truncate

What do you call a tree that’s had its top cut off?

Trunk-ated!

Ha ha ha ha. But… actually… have you ever paused to wonder where the word truncated comes from?

Since you’re here and I’m here, I know you know I’m about to tell you. Our verb truncate comes from Latin truncatus, the past participle of the verb trunco, which means ‘I truncate’ (reasonably enough) or ‘I cut off pieces or extensions’ (of a thing or a person). Trunco comes from truncus, which means… ‘trunk’. As in a human torso or the main body of a tree. (And yes, truncus is the source of trunk.)

So just as we might, in English, call lopping off the top and branches of a tree trunking it (and in fact trunk was in use as a verb to mean ‘cut a tree down to its trunk’ from the 1400s to the 1800s, and perhaps some people still use it that way), in Latin, they did the same thing, just changing truncus to trunco (truncas, truncat, truncamus, truncatis, truncant).

But wait! There’s more! Not a whole lot more, but there is. Do you want to know where truncus comes from? We’re not completely sure, but it may have come from a Proto-Indo-European root (yes, yes, trunks come from roots) meaning ‘carve, cut off, trim’ (meaning that the trunk of a tree or of a human is conceived of as what’s left when you’ve cut the limbs off, ouch). And that root has been reconstructed as *twerḱ-. Which is apparently not related to the English word twerk, though certainly your trunk is involved in twerking.

And that’s all I have to tell you. I could go on about the ramifications, but I think I’ll cut it short.

kyriolexy

“Well,” Bruce said, “if Jack was going to be the devil’s advocate, I decided to give him a taste of his own medicine. But I didn’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest, so I got cold feet, and then I ended up in hot water.”

It was an open house Zoom meeting for the Order of Logogustation, and Bruce, a prospective member and evident raconteur, was holding forth on some misadventure. Anthony, another prospective member, cut in. “I’m sorry, I really do prefer to hold to literal usages. Metaphors, especially overused ones, tire me. You mean to say that if he was going to take a contrary position for the sake of argument, you were going to do the same, but you were afraid of causing trouble, so you changed your mind, and then you found yourself in conflict anyway.”

You’re not going to like it here, I thought. Also, half the words you just used came from metaphors. Including metaphor.

Jess piped up: “Oh, you’re an advocate of kyriolexy!”

“Yes, that’s right!” Anthony said. “I’m so glad someone knows the term for the use of literal expressions.”

I prefer more curious lexis, myself – you may have noticed many cuter curios in my lexicon – but kyriolexy is perfectly snappy word, from Greek κύριος ‘authoritative, proper’ (also used to mean ‘lord, master’ as in kyriarchy, and you may know Kyrie eleison, ‘Lord have mercy’) and -λεξια ‘speaking’. And yes, it means ‘using words literally’ or ‘using literal expressions’.

“Oh, but I did mean it literally,” Bruce said. “Jack is a lawyer, and he had decided to take a position as the legal counsel for the Church of Satan. But he’s also an… amateur pharmacologist, and I thought perhaps I could help him reconsider by sharing some of the finer drugs he had sold me. But when I got to his house, there was a hornet’s nest right at his front door, so I went around the back to avoid disturbing it. The problem was that I was wearing sandals and it wasn’t very warm, and his lawn was wet. So when I got around back I dunked my feet in his hot tub.”

“I—” Anthony said.

“Are you pulling his leg?” Jess said.

“No!” Bruce said. “We’re not even in the same room.”

“So,” Arlene said, “what happened then?”

“Well, someone let the cat out of the bag,” Bruce said.

“Someone alerted him to your presence,” Anthony said.

“He has a pet bobcat,” Bruce said, “and it likes to sleep in a burlap sack. But someone in the house woke it up and it came out.”

“Good grief,” Arlene said.

“Grief is seldom good,” Anthony said.

“It turned into a wild goose chase,” Bruce said. “I tried to be on the ball, but Jack had to let me off the hook.”

“It became a wild cat chase, I think you mean,” Anthony said, “and you attempted to keep up with it, but Jack had to relieve you.”

“Naw, man,” Bruce said. “There was a wild goose out by the pool, and that’s what the bobcat was going after. I tried to get out of the way by standing on a large exercise ball, but I fell backwards and my shirt caught on a coathook. Jack had to help me off it.”

