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Since 2008, I’ve posted more than 2,400 articles for free on Sesquiotica; more than a million visitors have come to read them, and more than 17,500 people have subscribed for free. They include word tasting notes, articles on grammar, serialized fiction, and my new series on coffee joints to sit and work in. I’ve also been making videos such as my pronunciation tips, which you can find here and on YouTube. But why stop at that? Continue reading

Pronunciation tip: Einojuhani Rautavaara and Arvo Pärt

In my latest pronunciation tip I look at why we’re so needlessly skittish about Finnish and Estonian names, and I illustrate with the names of two composers (of the hear-them-on-CBC-radio variety). The scary long one isn’t the hard part.

phryganimous, garrigous

There are people who are like a tropical shower, sweeping through and drenching all around. If they are disposed to humour, you may even be literally showered by spray from their lips and perhaps by a splash from their glass. Some people find such social hydration refreshing. Some need it often; others can absorb it occasionally like succulents and then go without until the next party or conference. Some people find it altogether excessive and retreat to seek dryness before they drown.

Today’s words are for people exactly not like those passing showers. The people they describe are much better for those who require aridity.

A phryganimous person is one who is like a dry breeze, one who will not shower you with affection or much else. The word is from Greek ϕρύγανον ‘a dry stick’ or its source ϕρύγειν ‘roast, parch’ plus either Latin animus ‘soul, mind’ or its relative Greek ἄνεμος ‘wind’. It may seem ironic that this word comes from Mediterranean cultures that are famously emotionally demonstrative, but a more Nordic culture might not bother having a word for it; it’s the norm there, and you just need a word for the exceptions.

Finns in particular are axiomatically phryganimous. Did you hear about the Finnish man who loved his wife so much he almost told her so? But phryganimous doesn’t mean just (or exactly) ‘laconic’, nor does it mean ‘cold’. It may mean that the person could snap easily like a dry twig, or burst into flames with too much friction. But it certainly means that the person can survive and even thrive without too much emotional hydration – large demonstrations of affection, massive hugfests, and such like are not, shall we say, what they seek out.

It certainly does not mean that they are insipid. Dry shrubs can have intense, concentrated flavours. You have some of their foliage in jars in your kitchen, and perhaps some extracts in your bathroom: thyme, rosemary, juniper, lavender… All of these are part of the low dry shrubbery called phrygana, from the same ϕρύγανον.

Phrygana is also known as garrigue, a word we got from French, which apparently got it from the ancient soil. And garrigue brings us to our other word of today.

You know the word garrulous, I’m sure. A person who is garrulous is verbally overhydrating. The words come out not so much in a constant stream as in a fire-hydrant drenching. And you know what happens when you mix too much water into anything: It’s just… tasteless. Well, garrigous is much the opposite. A person who is garrigous is one whose presence is reminiscent of garrigue: their conversation is drier and more restrained but so very savoury.

Garrigue is brief in stature, and brevity is the soul of wit. It need not be sharp or cutting; it can find form in a brief compliment that stays with you so much longer than any endless flattery, or a few words of reminiscence that draw out days of memories. It is unpretentious, but nothing tastes quite right without at least a bit of it.

You won’t need either of these words often enough, alas. But there are times when one or both will be just what you mean. Do make sure to explain them to your readers or listeners, though – or give them a link to this little article. No dictionary will help you, alas. They’re made from savoury ancient parts, but by never-before-seen recipes: they’re new old words.

Made-up rules are what get on my nerves

What many word lovers love most are books. But what some word lovers love most is, apparently, a tidy bookshelf. Everything in its place. A single possible spot for any book. And, similarly, some language lovers love a nice tidy grammar, one where there’s only one option at any given juncture.

I understand the inclination. I’m an editor, and I know that tidiness is valuable. But I also know that it needs to serve effectiveness. If your drive for tidiness reduces the expressive potential of the language and proscribes something that people do with good effect, I do not think you are doing the good work.

I’ve harped on this in many of my articles on grammar. Lately I’ve encountered yet another instance of forced tidiness that I don’t think serves a good purpose. On a couple of occasions, people have said that they learned that what as a relative pronoun subject always takes a singular verb. In other words, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what makes a good martini is correct and, according to them, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what make a good martini is not. Continue reading


Perhaps because she was too savvy for the bovver of chivvying me with a bevvy, my friend Julie just straight-up asked if I would blog about words with double v’s. Naturally, the suggestion revved my mind up like a flivver. Continue reading


Pogonotrophy is growing a beard. Pogonotomy is cutting a beard (or shaving it off altogether). Pogonology is writing about beards. And so pogonosophy is knowledge about beards – or perhaps wisdom signified (or conferred?) by a beard. Continue reading

Novel medical treatments

To go with my presentation “Translating medicalese into everyday English,” here’s the article that I wrote for The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

People with serious health problems are often subject to novel treatments. But that shouldn’t mean being treated like they’re in a novel. Continue reading

Translating medicalese into everyday English

I’ve spent nearly 20 years of my life helping people communicate healthcare information clearly and effectively to ordinary readers (among other things – I’m not a one-trick pony!). This year at the Editors Canada conference I gave a one-hour presentation sharing some of the important things I’ve learned.

Here’s the handout:

And here’s the article I wrote for the Editors Canada blog to go with it: Novel medical treatments

If you work for a company that communicates healthcare information to ordinary people, I can come do a seminar for you with exercises – get in touch with me via

Here’s the presentation – all 56 minutes and 23 seconds of it: