There is a blog called Sesquiotic, and on this blog James Harbeck publishes “word tastings”. A word tasting is an essay about a word. I’m pretty sure James likes to stare at words as much as I do. Thankfully, he also writes about them:
Words are delicious and intoxicating. They do much more than just denote; they have appearance, sound, a feel in the mouth, and words they sound like and travel with. All of these participate in the aesthetic experience of the word and can affect communication. So why not taste them like a fine wine?James was nice enough to invite me to contribute to Sesquiotic. This is my word tasting of omphalos and omphaloskepsis, two words I have long stared at:
Contemplate the navel: The locus of life, button of our underbellies. The place from which every placental mammal was nourished in utero. Students of meditation, enrollees of the navel academy, look within themselves and contemplate their navels to gain an introspective perspective.
Taking shape as innies and outies, the omphalos – ὀμφαλός to the Hellenically-incined – and umbilicus to the medically-inclined – is our most visible (and sexy!) scar: the belly button. Ambient squealing peals are the soundtrack as our umbilical cord is cut, leaving us with a resounding, adorable mark. And despite being a marker of life itself, 90% of navels are depressed. The other 10% are happy outies.
Is it any wonder navels are centers of attention? They lie at the very center of our bodies – and, some say, the center of the world. The Vitruvian Man pinpoints the center of human geometry at the tummy button, equidistant from the periphery of the great circle formed by da Vinci’s sepia-toned, spread eagle snow angel.
Considering the body further, the Latin word for a place of observation was templum, and so when we contemplate our navels, our bedimpled bodies are a temple, etymologically speaking.
Among the erudites, navel-gazing is called omphaloskepsis, a mouthful of chewy consonant clusters cooked up by classical Greek phonology.
Inspecting skeptics might wonder, how is it that this is even a word, this omphaloskepsis? The first syllable is a chomp and an exclamation: oomph! They do not belong together, these zounds, but somehow, like a flounder genetically entwined with a tomato, it kinda works. Other Greek-derived words that begin with this kind of “mph” include amphetamine, amphitheater and emphatic. As far as Greek goes, MPH must stand for More Phonetic Hutzpah.
The latter and more familiar half of omphaloskepsis, looks like skeptic, one who inquires or doubts. The philosophical school of skeptics was founded by Pyrrho of Ellis who himself was schooled by the gymnosophists, those naked lovers of wisdom native to India. Early followers pursued a special brand of skepticism called Pyrrhonism, though bearing resemblance to Pyrrhus (known for qualified victory), actually shares no common etymon. Only Greek, which has taken so many hubristic liberties with phonology – sphere, pterodactyl, mnemonic, acne, iatric, phthisis, pyknic – binds Pyrrho and Pyrrhic by origin.
Omphaloskepsis takes us on a long, strange trip through sonority. We set out with our mouths agape, saying “aaah,” as if to afford an attentive physician a better view of our tonsils. Next comes the nasal-fricative [mf] like a one-two punch. It is guttural and visceral and entirely satisfying. We flow into a liquid [l], smooth and fluid, but then are greeted with a skidding, stoccatic fricative-stop-stop-fricative-fricative washboarded stretch of heavy, beclustered syllables.
Omphalos and omphaloskepsis offer what any great vacation should offer: Something exotic, adventurous, and an opportunity, in looking outside of ourselves, to learn more about what lies within.If you’ve read this far, it’s clear you, too, like to stare at words. I recommend signing up for the Sesquiotic word tasting email list, where you will be served up a fresh, tasty morsel about a word on an almost-daily basis. Mangia!