Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Sound of Leaves Blowing in the Wind

I wouldn’t make a point of writing about words every week if I didn’t think they had value individually, as opposed to just as units in a string that allow you to express yourself. In addition to meaning, words also carry history, and by looking into where a word came from and how it’s been used over the course of its life, you can learn about the everyday lives of your forbearers in ways that you likely can’t from a history book’s sweeping overview of some ancient people. Also, words can be beautiful, even when they’re severed from their meaning. I’d argue in favor of the intrinsic phonetic beauty in words such as espalier, petrichor and cephalophore — the last one especially when it’s disconnected from its meaning.

Today, another beauty.
psithurism (PSITH-ur-izm) — noun: the sound of wind in the trees and rustling of leaves.
Hell, even the very definition of it damn near rhymes, as if the word were so beautiful that other words around it naturally organize themselves into poetry. I found the this world on the language blog Inky Fool, which astutely points out that an intelligent person just might be able to intuit the definition of psithurism without any context and just from the sound of the letters. Some people might, and there may be similar onomatopoetic magic at play with the similar word susurration, “a whispering.”

image via

The word may have began as imitative, but English at least got psithurism from the Greek psithurisma, which in turn descends from the Greek verb psithurizo and has interpretations as far-ranging as “whisper” and “scandal” and “rustle” and “babbling” and “lapping” — all of which, of course, are clearly related. I’d like to think the word stuck around in Greek and now in English because the act of imitating such a subtle, delicate act of nature — leaves blowing in the wind — elevates the language in which the word is being spoken.

Previous words of the week after the jump.

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