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Consonant Clusters 9 - "Sp-"


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Consonant Clusters 9: "Sp-"


Sp- spits out at us and spurts across the page. It explodes outwards as is suggested by the bilabial plosive /p/, which expels the cluster with force out of our mouths.

A second meaning of the sp- cluster is that of spikiness: we have sharp chips of wood, metal and plants in spars, spurs and even spoons.

The ancient art of spinning provides a link between these two meanings. An early meaning of spin was “shoot out” or “gush”, and many words connected to spinning also start with the sp- cluster. Spinning is the ancient craft of taking plant or animal fibres and then twisting them together to make yarn. In hand spinning, this was done in Stone Age times on a wooden spike named a hand spindle, which later became part of the much larger spinning wheel, which had internal bars or spokes. Spun yarn was then wrapped around bobbins or spools. The job of spinning was done by a male spinner or a female spinster.

By the 17th century, spinster had also acquired the meaning of “unmarried woman”, used for those that were past the usual age for marrying, an alternative for the term old maid.

Drop_spindlesSpindles Spinning_WheelSpinning wheel with 10 spokes Spinster_uit_MarokkoSpinster spoolsSpools


Now, let’s deal with the sp- words that concern the explosive liquid elements of the sp- cluster.

Sputum and spittle are used only as nouns, while the rest can be nouns or verbs.

Of the verbs, spit, (spat, spat) and spill (spilt, spilt) are irregular.

Match the words with their definitions below. (Hover over the questions to reveal the answers, tap on mobile devices).

  • spatter
  • spew
  • spill
  • spit
  • spout
  • spittle
  • spume
  • spurt
  • sputter
  • sputum


1. Another term for saliva. questionmark

2. Saliva ejected from the mouth or the action to cause this to happen. questionmark

3. A tube or pipe from which liquid flows. The flowing itself. questionmark

4. To gush out uncontrollably with force: a sudden explosive growth. questionmark

5. Mucus coughed up from the respiratory tract. questionmark

6. Vomit. questionmark

7. To let fall or make flow. questionmark

8. To splash with drops or gushes of liquid. questionmark

9. To speak with passion in anger, confusion or excitement. questionmark

10. Foam or froth, especially found on waves in the sea. questionmark 


Now put the same words into the following sentences in the correct forms:

1. Trevor’s blood-_____questionmark_____ clothing left the police in no doubt that he had been at the scene of the crime.

2. It was such a windy day that Greg was soaked by the _____questionmark_____ blown off the waves, even though he was standing at the water’s edge.

3. Eleanor has had an amazing growth ____questionmark_____. Last year she was smaller than her brother. Now she is 10cm taller!

4. The camera caught Rooney just as he was _____questionmark_____ on to the grass in front of the referee.

5. “I..I..I don’t know what you are t-talking about!” _____questionmark_____ Don on being accused of treachery.

6. “Just cough onto this swab, please Mr Statham. We’d like a good sample of your _____questionmark____.”

7. Eddie tripped over his own feet and _____questionmark_____ his drink all over the floor.

8. The spider climbed up the water _____questionmark_____ in the back garden.

9. When Miss Hutton got excited, little balls of ____questionmark____ would gather at the corner of her mouth.

10. It was a scene of devastation after the party. Smashed glasses were strewn all over the floor, all the ashtrays were overflowing, and here and there _____questionmark_____ was spattered all over the walls and floor from those who had drunk too much.  


The words for spit and spew ultimately derive from the Indo-European form *spyēu-, which is imitative of the sound of spitting. This form also produced Latin spuere from which we get sputum.

Similarly, the Spanish noun for spit is esputo, in Portuguese it is cuspe, while in Italian it is sputo. The verb for spit in Swedish is spotta, while in Danish it is spytte and in German spucken.

The Slavs take the /plju:/ from *spyēut to have pljuvati (Croatian), плюя (Bulgarian) and плевать (Russian). The Poles have both clusters with both pluć and splunąć meaning to spit. Now to more pleasant matters: sp- for spiky things.

The etymologies of these words can be traced to ancient Germanic words for spikes and chips of wood, as well as the Latin words for thorn (spīna) and ear of corn (spīca). An example of the former is the north-eastern English dialect word “spelk”, a splinter of wood, which comes from the Old English spelc and Old Norse spelkur both of which mean a surgical splint. An example of the latter is “spinney” which means a thicket or a small, but dense wood.

Now let’s test your knowledge on some of the others.