Arlene and Jess were both dissolved in laughter. (Not literally dissolved.)

“Why was there a goose by the pool?” I said.

“I may have brought it,” Bruce said.

“You’re not sure,” Anthony said.

“I may have had a taste of my own medicine before arriving, so to speak,” Bruce said.

“So…” Arlene said, as best she could, “how did it all end up?”

“Oh, my goose was cooked,” Bruce said.

“Literally, I suppose?” Anthony said, wearily.

“Yes, stuffed and roasted,” Bruce said.

“I guess you bit off more than you could chew,” Jess said, giggling madly.

“Yes!” Bruce said. “How did you know? The goose was very good, but I gobbled it a bit too hungrily and Jack had to do the Heimlich maneuver on me.”

“That was really the icing on the cake!” I said.

Bruce looked at me (well, as best he could on a Zoom call) for a moment. “No, it was the goose. We didn’t have cake.”

“And were things been OK between you and Jack after that?” Arlene said.

“Well…” Bruce said. “He’s given me the cold shoulder.”

“Oh, leftover goose?” Arlene said.

“Nah! Geese don’t have shoulders. I just mean he hasn’t wanted to talk to me. I guess I might have opened up a can of worms.”

We all just looked at each other and no one said anything for a few moments. Finally Jess broke the silence. “So… kyriolexy. Nice word.” We all agreed that it had a certain something.

skeevy

We have a whole set of colloquial words for distasteful, disreputable, insalubrious things that you would generally shy away from or eschew outright: scuzzy, sleazy, sketchy, skeezy, skanky, scurvy, skeevy

You can notice some commonalities, and you would not be off base to suspect some cross-influence. Usage of words can be influenced by the senses of other words they sound like, and if we make up a new word – especially one meant to be particularly vivid – we tend to draw on established sound patterns from other words of similar sense (I covered this in my master’s thesis, if you’d like some substantiation for it).

But of course there are some words that established the pattern and others that followed it. We can feel confident that scurvy, for instance, was an early entrant in this group; it showed up in its present form in the 1500s, and it traces (by way of scurf) back to Old English. Sleazy has been with us since the 1600s, though its origins are sketchy (while sketchy is more recent, but its origins aren’t sleazy).

And how about skeevy? That seems like a portmanteau, doesn’t it, or at least a phonaesthematic confection? It’s not. It showed up in English quite recently, apparently the 1970s, but its origins are, in their way, ancient and clear: it comes from an Italian word, schifo, ‘loathing’ or ‘crap’ (and its related verb, schifare, ‘loathe’). For those who don’t know, sch in Italian is pronounced like “sk.” And while the f is “f” in standard Italian, it can be voiced to “v” in regional varieties – such as the variety spoken in South Philadelphia, where skeevy appears to have entered English (this is the kind of Italian where prosciutto is said like “brazhoot” and capicola like “gabagool”).

And where does schifo come from? Not from Latin! Rather, Italian seems to have gotten it via Old French from Frankish, which in turn took it from Proto-Germanic *skeuhaz… which is also the source of English shy and eschew.

So skeevy just happened to sound appropriate when it was imported (in modified form) into English. But of course it might not have been imported if it had not sounded suitable! Now, if you’re looking for a word made up on the basis of just sounding right, try skeezy, which showed up in the early 1990s, evidently on the model of skeevy, sleazy, and the rest.

And what are the subtle shades of meaning between all these words? You know, that would probably make a good journal article… if not a whole dissertation. But if you have a sense of differences in how you would use them, don’t be shy, tell me; I love good usage data points.

lachanopolist

I stopped by my neighbourhood lachanopolist – or so I thought – to acquire some basil. The emporium in question is Urban Fresh Produce in St. Lawrence Market, a couple of blocks from my front door, and I am on friendly terms with its proprietors.

As I came up to its frontage, I first encountered Anthony, co-owner, a fit fellow somewhere in his thirties with assorted tattoos. “How is my friendly neighbourhood lachanopolist?” I said.

“Your what?” he said.

“Lachanopolist,” I said. “Herb-seller.”

“That’s a word?” he said.

“I’ve been told,” I said.

“I’ll sell you herbs,” he said. “Whaddyou want? We got some fresh basil in.”

“Perfect,” I said.

His phone went off. “Sorry,” he said, “I gotta take care of this. You can find it, right?” And he detached.

