“Wine comes out nose.”
This is the first definition (of sorts) I can find for gsnerk. It’s a word that was invented several years ago by a wonderfully funny fellow editor, Karen Black (who changed planes of existence abruptly a bit over three years ago, leaving a brace of cats).
The definition can be extended to any other fluid coming out your nose – for instance, coffee, all over your computer keyboard. The obvious stimulus is something unexpected and very funny. You can gsnerk your coffee; you can clean gsnerk off your keyboard. It has that flexibility that we expect of playful English.
But it does not refer to what, in the entertainment biz, is called a spit take. There is no spurting from the mouth involved. That, as was established clearly in discussions on the listserv of the Editors’ Association of Canada in 2008, is splurt.
I do think some people are more prone to gsnerks and others to splurts. I can’t think of a time I have actually gsnerked, but once when I was in grade 6 my brother managed to get me to splurt my milk all over the table at supper (by making a reference to something very funny from earlier in the day). My parents were displeased with him.
Both of those words, gsnerk and splurt, combine onomatopoeia with phonaesthetics. Which is to say that they aim to sound like what they refer to, but they also make use of established sound patterns for referring to certain things (sound patterns that themselves may have onomatopoeic value). The /spl/ onset is often associated with gushing or spraying – gobs or droplets of wetness: splatter, splash, splodge, even perhaps explode. Words having to do with the nose or nasal things, on the other hand, often have a /sn/ onset: snoot, snout, snot, snicker, snort… To which add the velar /g/ to involve the swallowing part of the mouth. Everything that comes out by the nose goes past where /g/ and /k/ are said; everything that comes out by the mouth goes past where /spl/ and /t/ are said.
But splurt hasn’t caught on as much among my editorial colleagues. There is something especially catchy about gsnerk. The fact that it has an opening consonant cluster that is theoretically not allowable in English is certainly a catchy factor – indeed, it gives it a nice syllabic ambiguity: less than two syllables but more than one. It just seems as awkward as what it names. And for that reason it doesn’t look so much like words you already know or suspect to exist in English, so it stands out more. And it starts with that g with its look of knotting and its descender that might make you think of a throat, and blows through three x-height letters to end with the éclat of the k shape, shooting up and ahead. And, really, it just sounds right.
I note that gsnerk also has a bit of an accidental Austrian oenological air to it: the German ge prefix becomes, in Viennese dialect, a simple g where it can, giving us a word like Gspritzn, which refers to an Austrian version of a spritzer. Which is, I think, not something you’d want to gsnerk.