chicest

She sashayed down the street wearing the nicest smile and the chicest clothes.

He saw her sneaking out the back with the cheekiest grin and the chicest hat.

She was so sleek and chic. In fact, she was the sleekest and chicest.

So tell me, now: how is chicest pronounced? And did you readily read it correctly the first time you saw it? Of the sentences above, does the second prime the pronunciation better than the first does? I presume the third does best…

Well, the world of fashions and the fashions of words produce some odd matches sometimes. We do like to borrow words from other languages, and for a long time French was the language to which we turned for words for fashion, food, and the hallmarks of high society. French had – to some extent still has – cachet. Of course we can say something is stylish, but when we say it’s chic, it has that flirty, insouciant air of the French fashion, and it also has a sense – no doubt thanks to the sound of the word – of being sleek, catchy, perhaps even a little cheeky, but in a chi-chi way.

So we imported this tidy little French dress, this coquettish fascinator of a word: chic. And we kept the spelling, because we do that, and because chic really does have a smart, chic look to it (with the smart curls of the c’s at start and end, and the ch that’s said “sh” – nonstandard pronunciations have more cachet – and it ends not in the blocky English k but in the cute coy curve of c). If we spelled it sheek, would it work? Gaaah. No, darling, no. (Never mind that chic may have been borrowed from German Schick ‘skill’. It also may not have been. And in its current form and meaning it’s French.)

But it’s an adjective susceptible to gradation. And therein lies the problem. We allow suffixation for comparatives and superlatives on short words: er and est. But English orthography can be rather obnoxious, especially when there’s a c involved. Chicest is easy to say – really no problem at all; it comes quite naturally to the tongue. It has a nice exchange of fricatives and stops, all voiceless: /ʃikɛst/ – it sounds like she kissed. It’s like a tap-shoe slide or a bit of snare brush and high-hat on the drum kit. But when you spell it out, it looks like a typo or repronunciation for choicest.

We appropriated a bit of foreign fashion, but when we tried to match it to our local accessories, well, it just didn’t give the chicest look… Edgy, maybe. And it sounds good. But hmm.

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