1. What noun is a weapon with a long pole with a sharp point that is thrown over the shoulder? questionmark

a) spear

b) spike

c) spate

d) spur


2. What are the sharp pointy objects attached to riders’ heels so that they can kick their horses to make them go faster? questionmark

a) spades

b) spigots

c) spites

d) spurs


3. What is a long thin piece of wood or long twist of paper used to light a fire? questionmark

a) spill

b) spam

c) spin

d) spatula


4. What is the basic garden tool used for digging? questionmark

a) spade

b) spout

c) spinner

d) spoon


5. What is a rung of a ladder or a bar on the back of a chair called? questionmark

a) spigot

b) spain

c) spook

d) spore


6. What is a splinter or chip of stone called? questionmark

a) spar

b) spall

c) spell

d) spill


7. What is another name for a church steeple? questionmark

a) sport

b) spike

c) spire

d) spare


8. What are the prickles on a porcupine’s back called? questionmark

a) spuds

b) spines

c) speeds

d) spinsters


9. What are the poles called that support sails? questionmark

a) spasms

b) spanks

c) spars

d) spiders


10. If you roast some meat on a rod over a fire, what is the rod called? questionmark

a) a spurn

b) a spit

c) a spot

d) a spat


11. What will a knight win if he proves his courage? questionmark

a) his spoons

b) his spangles

c) his spurs

d) his spikes


12. What is the wooden kitchen utensil with a wide flat blade, used for stirring and lifting in cooking? questionmark

a) a spoon

b) a spatula

c) a spark

d) a spoor


13. What do you spill if you disclose a secret? questionmark

a) the beans

b) the peas

c) the nuts

d) the lentils


14. If you are really angry, onlookers might say that you are spitting what? questionmark

a) lollipops

b) feathers

c) balloons

d) lungs


15. And finally, if you want to call something by its proper name, what should you do? questionmark

a) call a spot a spot

b) call a spit a spit

c) call a spanner a spanner

d) call a spade a spade  


Other languages have cognates with the sp- cluster. If you want to call a spade a spade in the Netherlands or anywhere in Scandinavia, you can feel comfortable calling it exactly that, because they have the identical word, spade!

The German for a spike is Spitze, while in Swedish it is a spik. The /s-/ has been lost in other European languages, so we have pic in French, piek in Dutch and pico in Spanish.

Sp- for a spur also spans Latin and Germanic languages: in Danish and Norwegian, it is anspore, in Icelandic spori, in German Sporn. The Portuguese cognate is esporão, while the Italian equivalent is sperone.

The Latin spinae provides the base for spine as a thorn and a backbone in the Romance languages, so thorn is espina in Spanish and backbone is espinazo. Similarly, the words are spina are spina dorsale in Italian and spin and şira spinării in Romanian.  

For some learners of English, sp- can be problematic when followed by another –s to make /sps/. This cluster appears in a number of plurals, as well as in the he/she/it forms of certain verbs.

First, the verbs: match the words with their meanings.

  • clasp
  • gasp
  • grasp
  • lisp
  • rasp


1. hold something tightly, understand questionmark

2. speak in a rough, harsh voice questionmark

3. breathe in suddenly and loudly questionmark

4. pronounce /s/ as /Ɵ/ and /z/ as /ð/ questionmark

5. hold something together, put your hand in someone else’s questionmark


Now pronounce these sentences:

1. The way Stephen lisps makes him sound Spanish.

2. Patsy grasps the concept.

3. The ball spins out of the goalkeeper’s hands, and the crowd gasps expectantly.

4. Spencer rasps the words into the microphone.

5. Whenever we cross the street, she clasps my hand.


Now look at the pictures and repeat the nouns:

073_Potato_chips,_SanokCrisps Theater_(3640665835)Thesps Wasps_attracted_to_ripening_grapesWasps wispsWisps of cloud


Now repeat the following:

1. “Lusk!” rasped the thesp, “what’s your point?”

2. “Watch out for the wasps – they’re on your crisps!”

3. Wisps of smoke blew round the spooky spinney.


As a postscript, I would like to share a personal sp- experience. Those involved in marketing and advertising spend colossal sums on the naming of new products so that the brand name carries certain associations. This is why washing powders prefer “Fairy” and “Ariel” to “Troll” and “Splat”.

Anyway, when my eldest son was three, he sat on my knee and pointed to a plastic clip that was holding the tablecloth in position on the table.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It’s a spangalang,” I lied.

Did I say this because deep in my sub-conscious, sp- was connected to spun cloth and that the spangalang was protruding spikily from the table? Or was I just spouting gobbledegook?

Shakespeare left thousands of words to us. I would like to add just one: here’s hoping that spangalang will catch on!

PPS: Having just checked on Google, I am dismayed to find that spangalang actually exists and is a particular rhythm with the cymbals in jazz music. Shakespeare can sleep easily. Foiled again!




Images credits:  Spindles: By Pschemp (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons Spinning wheel: By Jacob.jose (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Spinster: By Peter van der Sluijs (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Spools: By Thamizhpparithi Maari (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Crisps: By Silar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Thesps: By Tulane Public Relations (Theater  Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Wasps: By Thomas Quine (Flickr: Drunken Wasps) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Wisps: By Nicholas (originally posted to Flickr as Wisps) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons