or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Sign

Yesterday, a co-worker asked me about a word in a novel she was reading: she could sort of guess the meaning from the context (although she asked me about that, too), but mostly she didn't know how to pronounce it. "'Seagull' doesn't work, and I don't know what else to do with it," she said.

The word was "sigil". It means "sign" or "seal", as in "signet", to which it is related: it's Latin, of course, from "sigillum", the diminutive form of "signum", "sign". It's pronounced "SIDJ-ull", which is to say it rhymes with "vigil".

There are--to the best of my knowledge--only five words in English that end in "-gil". Four of them are directly from Latin, and the other is not. Try and guess which is which:

sigil, vigil, argil, ridgil, strigil

You already know "sigil" is from Latin. "Vigil" is a common enough word: you don't need me to tell you about it, do you? Very well: it's from the Latin "vigil", "awake", which led to "vigilia", "wakefulness", which eventually in English led to its secondary meaning, "religious devotional activities performed the evening before a holiday"--activities which required one to remain awake as a sort of penance.

If you're a regular reader, you've seen something like "argil" before: just last week, I wrote about cream of tartar (the biscuits came out very nicely, in case you were wondering), and one of the words that showed up was "argilla", Latin for "clay", which is just what "argil" means in English, reasonably enough.

A strigil is a device used by the Romans to remove dead skin cells after a bath: first, oil was applied to the skin, and then it was scraped off with the curved metal blade of the strigil. (You can duplicate this effect by rubbing moisturizer on your skin after a bath and then scraping it away with a old credit card, which is stiff enough to do the job but flexible enough to conform to the shape of your body and not damage the skin.)

"Ridgil" is the odd one out: it's a misspelling, I suppose, of "ridgel", which itself is a very strange contraction of "ridgeling", a male animal with undescended testicles.


Blogger Bright Beak said...

"strigil" was a word with which I already had passing familiarity. But again, like w/ sigil, I didn't apply the soft-g sound, and again was again using the -gull ending pronounciation. Obviously I was wrong. It still sounds absolutely bizarre, and somewhat horrific, to my inner listener. Alas, the rules of English pronounciation must be followed (except where they aren't to be followed because of a plethora of exceptions), and I am once again forced to pronounce a word in a manner I don't always have comfort using.
At least I do not have to pronounce it that way in my head :)

bb - who is annoyed by words that stop her abruptly when reading - either because the word is incorrect or because the pronounciation is not one with which I am familiar :P

Saturday, January 06, 2007 5:57:00 PM  

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