The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Squidgy gunk

Working on a dictionary, you often find yourself dealing with a rather random selection of words, linked together only by alphabetical order. I’m currently working on an edit which sees me moving fairly quickly through stretches of the dictionary and makes for an odd lexicographic rollercoaster ride, working through entries from bull to burp, cow to crappy or latex to laxative.

It always strikes me though how some sections of the alphabet seem to have their own distinctive feel and character. Why is it that the combination of G and U seems somehow inelegant, dirty or otherwise unpleasant?

Think: guttural, guzzle, grunt, grunge, grubby, gunk, grumpy, grudge, gruesome etc.

Or then there’s always the soft, wet, unstable fun of SQU with: squash, squeeze, squelch, squidgy, squiggle, squirm, squirt, squish, squiffy

Many years ago, as a young Linguistics undergraduate, I did a project inspired by a section from Douglas Adams’ “Life, the universe and everything.” The episode involves a conversation between Marvin, the paranoid android, and a mattress. Over the course of a couple of pages, the mattress flollops, globbers, vollues and flurbles. It willomies, gups and glurries, flodges, quirruls, flurs, wurfs and finally almost lurgles in fear – all, naturally, in a floopy manner! I tried to analyse just why it is that we can assign meaning to neologisms that we’ve never encountered before simply based on the associations we have with certain sound combinations.

Rereading the chapter again though, I noticed Adams’ final sentence and wondered whether perhaps I should stop trying to be so analytical and just enjoy what the language throws up:

“He listened, but there was no sound on the wind beyond the now familiar sound of half-crazed etymologists calling distantly to each other across the sullen mire.”


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