gasp

You are sitting alone at home in the late evening, staring at your computer screen, when something sends a sudden chill down your spine. A bit of news you read on the web? Or an unknown visitor dripping cold water on your back?

You’re watching TV, a live leaders’ debate before an election, when someone says something disarmingly frank… or utterly stupid. Maybe “Of course we don’t want a free press.” Or maybe “Don’t worry your pretty little head.”

You dive into a swimming pool. You dive deep. Quite deep. You’re swimming down there, holding your breath, swimming, going upward, swimming, still under the surface, holding your breath, how deep can you be, um, are you actually moving up? Swim, come on, swim up, come on, can’t hold your breath forever, where is that surface where is and your head breaks through to air —

You’ve found a new romantic interest, and you’re in a secluded place… wondering how far it will go… and you find out when your lover touches you just… there…

What, in each of these moments, does your mouth do? What do your lungs do? What sound do you seem to be making?

Is not gasp one of the most perfectly expressive words there are? The tongue unblocks the back, the mouth gapes to let air through, then like a wave it closes again, washing at the tongue tip and stopping at the lips. A round intaking gesture.

But a sudden, grasping one! You may be inhaling deeply, but it’s sure not a yawn. Well, not in English, anyway. In the original Scandinavian source, that’s what it meant, and in modern Scandinavian languages the word it has become still means that – Swedish gäspa, for instance (which is said like “yes, Pa”): yawn.

In English, that yawn has come to a startled awakening and realized its full expressive potential. It has also accumulated expectations, images, and clichés: the crowd gave a collective gasp, an audible gasp; a gasp of surprise, horror, pain, or pleasure was heard – or perhaps it was a strangled or stifled gasp. But more than anything else, it comes down to that echoing last gasp.

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