A snippet of dialogue emerged my from my brain’s crawlspace to wake me up this morning.
Otto: I don’t know about this, Bart dude. Your dad was right, I am a bum…
Bart: He didn’t call you a bum, he called you a sponge.
Otto: SPONGE?! (Punches wall) I’ll show him what this sponge can do!
The Simpsons, S03E22: “The Otto Show”
Today’s word of the day is sponge. That a character could be incensed by the mere mention of “sponge” is rare, so kudos to The Simpsons. As for me, I’m elated by my mind’s morning reminder.
First, the word. The articulation is Crossfit for your mouth! It can’t be a coincidence that Several Awesome Concepts begin with the letters S and P together. Spandex and spaghetti and spasm and sparkle are obviously words to be Declared Aloud with arms akimbo. That slide from sibilant to plosive is like the sparkline of a lit fuse: one that blows your jaws open like dynamite.
And just after it pops it’s over. Sponge wrenches your mouth shut with a mangy, grungy, plunge-y, snarl. When whispered, the syllable would be barely a maraca shake. But the voiced affricate (d͡ʒ) buzzes like neon light. The same glow that makes “minge” and “whinge” such a thrill for Britons. And the damn thing is held together by a lowly schwa. Sponge! Say it with a Southern US accent and tell me it doesn’t merit a plaque of some kind.
Fine, you don’t care. Otto wouldn’t care either because he hears a noun and a verb, not merely a bouquet of phonemes. For him a sponge is to sponge and back again. A sponge is a mendicant, non-contributor loathed by The Man. Ayn Rand disciples might prefer “moocher.” But there’s some irony to this comparison, I think. It’s true that sponges are skilled at unthinking absorption, but their ultimate nature is to be squozen; tightly resolved of liquid assets by invisible hands.
Whatever. For everyone that isn’t me or a stoner school bus driver sponge means: khaki ocean blob barely passing as a life form. Without nervous, digestive or circulatory systems, these creatures certainly strain the definition of life. But alive they are. Their entire surface area is an ever-long gasp. Breathing the ocean—neither in or out, but both at the same time.
Only two animals have taken it upon themselves to give sponges part-time work. Bottlenose dolphins use them as foraging tools. As for the second group:
Early Europeans used soft sponges for many purposes, including padding for helmets, portable drinking utensils and municipal water filters. Until the invention of synthetic sponges, they were used as cleaning tools, applicators for paints and ceramic glazes and discreet contraceptives. Wikipedia
These days, natural sponges are a rare sight unless you work at Michaels. Your closest “sponge” is probably neon-colored and sulking near a kitchen sink.
Those scare quotes are slanderous and unfair, so let me withdraw them. Today’s sponges may be synthetic, but they are journeymen all the same. During their work breaks, let them be a souvenir of alien life beneath the sea, and a reminder of the plight of the perpetually squeezed.