Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Words That Mean What They Say

Not onomatopoeia -- that's words that sound like the the thing, quack for example -- but a word that has something of its definition about it. For example "glister" seems to have an oily gleam somehow. Joseph Bottum want to call these words Agenbites:
Let's coin a term for this kind of poetic, extralogical accuracy. Let's call it agenbite. 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.

Which is all very clever if somewhat lacking in any real logical reason for the choice. It's not a word I'm about to start dropping in conversation. Bottum, though, has any number of great examples many of which will have you nodding in agreement:
Ethereal is an agenbite, isn't it? All ethereal and airy. Rapier, swashbuckler, erstwhile, obfuscate, spume--agenbites, every one. Reverberation reverberates, and jingle jingles. A friend insists that machination is a word that tells you all about its Machiavellian self, and surely sporadic is a clean agenbite, with something patchy and intermittent in the taste as you say it.

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