Word of the Week: tactile

Word of the week:

I love this word for several reasons. It sounds, to me, like what it means. Tack-tile—pushing thumb tacks into cork boards. Tocar—Spanish for “to touch.” Even those fun “t” and “c” consonant sounds, that voiceless alveolar stop and that voiceless velar stop, suggest that contact is being noisily made.

image from Rosetta Stone

I also just generally enjoy words that have an “-ile” suffix. It looks and sounds sleek and efficient. “Tactile” is no exception. Even with aggressive fricatives, this word has a certain elegance. It is a great combination of bold consonants and a slick suffix

Photo from Visualize Us

It’s nice to think about how pleasant-sounding this word is, but the meaning is even more earthy and useful. The expression that comes to mind is “tactile learner.” Learning by feeling, touching. I think of hands scooping out meaning and grappling with pieces of information, fingers digging in and understanding, palms cupping and smoothing out knowledge like a round ball of clay, finally sculpting it into a brick and fitting it into the wall next to all the other countless things felt and learned.

I hope you enjoy tactile as much as I do, or that, at least, you’ve come to appreciate it a little more.

Also, here are some of my favorite “-ile” suffix words:

Also, if you’re a super nerd like me, and you like to know the ins and outs of words (and you saw that there was a “see note” in both the definition for servile and docile, and you got excited), there are a great little commentaries in the NOAD called “The Right Word” you can read. Here is one about docile vs. obedient vs. biddable vs. dutiful vs. compliant.


Children and animals may be expected to obey, but nowadays obedient is seldom used to describe adult human beings without a suggestion that they are allowing someone else to assume too great a degree of authority (: are we to believe that Cinderella became the prince’s demure, obedient wife?).

The critical note is stronger in biddable. A biddable person is excessively meek and ready to obey any instruction, without questioning either its wisdom or the authority of the person giving it (: he could barely think for himself, having been so biddable to his domineering parents).

Docile (from Latin docilis ‘teachable’) has similar implications, but in addition to unquestioning obedience it suggests a general reluctance to complain or rebel, even where such behavior would be justified (: employers depended on the regime for a cheap and docile workforce).

Dutiful may evoke a sneer, suggesting the virtuous, yet dull (: his dutiful niece spent most of her life caring for him), or the perfunctory fulfillment of an obligation (: a dutiful postcard to his mother).

One of the oldest (and still living) meanings of compliant is ‘reshaping under pressure’ (: conversion of the gel to a much less compliant glass). This helps to explain the principal modern sense of the adjective, ‘(excessively) disposed to agree with others or obey rules’ (: compliant legislators loyally followed party policy). In the computer age a further sense, ‘technically compatible,’ has developed (: the system is Windows compliant).


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