Jeffrey Aronson: When I use a word . . . Nose-ography

jeffrey_aronsonWhile editing the forthcoming edition of Meyler’s Side Effects of Drugs: The International Encyclopedia of Adverse Drug Reactions and Interactions, I came across a suspected teratogenic effect of high dose oral contraceptives (no longer used)—multiple bony defects with pretibial dimples.

Dimples are mentioned in many entries in Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM), a comprehensive source of genetic information, whose print version, Mendelian Inheritance in Man, was the brainchild of Victor McKusick when he was professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. There are congenital cheek dimples, postauricular dimples, and dimples on the ear; dimples near joints; sacral dimples; and dimples over the acromial process of the scapula.

Chin dimples result from incomplete fusion of the two halves of the mandible during fetal development, forming a notch in the symphysis. Designer chin dimples can be created surgically, and OMIM describes hereditary forms. Uncomplicated familial chin dimples (picture) are listed in OMIM under “cleft chin,” in which, according to the text, “a bony peculiarity underlies the Y-shaped fissure of the chin.” Chin dimples also occur in complicated syndromes, such as the whistling face syndrome and the Simosa craniofacial syndrome. The latter includes, among numerous features, nasal speech, reminding me of the etymological connection between dimples and phonetic nasalization.

Three generations of chin dimples: father, son, and grandson

Two Indo-European roots implied hollowness: DHEL, which turns into dale and Dickens’s Dingley Dell, and DHEUB, which gave deep, dip, and delve. Dope was originally a thick liquid used for lubrication and as a sauce for dipping into; the term was then applied to the thick treacle like preparation of opium that dope fiends smoked. A dump was in one sense a deep hole in a river bed or a pool. A little dip should be a dipple, but it somehow became nasalized into a dimple, perhaps influenced by the Midlanders who call a deep shady dell or hollow a dimble. The letter m in these words is a voiced bilabial nasal phoneme.

Nasalization can also result in the introduction of the alveolar nasal phoneme n. The Indo-European root PLEU meant to flow, giving pleura and pleurisy (Greek πλευρόν, a rib), and, by metathesis, pulmonary. PNEU was the nasalized form, giving the Greek words πνεῦμα (p´neuma), breeze, breath, spirit, and divine inspiration, and πνοή or πνοιά (p´noē or p´noia) breeze or breath, from which we get [the words] pneumonia and orthopnoea.

The word juggler comes from Latin, ioculari, to jest (whence jocular jokes). In French, nasalization makes it jongleur, in which the sound of the j is represented by the zh phoneme ʒ, and the ng by the voiced velar nasal phoneme ŋ, which is called eng or agma.

Some accents are more nasal than others. As Robin Ferner reminded me, when we discussed the intrusion of nasal phonemes in words that didn’t have them originally, the Birmingham accent lacks what is technically called “ng-coalescence.” As Simeon Potter, the then Baines professor of English at the University of Liverpool, put it in Modern Linguistics (1957): “The inhabitants of Birmingham . . . call their city [bə:miŋgəm], but Londoners call it [bə:miŋəm]. What is the difference? Midlanders raise the velum against the wall of the pharynx and make a plosion with the back of the tongue upon it before passing from agma to the murmur-vowel, whereas the people of London keep the nasal pharynx open at this juncture.” Speakers in Liverpool, Manchester, and Sheffield do the same as the Brummies.

In some languages, a diacritic signals nasalization. The ogonek (Polish, a little tail), a hook underneath the letter, does it in various languages, including Polish, Lithuanian, and some Native American languages, such as Navajo. A tilde, a wavy line above the letter, does it in Spanish (mañana, tomorrow), and Portuguese (mão, from Latin manus, a hand). This is another kind of nasalization, represented by the digraph gn in French (montagne) and Italian (lasagna), and by the international phonetic symbol ɲ.

“Mañana, mañana,” said the Spaniard, the nasalizing tilde making the word sound slower. “What does that mean?” asked the Irishman. “Putting something off until tomorrow.” “Well now,” came the reply, “we don’t have a word that conveys that degree of urgency.”

Jeffrey Aronson is a clinical pharmacologist, working in the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences. He is also president emeritus of the British Pharmacological Society.

Competing interests: None declared.