What’s in a sound?

Several days ago, Niall O’Donnell, who blogs at English-Language Thoughts, posted a very long story about playing a computer game “in which you travel across a pseudo-medieval fantasy land battling various undead creatures”. He usually played alone, but it’s possible to “summon” another player (who has made themself available to be summoned) to assist if required.

(Moderate strong language warning) 

On one occasion, he was facing two creatures “infamous for their difficulty” and “was brutally and quickly slaughtered”. Replaying the level, he summoned an assisting player, “a brave hero by the name of …  iluv2spooj (sic)” (that’s Niall’s sic, just in case he thinks we won’t believe him otherwise), who “fought skilfully and fearlessly alongside me”.

Niall “still died pretty quickly, and felt a little embarrassed”. He replayed the level several more times, and each time iluv2spooj made himself available to be summoned. “Three or four more times, we fought and died together. Well, I died”. Eventually, in a “nerve-wracking” battle,  they killed one of the creatures, then iluv2spooj “fell … after a cruel blow”. The other creature:

now turned his focus solely to me. He reduced my health with stroke after merciless stroke, but iluv2spooj and I had done so much damage that, just at the point when one more hit would have killed me, I slashed at [the creature], and his monstrous, massive body fell to the floor.

To Niall, the point of the story is usernames:

A name that sums us up, gets to the very core of ourselves, and communicates that true self to the rest of the world. It’s an opportunity to live out that fantasy of our name reflecting and revealing our authentic inner self. So why are so many usernames so, well… crappy?

The point of my post is the word spooj. If you don’t know what it means and are pure of mind, don’t search for it online. One of Niall’s commenters said “I had to google Spooj and now I wish I hadn’t”. (I may or may not be pure of mind, but I am dedicated to linguistic research.) I commented that splodge and splotch are established words, thinking that the username included splooj, not spooj. That doesn’t change the point of this post. Spooj, splooj and splooge are all on the Urban Dictionary (pure of mind re-warning), alongside goodness knows what else, but I would be surprised if they are in any standard dictionary (I’m not going to search every standard dictionary just to be sure).

Splodge dates from the 19th century and is variation of splotch, which in turn dates from around 1600, “origin uncertain, perhaps a blend of spot + blotch”. Spot (as a noun) is probably the most straightforward word in this chain, and dates from the 12th century. Blotch is also from around 1600, “perhaps blend of blot1 + botch2”. Blot (as a noun) is from around 1300, and botch (as a noun: “1. a swelling on the skin; a boil. 2. an eruptive disease.”) from the 14th century, derived from French boche or boce, meaning boss2. No, not like The Big Boss (who is boss1 and is derived from Dutch baas), but “BotanyZoology. a protuberance or roundish excrescence on the body or on some organ of an animal or plant” from the 13th century via Middle English via Anglo-French via Old French from Vulgar Latin *bottia, of uncertain origin. (The asterisk means that it’s not actually attested in any source but has been reconstructed by comparing related words in related languages). (It’s related to embossed paper.)

I would have thought that the verb botch was completely modern, but it dates from the 14th century, and comes from the noun botch, which was first a swelling on the skin (above), then “a clumsily-added patch”. The modern verb botch is not just about patching, but rather spoiling anything by poor work. (All definitions and etymologies from Dictionary.com.)

Having mentioned boss, I have to return to Niall’s story. Instead of calling them “creatures” throughout, he uses two variations on boss1:

However, there are a pair of bosses … who are infamous for their difficulty.

Some boss fights allowed you to summon nearby phantoms controlled by the computer

Alongside obvious onomatopoeia (“the process of creating a word that phonetically imitates, resembles, or suggests the sound that it describes” (Wikipedia)), there is a range of “sound symbolism”, where certain sounds, or groups of sounds, suggest, or seem to suggest, certain meanings. There is a cluster of English words with the sounds /s/, /p/, /l/, /r/ /tʃ/ and /dʒ/ with meanings related to liquidity or viscosity. 

PS I mentioned botch on Facebook, and one friend commented that Shakespeare had used it as a noun (Macbeth tells two hired murderers “to leave no rubs nor botches in the work” (that is, to leave no evidence after killing Banquo)) — and that she had assumed it originated around then or was one of Shakespeare’s coinages.


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