The Phrontistery

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Numerical Notation: A Comparative History Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger

Open Wide and Say Aa

Linguistic Disquisitions
Hover over italicized words for definitions

To open this series of disquisitions on various linguistic topics, the most natural place to start, it seems to me, is at the very beginning. Indeed, a very good place to start. So, I turn to "aa", which is not only a useful word to have on a Scrabble board (one which I have used on many a grumpy opponent), but also a very interesting word in many other respects.

Aa (pronounced 'ah-ah') refers to a type of rough and jagged volcanic rock formed by lava flow, or to the slowly flowing lava that produces such rocks. It is contrasted with pahoehoe lava, which is smooth and caused by fast volcanic flows. Unsurprisingly, the word is of Hawaiian origin, but unlike most Hawaiian words that have made the trek eastward into English, aa is also used outside of Hawaiian cultural contexts, by geologists, vulcanologists, and the like. The only other Hawaiian word that has really made any inroads into everyday English is ukulele, but that doesn't really count, given that it's a word applied by the Hawaiians to that instrument, which was in fact of Portuguese origin. The word aa (normally with a stroke above it) is also sometimes used on medical prescriptions as an abbreviation for ana, a Late Latin adverb meaning "in equal quantities" that wriggled its way into English in the same way as many other Latin terms, by attaching itself to a high-prestige profession (law, theology, music, medicine, etc.).

But my interest in aa is not primarily etymological. Aa is the first word in many dictionaries, if we are not counting the indefinite article 'a'. It is a palindrome (obviously); moreover, it is the only two-letter palindrome in the English language. (Scrabble and Boggle players will know that 'mm' is considered acceptable for play, but as far as I'm concerned, it's an excrescence). This feature in itself renders 'aa' an interesting topic. But there is more to be said. It is a two-letter, two-syllable word, giving it a 1:1 ratio of syllables to letters (true only of 'a' and 'I'. Aa is also a reduplicated word one in which, like murmur or valval, the first and second halves of the word are identical. Many words derived from Hawaiian and other Polynesian languages are also reduplicated: muumuu, mahimahi, lavalava, and so on. Obviously, a reduplicated word can only have an even number of letters, and thus aa is the shortest among this set of words. And, thinking about it for a moment, since aa has only two letters, it is the only reduplicated word to also be a palindrome. Surely, these factors in combination earn aa a special place in the annals of lexicology.

Because the English-speaking world is almost entirely volcano-free (notwithstanding those living along the Pacific Rim), most of our words relating to volcanoes have been borrowed from elsewhere. Some such words are short: take puy, for instance, a term for a small volcanic cone, from French but originally from Latin podium "a height". My wife and I have a bottle of red wine stored away in our cupboards known as "Chateau Puyfromage"; we are literally dreading the thought of drinking it on the basis of its name alone, though I suspect that it may not actually be that bad. Most Indo-European volcano words come from Late Latin or early modern Italian, however (there is not a great distinction to be made between the two): fumarole, caldera, and tufa.

One of the most appealing volcano words I know, however, is of far more recent origin. Tephra is a word first coined in 1944 from the Greek word for 'ashes' to mean solid debris and ash ejected during a volcanic eruption. Its use is basically restricted to vulcanology, as are words derived from it such as tephrochronology, a method of dating prehistoric materials based on the chemical composition of volcanic rock in the region. If you ask me, though, 'tephra' has a certain eutony, and would perhaps even make a pleasant girl's name, if not for the fact that its meaning is a bunch of dirt, debris and burnt stuff that gets hurled at high speed and temperature out of a volcano. Then again, the name Mary means 'bitter', but that doesn't seem to have decreased its popularity at all.

Names are funny things, when you think about it. Shakespeare tells us that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but, in the words of the immortal Bart Simpson, "not if you called them stench blossoms". With apologies, I'll take Bart over the Bard on this issue. Names for things hold a strong emotional resonance for many people, including myself. When giving a name to something, either a person, place, business, word or whatever, one needs to balance the issues of meaning, but in many cases, one must also take into account the sound of the word. For instance, in giving names to new corporations and products, one piece of marketing folk wisdom says that the 'k' sound (witness Kodak, Exxon, Coca-Cola, etc.) is preferable in order for the name to have the appropriate emotional impact and ease of recall. Then again, you don't want to give your company a name that will be offensive or laughable in some foreign tongue. The lads of Monty Python aptly divided the world of words into "woody" and "tinny" words, and while I don't think they hit on some sort of new paradigm for lexical taxonomy, I don't think they were entirely wrong, either.

So in the end, we return to the beginning, and to aa. Aa is clearly an extraordinary woody word; it really ought to be intoned in a deep voice, bellowing from the back of the throat and bursting forth, perhaps across a massive canyon. No feeble fricatives or sapless sibilants diminish its purity of sound. Neither teeth, tongue nor lips impede it on its journey from the larynx to the listener. Aa embodies the fierce majesty of the slow-flowing yet deadly and indefatigable lava flow that it represents.

Can such profundity truly flow from a rare type of rock? Perhaps not, but enlightenment can flow from strange places even from volcanoes. I hope that in discussions to come, I will be able to share with you more of my pretentious linguistic insights.

I hope you have found this site to be useful. If you have any corrections, additions, or comments, please contact me. Please note that I am not able to respond to all requests. Please consult a major dictionary before e-mailing your query. All material on this page © 1996-2013 Stephen Chrisomalis. Links to this page may be made without permission.

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