Word of the Day: slack

Word of the Day: slack.

Have you ever noticed that there aren’t any words in French or Spanish that begin with sl-?  There weren’t any in Latin, either.  Every language rules out certain combinations of consonants, as being too hard to pronounce.  Hawaiian rules them all out!  You never get two consonants together in Hawaiian, but you sure get a lot of vowels to make up for them.

Now then, we know that the English language is a cousin of French and Spanish – and Latin.  Either Latin lost all the words that survive in English beginning with sl- (and in German, beginning with schl-), or the words are there, but they’re hidden.  It’s the latter.  Latin speakers didn’t like the sl, just as in Middle English we stopped liking kn- and wr-, ending up pronouncing only n and r.  The Latins dropped the s; or we may say that it was assimilated or absorbed into the following l, for ease of pronunciation.  It’s why we say collect instead of conlect and aggressive instead of adgressive.

The root idea underlying the sl- words is that of fluidity or softness or weakness: slow, slug, slink, slick.  The Latin relatives of our sl- words begin with l-.  So slack is related to Latin languere, to languish, to lie about, to be lax (from the past participle, laxus).  So a slacker is lax, by definition!  We see a similar doublet in this sentence: I saw the liquid cat slink into the basket.  Cats are liquid, of course, because they assume the shape of their containers.

Another odd thing about the sl- opening is that it seems to be still active: that is, productive of new words.  We didn’t use to slosh around in slush, in English.  When C. S. Lewis named the devil in charge of “education” Slubgob, he surely had in mind all the slack slumping sluggish slimy words that had long been slinking about in the linguistic slums.  But everybody’s favorite slug coinage has to be that of another Lewis, Carroll:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe.

I wish I’d said that!

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