One of the funniest things about language is the fact it is ultimately nothing but sound. It’s just air rushing up from our lungs made noisy by that weird and wonderful muscle that is the larynx, then moulded and shaped by the even weirder and more wonderful muscle that is the tongue. Unlike all those unimaginative, monotonous animals that moo or quack, we can make an almost infinite number of different noises; so many that we even combine them into ‘words’. With these ‘words’ we built vast nations of language. Words that that are the threads of a beautiful poetic tapestry on the process of existence. Our words create not a jungle cacophony, but a graceful vocal dance, where delicate breaths of sound leap from tongue-tips like exquisite ballerinas – powerful and poised. Yes, beautiful words, such as ‘girth’, or ‘carbuncle’, or ‘plop’.
Well, they’re not all beautiful, obviously. But it’s interesting how often a word’s sound adds to its meaning. Is it coincidence, or a matter of ingrained association? If ‘carbuncle’ actually meant ‘a rainbow over nude pixies frolicking in a field of sunflowers’ – would we still think it an ugly word? Probably not. You see, when we were all living in dank caves, banging rocks together and running away from sabre-tooth tigers; whatever weird thoughts clattering around in our simple little brains were broadcast by impulsive grunts and nonsensical groans. Eventually we settled that ‘nngh‘ meant ‘stick’ and ‘uuggh!’ meant ‘Shit, run! the sabre-tooth is back’. As we evolved, so did our langauge – but there remain some instinctively enjoyable utterings. Here are some of my personal favourite examples of words that are beautifully united in sound and meaning – or just plain fun to say.
Vessels for drinking take many a name and form – cups, mugs, glasses, tumblers, flagons, tankards et cetera. But none are as mighty as the great goblet. Beer seems to make the most sense being in there, but you can put any liquid in, say lime cordial or cough syrup if that takes your fancy. What’s great about ‘goblet’ is not only the way it kind of falls out of your mouth and splatters over the ears of the listener; but how it’s almost an unintentional portmanteau. It’s a guttural splicing of ‘gob’ – as in mouth; and ‘let’ – as in, letting in copious amounts of fermented happy juice. So, so fitting. Ultimately, the word is just a joy to say, especially over and over and over again, until someone finally reaches for the actual thing to batter you over the head with.
I’ve deliberately excluded onomatopoeic words from this list, simply because they are sounds – in a way. ‘Blimp’, however, is the onomatopoeic word that never was. In fact it could well have been any type of word. It would have made a fantastic verb: ‘…and then the giant podgy man blimped his way from the buffet to the condiment bar, where he released a biblical flood of barbeque sauce upon his tower of chicken wings...’. Or even an adjective: ’…she was nothing but an argumentative, brazen and unashamedly blimp woman…’. It could even have made a pretty top-shelf swear word. Imagine shouting at someone who just cut you off in traffic to go find an oak branch and blimp themselves with it? That would be amazing! Sadly, though, its only association is with those plump, tyre brand-sponsored bags of helium levitating above football stadiums, resembling many of the people wedged in the seats. And so ultimately ‘blimp’ has a tragic evocation to it – it could have been anything, but instead it was a big ball of gas.
Apparently, many non-English speakers are struck by how ugly the English language can be. There’s no consistency, no style and rarely any elegance. Imagine if the world’s major languages formed a football team. French would be centre-forward, showing off its silken moves and fluid motion, while Spanish and Japanese would sit on the wings, mesmeric with speed and flair. From the middle of the park Mandarin and German would be in charge of keeping things short, sharp and precise, and the striker, Russian, would get all up close and aggressive. You’d line the back with Hindi, Arabic and Bengali, simply because they’re quite ubiquitous. And then you’ll have English, lumbering around the pitch, bumping into its own players and being both shit and everywhere at the same time. But, every so often a flash of brilliance would emerge from the clumsy haphazardry, and English would go from Ali Dia to Lionel Messi for one fleeting, glorious moment. That moment is the word ‘sumptuous’. It’s classy, and smooth – like Audrey Hepburn ins a bathtub of custard. It sounds so apt that saying it is basically the verbal equivalent to wearing a ridiculously plush bathrobe and sipping some $700-a-bottle Tawny Port. In fact, if you soak a ridiculously plush bathrobe in expensive port and drop it,’ sumptuous‘ would be the exact sound it makes when it hits the floor.
Finally a word of violence! Any violent word is exciting in some way: punch, kick, smack, slap, whack, whip, triple-spinebuster suplex… all marvellous and beautiful phrases. But if I were a merchant of hurt; a bringer of pain; the undisputed world champion of agony – emblazoned in a big, mean font on my spandex bottoms would be the fearful alias: The Bludgeoner (safely assuming of course that wrestling fans wouldn’t recognise it also as a Harry Potter reference). It’s somewhat visceral, in a nasty enough way that even if you didn’t actually know the meaning of the word, if someone offered to ‘bludgeon’ you, you’d politely decline. It’s perfectly adapted to the Australian accent, too. It begins with ‘bl-‘, which is always promising start for an Aussie word- and the subsequent ‘uh’ is dragged right out of the deepest recesses of the throat. It’s so ochre that people with an especially broad accent (anyone living more than 25km inland from the coastline, in other words) can actually physically choke on it. So far no fatalities have been recorded, but that’s probably because only a tiny percentage of folks from that way posses a large enough vocabulary to run the risk.
This is the big daddy. This is the one you save for a special occasion. You must light some candles, pour some Chablis and wait for the moon to appear before wrapping your tonsils around this one. You can go mad having fun saying ‘blimp’ and ‘goblet’, and you can soothe yourself with a relaxing ‘sumptuous’… but phantasmagorical, plainly and simply, is sex. It’s twisty and turny, syllables stick out here and there, and your tongue can get a little tired. Then after you’ve finally writhed your way through it, you take a deep breath and dive right back to say it again. Faster this time. Caution is advised though, you really cannot overindulge and go blurting it out all over the place. You’ll shock old ladies and corrupt the innocent ears of children for miles around. You’ll probably go blind, too. No, you must wait for the the conditions to be right, when your tonsils tingle and the lighting is moody. It’s such a special sound that it doesn’t even seem like a real word, and often as you find those six sexy syllables tingling on your lips you can barely believe you’re actually speaking it. But you’re sure as hell glad that you are.