Shh…It’s Imitative


Gone Girl (the book) employs words well, which to me means “sometimes surprisingly but not ostentatiously.” It means about every 3 pages, I’ll go “oooh” because something is noticeably snappy. Last night, it happened with “bashful.” I went “ooooh” and then I wondered: “full…of…bash?”

Before even looking it up, I paused to marvel at the prominent voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant  [ʃ] (“sh” in Englsh orthography) in both “bashful” and “shy,” and also “shrinking,” and thought, “what is it with this [ʃ] ?”  which made me connect it to the “shh” of stereotyped librarians. “Shh” comes from “hush” which comes from Middle English huisht, an interjection meaning “be quiet.” This is listed as “imitative,” meaning it is meant to correlate to a natural sound, presumably the one we make to interrupt others and make them cease talking. And what, you are no doubt wondering, of “shush”? Also from huisht? Fabulously, no! “Our natural “zip it!” noise”–> huisht–>hush–>shh–> shush! Shh is the intermediary between “hush” and “shush,” and shush is imitative of it! So an imitative interjection leads to a verb leads to an exclamation leads to a new imitative verb!

And what has all this to do with “bashful” and “shy”? Nothing whatever! (just the first 6 seconds). Except that I have to wonder if because we have a strong association with the voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant  [ʃ]  and “quiet,”  words that link those two stick because they make some deep sense to us. Maybe that’s why violets are “shrinking” instead of…I don’t know, “melting” or “cowering” or some other word that could get us to the same place. And “sheepish”!

So of course, still, what is it to be Full of Bash? This is actually super neat because it involves a rare construction:IMG_0091

A lot to notice and wonder about in there! Let’s start with the question at hand: “bashful.” Yep, great: means all the things we know, and it points us up to “1st BASH.” And here’s that rare construction–it comes via Middle English from an Old French verb baissier “bring down, humiliate.” What’s kooky is that this means the -ful suffix is applied to a passive verbal stem, because “abash” is to “make disconcerted/dismayed” and thus “abashed” is either to have that done to you (passive voice) or to have done it (past tense). And “bashful” is basically “to be full of having been abashed.” Contrast that will every other -ful word you can think of!

Ok and also, I love that this meaning is unrelated to 2nd and 3rd BASH–the violent ones we know. But note that those might be imitative too! Middle English: just inventing words out of the weird noises we make. And ALSO, I couldn’t bring myself to crop this image to just the bash-ful business, because LOOK at “bashful Billy” and “bashibazouk”! The slow loris is such a memetic cutie these days, and it used to have this silly name. “Loris” seems to come via French from an obsolete word in Dutch meaning “simpleton” or “clown” and lends itself to the family of small, slow-moving primates Lorsidae. So I wonder whether they are called Lorisdae because they move slowly or because they are thought stupid; if its the former, “slow loris” is redundantly repetitive.

Finally, a note on the weird eyes in the “SH” doodle. I have a strong association with “bashful” and “eyes” and I checked that with Bill, who said he did as well. But you know what? I think my brain (and his and maybe YOURS) is doing something tricky with bashful and “batting eyelash.” Some references include “coy” as a synonym for “bashful” but that doesn’t come out of the etymology, it comes out of historical use, which somehow came to mean something a little cuter, twee-er than just “shy.” This cuteness is why it’s hard to use well, which is why it stuck out in Gone Girl…, and, I think, why we’d probably call the huge-dreamy-eyed slow loris “bashful” and the poor beady mole just… “shy.”


I needed a model for the shh gesture so I took a picture of Bill doing it, and I offer it to you in case you need to menace anyone into silence, like about a terrible crime you have committed:


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