Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0009.
Let’s play synonym substitution.
Game one: Peter Gabriel – a song: “Jar the Monkey.” Hmm. “Traumatise the Monkey.” Um, “Jolt the Monkey.” Tsk. “Apply an Electric Current to the Monkey.” Oh dear. No.
Game two: Gilbert and Sullivan – from another song: “Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp jolt.” Well… “…a short, sharp blow.” Yes, but… “…a short, sharp disturbance to the senses.” Oh, no. Really?
Game three: Casablanca – Captain Renault: “I’m appalled – appalled! – to find that gambling is going on in here.” Well, yes, but it’s not quite… “I’m surprised – surprised!” Well, Rick is the one surprised now. “I’m scandalized – scandalized!” Oh deeaaarr. “I’m taken aback – taken aback!” Seriously?
By now this shock of examples may have produced a shock of recognition (I will not say shock and awe, though). It should not be shocking, though, to note that synonyms are never quite exact substitutions. They have different shades of meaning, different ambits. And, quite importantly in some cases, they have different sounds.
Few of the alternatives to shock have anything close to its onomatopoeic effect. Jolt, perhaps, and maybe jar. But shock is more of a jolt than jolt, more jarring than jar. It slides in on a voiceless alveopalatal fricative, the same sound you use to hush another person or imitate escaping steam, a sound that, made emphatically, involves pursing the lips and showing the teeth in an aggressive, perhaps simian fashion. Then, after a brutally short low back vowel, just a transition from the release of the tongue at the front to the connection at the back, everything stops: air is blocked through the mouth and the nose, and the voice abruptly ceases. In fact, the voice cuts out a moment before the air flow stops. Short and sharp indeed.
Shock is the sound of a silverware drawer being slammed shut, of a sliding door cutting you off, of a sabre being sheathed, of curling rock knocking another or two sledges colliding or a hockey cross-check. It is not a crash; that starts with crack and fades off, like the sound of the word cosh. It is not a chop, which sounds like chop or chock. It is not a knock, which sounds like cock, or a pop, which sounds (of course) like pop. The word shop has a similar profile, as has shot, but listen how much more resonant that [k] is in the back. You come close with sock, and it is surely a shock to be socked in the jaw, but the fricative sliding into sock does not have the aggressive pursing of the lips and biting together of the front teeth. Perhaps the closest in sound is shook, an abrupt word for a frequentative action, but with a higher and hollower vowel.
Words do not have to sound like what they represent, of course; that fact should come as a shock to none. But when they do, it adds effect. And some words add effect by sounding like something related. Our verb and related noun shock come from an Old Germanic word that seems to be imitative, but shock of corn and shock of hair draw on one or two different Old Germanic words. There is nothing about them that presents a necessarily shocking image, and yet the word manages to convey a bunch as something a bit more like a bunch of exclamation points, just because it has that strong flavour of the more common shock, enhanced by the vividness of the sound.
Come, let’s play one more round of the game. Hamlet: “and by a sleep to say we end The heartache and the thousand natural impacts That flesh is heir to…” No, that’s not it at all… “the thousand natural collisions…” Not really… “the thousand natural indignities…” But there’s more and other to it… “the thousand natural jars…” Oh, heh heh. No, let it be shocks, naturally.