I went in through the entry between the berries and the cash register. The universally beloved Fiona, busy at cash, waved hi. I headed towards where the herbs usually were. Lou, the other co-owner, about the same age and description as Anthony but a bit taller, was in that aisle.

“I’ve come to my friendly neighbourhood lachanopolist,” I said.

“Your what?” Lou said.

“Lachanopolist,” I said. “Herb-seller.”

“Do you get paid to know that?” he said.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “You got herbs, though…” I said.

“Yeah, whaddyou need? It’s all right here.”

I started looking through the various vegetation: rosemarysagethyme

Lou started walking away to take care of some stocking. “Don’t leave without having an espresso,” he said.

I gave him a thumbs-up. Then I looked back to the shelf.

Huh. Where’s the basil.

Fiona, who had detached from the cash, came by. “Hellooooo. What you looking for?”

“I came to my local lachanopolist to buy some basil.”

“Your what?” Fiona said.

“Lachanopolist,” I said. “Herb-seller.”

“You want some herb?” Fiona said. “Will you sell me some herb?” She made a smoking gesture, then laughed.

“I’m not in the business!” I said. “But you are.”

“We don’t sell that kind,” she said. “Maybe try Front Street!” And she laughed again.

“I’m actually here for basil,” I said.

“Ohhhhh,” Fiona said. “Basil out front. That way. Past the berries.” She pointed to the far corner of the establishment (admittedly not a great distance). Then she headed back to the cash register to ring through a customer who had walked up.

I walked back over towards the front corner. Sure enough, there was fresh basil in large bunches. There was also Bianca, sister of Anthony. 

“Hello!” Bianca said.

“Hey,” I said. “I came to my friendly neighbourhood lachanopolist for some fresh basil.”

She made a bit of a face. “Your friendly neighbourhood what?”

“Lachanopolist,” I said. “Herb-seller. I swear I read it in a dictionary.” I pulled out my phone.

“If you were selling words, you could charge a lot for them, you know,” she said.

“I charge enough to be able to afford your stuff,” I said. I opened the Oxford English Dictionary, still displaying the entry for lachanopolist. “See?” I said, handing the phone to her. “A seller of herbs and vegetables.” I didn’t bother boring her with the etymology, from Greek λάχανον ‘vegetable’ and -πώλης ‘dealer’.

She looked at the phone. Her eyes are younger than mine and she saw some smaller text below the definition. “Apparently only in dictionaries,” she read, and handed it back to me.

I took the phone and pulled my glasses off my face (I’m nearsighted, so this is what I do to read small things) and looked closely. Yes, right under the definition, as I had read it, was the caveat, as she had read it.

“I don’t think I’m selling herbs in a dictionary,” she said. “I’m selling them in a market!”

“Well, that’s one for the books,” I said. “I have no idea who sells herbs in dictionaries, but I guess they sell them by the leaf.” Bianca made another wry face. “Anyway,” I said, “you’re not lackin’ basil.” I held up the bunch.

“Glad you found what you need,” she said. “You want an espresso?”

Disclaimer: The people named here are all real people, and very nice ones too, but this particular interaction never actually happened.

stellification, stelligerate

You have, perhaps, heard of “an exaltation of larks.” But what of exaltation for a lark? Of exalting words for wanton gratification? What of the stellification of the lexis: the consecration of words into a constellation, amplifying the merely empirical into the empyrean – a dark purple vault of prose into the universe? The ecstasy of explication? The apotheosis of apothegms and epigraphs and epochal epopees? Dammit, why have all these words unless we can shout them to the heavens, lift them to the dark skies, turn the ink traces on the white pages into so many mythical figures pinpricked in the nightly dome? Let language be stelligerate when it may!

Look, read this, from Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art by Jessica Burstein:

Her lexicographical prowess made her eerily fast on the cryptonymous counterpunch; she could feint to the distaff, drop to her knees, and make like to pray. A swift consult with Messieurs Furnivall, Murray, Onions, and Trench, and she’d be back bobbing and weaving before they knew what hit them. Diagnosing modern verse as supine, moschiferous, and polysarcous, Loy infused her poetry with illicit shards; the result was a disturbing mongrel, with bark no less stelligerate than bite. Taxonomers then entrenched her as the preeminent litterateur of traumatropism, having grown some peculiar poetry from the bed of a wound.

