Printable Version
Pronunciation: si-bê-lênt Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Hissing, having or making a hissing sound. 2. (Linguistics) Having the sounds of the consonants [s], [z], [š] (sh), [ž] (zh), [č] (ch = [tš]), and [j] ( j = [dž]).

Notes: This adjective may be used as a noun and, in fact, in linguistics it is almost always used that way, e.g. 'S represents the sibilant [s]'. The adjectival usage comes with an adverb sibilantly "hissingly" and a noun, sibilance "hissing".

In Play: Europeans hiss when they don't like a performance when Americans would shout "Boo!": "The French fans applauded when the French team scored but became loudly sibilant when the American team reciprocated." Even though we hiss when we don't like something, susurrous, with all its sibilance, is one of the most beautiful words in English.

Word History: Today's Good Word comes from Latin sibilan(t)s "hissing", the present participle of sibilare "to hiss, whistle", probably imitative origin (onomatopoeic) in the PIE language. We also find Greek sizein "to hiss" and Russian svistet' "to whistle" confirming the imitation took place in PIE. The PIE word for "hiss" seems to have been swer/swor-, however. The R is there in Sanskrit svárati "to sound", Russian svirel' "pipe, reedpipe", English swarm, Norwegian sverm "swarm", and German surren "to buzz". We might expect the [r] to become [s] via reverse rhotacization, but then rhotacization does not usually characterize Germanic words, only Latin. So, was there another PIE word swus-? Who knows? (Now let's all thank Anand Mahadevan, another newcomer to the Agora, for recommending today's delightful Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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