or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Breath Control

A couple of weeks ago I was describing a scent that had a suffocating quality, and, looking for an adjectival version of "asphyxia", settled on "asphixiatory", after considering and dismissing "asphyxiative", although that would have done, too, I think--I just liked the sound of "asphyxiatory" better in context. (One of the nice things about English is that with our trousseau of affixes, we can make up words to suit our needs; I needed an adjective, took a noun, transformed it, and got the word I wanted. This, as I have warned in the past and will now mention again, is not for the novice; like handling a loaded gun, you have to know what you're doing.)

Yesterday I got an e-mail from Yves Rocher--I am on so many mailing lists, you wouldn't believe--and was baffled by a product they were offering: "Anti-Asphyxiation Flash Mask". No, it isn't an oxygen supply: it's some sort of gunk that apply to your face, and I guess it keeps your skin from...asphyxiating. As if your skin were ever in danger of doing that in the first place. But the best way to sell something is to 1) invent a need that nobody knew they had and 2) sell a product to meet that need as if the purchaser's life depended on it. I suppose if you are afraid that your skin will suffocate, you'll pay anything to keep that from happening.

Anyway, that weirdness aside, where did the word "asphyxia" come from in the first place? Gotta be Greek, obviously, but after that...what?

You will hardly believe me when I tell you that originally it had nothing to do with breathing at all. The root is "a-", "not", plus "sphyzein", "to throb", so something asphyxiative is something that stills your pulse, which suffocation will undoubtedly do if you keep at it long enough.

There is one other "sphyzein" word in English, barely recognizable as a relative and not common in any case: "sphygmomanometer", the device that measures your blood pressure with a cuff and a pump. At least in that case you can see where the verb "to throb" would come in.


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