Warning: These Words Will Make You Feel Something

Words That Give You All the Feels

Ever notice how some words just make you feel a certain way? Like those slimy /sl/ words that suggest ickiness, or the punchy power of the /p/ sound. These sounds are called phonesthemes—from the Greek phone, “sound” and aisthema, “perception.” They're sounds that make you feel a specific emotion when you hear or read them. (Writers, take note!)

Here’s a superphonic extravaganza of some of the slimiest, goofiest, dumpiest, spunkiest, glitteriest, drizzliest words in English.

Slithery Slugs

It's no coincidence that J.K. Rowling coined Slytherin for the House of Hogwarts to which Harry Potter’s nemesis, Draco Malfoy, belongs.

The /sl/ phonestheme is associated with slithering, sliding movements, like a snake (the Slytherin emblem). /sl/ sounds also evoke slimy, slushy, and slobbery liquid-related words. Intriguing, given that slithery serpents also secrete slippery venom.

Other nasty /sl/ words: slack, slander, slap, slug, slog, slay, slaughter, slit, slash, slop, sleaze

Sneering Snivel Snot

Another character in Harry Potter, Professor Snape, has a name that illustrates phonesthemic properties: /sn/ words often convey unlikable characteristics, like sneer, snivel, snot, and snicker. This may be because, to produce these sounds, the speaker has to engage the snout to utter the nasal ‘n’ and form a snotty sneering facial expression. When prefaced with the sibilant ‘s’, the slithery and sneering qualities seem to feed off each other.

Other sneering /sn/ words: snarl, snort, snob, snide, snooty. Still others, connoting stealth and wiliness: sneak, snitch, and snoop.

Drizzly Droops

Speaking of Harry Potter, being around Moaning Myrtle for any length of time would be a total drag. The /dr/ sound is often associated with dropping and dripping. Rain drizzles on a dreary day. Monsters drool unsightly sludge. Also, droopy things sag with heaviness (and disappointment). Moaning Myrtle can’t even drown in her sorrows because she’s already dead. Many other dr-words relate to trash, waste, and foolishness. Dross is something thought to be worthless. The dregs are the unwanted leftovers of something (like someone’s backwash). And drivel means both “nonsense” and “slobber/snot.” A drooling twofer.

Frumpy Lumps

The /ump/ phonestheme suggests weight, compactness, and often curved or spheroid shapes. Plump, lump, and bump, for example. A rounded heap of trash is a dump; the human form when weary or glum curves inward and sinks with a gravity-yielding slump. A frump is an unlucky someone whose appearance is plain and unkempt, with sagging clothes (unless the wearer’s plump).

Crusty Dusty

This phonestheme shows age and disrepair. Dusty books are unread, musty closets smell of mold and armpit-sweat stains yellowing on outdated clothes. Fusty sponges simmer in a puddle of weeks-old kitchen fungus. The rusty gate won’t budge, crusty with iron rot.


Cheerful Chirps

As Bert in Mary Poppins reminds us in the song “I Love to Laugh,” “some people laugh through their teeth, goodness sake.” Bert was on to something. When people feel chipper, they’re chuckling and chortling because everything is peachy. It’s probably no accident that English uses the /ch/ phonestheme to mimic birdsong, with chirps and cheeps. From birds to bells, /ch/ resounds with equally melodic chimes. And happy get-togethers with chums are full of cheerful chatter.

Giggly Gurgles

The /g/ sound follows in the footsteps of /ch/ when it comes to humans’ natural expressions of giddiness. Instead of being associated with teeth, however, these /g/ sounds are throat-related. Babies gurgle as they explore new things they’ll learn later are called mouths and tongues. They’ll giggle when parents gush and gab to them. Gargling tickles the throat and guffaws are uncontainable outbursts of pure joy.

Goofy Goosey

Add an /oo/ sound to the /g/ and you’ve got a phonestheme that reminds us of gooey things (which would be gross if it weren’t for brownies). You also have the words goof and goofy, which possibly relate to the gurgling giggles such goofiness inspires in people. Disney’s Goofy has just about the best hyuck-hyuck guffaw there is. Goosey, Goosey Gander is a children’s nursery rhyme that picks up on that earliest of gurgling sounds to the delight of little kids.

Fluttery Flit Flaps

Flying over to /fl/ for a minute, this sound is perfect for words that are all about floating movement. Fast or slow, up or down, through liquid or air, /fl/ flutters, flaps, flies, flees, and floats. Sound symbolism is big here. Words like float and flow that end in a rounded /oh/ are more fluid and gentle in movement. Then there’s the flap, flit, flick, and fling movements. When these fl-words are uttered, they end pretty abruptly by comparison, right?  

Twinkle Sprinkle

There’s something about the -inkle sound that, for whatever reason, prompted English-users over time to use it for things that are tiny (and in many cases, tiny = cute). It’s the “Twinkle, Twinkle of “Little Stars,” not giant beams of light. Sprinkles on a cake are teensy-weensy sweet treasures. Wrinkles are tiny lines that may not be so cute for people who have them, but the more you’ve got, the sweeter you look! That’s just a fact.   

Gleaming Glamor

Talking about twinkling stars is a perfect segue to /gl/. This sound initiates so many words about the behavior of light and sparkly things, it’s impossible to cover them all—but now you’ll see them glinting for your attention wherever you look! From gleaming light filtering through glass, the glow of the moon in the sky, and the glimmer of its light on the water, the /gl/ sound shines. No wonder Glinda the Good Witch, glittering jems, glossy hair (and magazine pages) are so glamorous.

Perky Peppy Pop

In linguistics, the /p/ sound has an awesome name: “plosive,” because the sound explodes from the lips energetically. What better sound to push and propel people forward. It’s a peppy, perky, pert sound full of pop and pomp. There’s a reason people who fiercely love something are passionate about it; the love is so powerful and punchy, like POW!

Spunky Spice

To finish off, the plosive /p/ joins up with the sassy /s/ for some spunk, spice and everything nice! This phonestheme sparkles and spangles with zest and zip (/z/ words are also great for energy, BTW). It revs up with speed and spirit to spring you forward into the rest of your day!  

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