English is a fabulous language. Its enormous vocabulary, gathered from any number of other languages, makes it the most flexible medium of communication on earth. Poetry famously uses onomatopoeia–words that sound like the sounds they represent, e.g. “buzz,” or “murmur.” Joseph Bottum has been meditating on the way some words sound like what they mean, even abstract meanings:
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. They’re what all language wants to be when it grows up.
In the absence of any formal linguistic term for such words, he decides to call them “agenbites.” Why?:
That’s a word Michael of Northgate cobbled up for his 1340 Remorse of Conscience–or Agenbite of Inwit, as he actually titled the book. English would later settle on the French-born word “remorse” to carry the sense of the Latin re-mordere, “to bite again.” But Michael didn’t know that at the time, and so he simply translated the word’s parts: again-bite or (in the muddle of early English spelling) agenbite.
Anyway, these words that sound true need some kind of name. And since they do bite back on themselves, like a snake swallowing its tail, Michael’s term will do as well as any other. Ethereal is an agenbite, isn’t it? All ethereal and airy. Rapier, swashbuckler, erstwhile, obfuscate, spume–agenbites, every one.
The conversation about “agenbites” continues on the First Things blog:
Another writer observes that some, though not all, of this phenomenon is created by what linguists call a “phonestheme.” Coined back in the 1930s by J.R. Firth, the term names the fact that, for unknown reasons, certain sounds are associated with a particular genus of objects or actions. So, for instance, the phonestheme “gl-” appears in a surprising number of words about light: glitter, glisten, glow, gleam, glare, glint, etc.
And then things get really serious and, of course, not so much fun. But I felt that I must include the link in the interest of fairness and scholarly completeness.