Synesthesia, Misophonia, and Argle-Bargle

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June 30, 2016 by libroshombre


A number of articles about synesthesia have cropped up lately. Reading Vladimir Nabakov’s wonderful memoir, “Speak Memory,” revealed his manifestation: seeing letters as particular colors. “V is a kind of pale, transparent pink,” Nabakov said, “technically, quartz pink … the N, on the other hand, is a greyish-yellowish oatmeal color.”

Synesthesia occurs in about 1% of the population who otherwise can otherwise “lead normal, healthy lives except that they experience additional sensations to sensory stimuli, viz. colors or tastes for words, touch for sounds, and so on.” It “arises when an increased number of nerve fibers interconnect discrete regions of the brain,” according to “Some Rules of Language Are Wired in the Brain,” a article. For example, James Wannerton, a British synethete, finds that words and names come with 

taste sensations, presumably arising “from a cross-talk between word processing and taste centers of his brain.”

The most common manifestations of synesthesia are sensing colors when they hear music, or see numbers, as in the number 3 appearing blue, 4 green, etc. A possibly related condition, misophonia, affects people who become painfully annoyed by certain sounds. In “Please Stop Making That Noise,” a article, Barron Lerner, M.D. wrote that someone chewing popcorn with an open mouth is truly insufferable. “I have misophonia, a condition with which certain sounds can drive someone into a burst of rage or disgust.

Misophonia, or “hatred of sound,” was coined by Professors Margaret and Pawel Jastreboff of Emory University in 2002. A 2013 University of Amsterdam study described “the most common irritants as eating sounds, including lip-smacking and swallowing; breathing sounds, such as nostril noises and sneezing; and hand sounds, such as typing and pen clicking … Researchers are only beginning to understand the science behind misophonia, but early data suggests a hyperconnectivity between the auditory system and the limbic system, a part of the brain responsible for generating emotions.” The five most irritating sounds are, in ascending order, knuckle cracking, nail clipping, sniffling, gum chewing, and, worst of all, slurping.

Some poor souls find certain words deeply repellant, a condition known as “word aversion.” Some researchers are theorizing that word aversion is related to synesthesia, but others propose that words associated with certain concepts, especially body functions, are behind word aversion. The most widely despised word appears to be “moist.” Oberlin College researcher Paul Thibodeau wrote that “moist” is “not a taboo word, it’s not profanity, but it elicits this very visceral disgust reaction” in many people.” However, Thibodeau found that “words that sound similar – including hoist, foist, and rejoiced – did not put off participants the same way, suggesting that aversion to the word was not based on the way it sounds. But people who were bothered by moist also found that words for bodily fluids – vomit, puke, and phlegm – largely struck a nerve.”

A readers’ survey conducted by the NYTimes also found that disgust extended to words describing body parts as well, and “words describing various sorts of vocalizations were mentioned so frequently that they could be cataloged in alphabetical order. The Gs alone would include the words gulp, gargle, grunt, groan, and gasp.” One reader combined a number of the most despised terms into a single sentence, “I read this after stroking my moist slacks to remove phlegm that must have come from a crevice on the luggage of my Ford Probe.” There are certainly other word aversion categories; the woman I live with, for instance, abhors words associated with food, like “dollop” and “creamy.”

Fortunately there are some happy words out there, especially reduplicatives, which defines as repeating a syllable or other linguistic element exactly or with a slight change. Examples include the relatively recent “argle-bargle” (a vigorous discussion or dispute) from 1872 which stems from “argle,” an obsolete synonym for “argue.” There are “hugger-mugger” (secret, confused) from 1529, and don’t forget 1668’s “hoity-toity” (haughty, pretentious), which comes from “hoit,” an old word meaning “to romp.” And 1440 saw the first printed mention of both “tussie-mussie” (a small bouquet of flowers) and “hurly-burly” (disorder, confusion).

Many of my favorite words come from our library: “no overdue fines,” “open stacks,” “free,” “storehouse of knowledge,” and, best of all, “books.”

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