Monday, April 13, 2009

Sonicky...and not so sonicky.

Over the past couple months I've been slowly working my way through Roy Blount's Alphabet Juice, which indisputably has the longest subtitle of any book on my shelf: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof: Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences: With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory. The book is basically a glossary of words and phrases, with (mostly) brief quips about their origin and usage.

Blount takes issue with the idea that the sound of words is arbitrary and separated from their meaning. Rather, he contends that humans have an innate sense to detect when a word is particularly appropriate to the thing it signifies. He describes a word with that quality as "sonicky."

So, with that in the back of my mind, I was struck by the difference between the two words that appear on my Yahoo home page today in my Word of the Day widget. Today's Word of the Day is "susurrus," a noun defined as "a whispering or rustling sound; a murmur." Say the word [su-SUHR-uhs] and listen to how it sounds...doesn't it SOUND like what it means? That, Blount would proclaim, is a sonicky word.

Meanwhile, yesterday's word is about as un-sonicky as you can get. Pulchritude. If this word is new to you, what would you think it means, based on how it sounds?

This noun's meaning (are you ready for this?) is "that quality of appearance which pleases the eye; beauty; comeliness; grace; loveliness."

Let's use it in a sentence, shall we?

As he gazed upon his wife, he was overcome by the pulchritude of her countenance.

Even though you know what the word means, it just doesn't sound like a good thing, does it? It sounds like something that would make a person puke, not something upon which one's eyes would feast.

And that, my friends, is why words are fascinating to me.

What's your favorite sonicky or unsonicky word?

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