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Word Tasting Note: "Funambulist"

We're happy to feature another installment of James Harbeck's Word Tasting Notes, this time on the word funambulist.

I don't know about you, but I spent a chunk of time on Friday night watching the broadcast of Nik Wallenda crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Quite an admirable feat of focus, self-control, and endurance.

By which I don't mean Wallenda's feat — well, that too, to be sure — but the ability of the talking heads hosting the broadcast not to use the word funambulist even once the whole time (at least that I heard). I mean, they had a lot of space to fill with chit-chat — apparently it's not OK just to let us watch the dude walk in silence for a while, they had to load it up with the safety harness of vapid prattle just as they required Wallenda to wear a safety harness, which he has never done before, and he sure didn't like it — a lot of space to fill with chit-chat, as I was saying, and they seem to have gone to their cheap paperback thesauruses for a little help. Not too much: I heard maelstrom used at least three or four times to refer to the swirling mist and/or the roaring falls below. Clearly they should have gone to the Visual Thesaurus. But somehow no one mumbled funambulist.

So, yes, a funambulist is a tightrope walker. You may well recognize the ambulist part of it, perhaps from amble and ambulate "walk," maybe from ambulance — which Wallenda didn't need, and which has long since ceased to involve a walking conveyance. Yes, Latin ambulare meant "walk." (Never mind volare, cantare; the ability just to walk above those falls on that rope and talk while doing it was in some ways much better than flying and singing.)

But what about all this is fun? Do we mean to say they're doing it for fun? Or it's fun to watch them? Actually, the fun in this word is from Latin funis "rope" — which you see also in funicular, a railway that is pulled uphill (or lowered downhill) by a rope. A funicular that was opened on the slopes of Vesuvius provided material for the song "Funiculì, funiculà."

But you can't escape the sense of fun in funambulist — it's such a strong taste right up front. It doesn't have the tension carried by tightrope walker; it doesn't have the burlesque air of the now-disused term rope dancer (which referred particularly to entertainers, usually female, who would dance and do other such stunts on a tightrope). It is not namby-pamby, but it may be a little humbler; however, it has the fancy Latin sound that the others lack. It carries minor swirling echoes of a variety of words with related sounds, such as finagle, shamble, ampule, fumble, finalist, nimblest… It also has a little echo of fundamentalist, which may or may not be relevant in this instance — Wallenda is quite evidently a devout Christian, and he talks like an evangelical, but I don't know whether he's a fundamentalist.

Funambulists have been around quite a while; in fact, I couldn't really say when and where it was first done, because quite a few cultures around the world have traditions of that sort of entertainment stunt. But funambulism became very popular in America and England and similar lands in the 1800s. The Great Blondin in particular achieved his greatest fame with his tightrope crossings of the Niagara gorge — downstream from the falls — sometimes stopping to do such things and cook and eat an omelet, sometimes carrying his manager on his back.

The word funambulist has been in English since at least the late 1700s, anyway. But it had a predecessor, funambule, which is recorded from 1697, and funambuling and funambuler are attested from the 1650s. They are all long words, vaguely reiminscent in that respect of the balance pole funambulists typically carry. But other aspects of the words are, to my eyes, not so reminiscent of tightrope walking. They don't have an even line of x-height letters; it's broken up by the three ascenders on f, b, and l. The cross bar on the f is really rather short, too. And the softness of the word — that pillowy /f/ first, and then nasals and a voiced stop followed by a liquid, and only at the end the crisper /st/ — doesn't really convey the tension of the topic.

On the other hand, Nik Wallenda didn't really convey the tension so much either. He was amazingly calm and relaxed. Which is more than I can say for the hairsprays-with-mouths who were doing the commentary.

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James Harbeck is an editor by day, a designer by night, and a writer by Jove! His love of wine tasting crossed with his love of language to spawn word tasting notes, which appear daily at his blog, Sesquiotica. Buy his just-released book of salacious verse on English usage, Songs of Love and Grammar, on Lulu.com. Click here to read more articles by James Harbeck.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 18th 2012, 9:06 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Wow! Quite a big history. I watched the Niagara Falls episode but did not have any idea that some one in somewhere was doing a research on the action word.
Thank you Dr. James for sharing with us your search outcome for this skilled word in use. For me these word related stories are important because I can only remember the incidents not the words. So, I would like to read more articles from you in VT section.
Wednesday June 20th 2012, 12:48 PM
Comment by: Bryan T.
Wednesday June 20th 2012, 12:48 PM
Comment by: Jordan H.

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