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If roses were called stench-blossoms, would they smell as sweet?

In reference to the family name of her soon-to-be beau, 13-year-old Juliet Capulet once told nobody in particular that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. But would it? As the Simpson men convincingly rebut:

Bart: Not if you called ‘em stench-blossoms.
Homer: Or crapweeds.
Marge: I’d sure hate to get a dozen crapweeds for Valentine’s Day. I’d rather have candy.
Homer: Not if they were called scumdrops.

Sorry, Juliet: it turns out that Homer and Bart more or less hit the nail on the head. The relationship between a word’s sound and meaning is not necessarily arbitrary after all. Sound symbolism, broadly, is the idea that sounds and sound combinations, such as gr-, may in some way connote an abstract concept, like ‘bad mood’. Grumble, growl, grimace, groan, Grinch … well, you get the idea.

The scientific name for the study of sound symbols (phonaesthemes) and their perception (phonaesthesia) is called phonosemantics. In English, examples of the phenomenon abound. Fl- (as in fly, flap, flick, flee) connotes movement, usually of the aerial kind. Sl- (slice, slide, slither, slip, sled) moves too, but often across something smooth. On the other hand, there are st- words (stop, stick, stammer, stutter), which tend to come to an abrupt halt.

For whatever reason, there is also a strong association between sn- and the upper-respiratory tract: core to this class are snout, sneeze, sneer, snore, sniff, and snivel, but by extension there is also snoot (the ‘nose’ of a vehicle), snuff (inhalable tobacco), and more recently, snog (chiefly British slang for a passionate kiss). Snoke (to look around with the nose) and snite (to wipe the nose) also fit the mould, but are now spoken only in certain Scottish dialects.

Though word-initial sound symbols are the most common and easiest to observe, word endings may also carry meaning: -ump (as in stump, rump, bump, lump, and hump) has a blunt or round quality, and circularity is perhaps evident in –urn (as in turn, urn, and churn). As these examples show, in English, sound symbols are predominantly consonantal, for the likely reason that vowel sounds can shift rapidly across time and space.

The most-discussed example of sound symbolism is perhaps gl-, which has long been noted to share an association with lightness. Glitter, glitz, and glamour are each on display when stars walk along the red carpet at the Golden Globes. Metaphorically invoking the symbol are words concerning gaze (glance and glare) or positive emotional states (glee, glad). By virtue of sound symbolism, now-extinct gl- words don’t sound totally unfamiliar: glisk (to glance over) and gliffing (a surprise or fright) seem like things my grandparents’ grandparents could have said.

Particularly interesting about gl- words is that the pitch of the first vowel seems to function as a kind of dimmer-switch. High vowel sounds pattern with intense, and low with diffuse, kinds of light:


Does the level of brightness dim as you read down the list?

Sound symbolism, research, and the ‘real-world’

Linguists interested in sound symbols have found that many are consistently recognized across cultures. Vilayanur Ramachandran’s Bouba-Kiki Test asks participants which of two shapes—one jagged, one round—is the bouba, and which the kiki. American college students and Indian Tamil speakers alike picked kiki as the jagged shape more than 95 per cent of the time. Children too young to read tend to make the same choice.

A similar test—though far more imaginative—is offered by linguist David Crystal: you have to crash-land your spaceship. Two planets are equally close by. One is inhabited by Lamonians, the other teems with Grataks. Which do you choose?

Having paid attention to this research, the private sector now exploits our cognitive hardwiring to coin better brand-names. Basically all medications names are informed by sound symbolism research: Prozac’s z lets us know it works fast; Viagra taps into the life-affirming qualities of vitality, vibrancy, and viability. Similarly, the BlackBerry name was chosen more for its phonetic properties (which are said to connote smallness, speed, and durability) than its likeness to the fruit.

But, as a final, cautionary tale, let us all remember the Chevrolet Nova, whose name was designed by a crack team of linguists to connote speed, robustness, and modernity. The car was an instant hit in the USA, but sales were dismal in Mexico. Why? In Spanish, nova means ‘won’t go’.*

* Anecdote unfortunately apocryphal: Nova sales were good in Spanish-speaking countries. The moral of the story, however, stands.