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Definition: A ‘hissing’ sound – used in phonetics to describe such an ‘s’ sound.

Pronunciation: Sih-bil-unt


1660s – from Latin Sibilantem, meaning ‘to hiss’. Also possibly imitative origin of Greek sizein, also meaning ‘to hiss’. Also possibly from the Lettish language sikt – also meaning ‘to hiss’. Old Church Slavonic root svistati ‘to hiss’. Incorporation into modern English in late 18th century as ‘speech having a hissing effect’.

Why This Word:

This is a ‘must have’ word to add to the arsenal of the lexicograph. A technical term, it describes the noise made when a word demands attention to be paid to the ‘s’ sound. Thus, it does not apply to words that simply contain an ‘s’ – but, rather, to words – like kiss, bliss and miss – that require more than a casual dalliance with the consonant.

How to use the word sibilant in a sentence?  

I could simply state that this word is a dinner party word – but I have a better usage in mind. Use it as an argument diffuser. Here’s a sample of how it could be used successfully in this manner:

Girlfriend (angrily): Just answer me – did you kiss her?!?

Boyfriend: Did you know that the technical term for the ‘s’ sound in the word ‘kiss’ is a sibilant?


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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!


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