Sunday, October 15, 2006

Initial squu-

I was reading through The Dain Curse on a car trip this weekend, and was struck by an unorthodox spelling Dashiell Hammett employs.

"My pants stuck disagreeably to my chilly legs. Water squunched in my torn shoes." (p.220 of "The Complete Five Novels," ch. 13 of the Curse)

I was immediately reminded of a line from the end of Thurber's The 13 Clocks, an all time favorite. "Hark stepped on something that squutched beneath his foot and flobbed against the wall." (p. 124)

Hitherto that word had stuck out and bothered me, occurring as it does on the last page, but as Thurber uses a lot of nonce words (flobbed, for instance, among many other joys) I had thought nothing more of it.

Now we've got ourselves a phenomenon. Upon doing a little research, I find "sqush" and "squush" to be variant forms of "squish" in my big Random House dictionary, and google gives a decent lot of results for "squunched." But this is something I had previously thought only a Thurber thing.

I can idly come up with a few attempts at explanation. Perhaps it's an attempt to render a lack of lip-rounding. I can get the same pronunciation of initial squu- in the second syllable of "sesquipedalian," indicating it may be an attempt to contrast the close-central-unrounded from the mid [i.e., the standard schwa]. Either that, or it's an attempt to avoid the orthographic assumptions of rounding that a double-O would imply .

It could also be a simple case of wanting to put a u after the obligatory qu- cluster. Or a simple visual expedient for dealing with onomatopoeia. How much "-quu-" do we get to deal with in English, after all? Is "squished," "squushed," and "squooshed" a minimal triplet for people?

As for the Hammett, I'm happy I kept Dain last. It wasn't bad, but I can see where he considered it his worst. I'm now re-re-reading Red Harvest for extra fun before I have to return the omnibus to the library. Then I may re-read my copy of The Glass Key.

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