Fat and Phonics
by Hillel Schwartz

Facetious, facile, factious, factitious, fad, fag, fallacious, famine, fanatic, phantasm, farrago, fascist, fatigue, fatuous, fat.

Fanning through the thesaurus and flipping through various dictionaries, I have compiled some peculiar lists and have been led to an uncomfortable observation. It turns out, in English, that the fa sound of "fat" calls forth twice as many distinctly pejorative words as it does propitious words such as fabulous, factual, familiar, fancy, fanfare, fantastic, fascinating. If I list fa words on visual evidence alone, regardless of how the a is sounded, the additional distinct pejoratives (faceless, fail, faint, fake, fall, false, falter, farce, fart, fatal, fatality, fault, fawning, fay, faze) still outnumber by two-to-one the additional positives (fabled, fair, faith, fame, fashionable, father, favor, favorable).*

This is hardly the same with the thi sound of thin, which entails a rather neutral set of words (thick, thill, thimble, this, thistle). Extended to all th words, my list comes out surprisingly balanced. There are the distinct pejoratives (theft, thickheaded, thief, Third Reich, thorny, thrall, thrash, threaten, thwart, thug, throwback, thrombosis, throttle, threadbare, thud), but we have equally numerous propitious words (thank, thankfulness, thaumaturge, thaw, theater, theodicy, therapy, theurgy, think, thoroughbred, thoughtful, thousandfold, thrill, thrift).

Therefore it is not, as I at first suspected, that the English language favors pejoratives wherever one looks across the alphabet, blessed as it is (or saddled as we are) with a lexicon unusually rich in vitriol and diverse in invective. No, it is really possible that as much is going on here as meets the eye and the ear.

The theo of theodicy and theurgy (and, in the long run, of therapy) derives from the diphthonged Sanskrit root for god, dy, whence, eventually, the word "deity." Thinliness is thus quite close to godliness, in sound and source, in English dictionaries. Not so for fa, which has in its ancestry the f of Phaedra, "daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, wife of Theseus, and stepmother of Hippolytus, with whom she fell hopelessly in love, eventually hanging herself."

True, such an explanation for the privileged status of the English syllable thi over the syllable fa may be more a fanciful language game than a thoroughly scholarly linguistics, but something not-so-funny is definitely going on and it begs for explanation. Th, like anorexia, may draw people on toward the deity and dirge of death, but Thanatos and threnody are never so much on Anglo-American lips as the fa of fanaticism and fatality. The most heavily censored four-letter word begins with an f, not a th, and when we fail in school we are awarded nothing less than the accursed F.

Phony as they may be, fanning our fears and phobias, why do our grading systems so regularly proceed from A to B to C to D and then skip, for failure, to F? Merely for the consonance? Or because, built into our language, despite friends, fun, and the future, is a tight association between incapacity, loss, suicide, and the fa? If only for the sake of consonance, wouldn't it be more fitting to proceed from X for extraordinary to w for Wonderful to v for Very-good to U for Unremarkable to T for Terrible or Threadbare or Thud?

F for Fake was the title of an Orson Welles film about deception, art fraud, and counterfeiting. T, in our present jargon, stands for the excitement of a T-bird, the righteousness of the T-square, the conscientiousness of teetotalism, the aptness of something or someone suiting me to a T. The spoken name of the letter F is a faint circumlocution or a scarcely defanged abbreviation for obscenity (as in an "effing son-of-a"); speaking the name of the letter T takes us to the calm green swards of a golf course, or to a polite afternoon ritual, or to the jauntier eroticism of a wet shirt contest.

Fixed in these contexts, F as frontrunner to a word or phrase is flat-out working-class or degenerate (fin de siècle), while T at the tete (head) is tremendously more tiptop and refined. Even when Julie Andrews and her chorus of Austrian kids ran up and down the scale in The Sound of Music, their fa was "a long long way to go," implying effort and failure (and the uneducated dropping of an r); their ti was simply "a drink with jam and bread," easy, complete, and refreshing. one labors, and falters, at F; one enjoys, and relaxes over, or becomes invigorated by, T.

Further, we seem to import into English from other languages those fa-words which confirm our tacit convictions about-and indictment of-the syllable: faux pas; fait-neant (do-nothing); facheux (stupid); facilis est descensus Averni (easy is the descent to hell). Meanwhile, our th words are unusual; few of the world's major spoken languages, aside from English, Greek, Hindi, and some dialects of Spanish and Portuguese, have any true th sounds-there are none in most western European tongues, where th, whenever it appears, becomes a hard t; none in the Slavic or Semitic tongues; none in Japanese or Mandarin Chinese. And among native English speakers, the th is almost as striking a stumbling block for those who stutter as the s is for those who lis(th)p. Does Porky the Pig stutter his th's because he can never seem to th-thin himself down? Does the th represent the inachievable as well as the inexpressible? Is the th of theo (=god) and thinness (=godliness?) the be-all and end-all? Wherefore, at the end of every cartoon (now at last I get it): "Th-th-that's all, folks!"

