Sun, Sep 25, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Embodied cognition gives the ick factor some real staying power

BY WILLIAM SAFIRE  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Today's scholarly linguistic dissertation deals with embodied cognition. (That should clear the room of readers searching for the prurient, offensive and scatological.)

Early last month, the Los Angeles Daily News columnist Bridget Johnson noted that "some recent Hollywood bits that have raised conservative ire include hailing Alfred Kinsey, Nicole Kidman sharing her bathtub with a boy in Birth, euthanasia glorified in Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside. Regardless of politics, many agree that the ick factor drives away moviegoers who are looking for something familiar and inspirational on-screen."

A few weeks later, Tara Parker-Pope reported in the Wall Street Journal that a home-screening test for colon cancer is making a comeback.

"Convincing consumers to use the tests may be tough, however," she wrote. "There's the ick factor of fecal tests, which typically require patients to smear stool on a card that is then sent to a lab."

The colloquial noun and interjection ick, as well as its adjectival form, icky, are terms of disgust, distaste and revulsion. A character in Henry Cyril McNeile's 1920 novel, Bulldog Drummond, asked: "Can it be that my little pet is feeling icky-boo? Face going green -- slight perspiration -- collar tight."

This suggests that ick may be derived from sick. An alternative imitative etymology is from sticky, sickeningly sweet: "They blow ickylickysticky yumyum kisses," wrote James Joyce in his 1922 Ulysses; icky was picked up by some jazz musicians in the 1930s to deride the overly sweet, sentimental type of jazz. Today, ick! is an interjection of disgusted rejection, and the ick factor is the problem caused by consumer distaste.

On, if you can take it, to the interjection yuck. In early 1960s theatrical slang, it imitated the sound of laughter, and comedians would "yuck it up" to induce yuck-yucking in the audience. Within a decade, its meaning underwent an extreme makeover, perhaps having to do with certain stomach-turning jokes, and yuck turned into an expression of nose-wrinkling disapprobation.

Seventeen years ago in this space, I wrote that "beginning in 1970, the word took the adjective form yucky and gained the sense of `nasty, sloppy.' ... It seems to have triumphed over the similar icky, has resisted replacement by gross and its derivative grody, but is now being challenged by a variant form, the interjection yecch and its adjectival yecchy. I predict yucky will persevere."

I was too quick to cast out ick. Though usage of yucky is fading, yecch! -- with its back-of-the-tongue concluding sound -- turned out to have legs in expressing revulsion, while the interjection or exclamation ick! is showing real staying power, especially in its mock-serious combination with factor.

"I see this as a case of embodied cognition," says David McNeill, emeritus professor of psychology and linguistics at the University of Chicago. "The words are not just words on a page or in the air, but patterns of action."

Reviewing my list of ickisms -- yuck, yecch, bleah, ew and ick -- the linguist observes, "Negative words having to do with disgust seem to be embodied in the experience of expelling unwanted, possibly poisonous, materials from the mouth. All the sounds you cite are made by closing the back of the mouth [keeping the stuff from entering the food canal] and/or opening the front [expelling it]."

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