Falling out of love with 'bling-bling'

Why the sound of this 'bl' word is wrong to evoke the idea of flash and glitz.

Has France fallen out of love with "President Bling-Bling"? The ardor does seem to have cooled since Nicolas Sarkozy went public – very public – about his new girlfriend, Carla Bruni, after his October divorce.

Wasn't it just this past summer that Mme. Sarkozy – Cécilia Ciganer Sarkozy – was rescuing those Bulgarian nurses from Libya, as half of a Clinton-style power couple? "Elect one, get one free."

To turn to matters more directly to the purview of this column: A friend observes that "bling" doesn't sound quite right for the concept it's supposed to convey – the "sound" of a gemstone sparkling. I'm inclined to agree.

It may be quite useful as a term for the flash and glitz to which President Sarkozy seems ineluctably drawn, in contrast with the "old money" elegance of Ms. Bruni. All-purpose public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, for instance, is one who has attached "bling-bling" to Sarkozy.

But that "bl" sound just doesn't express sparkle and dazzle very well, to my ear.

In the wonderful terminology of linguistics, "bl" is the combination of the voiced bilabial plosive (that would be the "b") and a liquid consonant (the "l"). "Voiced" means it makes your vocal cords vibrate. "Bilabial" means both lips are involved. And "plosive" refers to that little explosion that happens in your mouth after you make the sound.

The "b" is a pretty simple sound, easy for even a very young mouth to make. This might explain why it pops up in words like baby, Bubba, and boo-boo.

The "l" sound, of elegant and soliloquy, has much more subtlety associated with it.

And so what is the sound symbolism of words beginning with this phonetic odd couple? They do seem to have a sort of family resemblance. "Bl" isn't a harsh sound, but it's maybe a bit earthbound, a tad undignified – I suggest with all due respect to my friends Blair and Blake.

Take blurt, for instance. Doesn't it sound just like what it means?

Then there's blunt, blunder, blight, blot, and blubber (both noun and verb). There's bland, blasé, bleary, bleak. There's feeling "blah," there's the blah, blah, blah, of blather, and those generalized expressions of disgust rendered in MAD Magazine as something like bleagh. Let's not forget blooper, with its goofy double "o." Or blood, which lands on your ear with a thud.

On the positive side of the ledger we find bliss and blithe, and bloom and blossom. But on balance, it's hard to argue that a "bl" word is phonetically suitable to refer to ostentatious jewelry.

Wikipedia observes, "In linguistic terms, 'bling' is an ideophone (a sound intended to evoke an idea) – it is not onomatopoeia, because the act of jewelry shining does not make a sound."

So how did "bling" become a word for glitz (from the Yiddish for sparkle)?

It's a word much used in rap, which may be another reason for some people not to like it. But that the term has made its way into the public diction of such a notable as Mr. Lévy is powerful evidence of the influence of hip-hop culture on Western civilization at large.

Here's the insight that's bouncing around the Internet: "Though [rapper] B.G. is often given credit for creating the term, as early as the 1970s, television commercials for dental products and chewing gum accentuated the cleanliness of teeth with a "bling" or "pling" sound, accompanied by an imaginary starburst or ray of light emanating from an actor's mouth.... During the 1980s and early 1990s, comedians such as Martin Lawrence parodied the 'Ultrabrite smile' by vocalizing the sound effect as 'bling.' "

And that may be where the word went wrong. A new word for glitz might have worked better if it began with a popping "p" instead of a blubbering, any-baby-can-babble-it "b."

Now you know everything I do about this one.

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