Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The worst perfect word

Someone out there is spreading the idea that diarrhea is a perfect word. At least that's what one of my students told me. 'Is that true?' she asked. Perfect for what? I asked.

The claim apparently has something to do with the sound and spelling of the word. About the spelling I assured her that the word is actually a pretty bad example of spelling/sound correspondence. The <d> is fine, corresponding to [d]. Then we have <i> corresponding to [] and <a> corresponding to [ə]. The doubled symbols <rr> are clear, but only one is necessary. Then we have the <h> that corresponds to nothing; there is no [h] in the pronunciation. And finally we have a digraph <ea> that often corresponds to [i] but in this case represents two syllables, [i.ə].

It's not a particularly confusing spelling -- but it's far from a perfect correspondence.

More interesting then is the onomatopoetic quality. Is diarrhea the perfect word for what it means? Because of the blood oath I took to believe in the arbitrariness of language, I have to start off by saying that this is often a pointless argument to make. Words capture and express their meaning because of a conventionalized denotation and connotation, not because of an inherent quality.

But this shouldn't stop us from appreciating that the sound of diarrhea does in some ways capture the flowing nature of its disgusting extension. After the voiced stop onset we have a diphthong gliding into a schwa leading into an approximant giving way to a tense vowel that falls into another unstressed mid vowel schwa. The word flows.

But an important point to make here is that it's really just a coincidence that we can make these observations about the word as a mimetic expression. There's no reason to think that diarrhea would not work equally well for another meaning. If a word sounds horrible to us it's almost always because we find something about the meaning horrible. If a word sounds beautiful to us it's usually because we appreciate what it means. If we switched the meanings, and diarrheal traded places with mellifluous we would probably think diarrheal was the perfect word for a rich and lyrical sound.

1 comment:

  1. Do you really want an answer here, or was that a rhetorical question when you asked "Is diarrhea a perfect word for what it means?"

    Because that could get pretty graphic...

    I do think it would be fun to come up with a list of possibly-more-apt words than diarrhea for the phenomenon itself.

    Like... staccato.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.