In 1946 the National Association of Teachers of Speech* issued its list of what it regarded as the ten worst-sounding words in the English language. We can thank the NATS for putting these little bugs in our ears. In alphabetical order these words are:
1. Cacophony: a harsh or discordant sound. The root of this word, kako, is Greek, meaning bad, toxic, or malignant; the phon (y) part is Greek, too, meaning voice or sound. I can understand how the Greeks came up with “bad” for kako; it looks a lot like ka-ka or ca-ca, which we all know is pretty bad stuff indeed. As for phon (y), anybody would make a bad sound upon encountering ca-ca.
2. Crunch: to crush with the teeth; chew with a crushing noise; to crush or grind noisily. I couldn’t find an exact derivation of the word crunch except that it is probably a combination of crush and craunch (thought to be an imitative word–onomatopoeia–like “Bang!” or “ding-dong” or “woof”). If you’ve ever stepped on a cockroach you know why crunch can be a bad sound.
3. Flatulent: marked by or affected with gas generated in the intestine or stomach, from the Latin flatus, blowing or wind. The word “flat” has many meanings, including below the proper musical pitch. We’ve all heard or experienced flatulent sounds that resemble the low pitch of a tuba, but sometimes they come out as little trumpet toots, too. Not exactly music to our ears.
4. Gripe: to seize, grasp; afflict, distress; irritate, vex. To cause pinching and spasmodic pain in the bowels of; to complain with grumbling. Gripe comes from Middle and Old English gripan, Old High German grifan, and Lithuanian (Lithuanian?) griebti. Curious, isn’t it, that a bowel distress-related word should come from guttural languages?
5. Jazz: American music . . . [of] propulsive syncopated [cut short, i.e., aborted] rhythms, polyphonic [many sounds (i.e., noise)] ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation [made up], and often deliberate distortions [deformities, damage, misrepresentations] of pitch and timbre. No wonder this word is included on the NATS list; “jazz” seems to be a self-described onomatopoeia.
6. Phlegmatic: resembling, consisting of, or producing the humor phlegm. Originally from the Late Latin (those pagan Romans really were decadent) and nothing funny about it. A phlegmatic is a slow, dull, stupid person. A lot of these can be seen on reality TV shows or at your local state prison.
7. Plump, a word of numerous meanings, including: to drop or sink suddenly or heavily, as when falling off the wagon; having a full, rounded usually pleasing form, i.e., a plump woman (not said of a man, though; maybe he’s just a lump). Plump can also mean a group or flock, as in Thoreau’s reference to a plump of ducks; this probably refers to the sound made upon encountering humans during hunting season.
8. Plutocrat: government by the wealthy; a controlling class of the wealthy, from the Greek ploutos, for wealth. This term could apply to politicians enriched at the public trough. The Greeks also gave us the word Pluto, the name of the god of the underworld. Politicians act more and more like the underworld, i.e., criminal, element these days. Pluto was also the name given to the most distant planet in our solar system. Politicians should be sent to Pluto where, since it is no longer considered a planet, they won’t be worthy of recognition either.
9. Sap: the fluid part of a plant; a body fluid. Think of this as slime or ooze, something repulsive or disgusting. A lot of this flows in Washington, D.C. Sap is also the term for a silly or gullible person; anyone who trades his vote for a free cell phone is a sap.
10. Treachery: violation of allegiance or of faith and confidence; from Middle English and Old French, meaning to deceive. See Nos. 8 and 9 above.
© 2012, The Wit’s End Scribbler
*The Association has undergone numerous name changes since its inception as the National Association of Teachers of Public Speaking in 1914. Maybe the group has been looking for a better sounding name of its own.