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This article is taken from PN Review 205, Volume 38 Number 5, May - June 2012.

Catchwords 15 Iain Bamforth
The Crisis Word
God is the most explicit word for the mystery implicit in language.

In The Structure of Complex Words William Empson brings his formidable critical powers to bear on the unique laterality of the English words ‘God’ and ‘dog’: his essay ‘The English Dog’ comments wryly on the plosive effect (velar to alveolar) of pronouncing this most explicit word. God ‘begins at the back of your throat, a profound sound, with which you are intimately connected ("ich"), and then stretches right across to a point above the teeth, from back to front, from low to high, with a maximum of extension and exultation. "D" does not stop the movement as "b" would by closing your lips, so that the idea can shoot upwards straight out of you.’

That is to say: God starts out as a near retch (‘gob’) or strangled guffaw (perhaps like the little devil in Dante’s Malebolge who goes by the name sghignazzo) which is intimately connected to the physical sense of disgust which accompanies the imperious need to expel noxious substances from the body. The crisis word is well suited to profanity. It is the word cried out as beseechment, even by unbelievers, in moments of terror and abandon and rapture: it invokes the Spirit to bear witness. It is a shout – certainly melodramatic, possibly hyperbolic, probably obscene – for the sacred to wrap us in the significance of what feels like slaughter. As Ruskin wrote, in one of ...

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