking off the hump of the h and hearing if fall with a wet splat? Displaying defiance doubly through unintelligibility and sheer phonemic inappropriateness?

“I make you feel what?” “You make me feel wlat.” “What?” “Wlat.”

3 responses to “wlat

  1. Hmmm…”wlatsome” –> “flotsam”…?

  2. Rather reminds me of teaching my daughter to read when we came to the word ‘want.’ Wuh AUNT’ she would say as if it had two syllables. We finally got the w and the ant together but it still came out sounding like can’t or pant or actually ant. “I can see it right there, mom, it says ant!” She became quite wlat with the word and we finally had to conclude that in English there are words that sound the way they sound no matter what they look like and we must just memorize them and move on. We hadn’t gotten anywhere close to cough and laugh and through yet. Wlatting spelling!

    • Funny when you mention the issue with pronouncing “aunt” like “ant” as is commonly accepted. Look at my name – august, auburn, autumn, auger, caution, taut, Aubin…aunt.

      I’ve never been able to bring myself to pronounce it “ant.” Sorry, caun’t do it!

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