sidewalk

Sidewalk. Just side and walk. A place to the side where you may walk. Something concrete to put your feet on, a safe lane whereon vehicles will not pass (you hope).

Streets didn’t use to have sidewalks. They were for walking on, and for riding horses on and pulling carriages on if you could make your way. Nobody went a whole lot faster than anyone else, generally. And much of the time it was all dirt and mud, and “mud” often meant what was left behind by the horses.

When it first appeared, in the 1600s, sidewalk meant a minor lane or path off to the side of a main one. We might call those alleys and side streets now. By the early 1700s it was also used to mean a raised pavement alongside the carriageway. And outside of North America, pavement is still the term commonly used for what Canadians and Americans call a sidewalk. But where I’m from, pavement is what’s on the streets – meaning where the cars drive, the asphalt – while the concrete on the sides is a sidewalk.

Which tells us that the foot-passers, the people walking and running and sometimes wheeling in wheelchairs and scooters, everyone who is not going forth clad in two or three tons of metal – a rigid, awkward mobility suit that takes up more than fifty times the space of the person in it (and most of the time it is just one person at a time) – is off to the side: peripheral, accessory, less important, less vital. 

In dense traffic, a city block can fit about 40 cars, which will typically hold about 50 people. The sidewalk can hold hundreds moving smoothly without collision. But our heavy expensive devices are our empires of the mind. No matter that every car must park sooner or later and the person inside go walking; no matter that streets were made for walking before they were given to cars. Walking is off to the side. It’s where you meet and pass people, where people ask you for money and directions, where you go into and out of stores, where you see the weather and the birds and the buildings close up and in detail. It’s where you truly encounter the concrete. But it’s off to the side now, and going-somewhere-else, insulated in a big expensive box, is the rule.

I’ve been thinking recently, for some reason, about a poem I wrote in 2007. It’s really why I decided to taste this word sidewalk today. Here it is.

A patch of sidewalk speaks

Well, I was
a rock, yes,
I did that thing
for a few million years.
It was fun, it had
a certain solidity,
and you know how
people think of rocks.
It was good.
But things change.
And I’m not willing
to say it was not
for the better, or it was
somehow not good;
I think I’ve been opened
to a whole new set 
of experiences:
soles, paws, 
tires, papers.
Where I was before,
those trees, that grass, 
the other rocks, 
they can be peaceful, 
but it loses its attraction.
Now every hour brings
thousands of new 
fascinations.
And I have new friends, 
we’re all in this together,
a lot of us who
did the rock thing back when
(though it doesn’t seem
so long ago, in
the grand scheme of things).
And I’m not kidding
myself, I won’t be
a rock again.
So I have to accept it.
But things change.
What’s not to like?

jactiate

Some days, you know, you have plans, you have designs, you have desires, but at the end of the day, you’ve done jactiate. And other days, you have duties, you have instructions, you have obligations, but at the end of the day, you haven’t done jactiate. And either way, it’s the same.

It’s the same because jactiate is the kind of thing where the result is identical whether you do it or not. Literally – that’s the definition: ‘stuff that can be done or not done with no difference in ultimate effect’. And I say “stuff” and not “things” or “a thing” because it’s a mass noun, like water, air, rice, and business: it doesn’t get an article and it doesn’t get a plural. Mostly, in fact, it just shows up in two collocations: do [or did] jactiate and don’t [or didn’t] do jactiate. And those two phrases mean exactly the same thing, in spite of the opposite polarity.

Where does this word jactiate come from? You might recognize the jact root, as in Julius Caesar’s famous Alea jacta est! That means “The die is cast!” More often, though, jacta (or jactus or jactum) would be translated as thrown or tossed – and you can see the root (mutatis mutandis) in other English words, such as eject and reject, both of which can be paraphrased as toss out.

You recognize the -ate ending, of course; more often it’s on verbs, but it can show up on adjectives describing things that have had the verb done to them, and nouns naming those things. A noun you might recognize in this form is ejaculate, which refers to stuff that has been ejaculated. And an adjective you might recognize is cruciate, as in anterior cruciate ligament, so named not because it’s excruciating when you tear it but just because there are two of them and they cross over (= they are cruciate). In the same pattern, jactiate is stuff that’s tossed out (or will be tossed out, or has been tossed out), and so doing it or not doing it makes no difference; you might as well have done nothing.