Burstein’s whole book isn’t as stelligerate (or belligerent) as that, of course; Burstein is plainly aiming to make the passage an icon – in the manner of a constellation more than a painting, perhaps – of the stylings of Mina Loy, whom it is describing. And, given the opportunity to let off some fireworks, why should one not take it?

I won’t define or etymologize all of the words in the passage for you; Google works fine, and I know you have an internet connection. But I am here for stelligerate – and for stellification while I’m at it. 

Stelligerate is a word seldom used now (one might declare it obsolete, but clearly it’s used more than never); it means, as best the Oxford English Dictionary can conjecture, ‘exalted to the heavens’. It comes right from Latin stelliger, ‘star-bearing’, from stella ‘star’ and the suffix -ger ‘bearing’ (as in verbigerate, but otherwise not much seen in English).

Stellification, as you may well have guessed from the stell- and the -ification, means ‘making a star’ or, perhaps more precisely, ‘placing among the stars’ – in other words, making something (or someone) into a constellation. Its related verb is stellify

Of course there’s an important difference between making something into stars and making something into a constellation: when you identify a figure as a constellation, you use stars that are already there. They have been burning in their separate distant places in the universe for eons, and from the terrestrial perspective you have decided that their perceptual alignment represents the figure. It’s all in your head; the stars exist independent of, and unmoved by, your fancy.

And so, too, we might say, when we use such stelligerate verbal stylings: the words were there from ages past, and we merely draw on them to exalt what we describe. But it’s not quite the same. A word exists only because of human minds and only as humans use it. You do not keep a star alive by using it in a constellation, but when you exalt a word, you fuel it. As it shines the light you want, it burns not the hydrogen of distant galaxies but the oxygen of your lungs – and the electricity of your mind and our millions of glowing screens. What a lark of exaltation.

pleuvisaud

The rain rattles the window like words heard once and half forgotten: the speech of strangers in calm crowds, the arcane ingredients in ancient recipes, an epic poet’s hapax legomena. Outside, the world twists in the cold wet dark; within, I am warm and I will sleep well, caressed by the berceuse of the pleuvisaud.

Pleuvisaud? Surely you have wondered from time to time what the mot juste might be for the sound of rain on a roof or windowpane. If you Google this question, you will encounter, among others, this word pleuvisaud, mentioned on Stack Exchange (“I don’t remember where I’ve seen this, but, ‘pleuvisaud’ has been used to describe the pleasant sound of rain. In particular, the comforting sound of rain on a roof while one is inside”) or Quora (“I have seen the word pleuvisaud used to describe the sound of rain on a roof. Unfortunately I don’t know the source. But it’s a rather lovely word”). If you further search the word, you will find a page and a half of results, mostly apparently copied by aggregator sites from Stack Exchange, but also a few uses in fiction by one author, someone who goes by Emma_ChrisWay:

Shaking, Zeta heads back to the cafe. She sits by the window as rain starts to drum on the bay window

“I used to love that sound,” she thinks. “Pleuvisaud.”

(Deep in the Heart of Texas)

Meanwhile, Kristen lounges cosily in her family’s Camper van overlooking the downy Mendip Hills. ‘Pleuvisaud’ she muses to herself as the rain tip-taps comfortingly on the tin roof.

(Dark Night of the Soul)

Sergio and Jim embrace as big fat drops of rain fall on the roof of the cabin. ‘Pleuvisaud’ sighs Sergio. ‘What did you say?’ asks Jim quizzically. Sergio turns to Jim with a gentle smile ‘Pleuvisaud; the comforting sound of rain on a roof.’

(Waves of Freedom)

It appears that these three works of fiction are the source for the respondent(s) on Stack Exchange and Quora; it’s not impossible that at least one of them, identified as Emma Davies, is the same person as Emma_ChrisWay. But tracing such a detail is not always easier than, say, knowing where a particular raindrop formed.

And where did Emma_ChrisWay get the word? Not in any dictionary to which I have recourse. For that matter, the morphology of the word is not quite transparent. The pleuv- seems to suggest rain, although the usual form of the root is pluv- (as in pluvious); an exception is pleuvoir, the French verb for ‘rain’ (as in il pleut, ‘it’s raining’). The -isaud (or perhaps -visaud) doesn’t match any root I can find or am familiar with, though it has a faint sound of “sound” and a passing glimpse of the start of audio

There is no word I can find in English or any other language that closely resembles this word. Perhaps there is one somewhere that’s similar but just different enough that I can’t manage to find it. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Emma_ChrisWay decided that the sound needed a word and determined to make one she found suitable. And if she did, who am I to gainsay the effort?

