The Sound of Words

One of the things I love most about working with words is that I will never reach the point where I can say, “There, now. I’ve learned it all.” Love, love learning new things. Especially when it’s something I can share with all of you.

So, have you ever heard of phonesthesia or sound symbolism? Basically, it’s the idea that the sound of a word plays into it’s perceived meaning. That there are certain words that sound like what they mean—glide, gleam, glimmer, for example. Often in English, the gl combination has a “feel” or “sound” of smoothness or sleekness. So those words, to an English-speaker’s ear, sound like their meanings. But what  happens when the sound of a word and its meaning don’t mesh?

Well…fun! That’s what happens.

Think about it. What a great quirk for a character in a novel to use words that sound harsh but mean lovely things, or the other way ‘round. Such as:

Pulchritude. It doesn’t sound like it means beauty, does it? So you could have said character say to his beloved, “Ah, my pulchritudinous darling, I do love you.” And said darling cold promptly slap him for the (perceived) insult.

Crepuscular. Sounds like something horrid, doesn’t it? Something to do with serial killers and blood? In reality, it refers to things relating to or active at twilight. So your heroine could gaze out at the early evening and opine to those near her, “This crepuscular light puts me in mind of my childhood.” And those listening take a step back and eye her, this woman speaking so fondly of something so clearly…creepy!

Then there are words that, by virtue of association with other words, are misunderstood:

Restive. “You’re a restive kind of person, aren’t you?” Well, with rest in there this is obviously a compliment, right? The speaker must be saying that person is calm, serene. Um…no. A restive person is someone who is agitated or can’t stand to be still.

Likewise, choleric, with the immediate connection to cholera, can be interpreted by some to mean a person is sickly. But it actually means that person is irritable and hot-tempered. So your character could say to someone, “You’re a choleric sort, aren’t you?” And the reply comes fast and furious, “Why, I’ve never been sick a day in my life!”

I’ll end with an example from real life. Someone at a writers’ conference once said to me, “You must be a sanguine.”

I frowned. “I don’t think so. What makes you say that?”

“Well, you’re always smiling, and so animated and encouraging.”

Now I was really confused. Because, with the long vowel and diphthong in there, sanguine has always sounded to me like it describes someone who is emotionless, so laid back that she doesn’t care about what’s happening around her. Maybe even a bit  depressed.

But what sanguine really means is that someone is optimistic and cheerful.

So there I was, a writer and editor at a writers’ conference, assigning meaning based on how something sounded to me.

Yup. Phonesthesia.

Just one more thing to love about working with words.



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