Sunday, July 01, 2012

Elvis Is Alive… in the Snarls of Horny Animals

How I arrived at this week’s word: +1 for it sounding funny, +1 for it having to do with animals, +10 for it having to do with sex, +.5 for it having come from Dina, +1 for it having an apparently confusing etymology, and you know, now that I think about it, another +5 for it sounding funny.
flehm (FLEM or FLAYM, I suppose) — verb: to exhibit the flehmen response, i.e., to draw back the lips, allowing scent to reach the Jacobson’s organ, an auxiliary olfactory organ found in many animals.
So not so much this:

But more at this:

Many animals can pull off such a stylish snarl, but when it’s a felid — housecats to lions — or an ungulate — deer, rhinos, sheep and giraffes, among others, though horses are by far the most entertaining — they’re not doing it to appear more badass. Instead, they do it to let some stank into their vomeronasal organ, a handy little button inside their mouth that allows them to analyze smells — especially urine smells — for information such as “Who made this?” and “Who long ago did they make it?” and also “Would they maybe want to procreate with me?”

As a verb, flehm comes from the term Flehmen response. In fact, you could also just use flehmen as a verb to mean the same thing, as in, “Is the tapir displeased with me? Or is it just flehmening?” Beyond that, however, I don’t know where this term came from, aside from German. Merriam-Webster says only that it comes from the German flehmen, which means that exactly what the English flehmen does. It had to come from somewhere, but maybe you’d need the German version of Etymonline to find out.

There’s also the weirdness of the pronunciation. Technically, flehmen is pronounced exactly like you’d pronounce flamin’, and that makes me feel a whole new kind of gross about Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. But if the word you’re using is just flehm, I feel like any speaker of American English would naturally pronounce it like you would phlegm. Because this is the sort of word that is only ever going to be used by animal science grad students, there are no dictionary entries for flehm that include pronunciation notes. And in my head, that gives me the authority to just say that it should be “flem,” if for no other reason that to avoid making people think you’re speaking rather nonchalantly about a flaming horse.

In closing, I’d like to share something else that reminds me of Dina: Vlem, a one-off Rachel Dratch character from the season of 30 Rock she was allowed to be on:

Thanks, Dina (who also suggested dewlap and flews), but also thank you, Vlem. Appy Valentime Day to us all.

Previous words of the week after the jump.


  1. From OED -

    Etymology: < German Flehmen (mainly of horses) curling of the lip (in sexual excitement) (K. M. Schneider Zool. Garten (1930) 3 184).

    So, maybe Schneider just made it up?

    1. That's what I've come to assume. Or it's the last name of a researcher and therefore the etymology has no bearing on what it's come to mean.