Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Wet, Yellow, Sticky Word

Who can resist an inherently ridiculous-sounding word?
phlegmagogue (FLEH-ma-gog) — noun: a medicine that expels phlegm.
Today, we’d call such a drug an expectorant, and I’d say we’re worse off for this change. I mean, who wants to live in a world where you can’t expect to be understood when you ask your friendly neighborhood chemist for a good phlegmagogue, perhaps in a minty syrup form? It’s just a great word — one that erupts from the throat not unlike a tacky mass of well-marinated phlegm.

Aside from being fun to say — and, if you’re sick, respiratory system-pleasing — phlegmagogue is interesting by virtue of that second word part, -gogue. It comes from the Greek agogos, “guide,” and appears in a few English words with various senses of guiding. A pedagogue, for example, is a teacher, literally a guide for children, and a demagogue is a leader or even someone who riles up a crowd with incendiary language. Synogogue comes from agogos as well as a root meaning “to gather,” and that’s essentially what Jews would do at their services. But the best, by far, would have to be galactagogue, whose meaning lies not in the stars but in the nipples. It means “a substance that induces lactation,” such as fenugreek or asparagus. The connection between the galaxy and milk might seem strange until you remember that we today call our neck of the woods the Milky Way. Our forebearers did too, more or less. Etymonline states that the Greeks called the white swirl in the sky galaxias kyklos, “milky circle.” And when you thinking about it, the phonetic difference between the word galactic and lactation is fairly slight.

And yes, I’m quite happy that the narrative line of this post began in the throat, went into deep space and then ended up back in the teat. Quite the journey.

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