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May 20, 2008 8:45 AM   Subscribe

Ever notice how some words just sound like what they mean? Like how a distant star really does seem to sparkle. Words like mumble, twist, and squeamish. Jospeh Bottum describes them well: "They taste good in the mouth, and they seem to resound with their own verbal truthfulness... More like proper nouns than mere words, they match the objects they describe. Pickle, gloomy, portly, curmudgeon--sounds that loop back on themselves to close the circle of meaning. They're perfect, in their way." But he tries to coin a new term for them when some already exist.

These words are examples of sound symbolism, or phonesthesia, "the feeling of sound....in which families of words share a teeny snatch of sound and a teeny shred of meaning... Many words beginning with sn-, for example, have something to do with the nose, because you can almost feel your nose wrinkle when you pronounce it. They include words for things associated with the nose (sneeze, sniff, snore and Snuffleupagus) and for looking down your nose at someone (snarky, sneer, snicker, snippy, snooty). Another example: cl- for a cohesive aggregate or a pair of surfaces in contact: clam, clamp, clap, clasp, cleave, clench, cluster, etc."

Want more examples? Here is a dictionary of phonesthemes, here is a good overview and short history of phonesthemes, and here is a bibliography of research on the topic.
posted by AceRock (57 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
That said, what are your favorite perfect words?
posted by AceRock at 8:48 AM on May 20, 2008


Askew and haberdashery are two of mine. Oh, and rumpus.
posted by steerpike at 8:51 AM on May 20, 2008


murmur.
posted by Mister_A at 8:53 AM on May 20, 2008


I've always felt that "fun" is the opposite of this. It kinda grunts itself out there and drops like a stone. What a disappointment you are, fun.

"Play", on the other hand, is said with a smile, full of good cheer, bursting on to the scene at first, almost tripping over itself in excitement to be said, then sliding into an easy grin. Play, you are more exciting than fun.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:57 AM on May 20, 2008 [5 favorites]


I can kind of see how sn- is nasal, but I don't see how cl- sounds like clamping or squeezing.

I'd like to suggest an alternative hypothesis that I don't see mentioned in any of these links: Many of these words, especially the ones that are more or less synonymous (clamp, clap, clasp, cleave, etc) are actually from the same Germanic or Latin or even Indo-European root. The reason they "sound like" what they mean is that all these similar words for similar concepts has created an association in our mind.

That theory could also be enough to explain the ones that really do sound like their meanings, like with the sn-. It would explain the origin of the root words themselves.

Also: glisten
posted by DU at 8:58 AM on May 20, 2008


My favorite words are "entirely subjective". Oh, and "self referential".

What are yours?!?
posted by yhbc at 9:01 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I like wow. Especially when whispered.

...they seem to resound with their own verbal truthfulness...


The opposite is also true. Truthfulness sounds more like prevarication, because it's a noun made from the adjective made from the original noun.
I prefer the simplicityness of truth ;^)
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:01 AM on May 20, 2008


Whip! Whip! Whip! Whip!Whip!Whip! Whip! Whip! Whip!Whip! Whip!


I'm going to the new Indiana Jones this weekend!
posted by Mister_A at 9:05 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Four linguists were sharing a compartment on a train on their way to an international conference on sound symbolism. One was English, one Spanish, one French and the fourth German. They got into a discussion on whose language was the most eloquent and euphonious.

The English linguist said: "Why, English is the most eloquent language. Take for instance the word "butterfly". Butterfly, butterfly... doesn't that word so beautifully express the way this delicate insect flies. It's like flutter-by, flutter-by."

"Oh, no!" said the Spanish linguist, "the word for "butterfly" in Spanish is "maripose". Now, this word expresses so beautifully the vibrant colours on the butterfly's wings. What could be a more apt name for such a brilliant creature? Spanish is the most eloquent language!"

"Papillon!" says the French linguist, "papillon! This word expresses the fragility of the butterfly's wings and body. This is the most fitting name for such a delicate and ethereal insect. French is the most eloquent language!"

At this the German linguist stands up, and demands: "Unt vhas iss vrong mit 'SCHMETTERLING'?"
posted by burnmp3s at 9:08 AM on May 20, 2008 [24 favorites]


I always wondered if this has some Sapir-Whorf effect. Like if the psychosomatic effect of speaking a language (in terms of its sounds) feeds back on the culture of the speakers to make them happier or sadder or emphasize other personality traits.

