Bill Long 5/27/06
The words in these pages that arrested me are sfumato, shandygaff, shawm, shend, shilpit, sialagogue, sifaka, sigil and signalment. Let's start with the first few in this essay; I am afraid that I will be taking some digressions along the way, but that is to be expected when a person writes on a Saturady night...
Most people know the word, and I only introduce it here beause I want to have an opportunity to delve into other "sf" or "sg" words, most of which aren't in the Collegiate. I am taking Italian lessons now and am fascinated by the similaries and differences of that language to ours; the "s" before "f" in Italian functions either to negate or intensify the word beginning with "f." Thus, for example, "sfortunatamente" means "unfortunately" and "sfiducia" means "distrust" while "sfuggire," like "fuggire," means "to run away" or "escape." Sfumato intensifies fumare, which means "to smoke." Thus, the sfumato technique in art, popularized by Da Vinci in the Mona Lisa (for example), "softens outlines and allows tones and colors to shade gradually into each other; a softened outline or hazy form" is produced in this way (from the OED). Thus, sfumato means "hazy" or "smoky"-- as the background shades into the foreground.
Well, now that we have that word, I was interested to see which other words we have borrowed from Italian beginning with "sf." Actually there are only three "Sf" words and one "Sg" word. First we have a musical term: sforzando. Literally meaning "forced" or "pressed," it is especialy applied to a single tone or chord which is to be made particularly prominent through sudden emphasis. Beethoven is the master of sforzando, as well as other dramatic musical emphases. As this BBC source says:
"While Haydn and Mozart were largely content to indicate forte (strong) or piano (soft), Beethoven habitually introduces fortissimo (very strong) or pianissimo (very soft), even going as far as marking the triumphant tuttis near the end of his Seventh Symphony fff - 'very, very strong'. The marking sforzando (sf ) - 'forced', 'strongly accented' - becomes a familiar part of Beethoven's expressive armoury, underlining the heart-stopping discords at the central climax of the Eroica Symphony's first movement, or ramming home soprano high notes the Ninth Symphony's choral finale. As the conductor Sir Simon Rattle put it: 'When you see all those sforzando notes you know that Beethoven is telling you to drive this bus over a cliff!'"
I like that image--sforzando as "driving the bus over the cliff."
Two Other "Sfs" and One "Sg"
Then we have sfregazzi, which is a "mode of glazing adopted by Titian and other old masters for soft shadows of flesh, etc." Derived from the Italian verb "to rub" (sfregare), this method consisted in dipping the finger in the color and drawing it once, with an even movement, along the surface to be painted.
Out of order but no less present is sfogato. It comes from the Italian sfogare, meaning to "evaporate, exhale, vent," and appears in musical notations to indicate a passage to be rendered in a light, airy manner, as if simply exhaled. A soprano soghato is a thin, high soprano.
Then, we move to sgraffito. The dictionaries inform us that sgraffito is the same as graffito (the singular of graffiti, which we all know) and means "a drawing or writing scratched on a wall or other surface." It can also mean a method of decoration in which designs are produced by scratching through a surface layer of plaster or glazing in order to reveal a different color underneath. As early as 1847 the concept was defined this way: "Sgraffito. A kind of bold design, in black and white, done by scratching a wall where it was purposedly painted of the former hue."
Finishing with a Digression on a Digression
Even though these are the only Italian loan words beginning with "sf" and "sg" that have been taken over into English, there are a few entries, in both the Century and OED, such as s'foot, s'fire, s'blood or s'flesh which are used as minced oaths or, in traditional terminology "minced imprecations." To "mince" an oath means that you are holding back in saying it, usually because polite society (at least in Elizabethan through Victorian times) didn't allow you to say it in public. Thus, s'blood would mean "God's blood" (shed through Christ). Shakespeare uses one in Troilus & Cressida: "S'foot, I'll learn to conjure and raise devils." Neither the OED nor any online source can explain why "God's foot" would be an oath. We see why "God's blood" or "God's flesh" would be (referring to Christ), but what about "God's foot"? I think it suggests a possible double euphemism for the "throne" of God. Not only is it abbreviated (thus giving it a euphemistic turn) but the foot standing for the throne would brings it yet one further remove from blasphemy. Any comment on this one?
Well, I didn't make much progress, but I think that progress is in the eye of the beholder; I hope things aren't sfumati any more.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long