Ass and Name
Zola and Zoilus
A few Neos
What's in a Nem?
Pleo III-Two More Pleons
Achron.. and Acroam..
Per IV--Perpotation et al.
Per and Pre--Prevenient
Perpense and Perpend
Epi I--Epiplexis, et al.
The Doric Column
Epi III--Episemon et al.
SPH I--A Wonderful Prefix
Exploring Sphere, Sphincter, and Sphinx
Let's look at this exercise today as if we were having a block party. Neighbors don't necessarily have anything in common; they work different places, are often of different political and religious affiliations and keep different hours. Yet, sometimes they come out of their homes and even share a beer or hot dog. So, let's explore a few (not all) the words in the "SPH" neighborhood. I like the exercise of pronouncing "SPH." Try it. It takes some effort.
Let's start the point with something round: sphere. Everyone knows that a sphere is something "round" or "elliptical," but more arresting are some cousins: spheroid, sphery, and spherule. A spheroid is, of course, a noun, a ball or thing that is round. I first learned the word in 3rd grade when I memorized "Casey at the Bat," where the line says, "He (Casey) signaled to the pitcher and once more the spheroid flew, but Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, 'Strike Two.'" Great word. But spherule is a little round object, and can be used to try to mitigate one's responsibility for punishment: "the rock I threw was only a spherule." Just because the word ends in "le" doesn't mean it is a diminutive, however. If that were always the case, we would really be confused (in a latter essay) by the difference between epiploce (a rhetorical device) and epiplocele (a rupture of a bodily organ). In this case, however, "ule" is a diminutive. Then there is sphery, an adjective, which means "sphere-like." It seems most appropriate to use it with celestial phenomena: the "sphery heavens" or the "sphery tune" [perhaps with an indebtedness to Pythagorean theory about music being a reflection of the silent music of the spheres].
Living down the street from sphere, but with far different interests, is sphincter. Whereas talk of spheres often makes us lift eyes to the sunny heavens, talk of sphincters takes us to places where the sun doesn't shine. Talk of sphincters is most usual in the community of urologists, and is, for example, an organ that needs to be relaxed, if a urologist is to take a prostate biopsy. As most know, it is a contracting muscle that closes a bodily orifice. I think it only refers to the butt, because I never have heard of the mouth being called a sphincter (though the imagination can run with the idea). In any case, it is derived from a Greek verb transliterated as sphiggein, meaning to bind tightly together. In Greek if two gammas come together, the first is pronounced like a nu (an "n" sound); thus we have sphincter, rather than sphiggter or something like that. But we can make the adjective sphingteric, and I think we might find it very useful. It would mean "tight" or "in the nature of a sphincter." Thus, we might experiment with ways we might use the term. Recall in Shawshank Redemption, the old con named Brooks tried to dissuade Andy from asking for prison funds from the Warden, because when you ask himm for money he "puckers up tighter than a snare drum." So, a sphingteric warden was at issue. Now we can see how it can be used: to describe anyone who is what we might call a "tight ass." But, calling him (or her) sphingteric just has a much nicer ring to it. If you say it with a smile, the person may even smile in return and thank you for complimenting him or her.
Down the road a bit further is Sphinx and her children. We all learned about the riddle of the Sphinx when we read Oedipus Rex. The Sphinx is a creature from Greek mythology with a female face and leonine body. It posed a riddle that no one (or few) could solve. Thus, a person who is a sphinx is someone who is enigmatic or inscrutable. You just can't figure her out. The Mona Lisa smiles at us from the canvas. We don't know how to read the smile. It is a sphingine smile. I love the sound of sphingine. I can say it 20 times in a row without becoming bored. It sounds a bit like "engine" except we have the privilege of adding the complex sound "sph" at the beginning. So, if someone asks you at the next staff meeting if you can "read" the boss, just say that you think her gestures are sphingine. No one will disagree.
There is one other relative in the Sphinx house, and it is sphingosin(e). Actually, this is an unsaturated amino acid discoverd in 1881. What? How can an amino acid look like a sphinx, or is it related at all, or does it just confim the suspicion of some that the English language is a random creation? Actually, when it was isolated in 1881, the author of the article in the Annals of Chemical Medicine was confused by what exactly it was that he found and, in his own words, "In commemoration of the many enigmas which it presented to the inquirer, I have given the name of Sphingosin." Isn't that catchy? The good scientist was confused and so he decided to share his confusion by naming the thing he found "enigma." But then, it entered into chemical language and became attached to the acid and, now is no doubt memorized by an elite group of chemistry majors while they are on no doze (or worse) studying for the final. Isn't that the way life is? People name their children after some event or person or process that occupies the parents at the moment of birth or conception. Why not name the amino acid in a similar way?
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long