C.M. Weimer quotes Cicero's Orator, 153, in this answer:

How was the name of your ancestor changed from Axilla to Ala except from a desire to avoid a harsh-sounding letter? The same letter is removed by refined Latin speech from maxillae, taxilli, vexillum and pauxillum.

This comes to me as quite a surprise. I had understood that maxilla is a diminutive form of māla; see, for example, etymonline. Wouldn't dropping the x undo the diminutive? If the Romans dropped the x, what would the result be? Māilla? Māla? Wouldn't this cause confusion? Aren't there already too many homonyms clashing over māla?

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    It seems that the original form of at least some of these words did have "x," which was dropped before a consonant but not before the diminutive suffix -ill- which started with a vowel. So "axla" etc. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ala#Latin But the x was dropped in the normal word, similar to how iumentum comes from Old Latin jouxmentom. I would guess this is the case for māla as well (i.e. it was earlier maxla). Posting this as a comment because it is just a guess.
    – Asteroides
    Mar 11 '16 at 16:03

I think sumelic is correct, though both De Vaan and Etymonline disagree. If I may quote Lewis and Short:

maxilla , ae, f. dim. of a ground-form magsula (whence māla; root mag of μάσσω, to knead; μαγεύς. baker, etc.; cf. axilla, āla, from ago)

This makes sense, too, because -xilla is not a proper diminutive suffux. So here, the root is mag- with a sibilant for the ending. Making that diminutive gives us magsula or with a more modern orthography maxilla (cf. older Latin optumus and standard optimus).

De Vaan derives it back to smaksla- (cf. OIr. smech 'chin', Hit. zamakur 'beard', Lith. smakras, 'chin', etc.). However, he doesn't really account for the loss of the gutteral in māla; instead, he derives both from PIE.

Māla reflects *smaks(V)la, whereas maxilla can be from *smakslela, or has the productive suffix -illa.

However, if we were to use other Latin words for analogy, as Lewis and Short points out, āla is impossible to derive from ag-, and it makes more sense to go this way:

ag- > axis > axilla > āla

It should be noted that x easily slips away from words, as it turned into /h/ in Spanish, s or ss in French, and s, ss, or sci in Italian.

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    The same change occurs in all clusters of the form -Csl-, -Csn-, -Csm-: the first two consonants are lost with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel. Weiss Hist. Gramm. Latin 177-9 gives many examples.
    – TKR
    Mar 11 '16 at 19:20

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