So we don’t know just where pleuvisaud came from, any more than we know the lakes that a raindrop evaporated from. But listen: it sounds right. We need it. Take it, and rest.

gauntlet, gantlet

I watched a documentary on Amy Winehouse recently, and it really drove home the downside of being famous: running the gauntlet of paparazzi everywhere you go, running the gauntlet of criticism, running the… what?

Running the gantlet? You sure? Isn’t it, like, a metaphor of running between lines of knights who are slapping you with their metal gloves? You know, gauntlets, from the same root that gives us modern French gant ‘glove’?

Just kidding. I know very well what it refers to originally: a form of punishment where someone (almost always a man, and most often a soldier or sailor) would have to walk (or run, if he could) between two lines of soldiers (or sailors, or others) who had sticks, whips, or similar weapons, and who would beat the man as he passed between them. Variations of this punishment have been around for millennia; the Romans would even at times subject every tenth man of a unit to a determinedly fatal version of this, meaning – yes – it was used for literally decimating them. (There, doesn’t that make your pedantic heart happy?) And while there were many kinds of weapons used, and while gauntlets can be formidable weapons (just try being slapped by one and see), gauntlets were not used for this and are not related to it.

So why do we say run the gauntlet? Because the original word doesn’t get used for anything else, and it sounds like gauntlet, and gauntlet has a similarly menacing air (see throw down the gauntlet).

So the original word is gantlet, right?

Nah. Gantlet is a variant spelling of gauntlet. Some usage guides – particularly some American ones – have counselled writers to reserve gauntlet for the gloves and gantlet for the punishment. It’s the same kind of split as between person and parson or between to and too – only in this case, first, two different words merged into one, and then the one word split… but not the same way as it joined. The other word that got absorbed into gauntlet, before gantlet split back off it (inasmuch as it has), was gantlope, also spelled gantelope.

Only gantlope isn’t the original form either – not quite. It came from Swedish gatlopp, from gata ‘lane’ and lopp ‘course’. So this Swedish word has, over time, passed between many hands and been beaten into a new shape: somehow it got n slapped onto it, and the lopp became lope (reasonably enough; English lope comes from the same root as Swedish lopp), and from that, of course, it ran on into gauntlet.

But run the gantlope did get established in English. It was used starting in the 1600s, and you can find it in texts ever since… but fading out over time as it was replaced (starting soon after its appearance in the 1600s) with gauntlet, a word that had already been around in English for a couple of centuries.

You can see, certainly, that gantlet is marginally closer to gantlope than gauntlet is. But you can also see that if you want to be fussy about it, you can go with gantlope. After all, dictionaries from publishers such as Oxford and Merriam-Webster will tell you that gantlet is a variant spelling of gauntlet, and they will tell you that run the gauntlet means ‘go through an ordeal’ (it’s almost never used literally anymore, of course). And they will also present gantlope (or gantelope) for your use as you wish. 

But it’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-in-you-don’t situation: if you put run the gantlope, many readers will say “Huh?” or “You got that wrong”; if you put run the gantlet, many will think it’s a misspelling; if you put run the gauntlet, a few will hasten to point out that you are an ignorant barbarian deserving of being slapped by lines of soldiers. Still, words change and phrases change. The proof is in the pudding; you might as well just do or die.*

*Originally “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” and “Theirs but to do and die

poring

“So you’ve persuaded the famous Narcissa to join us,” I said.

It was our word tasting Zoom chat, and a few of us had already assembled – including Maury, whom I was addressing. But Narcissa was not there yet.

“Yes,” Maury said. “I did tell her when it was, and she’s usually punctual – oh, that must be her.” He looked to the side and picked something up. His phone. It had apparently vibed with a message. “Oh dear.”

“She won’t be joining us?” I said.

“No, she will, anon, but this makes me wince just a little.” He held up his phone so we could read the text message: “Sorry – will connect in a minute. Spent the afternoon pouring over cookbooks.”

Jess, in her frame, peered, then sat back. “Pouring. Oof. Good thing Margot’s not here.”

“Narcissa is usually more attentive to spelling,” Maury said. “Most odd.”

Arlene, looking over Jess’s shoulder, said, “It should be poring without a u, right?” Jess looked up at her and nodded slowly.

“Perhaps she’s saying she can live with or without u,” I said, and then sang a little quote from U2: “With or without you, ohhh…”

“More like can’t live without u,” Jess said. She had a point.

“So does this have to do with pores,” Arlene said, “like…” She held her sleeveless forearm forth to the camera.

“No,” said Maury, “that’s from Greek; this is not.”

“Germanic,” I said. “Related to peer and, somehow, I think, to spoor.”

“I’m not sure there are any real traces to connect it to spoor,” Maury said. “Just suggestive resemblances.”

“Anyway,” I said, “an old root for looking closely, examining. Not related to the word for flowing fluid.”

“It’s kind of amazing that the spelling hasn’t converged with that kind of pour,” Arlene said.

Jess looked at her. “It seems like that’s what it’s in the process of doing.”

“That was an alternate spelling in earlier centuries, too, when the spellings were less fixed,” I said.

Arlene giggled. “I just… what do people think they’re doing when they spell it that way? Do they think their attention is a fluid, and they’re pouring it over the books, or…”

She was interrupted by the boo-bleep of another person connecting. A woman, probably over 40, with carefully large hair, carefully bright lips, carefully shaded eyes, and carelessly loud glasses, appeared among us.

“Hello, Narcissa,” Maury said. “I take it you’ve been planning some cooking?”

“Hello!” Narcissa said. “Hello, hello,” she said to the others of us. “Not just planning, Maurice. I made a bundt cake, some zabaglione, and, just now, a cosmopolitan.” She raised a coupe with red liquid in it and red lip prints on it and had a sip.

“I wouldn’t think that would require too much bibliotechnical spelunking,” Maury said.

“Not at all,” Narcissa said. “Quick and dirty.”

Maury nodded. “…You said you had been poring over cookbooks.”

Narcissa looked at him over the top of her glasses – the ones on her face and the one in her hand. “Maurice.” She held up a finger, set down her glass and disappeared for a moment. She returned with three books, each one open to some spot in the middle. She held up the first: it showed a recipe for bundt cake, apparently well used, with batter droplets and smears on it. She set that down and held up the second: its glossy recipe for zabaglione was bedaubed with a streak of something frothy. She set that down and held up the third: a little red hardcover displaying a recipe for a cosmopolitan, with red liquid still dripping off it. She set that down and retook her seat. “I need a decent cookbook holder. Every time I work with liquids I end up getting some on the book.”

“Quick and dirty,” Jess said.

“Two of my favourite adjectives,” Narcissa said. “And that is why, Maurice, I said I had been pouring over cookbooks. Really, my lad… you’re usually more attentive to spelling.” She smiled slightly and raised her glass.

stanch, staunch

Many a stanch defender of the language will try to staunch the flow of misspellings.

Wait. No. Many a staunch defender of the language will try to stanch the flow of misspellings.

Right?

It’s like a gauntlet/gantlet and pour over/pore over thing. Every lexical fussbudget knows that. The sight of the wrong one is like aluminum foil touching a filling.

And if you feel that way about staunch and stanch, you… are not going to like what you find if you look in, say, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary or, um, the ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary, or… let’s see, what else is on my shelf here…

Now, yes, it’s true, for the adjective – as in a staunch defender – the spelling with the u is the more usual one, and the spelling without the u is the alternate, whereas for the verb – as in stanch the flow – as well as for the related noun (yes, there is one; it means ‘dam’ or a similar waterway impedance) the spelling without the u is the more usual and the spelling with it is the alternate. But “alternate” does not mean “wrong.”

So how did it get to be this way? Is this like one of those cleave and cleave things, where two different words happened to converge on a spelling? Or is it one of those isle and island things, where one word was mistakenly thought to be related to the other and got a letter added where it doesn’t belong (in case you’re wondering, isle is the one that has a historical s and island is the one where the s was mistakenly stuffed in)? Nope. It’s one of those things more like person and parson – or, for that matter, more like to and too. They come from the same thing, but the spelling has diverged with the usage. Only in the case of sta(u)nch, the split is still underway. It’s like seeing an amoeba in the middle of, you know, doing it. Or like seeing a stream at a fork. Though, really, it seems to have stagnated: both spellings have stood for both senses for centuries.

