Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

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What do these words have in common: bash, clash, crash, dash, gash, gnash, hash, lash, mash, slash, smash, thrash and trash?

“The words all rhyme,” you answer.
Right. But can you spot what it is that the 13 words share in their content?

Faces are bashed, gashed, slashed and smashed. Cars crash. Hopes are dashed. Rivals clash. Teeth gnash. Beef is hashed. Potatoes are mashed. Rooms are trashed. And some captives are lashed and thrashed.

Now the pattern becomes clearer. All of these –ash words are verbs that express actions of great violence. Why, over the more than 1500-year history of the English language, have speakers seized on –ash sounds to create words that describe mutilation?

Listen closely to the broad a, and you will hear that it sounds like a drawn-out human scream. Now listen to the hissing sound of sh, and note that it too takes a long time to expel. Poet Alexander Pope once wrote, “The sound must seem an echo of the sense.” It appears that the agonizing, hissy, protracted sound of -ash is particularly well suited to the sense of unfolding violent actions.

Now stop, look and listen to the consonants that begin certain words.

The word for mother (and mama and mom) in many languages begins with the letter m: mater (Latin), mámmē, (Greek), mere (French), madre (Spanish), Mutter (German), mam (Welsh), muimme (Old Irish), momà (Lithuanian), máma (Russian) and masake (Crow Indian). Could it be more than mere coincidence that this pervasive m sound for words maternal, including mammal, from the Latin mamma, meaning “breast,” is formed by the pursing of lips in the manner of the suckling babe?

Think of all the words you know that begin with fl-.Your list will probably include the likes of flicker, flutter, flurry, flip, flap, fly, flow, flash, flee, flare, fling, flight, flush, flame, flail and flounce. Could the fact that the tongue darts forward whenever we form fl- in our mouths account for the sense of movement, usually rapid movement, in all of these words?

Why do so many words beginning with sn- pertain to the nose: snot, sneeze, snort, snarl, snore, sniff, sniffle, snuff, snuffle, snarl, snivel, snoot, snout, sneer and snicker? And why are so many other sn- words distasteful and unpleasant: sneak, snide, snob, snitch, snit, snippy, snub, snafu, snoop, snipe, snake and snaggletooth? To appreciate the nasal aggression inherent in sn-, form the sound and note how your nose begins to wrinkle, your nostrils flare and your lips draw back to expose your threatening canine teeth.

Think for a moment of how forcibly the sound of an initial b is expelled as it flies from the lips like a watermelon seed. Then observe how many words beginning with that letter denote the expulsion of breath — breathe, blow, blab, blather, bluster, babble, bloviate and blubber—or the application of force—beat, batter, blast, bang, bust, bruise, bludgeon, bump, break, butt, beat, bash, bounce and bomb.

Listen now to the sounds of vowels in the middle of words.

What happens to the pattern of internal vowels in such verbs as sing, sang, sung and ring, rang, rung? Place your thumb and forefinger on the front of your throat as you say these words aloud and you will notice that, as the verbs move backwards in time (today I sing, yesterday I sang, I have often sung), the vowels themselves echo the process by traveling back in your throat.

Consider the short i vowel in words like little, kid, slim, thin, skinny, imp, shrimp, midget, pygmy and piddling. What do these words have in common? They all denote smallness or slightness. Why? Perhaps because, when we pronounce the short i, we tighten our lips together and make our mouths small.

As a final example, why do so many words ending in -ump suggest a round mass hump, clump, rump, lump, bump, mumps, plump, hump, stump and chump (originally a short, thick piece of wood)?

No wonder the great wordsmith and creator of children’s stories, Lewis Carroll, named his rotund egghead Humpty Dumpty. Now there’s a writer who could really hear and feel the sounds of English words.

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In a U-T story last week, an observer of reckless responses by millennials to the pandemic commented, “Have some common sense and understad that we all have to do our part and do the right thing . . . I mean, it’s not brain science.”

 

To which I would add, “And it’s not rocket surgery either.”