"Reading the dictionary" sounds like a punishment to most people, or an activity undertaken only by the hopelessly bored or academically inclined. It is, however, an activity that word lovers indulge in unashamedly from time to time.

If you travel far enough in a single letter of the alphabet, you may start to develop a strange sense of déjà vu: words with similar meaning often pop up in the same part of the dictionary! This is a symptom of sound symbolism - that is, systematic similarities among groups of words with related meanings that are not explainable simply by means of etymology. Sound symbolism has a couple of more high-sounding names -phonesthemia and phonosemantics - but sound symbolism sums up best what it is: particular sounds are symbolic of particular meanings. The Visual Thesaurus is a fertile field where you can harvest handfuls of sound-symbolic fruit and track down some of the various phonesthemic families in English.

Gee, that's swell

The wordmap presented by swell is a good place to start looking at one of the larger sound-symbolic families in English. One of the verb nodes on this map connects with swell up, tumefy, and intumesce. The unifying theme is expand abnormally. Bringing that node to the center throws up a bundle (if we may say so) of sound-symbolic words in English with this common feature: they begin with B, they have an L sound later in the word (often immediately after the B), and they denote things that bulge, or the action of bulging. You'll see on this wordmap several members of this family: blister, bloat, belly (out), and blow (up). Bring blister to the center and you'll get a couple of relatively obscure members of this family: bulla and bleb. Is there a bustle in your hedgerow? A burl on your oak tree? Perhaps you've experienced a bubble on the stock market: centering bubble brings up another member of this family: belch.

Your imagination may be running to others in this family now. Bladder, blimp, and boil all belong. Ever been told you needed to bulk up? Bringing bulk to the center brings in bulge. There are still a few others: bilge and billow both have a nautical theme; billow will lead you to balloon. You can probably think of a few others, but so as not to bloviate on the subject, let's look at one more word map that will lead us to another family. Go to blob, another member of the BL family, which has a link to blot. You'll see that blob and blot are both semantic friends of spot, and if you center this word, you'll be on your way to another sound-symbolic word family.

Really slick

Spot is what we call in English a polyseme - a word with many meanings - and that's a phenomenon we'll explore in the future. For now, look at the branch of spot that contains slur and bring it to the center. A slur can easily be a slander; a way to sully someone's reputation. Get the picture? The SL sound in English very often has a pejorative sense. You'll see quite a few members of this family by bringing slick to the center. Is it because words with this sound seem to slither off the tongue? Why is it that sluts (a species of slattern) present themselves in a slovenly way? We naturally shrink from someone who slouches (though they may be in a slump; from sliding down, slacking off), and someone who slobbers may expose us to slime, a relative of sludge. There are a dozen more words in this family that you may want to track down on your own; you might say a slew of them, except slew is usually reserved for a number of things that we view - pejoratively.

Think small

Sound symbolism isn't only about consonants. Some verb qualities in English are also sound-symbolic. Start out on small. Bringing this word to the center brings up quite an eyeful; for now, look in the direction of little. One section of this wordmap brings up a number of adjectives - piffling, piddling, niggling, fiddling - that all share the vowel sound of little: what we normally call "short i." Another branch off the little family brings us itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, itty-bitty, wee, and weeny. It turns out that i sounds, both short and long, are far commoner in words that denote smallness and small things than in words that denote largeness and large things - which typically have more rounded and lower vowels. This may be why, when you hear the name Thor, you know you're not dealing with a lightweight. It also seems especially suitable that Tiny Tim strikes us as an especially suitable name for a small fellow - a little skinny guy. If you clicked on tiny and skinny, you found a few other members of this family: petite, midget, lilliputian, and thin.

More Meanderings

There are several other sound-symbolic word families in English. Here are a few that you can explore on your own. The hyperlinked words below are a good way into each group noted. We have left the lists incomplete, in order to give you a chance to explore the Visual Thesaurus, along with the volumes of your imagination.
  1. Initial FL denoting fire or flame: flare, flash, flak, flint
  2. Initial SW denoting quick motions that do not represent progress in one direction or another: sweep, swerve, swish, swoop, swipe, swab, swat, swing
  3. Initial GL denoting words suggestive of radiance: glimmer, glisten, glitter, glint, glow, glossy
  4. P . . .K and P. . .O denoting sharp, pointed objects or the action of poking somebody with one. (Warning! If you're not using any filtering with your version of the Visual Thesaurus, get ready for some shocking vocabulary!) pike, peak, prick, prod, probe, prong

More on Sound Symbolism

Here are some places you can explore your curiosity about the theory of sound symbolism. These two links are to academic papers on the subject; the first one is fairly succinct, despite the title; the second one is lengthy:

Does sound symbolism work in other languages, or across languages? You bet! There are numerous book-length treatments of it in many modern languages. A search on "sound symbolism" at any of the online booksellers will lead you to these.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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