Fiddle-faddle, I can hear readers saying to themselves. Mere sounds can't be held accountable either for stuttering or for prejudice. That's right: they can't. But if the sounds reflect a prejudice weighted heavily against fat and the closely related flab, we may recognize in patterns of speech some habits of soundmaking which subtly and powerfully sustain that common prejudice. By pointing up those patterns we can sensitize people to the significance of otherwise arbitary constellations of sounds which, in particular, links fat and the fatty to fatuity, facelessness, failure and fatality.

Fine poets and lyricists have occasionally wondered whether there be not some underlying rationale to the alliterations they use to such brilliant effect. Do the concatenations of words and tintinnabulations of sound in a language arise from some inner or hidden nexus which is natural or, at least, less than arbitrary? As we shape our lips into a fa, for example, are we in effect making a pan-human face of distaste, as in feh! and fah! and fiddlesticks and fooev? Does the sibilant sl slide through our mouths between tongue and upper teeth then out our open lips with a fundamentally human and sensuous appreciation for slenderness?

The syllable ma does appear in the term for mother in an astonishing number of languages, which may be explained (argues one great linguist) by the immediate bond with the sound an infant makes while sucking at the mother's breast, and which may be further explained by the ease with which the sound can be made absent teeth and a trained tongue. However, there are no other sounds that come close to being universally expressive of the same meaning or affect. Not even, as one might guess, the guttural yeccch of "true" disgust. Of our English fa implies, by sound or grimace, a grave distaste, such an implication is sheerly an artifact of our culture-perhaps of the condition of our teeth or our (bad) breath, the nature of our foods, our forms of etiquettes for eating or greeting, the customary uses of the lips and teeth in sewing or lovemaking, the legends and lore accompanying a slowly expelled breath. It cannot be an argument for any inherent and timeless fault, some original sin associated with the speaking of the fa sound itself-which in Chinese (as I am given to understand) may be inflected many ways and has many overtones, some pejorative, some propitious, some neutral.

Though the maxim we all hear during childhood finds sticks and stones more worrisome, names DO hurt, and they may hurt us to the bone. we can't, of course-and society won't-suddenly embrace some metaphorical F-stop and cease using every pejorative word that begins with fa (or pha). There will be no pharaonic decree banning the fa sound from the English language. we could, maybe, convert some fa words that are currently bi-valent (facade, factory, fade, Fahrenheit, phallic, famished, fast, fasten) so as to enlist them exclusively among the list of propitious words and gradually overwhelm the assembled host of pejoratives: a long bet. We could, obversely, smooth out the odds by turning more th words to the pejorative: an even longer bet. we could begin to invent a larger set of favorable fa words, a la Lewis Carroll or Anthony Burgess, and that might be worth a try; at the very least it would be fun: fabble, fafigious, falluncular, fanirical, fasque. . . . Or we could try, as many readers of Dimensions have been trying, to transfer the fa of fat from the - side to the +, the side of redemption, along with such new releases (in English) as falafel and fajita and fax and the current renaissance in the game of fantan.Few attempts to reform a language for ideological purposes are successul. Thirty years after the insistent introduction of supposedly nonsexist language, we are still and ungrammatically struggling with pronomial gender references and the awkward, ungainly he-or-she: "whatever she or he wants, I am sure that they will be able to find their heart's desire here in this store." It would take far more effort to revise our society's approach to a basic (base) sound.

The best we can do is to interrupt people whenever they exploit the apparent randomness of alliteration to make a debating point about fat as fate, fatigue, or falsehood. After all, one might say, what about thin and threat, threadbare, throwback, and thorazine? Should others gabble on from obesity to obituary and obsolescence, one might remind them of the aural slope down from slim, sleek, or slender to such pejoratives as slanderous, slimy, slippery, slipshod, slowwitted, slurred, and slum.

If we are in earnest about speaking out, about raising voices in defense of size acceptance or alternative visions of beautiful form, then shouldn't we be paying as much attention to the sounds we make as to the sense we trust we are making? Music, which for every practical purpose seems to be the Great Communicator and Great Persuader in our late 20th-century world, is more about rhythm than lyrics, more about sound than logical sense. In order to be great persuaders, it is increasingly incumbent upon us to make ourselves and everyone else aware of the clusters of sound by which our language, it seems, has been taking us all unawares and misleading us through a sad, possibly dangerous, fandango. ß

*Note: For the sake of brevity, I omit from all of my lists the many variations that would be produced by adding suffixes to the words. I am assuming that the toolbox of suffices in English is essentially neutral when it comes to making root words pejorative or propitious, so that the ratio between the pejorative and the propitious would remain approximately the same for any given initial syllable.



Musings