There are in English often long trains of words allied by their meaning and derivation; as, to beat, a bat, batoon, a battle, a beetle, a battledore, to batter, batter, a kind of glutinous composition for food, made by beating different bodies into one mass. All these are of similar signification, and perhaps derived from the Latin batuo. Thus take, touch, tickle, tack, tackle; all imply a local conjunction from the Latin tango, tetigi, tactum.
From two are formed twain, twice, twenty, twelve, twins, twine, twist, twirl, twig, twitch, twinge, between, betwixt, twilight, twibil.
The following remarks, extracted from Wallis, are ingenious but of more subtlety than solidity, and such as perhaps might in every language be enlarged without end.
Sn usually imply the nose, and what relates to it. From the Latin nasus are derived the French nez and the English nose; and nesse, a promontory, as projecting like a nose. But as if from the consonants ns taken from nasus, and transposed that they may the better correspond, sn denote nasus; and thence are derived many words that relate to the nose, as snout, sneeze, snore, snort,snear, snicker, snot, snivel, snite, snuff, snuffle, snaffle, snarl, snudge.
There is another sn which may perhaps be derived from the Latin sinuo, as snake, sneak, snail, snare; so likewise snap and snatch, snib, snub. Bl imply a blast; as blow, blast, to blast, to blight, and, metaphorically, to blast one’s reputation;bleat, bleak, a bleak place, to look bleak, or weather-beaten, black, blay, bleach, bluster, blurt, blister, blab, bladder, blew, blabber lip’t, blubber-cheek’t, bloted, blote-herrings, blast, blaze, to blow, that is, blossom, bloom; and perhapsblood and blush.
In the native words of our tongue is to be found a great agreement between the letters and the thing signified; and therefore the sounds of the letters smaller, sharper, louder, closer, softer, stronger, clearer, more obscure, and more stridulous, do very often intimate the like effects in the things signified.
Thus words that begin with str intimate the force and effect of the thing signified, as if probably derived from στρωννυμι, or strenuous; as strong, strength, strew, strike, streak, stroke, stripe, strive, strife, struggle, strout, strut, stretch, strait,strict, streight, that is, narrow, distrain, stress, distress, string, strap, stream, streamer, strand, strip, stray, struggle, strange, stride, stradale.
St in like manner imply strength, but in a less degree, so much only as is sufficient to preserve what has been already communicated, rather than acquire any new degree; as if it were derived from the Latin sto; for example, stand, stay, that is, to remain, or to prop; staff, stay, that is, to oppose; stop, to stuff, stifle, to stay, that is, to stop; a stay, that is, an obstacle; stick, stut, stutter, stammer, stagger, stickle, stick, stake, a sharp, pale, and any thing deposited at play; stock, stem,sting, to sting, stink, stitch, stud, stuncheon, stub, stubble, to stub up, stump, whence stumble, stalk, to stalk, step, to stamp with the feet, whence to stamp, that is, to make an impression and a stamp; stow, to stow, to bestow, steward, orstoward; stead, steady, stedfast, stable, a stable, a stall, to stall, stool, stall, still, stall, stallage, stage, still, adjective, and still, adverb: stale, stout, sturdy, stead, stoat, stallion, stiff, stark-dead, to starve with hunger or cold; stone, steel,stern, stanch, to stanch blood, to stare, steep, steeple, stair, standard, a stated measure, stately. In all these, and perhaps some others, st denote something firm and fixed.
Thr imply a more violent degree of motion, as throw, thrust, throng, throb, through, threat, threaten, thrall, throws.
Wr imply some sort of obliquity or distortion, as wry, to wreathe, wrest, wrestle, wring, wrong, wrinch, wrench, wrangle, wrinkle, wrath, wreak, wrack, wretch, wrist, wrap.
Sw imply a silent agitation, or a softer kind of lateral motion; as sway, swag, to sway, swagger, swerve, sweat, sweep, swill, swim, swing, swift, sweet, switch, swinge.
Nor is there much difference of sm in smooth, smug, smile, smirk, smite; which signifies the same as to strike, but is a softer word; small, smell, smack, smother, smart, a smart blow properly signifies such a kind of stroke as with an originally silent motion, implied in sm, proceeds to a quick violence, denoted by ar suddenly ended, as is shown by t.
Cl denote a kind of adhesion or tenacity, as in cleave, clay, cling, climb, clamber, clammy, clasp, to clasp, to clip, to clinch, cloak, clog, close, to close, a clod, a clot, as a clot of blood, clouted cream, a clutter, a cluster.
Sp imply a kind of dissipation or expansion, especially a quick one, particularly if there be an r, as if it were from spargo or separo: for example, spread, spring, sprig, sprout, sprinkle, split, splinter, spill, spit, sputter, spatter.
Sl denote a kind of silent fall, or a less observable motion; as in slime, slide, slip, slipper, sly, sleight, slit, slow, slack, slight, sling, slap.
And so likewise ash, in crash, rash, gash, flash, clash, lash, slash, plash, trash, indicate something acting more nimbly and sharply. But ush, in crush, rush, gush, flush, blush, brush, hush, push, imply something as acting more obtusely and dully. Yet in both there is indicated a swift and sudden motion not instantaneous, but gradual, by the continued sound, sh.
Thus in fling, sling, ding, swing, cling, sing, wring, sting, the tingling of the termination ng, and the sharpness of the vowel i, imply the continuation of a very slender motion or tremor, at length indeed vanishing, but not suddenly interrupted. But in tink, wink, sink, clink, chink, think, that end in a mute consonant, there is also indicated a sudden ending.
If there be an l, as in jingle, tingle, tinkle, mingle, sprinkle, twinkle, there is implied a frequency, or iteration of small acts. And the same frequency of acts, but less subtile by reason of the clearer vowel a, is indicated in jangle, tangle,spangle, mangle, wrangle, brangle, dangle; as also in mumble, grumble, jumble. But at the same time the close u implies something obscure or obtunded; and a congeries of consonants mbl, denotes a confused kind of rolling or tumbling, as in ramble, scamble, scramble, wamble, amble; but in these there is something acute.
In nimble, the acuteness of the vowel denotes celerity. In sparkle, sp denotes dissipation, ar an acute crackling, k a sudden interruption, l a frequent iteration; and in like manner in sprinkle, unless in may imply the subtilty of the dissipated guttules. Thick and thin differ in that the former ends with an obtuse consonant, and the latter with an acute.
In like manner, in squeek, squeak, squeal, squall, brawl, wraul, yaul, spaul, screek, shriek, shrill, sharp, shrivel, wrinkle, crack, crash, clash, gnash, plash, crush, hush, hisse, fisse, whist, soft, jar, hurl, curl, whirl, buz, bustle, spindle, dwindle, twine, twist, and in many more, we may observe the agreement of such sort of sounds with the things signified; and this so frequently happens, that scarce any language which I know can be compared with ours. So that one monosyllable word, of which kind are almost all ours, emphatically expresses what in other languages can scarce be explained but by compounds, or decompounds, or sometimes a tedious circumlocution.
(From Samuel Johnson’s A Grammar of the English Tongue).