You can take the cue for pronunciation of jactiate from the analogous words, too. Although verbs ending in -ate say it like the word ate, adjectives and nouns reduce and destress it. Just as cruciate sounds like “crewshit,” jactiate sounds like “jackshit.” So when you say “You’ve done jactiate” and “We haven’t done jactiate,” it sounds like…

…well, ha ha, yes, it is “You’ve done jack shit” and “We haven’t done jack shit.” I just made this word up because I didn’t have anything better to do at the moment. It’s a Latin joke for word geeks. (It’s not even perfectly formed from the Latin, but whatevs, did you even notice?) You probably know the term jack shit, which first appeared in colloquial English usage by the 1970s (Oxford’s first citation is 1968). Well, now you can spell it jactiate instead of jack shit (or jackshit) and say “So there!” to the tut-tutters. Just tossing that out there…

constult

It is a popular thing, in corporate environments, when an egomaniacal fool does not get sufficient toadying from his underlings (because they were hired by people who, for whatever reason, chose them for their qualifications to do the job), to hire constultants who will constult with the top dog and his nearest puppies and make grandiose plans in exchange for ludicrously lucrative sums.

No, I made no typographical errors. Yes, yes, consultants and consult could have worked there. But I had a point to make. And I’m not the first to make it thus. The Oxford English Dictionary has two citations in support of constult and both of them are plays on consult. One is from a John Taylor, in 1630: “Some English Gentlemen with him consulted And he as nat’rally with them constulted.” The other is from a John Gauden in 1660: “What do they meet, and sit, and consult (or rather constult) together?”

Well, OK, we get the idea. Except we don’t, unless we know stult. Of course we all know stultify and stultifying (the latter an adjective often applied to the experience of listening to consultants). But we tend to think of stultifying as like stupefying without pausing to think what those roots mean. Um, dulling, mind-numbing? Well, yes, in the sense of making like someone who is dull or numb of mind. Stupefying is related to stupid. But the Latin source for stultifyingstultus – never made it into English.

So what is stultus? ‘Foolish’. Also ‘fatuous’ and ‘stupid’ and ‘ill-considered’ and a whole lot of other words and phrases we have in English for the same thing (“dumb as a sack of hammers” and “couldn’t pour piss out of a boot with the instructions written on the heel” are two I learned in my Albertan youth). The Latin word traces back to a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘stiff’. Related words include strenuous, stolid, sterile, torpid, stare, and stereo (which comes from a Greek root meaning ‘solid’, extended to ‘three-dimensional’ and from that to binocular vision and binaural hearing, both of which are wasted on people who are strenuously stolid and staringly torpid).

So OK, this is going on a bit. The tl;dr of it is that the verb constult, supposedly no longer used (but ha! just watch me), means ‘be foolish together’. And the reason I took so long to get to that is… well, I’m getting paid by the minute.*

*I pay myself. Zero cents a minute. It’s not quite $20,000 a day, but I guess I could say it was, since it all zeroes out in the end.

meatus

This word sure looks like cod Latin for meat, doesn’t it? Like “Omnes stuffunt meatus in mouthorum.” But there are two problems with that (aside from the extremely dodgy Latin): one, it’s not pronounced “meat-us,” it’s pronounced “me-ate-us” (/miˈeɪtəs/); two, it’s not something you stuff into a hole, it is a hole.

The Latin word meatus (with a long a) originally meant ‘path’ or ‘passage’, and came from a verb meare meaning ‘pass’ or ‘traverse’. That in turn came from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as *mey- that gave rise not only to words for paths (as well as Latin trans-) but also to English mean (‘think, intend’) and, up a different path, English mean (‘common, nasty’). It even led to immune.

So what kind of a hole is a meatus? Well, it’s not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat, but it’s also not a hobbit-hole. It’s a hole in your body – the kind that is standard with the body, not the kind added by an external article of metal, stone, or wood. 

