I’ve gotten some early responses to my attempt to describe words that sound true of themselves, and I thought I’d pass them along. A linguistics professor at Swarthmore points out that Russian linguists have a term for these words, obrazopodrazhatel’no, which means, literally, “form-mimetic.” I think I’ll stick with my suggestion: agenbite.
Another writer observes that some, though not all, of this phenomenon is created by what linguists call a “phonestheme.” Coined back in the 1930s by J.R. Firth, the term names the fact that, for unknown reasons, certain sounds are associated with a particular genus of objects or actions. So, for instance, the phonestheme “gl-” appears in a surprising number of words about light: glitter, glisten, glow, gleam, glare, glint, etc.
A reader, Mannie Sherberg, emails to note another phonestheme, with an initial “bl-” occurring in words about speech with a negative connotation: blab, blah-blah-blah, blandish, blankety-blank, blarney, blaspheme, blather, bleat, bleep, blither, blooper, bloviate, blowhard, blubber, bluff, blurt, bluster.
But Firth’s observation of phonesthemes is only part of what we mean by agenbites—a process by which some of them get formed, as we come to associate certain sounds with a particular genus, which helps those words sound true.
Meanwhile, readers have sent in or listed on their websites other words that seem to them agenbites. Maybe most interesting is Wendy V.’s suggestion of the category of anti-agenbites. I had said that words like perspicacious failed to be agenbites, but Wendy observes that pulchritude is more than a failure; it’s a full-blown anti-agenbite: a word that sounds false about itself.
My friend Fr. Edward Oakes, S.J., emails: “Frizzy sounds frizzy to me; frazzled too. And can’t you just hear the fizz in fizzy?,” which suggests there’s a phonestheme in that z-sound, though the origin may be in the onomatopoeia of fizz. Another readers writes in with “Phlegmatic—A word that tends to linger too long (if one is not careful) in the back of the throat.” In the teaser for a link to the article on Arts & Letters Daily, another friend, Denis Dutton, couldn’t resist adding his own example of puny.
Let’s see, what else? One blogger and his commenters suggest mucilage, piffle, ponnnnnnnnntificate, drone, bumptious, luscious, and juicy. Another adds nostrum, and yet another suggests the surname Bottum.
The formalist poets who meet on the website Eratosphere add weird, darken, luff, pluck, relinquish, runt, straddle, stun, tuft, and other possibilities.
Send in more, if ideas come to you.