Slugs and phonaesthemes

The OED defines a phonaestheme as

‘A phoneme or group of phonemes having recognizable semantic associations, as a result of appearing in a number of words of similar meaning.’

It quotes from a 1946 issue of Word (International Linguistic Association):

‘Phonestheme [American spelling] is defined as a phoneme or cluster of phonemes shared by a group of words which also have in common some element of meaning or function, tho [sic] the words may be etymologically unrelated.’

Every so often an animated pupil will advert to one of the phonaesthemes that grace the English language—such as those found in words beginning FL-,GL-, SN-, CL-, or words containing -ump.

And then there is the array of words starting SL-. On one occasion, this began a discussion containing so many unanswered questions that they had to be written down—one being about the the English word slug. What is the etymology of it? What is the Latin word?—what are the modern European words?

The following emerged:

  • The English word slug originally means simply a lazy, slow or slothful person.
  • Its use for the gastropod is relatively modern, and the OED first records it in writing around 1703.
  • The implication is that people did not start properly asking questions about such creatures until the 18th century.
  • The other European languages with a word differentiating the slug from the snail are French  (limace), Spanish (babosa), Portuguese (lesma) Dutch (naaktslak); while Danish and Norwegian have adopted our word slug.
  • The word Pliny the Elder uses is limax.

Also emerging on that occasion:

  • In Piers Plowman, Langland hardly uses the SL- phonaesthemes at all: sleep, slumber and sleuth are the ones he uses, and not for aural effect.
  • The Germanic languages are apparently the ones most exuberant with phonaesthemes, which do not appear to the same extent in the Romance languages, or Latin or Greek.
  • Neither Latin nor Greek has any word beginning SL-.