“What does ‘slink’ mean?” Robert asked me. (Apparently he was trawling through the entire list of English irregular verbs.)

As usual, I’m unable to give a straight answer / translation. The word immediately conjures up a picture in my head: feline, silent, sinuous, leopard print, black leather… that old Shania Twain video…

“Like this,” I said, slinking in and out of the room.  “Kinda sorta, desplazarse sinuosamente, furtivamente, sigilosamente…”

We looked ‘slink’ and ‘slinky’ up in the English-Spanish.

slink (move furtively)         escabullirse

slink (move provocatively) caminar de manera provocativa

slinky seductor

“But it’s more than that,” I whined.

And then I was off on my rant about the expressiveness of English and in particular sl- words and how so many of them seem to embody a particular flavour of  unpleasantness, which just does not come over in translation or explanation but is somehow expressed by the sl- sound itself.

Slob slobber slut slovenly slime sleeze sloppy slurp slippery slug slush

When you come to think about it, this is strangely fascinating. Is there anything inherent in the  sl-  sound that makes us cringe, shudder or turn up our noses?

Slash? (not the guitarist, whom I love). No. That feels different: surely it belongs with crash, smash, bash, mash, trash, lash, gash, gnash…

This is seriously fascinating.

Aren’t words and letters supposed to be arbitrary signs: isn’t this one of the basic principles of the science of linguistics?

In fact, some linguists are on to these ‘magic letters’, as Margaret Magnus has called them, and the phenomenon has a name (or several): sound symbolism, phonaesthesia or phonosemantics, which refer to the idea that vocal sounds or phonemes carry meaning in and of themselves.

Now there’s something on the tip of my tongue.

It’s coming: Alan Rickman in ‘The Barchester Chronicles’, the 1982 BBC series based on the first two Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope. I only recently watched the DVD.  Rickman brilliantly played that utterly slimy and obnoxious cleric… what was his name?

Googling now…

Got it.

The Reverend Obadiah Slope.

There you go.


Obadiah Slope
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11 Responses

  1. Slither is another one, and sloth is not a cuddly animal or a sin you’d really like to lay claim to. And as for slick – well, it just doesn’t sound nice. Great post Valerie.

  2. Certainly this has got me thinking! So right. As a translator I have frequently had to search for the exact word and sometimes it just does not exist. But this can also happen when a Spanish word has ne exact equal in English. Language is so beautiful!

  3. Don’t forget Alan Rickman played Professor Snape! I think that part of the power of these s-sounds is how they evoke the image of a snake. Not only that, but the dramatic movement of the tongue necessary to form an L recreates how a snake might move its tongue. Double whammy.

  4. I’ve never seen Obadiah Slope, but even that little gif makes him fit your utterly slimy and obnoxious description. I’m going to have to look him up. Great fun as always, Valerie.

  5. Oh, I love slither and I’m glad someone else mentioned it.

    The act of producing the sibilant /s/ phoneme mimics the hissing of a snake, which is why slither is one of my favorites. Having taught many a child (and adult) to say /s/ as a speech-language pathologist, I can tell you that the minute I hear an /s/ distortion, it’s something I cannot ignore. I spend the conversation watching the person’s mouth trying to figure out exactly what they are doing to make the distorted sound, devising a treatment plan in my head.

  6. Funny and clever too, in other words, this was a grand slam. Some of my favorites are slack, slake, sloop, slop. I dunno, these words can be quite addictive all strong together like popcorn on a string. Much enjoying your series.

  7. Ooh, Slash–such filthy hotness!

    Other faves: slake, slew/slough, slang, sling…and slither, for sure! And let’s not forget Slinky, the toy that walks down stairs! Wikipedia says, “She dubbed the toy Slinky (meaning ‘sleek and graceful’), after finding the word in a dictionary,and deciding that the word aptly described the sound of a metal spring expanding and collapsing.”

    And, oh, Alan. That slickery hair and sly smile…I both like and hate it right now.

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