I suppose this is one of the things that poetry tries to get at.
posted by sandking at 9:09 AM on May 20, 2008


My favorite is "frottage." Sounds every bit as dirty as it is.

I also like words that sound dirty, but aren't. Like "arbitrage."
posted by Afroblanco at 9:12 AM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Fantastic post, thank you!

I can kind of see how sn- is nasal, but I don't see how cl- sounds like clamping or squeezing.

posted by DU at 5:58 PM on May 20


Maybe it's a subconscious response to the physical action of pressing the tongue up against the roof of the mouth to make the sound?
posted by protorp at 9:12 AM on May 20, 2008


That said, what are your favorite perfect words?

delicious
posted by jammy at 9:12 AM on May 20, 2008


cellar door
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:15 AM on May 20, 2008


Hmm. I'd argue that even sn- doesn't "sound like" it's meaning. You don't make any n-sounds when you're sneezing, snoring or being snooty. And as for the nose-wrinkling effect, ask someone who isn't reading this thread to say snow, and watch their face. I'll bet you good money you won't see their nose do much of anything.

The sn- = "nose" business is a cool fact about English and its Germanic cousins, not about languages in general. Mind you, it's still a cool fact. But let's not get carried away.

(Snorkel! Snorkel! Snorkelsnorkelsnorkelsnorkelsnorkel! Ahem.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:15 AM on May 20, 2008


molybdenum
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:18 AM on May 20, 2008


Oleander

The word's sounds are as velvety and smooth as the scent of the flowers on a warm night.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:21 AM on May 20, 2008


Harvard Yard in April/April in Harvard Yard
posted by felix betachat at 9:26 AM on May 20, 2008


oops. try that again: Harvard Yard in April/April in Harvard Yard
posted by felix betachat at 9:27 AM on May 20, 2008


You don't make any n-sounds when you're sneezing, snoring or being snooty.

Well, I don't know about snooty, but you really do use your nasal passages to make em and en sounds, so making those sounds can feel a little like sneezing or snoring. This has nothing to do with whether or not your nose actually wrinkles.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 9:28 AM on May 20, 2008


Maybe it's a subconscious response to the physical action of pressing the tongue up against the roof of the mouth to make the sound?

As in letter or little or tall or loosely, none of which connote squeezing?

I'm not buying this theory.
posted by DU at 9:31 AM on May 20, 2008


I don't agree with some of the phonesthemes in the dictionary: "dead" doesn't really communicate death to me. "Deceased" works because of the abruptness and quick falloff of the last syllable (so that the point of death is at the pronunciation of the "ea").

That said: swath, butcher, podge.

Also: holy crap, there's an antonym for sparkle: "darkle!" (1. to appear darkly or indistinctly 2. to become dark or gloomy)
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 9:34 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


My favorite, btw, is the Hebrew word for "bottle": bakbuk (בקבוק). Its onomatopoesis is the sound of liquid being poured. Lovely, huh?
posted by felix betachat at 9:35 AM on May 20, 2008


bubble
posted by Mister_A at 9:42 AM on May 20, 2008


"moist", but I think that might just be the contrarian in me.
posted by cortex at 9:53 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


There was some book I was reading several years ago (I forget all details beyond that). It was making the point, for some reason or another, that the English words for 'big' and 'small' are a bit backwards. In many languages, something akin to the i sound in "big" shows up in words meaning small, because it's a tiny, quick sound. And something akin to the a sound in 'small' shows up in words meaning big, because it's a very loooong sound. English just had to be quirky about it, though.
posted by Ms. Saint at 9:55 AM on May 20, 2008


Well, I don't know about snooty, but you really do use your nasal passages to make em and en sounds, so making those sounds can feel a little like sneezing or snoring. This has nothing to do with whether or not your nose actually wrinkles.

Oh, sure! But sneezing with your mouth open sounds more like cha!, and snoring is more of a trill than a steady humming sound. And even if you buy that nasal consonants are necessarily "sneezy" or "snore-y," why should the magic combination be sn and not sm or shn? Why should it come at the beginning of the word and not the middle or the end?

If chin meant "sneeze," we'd all be arguing that it was the only logical word for it, what with that burst of air at the beginning and the air-through-the-nose at the end. If cummerbund meant "snore," we'd be talking about how appropriate its low, grumbly, nasaly, repetitive sound was. And think of the poor Finns, who have aivastaa for "sneeze" and kuorsata for "snore" — not a nasal in sight there, and they do just fine.

