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“One of the most limpid and luminous letters is ‘L’. The suffix ‘-ita’ has a lot of Latin tenderness, and this I required too. Hence: Lolita.”

  • Vladimir Nabokov, 1973

“Ant and Dec sound fine to me, but Cheryl Cole is like nails down a chalkboard.”

  • Posting on BBC web discussion, 2013


The children’s literacy charity I Can allows you, for a small donation, to adopt an English word and keep it for a year. Last year I received a certificate confirming that ‘mellifluous’ belonged to me; this year I hope to get ‘buoyancy’ if no-one else has bagged it first. I like both these words because, unlike very many words in our language, their sound seems to match their meanings. Their sounds are rather difficult: mellifluous because it’s rarely heard, has several syllables and comes from Latin in which it meant ‘flowing with honey’. The spelling of buoyancy is odd – it comes from Dutch – and that might confuse someone meeting the word for the first time. It seems to look and to sound at the same time capacious and light, to both float and bounce simultaneously…

At Laurentian University in Canada researchers examined the links between proper names and hearer’s emotions: The ten most popular boys’ and girls’ names for most years of the 20th century were studied in terms of the emotional associations of their sounds and how easily they could be articulated. A set of historical and socioeconomic variables, namely war, depression, the advent of the birth control pill, inflation, and year seemed to correspond with the scores that members of the public gave for name length, ‘emotionality’, and ‘pronounceability’…

At a less elevated level UK national treasure Stephen Fry has told us that his favourite word is ‘moist’. He’s being arch and gently provocative as usual, but says that he just likes the sound of it. But the sounds that make up moist will have a very different effect on those fluent in multiethnic youth slang, in which it is currently one of the most powerful terms of disapproval on the street. I have said that I find the sound of the word ‘mellifluous’ pleasant, but friends have told me they hear in it prissiness and fussiness. My fondness for ‘buoyancy’, too has been a cause of bemusement for some…

Whether we are talking about ‘pure’ sounds that imitate the noises of nature like ‘plop’, ‘buzz’ and ‘hum,’ or the clusters of phonemes that form single words, or about longer more varied sequences of conversational noise, these acoustic disturbances are not just conveyors of information but can act as triggers provoking an emotional response in the hearer. How they do this depends on the associations they have for us and these may be intensely personal, may be social and cultural and may in many cases depend entirely on which language we are hearing and thinking in. Hearing the slang word ‘chillax’ for the first time (it seems that even the Prime Minister is now aware of it, if not entirely sure of when to use it) would probably have a different effect on a teenager, who might have recognised the blending of ‘chill out’ and ‘relax’, from a grandparent more likely to hear ‘chilly’ and ‘axe.’


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