The Beautiful Ones

es, it’s been a long time coming, but I promised a Beautiful Words list, and here it is. To see where this got started, read What Makes a Word Funny. With the exception of the first example (and maybe also imbroglio), it’s interesting how the sound of these words correspond to their meaning in terms of beauty. A kind of literary onomatopoeia—though many also have a sinister edge. I’ve included a short list at the end of J, J and G’s favorite words of the moment, such as they are. And for the record, I borrowed heavily from Douglas Harper’s Online Etymological Dictionary, lest you think I spent weeks researching.

1. eviscerate: to disembowel. c.1600 (figurative); 1620s (literal), from Latin evisceratus, from ex– “out” + viscera “internal organs.” Sometimes used in the 17c. in figurative sense of “to bring out the deepest secrets of.” I suppose the bringing out of deep secrets could have a certain beauty about it, depending on the context. 

2. lorelei: 1843, from German, name of a rock in the River Rhine near Koblenz, Germany. In legend, a lovely woman sat atop it and sang while combing her long blond hair, distracting sailors so their ships foundered on the rock and they drowned. The second element of the name probably is Rhenish dialect lei “cliff, rock;” the first element is perhaps from Middle High German lüren “to lie in wait.”

3. imbroglio: 1750, from Italian imbroglio, from imbrogliare “confuse, tangle,” from in- “into, in, on, upon” + brogliare “embroil,” probably from Middle French brouiller “confuse.”

4. lithe: Old English liðe “soft, mild, gentle, meek,” from Proto-Germanic linthja-, from Proto-Indo-European root lent– “flexible” (cf. Latin lentus “flexible, pliant, slow,” Sanskrit. lithi). In Middle English, used of the weather. Current sense of “easily flexible” is from c.1300. I love how it’s tied into weather. I’m imagining a 12th century weather report…”Untídgewidere dægþerlic. Wearm ond liðe.” [Translation: “Unseasonable weather today. Warm and lithe.” Okay, that’s actually Old English because I couldn’t find a Middle English translator.]

5. lilt: 1510s, “to lift up” (the voice), probably from late 14c. West Midlands dialect lulten “to sound an alarm,” of unknown origin. Possible relatives include Norwegian lilla “to sing” and Low German lul “pipe.” It is possible that the whole loose group is imitative. Sense of “sing in a light manner” is first recorded 1786.

6. ravel: 1580s, “to untangle, unwind,” also “to become tangled or confused,” from Dutch ravelen “to tangle, fray, unweave,” from rafel “frayed thread.” The seemingly contradictory senses of this word (ravel and unravel are both synonyms and antonyms) are reconciled by its roots in weaving and sewing: as threads become unwoven, they get tangled. I like the way this ties in to imbroglio, pun intended.

7. ratatouille: 877, from French, first element uncertain, second element evidently touiller “to stir up.”

8. quintessential: c.1600, from quintessence, early 15c., in ancient and medieval philosophy, “pure essence, substance of which the heavenly bodies are composed,” lit. “fifth essence,” from Middle French quinte essence (14c.), from Medieval Latin quinta essentia. Loan-translation of Greek pempte ousia, the “ether” added by Aristotle to the four known elements (water, earth, fire, air) and said to permeate all things. Its extraction was one of the chief goals of alchemy. Sense of “purest essence” (of a situation, character, etc.) is first recorded 1580s.

9. wherewithal: “means by which,” 1530s, from where [Old English hwær, hwar, from Proto-Germanic khwar, from Proto-Indo-European qwo– (see who) + withal [“in addition,” late 14c., from Middle English with alle (c.1200), superseding Old English mid ealle “wholly”]. Okay, if you’re still tracking, an alternate definition states, “the means needed for a particular purpose,” which encompasses the where and the whole and the who. Kind of great.

10. nuance: 1781, from French nuance “slight difference, shade of color,” from nuer “to shade,” from nue “cloud,” from Gallo-Romance nuba, from Latin nubes “cloud;” related to obnubere “to veil,” from Proto-Indo-European sneudh– “fog” (cf. Avestan snaoda “clouds,” Welsh nudd “fog,” Greek nython, in Hesychius “dark, dusky”). Nuance is one of those words that demonstrates how something as tangible as weather can root meaning.

11. translucent: 1590s, from Latin translucentem, present participle of translucere “to shine through,” from trans– “through” + lucere “to shine.”

12. turtle: 1) reptile, c.1600, “marine tortoise,” from French tortue “turtle, tortoise,” of unknown origin. The English word is perhaps a sailors’ mauling of the French one; 2) “turtledove,” Old English turtle, dissimilation of Latin turtur “turtledove,” a reduplicated form imitative of the bird’s call. Graceful, harmonious and affectionate to its mate, hence a term of endearment in Middle English. I want to revive this one.

13. ephemeral: 1560s; Originally of diseases and lifespans; extended sense of “transitory” is from 1630s. From ephemera, late 14c., originally a medical term, from Medieval Latin ephemera (febris) “(fever) lasting a day,” from Greek ephemeros “lasting only one day, short-lived.” Sense extended 17c. to short-lived insects and flowers; general sense of “thing of transitory existence” is first attested 1751. Compare to Greek ephemeroi “men,” literal “creatures of a day.” I can’t help but think of Psalm 103: “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer” (NAS, v. 15-16).

14. murmur: late 14c., “expression of discontent by grumbling,” from Old French murmure (12c.), noun of action from murmurer, from Latin murmurare, from murmur (n.) “a hum, muttering, rushing.” Meaning “softly spoken words” is from 1670s.

15. filament: 1590s, from Modern Latin filamentum, from Late Latin filare “to spin, draw out in a long line,” from Latin filum “thread.”

Gabriel’s favorite word (I asked, he answered):

outside: from out [Old English ut, from Proto-Indo-European root ud– “up, up away” (from various languages meaning “up, out,” “higher, upper, later, northern,” “all the way to, without interruption”)] + side [Old English side “flanks of a person, the long part or aspect of anything,” from Proto-Germanic sithas “long” (“long, broad, spacious” or “long, hanging down”)]. This may be my favorite word on the list for the way it says something essential about Gabriel. All the way to, without interruption—higher, upper, later—up, out—long, broad, spacious.

John’s favorite word (which is just to say a word he thinks is lovely):

bioluminescence: bio [from Greek bio-, comb. form of bios “one’s life, course or way of living, lifetime,” from Proto-Indo-European root gweie– “to live”] + luminsence [related to luminous, early 15 century, “full of light,” from Latin luminosus “shining, full of light,” from lumen (luminis) “light,” related to lucere “to shine”]. Luminescence first used in 1884. Prof. E. Wiedmann made a study of fluorescence and phosphorescence phenomena. He proposed the general name luminescence for evolutions of light which do not depend on the temperature of the substance concerned. [“Photographic News,” 1888]

Jonah’s favorite word (J substituted favorite thing for favorite word):

Charlie & Lola: Charlie, form of Charles, Germanic meaning “free man,” English meaning “man,” French meaning “free man.” Lola, form of Delores, Spanish meaning “sorrows,” Sanskrit meaning “moving to and fro.” Okay, maybe (as usual) Jonah knew exactly what he was talking about, though it seemed otherwise. Like Gabriel, his choice sums up his person: free man moving to and fro. I’ll leave the sorrows for another day… 


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