Turns out there's lots of "appropriate" sounds for sneezing. The fact that English uses sn is pretty arbitrary. Still true, still fun to play with, and still fascinating to think about — just arbitrary.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:55 AM on May 20, 2008


s/sounds for sneezing/sounds for "nose" words/

There's a linguistic question — why do all the names of search-and-replace operations start with an s?
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:57 AM on May 20, 2008


slut
posted by breaks the guidelines? at 10:07 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Echo.

and Slippery.
posted by Kabanos at 10:09 AM on May 20, 2008


I stand by my comment in this previous askme.
posted by dmd at 10:19 AM on May 20, 2008


"Masticate." A very chewy word.
posted by rusty at 10:20 AM on May 20, 2008


I've been waiting a long time for this topic to appear.

Look in the mirror and say the word "glee", and notice how your face seems to be enjoying saying it. With glee, indeed!
posted by Jubal Kessler at 10:31 AM on May 20, 2008


I think words for bigness tend to have expanding mouth movements and words for smallness tend to have contracting mouth movements!
posted by I Foody at 10:32 AM on May 20, 2008


Effete is a word where the sound-meaning has arguably overwhelmed the original sense (infertile, tired).

Opposites: I got pulchritude on the SAT because I was stunned by how ugly the word is; couldn't forget that.
posted by msalt at 10:37 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


pulchritude is quite a strange animal. Similarly, I always forget that perspicacious means "clever", because such a long-winded word isn't particularly clever in design or effort...
posted by Jubal Kessler at 10:46 AM on May 20, 2008


"Fuck"

Saying it feels like hitting someone in the face with a blunt object or stabbing them in the eye with a steak-knife. Couple it with the middle finger and you have a tall and proud phallus-like appendage to wave in someone's face.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:55 AM on May 20, 2008


Clunge.
posted by Mocata at 11:06 AM on May 20, 2008


I've always liked what the word 'ecclesiastical' does to my mouth when I say it. Similarly, 'obsequious sycophant' has a fun sibilance to it.

Lately though, it's all about the phrase "boat sober" which I'm trying to fit into all my conversations.
posted by quin at 11:17 AM on May 20, 2008


I know a pretty word that sounds like a susurrous slide into oblivion...
posted by desuetude at 11:18 AM on May 20, 2008


The word "enunciate" is awesome. In order to pronounce it, you definitely need good enunciation.
posted by carmelita at 12:11 PM on May 20, 2008


I seem to recall someone--maybe Douglas Adams? arguing for scintillate, and a few others.
posted by agentofselection at 12:41 PM on May 20, 2008


Oh man, I was just thinking the other day about how "bloviate" is a perfect example of this phenomenon. I suppose "blather" fits in the same way. Maybe if 'sn' connotes the nose, 'bl' connotes not-being-able-to-shut-up. Ooh, also "blah, blah, blah." But now I'm just babbling...
posted by notswedish at 4:13 PM on May 20, 2008


Most words that contain the letter "Q" immediately follow the "Q" with a "U". I like uttering those words because it makes me feel like my mouth is doing something salacious.

Other than that, I always liked the word "grunge"...
posted by Tube at 6:20 PM on May 20, 2008


My MeFi name - sounds like it means like it feels ...:-)
posted by Susurration at 6:49 PM on May 20, 2008


delicacy
posted by desjardins at 7:08 PM on May 20, 2008


Principality
posted by Susurration at 8:54 PM on May 20, 2008


woot!
posted by zengargoyle at 10:52 PM on May 20, 2008


Hooray! I've been wondering about this for years.

glisten, shimmer, crumple, mutter, wobble, ooooze...
posted by rifflesby at 8:21 AM on May 21, 2008


plethora. You all forgot plethora.
posted by etaoin at 8:26 AM on May 21, 2008


...sparkle, clobber, shatter, poke, glint, slither, dull, crisp, mellow, goon, slick, sleek, percolate, wisp, vivacious...
posted by rifflesby at 8:39 AM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


...trickle, blotch, smooth...

And my favorite word of all: nefarious

Okay, I'm done now.
posted by rifflesby at 8:46 AM on May 21, 2008


subtle
posted by MotherTucker at 9:37 AM on May 21, 2008


puppy
posted by desjardins at 9:47 AM on May 21, 2008


appendectomy
posted by cortex at 10:13 AM on May 21, 2008


Using the word eviscerate is so emancipatory - it is almost as effective as kneading dough ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 1:19 PM on May 21, 2008


spit, spite, spot
posted by sculpin at 10:46 AM on May 23, 2008


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