The Magazine

Agenbites

Joseph Bottum, wordy.

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Thwart. Yes, thwart is a good word. Thwarted. Athwart. A kind of satisfaction lives in such words--a unity, a completion. Teach them to a child, and you'll see what I mean: skirt, scalp, drab, buckle, sneaker, twist, jumble. Squeamish, for that matter. They taste good in the mouth, and they seem to resound with their own verbal truthfulness.

More like proper nouns than mere words, they match the objects they describe. Pickle, gloomy, portly, curmudgeon--sounds that loop back on themselves to close the circle of meaning. They're perfect, in their way. They're what all language wants to be when it grows up.

Admittedly, some of this comes from onomatopoeia: words that echo the sound of what they name. Hiccup, for instance, and zip. The animal cries of quack and oink and howl. The mechanical noises of click and clack and clank. Chickadees, cuckoos, and whip-poor-wills all get their names this way. Whooping cranes, as well, and when I was little, I pictured them as sickly birds, somehow akin to whooping cough.

And yet, that word akin--that's a good word, too, though it lacks even the near-onomatopoeia of percussion and lullaby, or the ideophonic picture-drawing of clickety-clack and gobble. The words I'm thinking of are, rather, the ones that feel right when we say them: accurate expressions, somehow, for themselves. Apple, for instance, has always seemed to me the perfect name--a crisp and tanged and ruddy word.

Grammarians may have a technical term for these words that sound true, though I've never come across quite what I'm looking for. Homological, maybe? Autological? Ipsoverific? In a logical sense, of course, some words are literally true or false when applied to themselves. Words about words, typically: Noun is a noun, though verb is not a verb. Poly-
syllabic is self-true, and monosyllabic is not. And this logical notion of autology can be extended. If short seems a short word, true of itself, then the shorter long must be false of itself.

But what about jab or fluffy or sneer, each of them true in a way that goes beyond logic? Verbose has always struck me as a strangely verbose word. Peppy has that perky, energetic, spry sound it needs. And was there ever a more supercilious word than supercilious? Or one more lethargic than lethargic?

Let's coin a term for this kind of poetic, extralogical accuracy. Let's call it agenbite. That's a word Michael of Northgate cobbled up for his 1340 Remorse of Conscience--or Agenbite of Inwit, as he actually titled the book. English would later settle on the French-born word "remorse" to carry the sense of the Latin re-mordere, "to bite again." But Michael didn't know that at the time, and so he simply translated the word's parts: again-bite or (in the muddle of early English spelling) agenbite.

Anyway, these words that sound true need some kind of name. And since they do bite back on themselves, like a snake swallowing its tail, Michael's term will do as well as any other. Ethereal is an agenbite, isn't it? All ethereal and airy. Rapier, swashbuckler, erstwhile, obfuscate, spume--agenbites, every one. Reverberation reverberates, and jingle jingles. A friend insists that machination is a word that tells you all about its Machiavellian self, and surely sporadic is a clean agenbite, with something patchy and intermittent in the taste as you say it.

Sheer sound won't make one of these agenbites, however pleasurable the word feels on the tongue. Perspicacious is a succulent thing, I suppose, but who ever heard its perspicacity? Pragmatic seems closer, but in the end it's not quite hardnosed enough to get the job done. Pertussis, the scientific name for whooping cough, is one of those bad Latin terms that doctors used to invent, back in the days before they settled on the odd convention of naming diseases after doctors. And, as far as the sound goes, you can't ask for a better word to pronounce than pertussis--but where's the whoop?

Odd. Now there's a word that says just what it means. Dwindle wants to fade away even while you're saying it. And surely splendiferous is a solid agenbite, expressing its own hollow pomposity. For that matter, isn't hollow a little hollow, with the sound of a hole at its center? Maybe not, but you always know where you are with words like dreary and gossip and gut and bludgeon. Or with onomatopoeics like flap and slurp and splash and gurgle. Or with the whole set of English -umbles: fumble and mumble and bumble.

Gargoyle sounds like a word that knows just what it is. Snake and swoop and spew all reach back to gnaw on themselves--agenbites of speech. They're part of what makes poetry work. They're what all language wants to be, when it grows up.


JOSEPH BOTTUM