Other Bodily Movements IV
Bill Long 4/10/06
In the previous three essays I examined the words jactitation (tossing to and fro or boasting) and nictitation (winking or blinking). Let me list another nine sophisticated words which reflect bodily movements, and then move through the "list," giving examples as I go. We have oscitation (yawn) and pandiculation (stretch) and osculation (kissing) and sternutation (sneeze) and stertor (snore) and singult (sigh or sob) and hickock (hiccup) and eructation (belching) and bruxism (grinding of teeth). I am almost sure that as I go through the list and massage the words that others will emerge to take us down hitherto unexplored paths. But it is all good, since it leads to a deeper understanding of our words and our world.
The Latin word for "mouth" is os, oris (n.). Citare means to move or to actuate. Thus, oscitancy or oscitation refers to movements of the mouth--in gaping or yawning. The verb is attested as early as 1623 in Cockeram's dictionary but the noun oscitation appears as early as 1547 in a medical book. "Ossitacio is the latyn worde..In englysh it is named ossitacion yeanynge or gapynge." This word would eventually be picked up by Protestant divines in the 17th century and used figuratively to describe congregants who had lost their zeal for Christian faith. From an exposition of I Thessalonians in 1619: "Tendring their presence in the Congregation to fill up the number, but with such
Oscitancie, and gaping drowzinesse, that they regard not what is spoken unto them." Or, from John Dyke's Selected Sermons in 1620, we have: "An oscitancy of spirit." The medieval equivalent was one of the Seven Deadly Sins: acedia (sloth), known more frequently in English as accidie. You can use the word oscitancy indiscriminantly against almost anyone you want, as long as you want to emphasize those of winking eye and slumbering manner, of listless energy and dull inattentiveness. A medical book from 1822 says: "The particular kind of pandiculation..being called Oscitancy, Yawning or Gaping."
This previous quotation drives us back to the dictionary to see how oscitancy is related to pandiculation. Pandiculation is derived from the Latin pandulare and means "to stretch out, open, extend." It is a word used to emphasize those liminal states between waking and sleeping, between sedentary and active living. Stretching. Or, better, stretttcccchiiinggg. Thus, it is improper to see pandiculation as synonymous with yawning--rather it emphasizes the stretching of a person newly awakened or sleepy and fatigued. The word was used as recently as 2000 in the Daily Mail: "His research showed that yawning or pandiculation as it is scientifically known is not what we thought it was."
Speaking of the yawn as not what we thought it was, a new book (2004) of nearly 400 pages looks at the semanitics, physiology, psychology, sociology and ethology of the yawn. In On Yawning, Dutch scholar Wolter Seuntjens also examines the use of the yawn in art and literature. His conclusion, not unusual for our age, is that the yawn is an incredibly complex phenomenon but has a prominent erotic side to it. In his words, "It becomes clear that in the data we gathered there is at least one recurrent theme: eroticism-seuality. There is more than a hint of an erotic-sexual aspect in yawning." How? Well, Seuntjens tries to show that the "yawn" and the "stretch" are associated with "desire" and "longing for." Several proverbs and sayings associate yawning, especially contagious yawning, as a clue not simply of sympathy but of being in love. The following passage from Thomas Hardy's Tess captures perfectly the erotic potential of the yawn and stretch.
"She had not heard him enter, and hardly realized his presence there. She was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth as if it had been a snake's. She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn; her face was flushed with sleep, and her eyelids hung heavy over the pupils. The brim-fullness of her nature breathed from her. It was a moment when a woman's soul is more incarnate than at any other time; when the most spiritual beauty bespeaks itself flesh; and sex takes the outside place in the representation."
The passage is fascinating because of the raw sensuality of the imagery. Stretching and yawning are the acts through which incarnation of women takes place. If the Word became flesh through the incarnation of the Christ, beauty truly becomes flesh through the stretching of the female.
I think the next time my students begin to stretch and yawn in class, I will be tempted to commend them for the robust energy, rather than the lassitude, which this action demonstrates. Why, then, was the yawn suppressed? Why is it portrayed as something discourteous? It may, actually, be an expression of the road to deeper engagement with what is being said. The more we study, the less we seem to know about the human creature....
The next essay brings us back to more bodily movements.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long