This is a blog post I worked really hard on then it was rejected. I figure no one else is going to buy it but I think it's pretty good.
Ok, let's start at the beginning. Looking for the ugliest anything, where do we start? What is ugly? It may be easier to define for vision, for human faces than for words. Human beings are very visual creatures. There are many more articles and thoughtful pieces written about ugly visual things than ugly sounds. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," writes the ancient Greek commentator. Shakespeare echoes centuries later with "Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye."
Getting Things Straight:
The word "ugly" itself stems from the old Norse "uggligr," meaning dreadful or fearful. Fear and immorality are somehow touched by the word "ugly" because of the deep connection the medieval church made between morality and physical beauty. Giving children a "pretty name" was giving them the gift of moral regeneracy. "No ugly woman," writes the 19th century poet in Noctes Ambrosionae, "ever yet a wrote a truly beautiful poem the length of her little finger."
Bringing us down to earth:
One thing that makes a word ugly is that the word is harmful or frightening. Many feel that curses are ugly. They often denote ugly acts, socially unappealing acts, or behaviors that disrupt the normal and peaceful flow of social life. Thus words like "bowels" or "crotch" (or some of the epithets that stand for these) are considered ugly, rude and disruptive. Even the "F" word that stands for sexual acts that need to be done in private is considered ugly by many.
Sometimes ugliness brings us down to earth, when we prefer to be in an ideal and undisturbed place. Sir Edward Sullivan wrote in 1894, "beauty attracts attention, and ugliness repels it." Ugliness is earthiness. Ugly people are thought to be closer to the physical side of life. In Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien depicts the Orcs, those ugliest of creatures, as artificial creatures, magically formed out of mud. And of course the bible depicts the human race as being formed in much the same way, separating humanity from heaven.
There is something ugly about words that make noises in the throat, as compared to words that slip breathlessly through the lips. We don't want to be reminded of the presence of the body when we speak. We especially don't want to be reminded of fluids that gurgle around in our throats. Guttural languages like German and Dutch are judged by many as the most ugly because they contain many of those sounds. Guttural sounds are defined as strange, unpleasant and disagreeable utterances. The English language has inherited many guttural-sounding words from the Nordic languages as well as more pleasant words from Latin-based languages.
That gets us closer to ugly words. The deeply non-logical way the human brain works on language is demonstrated by irony. Many words largely judged as ugly actually denote constructive, even beautiful things. The component parts of the word suggest earthy things or things better left secret.
Many gross words are onomatopoeic. They stir up a synesthetic reaction. The sounds of the word bring up body parts and unpleasant actions that have nothing to do with the actual meaning. The origin of words is sometimes lost so far back in time that the meaning changes from something ugly to something high-reaching. There are words that have little meaning beyond what the sound does to the imagination.
An ugly words list:
Anybody can draw up their own list.
- The word "pulchritude" is often described as an ugly word, even though it denotes "physical beauty." Somehow, the sound of the word reminds many of obesity. There is a hip and thigh quality about it. Commenting in "Sesquiotica" a blogger writes, "It [the word] brings to the eyes broken patterns of pulp, mulch, rude, pull...In sound it tosses in a couple of the allophonic effects in English that non-English speakers are apt to find unpleasant or vulgar..."
- "Gestational" brings us quickly down to earth. It denotes the nutritional part of carrying a fetus. However, many see it as connoting a cold, secret side of pregnancy that still, even in this day and age, remain private. Writing in "The Australian," Melinda Tankard Reist described the word as representing "The objectification of women's bodies and commodification of childbirth." She reminds us of passages in the novel Dune depicting "axlotl tanks" which are women who are lobotomized and whose bodies are used as "gestational carriers for clones."
- "Regurgitate" and its more prosaic version, "vomit" are also among the ugliest words in the English language. No word takes us closer to the bodily functions that should be hidden than these words that denote the undoing of eating. These words are unpleasant because they are shameful as are so many unpleasant words.
- The word "quark" is kinky, rather than strictly ugly in the opinion of most. James Joyce used the word in Finnegan's Wake in a scurrilous 13 line poem directed against King Mark, the cuckolded husband in the Trisdan legend. "Three quarks for Master Mark/ Sure he hasn't got much of a bark/ and sure any he has it's all beside the mark." The word was adopted by theoretical physicist Murray Gell-Mann during the time when a group of theoretical physics were inventing kinky names for subatomic particles. It was also used as the name of a rather unattractive Star Trek Ferengi character, who is a kind of swindler.
- A lot of people don't like the word "mooch." To mooch is to get things from others without paying for them. It's not quite stealing, more like finagling. "Mooch" has a comic kind of nastiness about it. When people feel it's ugly, it appears to inherit its ugliness from the annoying person and actions it designates. A mooch is a creature of the comedic, vaudville stage. Who remembers Cab Calloway and his theme song about "Minnie the Moocher?" We laughed.
- A pugilist is simply a boxer. The word dates back to the 1640s. There are many ugly things associated with the word, like a "pug," an ugly little dog. Many people vote that word into the ugly list. The classic fist fighter was far more brutal than they are today. According to the classics, these fighters used to break each other's ribs, gouge out each other's eyes, then stand over the loser, laughing. That's pretty ugly all right.
In his blog, "Words Going Wild," Jim Bernhard, quotes the poetry of the infamous "Bard of Buffalo Bayou" who gave us a full and quick dose of ugly words when he attempted to write the ugliest verse in the English language.
Vomit, smegma, phlegm, and pus, all pasty in a sac,/ Schmeared with a fetid spatula upon a plump kakkak,/ Discharge a kumquat ointment on the scab of that smallpox,/ Then honk in moist cacaphony in the jazz of some jukebox./ The curdled veggie, full of snotty sap--just masticate; / If kooky, flatulent, don’t gripe or puke—regurgitate./ A gargoyle with no boobs is feisty, pregnant and phlegmatic,/ For routine slaughter, kudos for a pustule plutocratic./ A gutted, Brobdingnagian, crepuscular quahog/ Has so much sticktoitniveness, you can crunch it in a blog./ A bunion on a rural juror’s crotch is treachery,/ Pulchritude and privilege fructify with synergy./ My spouse’s fiscal tax will leave my gusset with a gash./ Tell me what aasvogel means, I’ll give you a chunk of cash!"