In the case of stanch and staunch, the source is words having to do with stopping the flow of water, damming up, et cetera, and, in adjectival form, being impervious to leaking – which is the same dam thing. The Old French form was estanche for the adjective and estanchier for the verb. Its ultimate Latin source might be sto ‘I stand’ or stagnum ‘pool’ – it’s not quite clear. But we do know that the related Italian word is stancare (verb) and stanco (adjective), both translating as ‘weary’. Which may seem suitable if you are wearying of all this lexical hair-splitting.

But if you are the sort who likes to make and maintain small distinctions – one spelling for the verb (and noun) and one for the adjective – well, this one is for you. Specifically, adjective is for u. But remember one thing: though Americans can get away with saying the stanch spelling to rhyme with ranch, you will always be safe (except from people who don’t know any better) saying either spelling to rhyme with haunch.

Although, really, you’ll be safest just avoiding the whole issue and using words like dam or stop up or stalwart.

zenography

Zenography looks like it should be writing about Zen Buddhism, or a Zen style of writing, or something like that. Which would be what, exactly? I remember happily reading books of Zen poetry from my Dad’s library (acquired in the coursework for his PhD in Religious Studies), but as enjoyable as they were, the point they all made is that studying Zen by studying Zen poetry is like studying astronomy by examining telescopes. I also remember there used to be a travel agency on Spadina Avenue in Toronto that declared itself to be Zen Travel, and I thought, “Oh, you go in, they tell you you’re already where you want to go, and in exchange you give them all you have, which is nothing.”

But no, by Jupiter, zenography is not that. Zenography is different from Zen. Zenography is not like studying telescopes, it’s true – but telescopes will help you with zenography. Because zenography is the study of Jupiter. As in the planet. The big planet. The planet with the eye. A planet that, given the right light, you can even see with your naked eye – though a telescope will help a lot.

By the way, the word Zen – not as in zenography – is the Japanese version of the Sanskrit original dhyana, which means ‘meditation’. Zen is not an idea or a philosophy; it’s a practice of meditation: don’t just do something, sit there. The aim is to achieve enlightenment, a true understanding of the fundamental oneness of everything (here’s a Zen joke: a monk goes up to a hot dog vendor and says “Make me one with everything”) – or, really, the fundamental lack of substance and permanence in everything, but at the same time and inevitably a unity: no two things are really two things. There are two main schools of how to achieve enlightenment. One school focuses on approaching it gradually, sort of like getting halfway there, and halfway there from that, and then half of the remaining way, asymptotically approaching complete insight. The other school focuses on paradoxes as keys for sudden awakening – the famous koans, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “What was your face before your parents were born?”

But, again, this is not that. OK. So why is the study of Jupiter called zenography? Well, if we called the planet by the Greek equivalent, it would be easier to understand. You may remember that the Roman gods were basically rebranded versions of the Greek ones. Ares became Mars. Aphrodite became Venus. And Zeus, the top dog of the gods, the bringer of mirth and hurler of thunderbolts and assaulter of countless women, became Jupiter.

So you might think that the study of Jupiter could be Zeusography. And you’d be on the right track. But in Classical Greek, the combining form of Ζεύς is Ζηνο-, Zéno-, for reasons that would probably make your eyes glaze over. So writing about Zeus – or Jupiter – is zenography, and anything centring on Jupiter is zenocentric, and if there were a magazine all about Jupiter it might be called National Zenographic or something.

This might lead to a couple further questions. One is “Is this related to zenith?” The answer is no. Zenith  traces to Arabic samt, as does azimuth. Another is “What about that Zeno guy?” And the answer to that is… yeah! The ancient Greek thinker we call Zeno was actually Ζήνων, Zénōn, a name derived from Zeus, sort of like how Christian is derived from Christ.

Do you remember what Zeno is famous for? He was a clever thinker and liked his paradoxes, and the best-known one of them is basically that if you’re going somewhere, you first have to get halfway there, and then you have to get half of the rest of the way, and then you have to get half of that, and so on, so that conceptually, you never get all the way there – it’s asymptotic. But of course, in real life, you just defy the paradox and get there. Still, the idea is rather enlightening, isn’t it, by Jupiter? And so we find a connection between Zen and zenography after all… which was perhaps inevitable, as they were never really two different things, more than anything else is.