There is, for instance, the meatus auditorius, also known as the auditory meatus, or the hole of hearing (that’s what one H. Crooke called it in 1615), or the earhole. Various other simple holes into the body also get called meatuses (I’m sure you can think of the most popular ones). However, it seems the mouth is not typically called a meatus – it’s too complex an opening, I think. Pity; I think I could like meatus crusti (‘cake hole’; actually Latin for ‘cake hole’ would more likely be meatus placentae, but we couldn’t use that) or perhaps meatus carnis (‘meat hole’) – though it would probably really just be something like meatus escarius, ‘eating hole’.

So there that is. You can put the figurative meat of a message or meaning into your auditory meatus, but you shouldn’t try to put actual literal meat into any meatus, especially the hole of hearing; that would be mean.

Pronunciation tip: schism and schedule

People have opinions on how to say schism and schedule. Strong opinions. I’m here to set the matter straight.

alieniloquy

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” as Terence (i.e., Terentius) wrote in Heauoton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor): “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.” Or, more idiomatically, “I am human; human affairs are my affairs.” In other words, everything’s your business (the character speaking was very nosy), and nothing’s off topic.

Well. You see the alienum there, and you see the alien in alieniloquy (which, by the way, is said like “soliloquy” but with “alien” instead of “sol”). Does it seem strange? Out of place? Incongruous? Yes, well, yes, that’s the point. Alien, our English word, comes from alienum, which comes from alius, meaning ‘other’ (also inflected as alium, as in Spem in alium, which is a lovely piece by Thomas Tallis, not a recipe for canned meat in garlic), which comes from Proto-Indo-European *h₂élyos, ‘beyond, other’, which is the source of English else and Irish eile (‘other’) and various other ‘other’ words; *h₂élyos in turn comes (according to the reconstructions) from *h₂el-, which has nothing to do with hell but does trace back forward to English all and Latin ultra and olim (‘one day’ or ‘often’ or ‘at that time’ or ‘once upon a time’, as in the Medieval song “Olim sudor Herculis,” a lengthy recitation of all the occasions Hercules happened to sweat), and of course a whole bunch of other words too.

But that’s neither here nor there. Well, no, actually, it is there, as in back in time. And it’s here, because alieniloquy is nothing alien to us in modern times, alas. There are some people who, given a microphone, will have quite a lot to say about quite a lot, and if you ask them a question, you get the answer to everything – well, perhaps everything but the question, because it’s been a great year, and we’ve accomplished a lot of things, like John over there, whose business has really been dealt a blow but he’s been helped by us, and it’s important to make sure he can keep feeding the children of the community, which has been here for a long time, the heart of the city, which is why we want to take this moment to talk about our plans for tax relief.

Given a microphone? Given any opportunity, in fact, some of them; you’ve met them at parties, I’m sure, where you manage to find out far more about the political climate of Transylvania or the intricacies of HO-scale train sets (also and more originally correctly H0, because half zero, but not half of nothing) than you had intended (which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with either of those, or for that matter both at the same time, if you would like to construct a model train environment of Transylvania, complete with Carpathian mountains and, of course, some of that forest for being on the other side of which Transylvania is named – you did know that Transylvania means ‘land on the other side of the forest’, right? as in trans ‘other side’ plus sylva(n) ‘forest’ plus -ia ‘place’? obviously so called from the view of people to the west, in particular Hungarians, Latin speakers, and so on).

But the truth is that, while alieniloquy is annoying when people such as politicians and speakers at charity events and essayists do it, and some people who don’t let you get a word in edgewise, it’s nonetheless largely how our conversations go: we start with one topic and then we move on to another and another and another by tangents. And even more so our internal monologues proceed by alieniloquy, and that’s not just OK, it would be worrisome if it didn’t happen at least some of the time; the mind needs to wander, you know?

Oh, have I actually defined this word? the Oxford English Dictionary definition is “An instance of straying from the subject one is supposed to be talking about; rambling or evasive talk.” Which, yes, includes the proviso “one is supposed to be talking about,” whereas casual conversation and thoughts are not always so directed, but we do always suppose that we have a topic, at least until we have another. But, then, if we’re just talking about life, it’s all on topic, right? Because humani nihil a nos alienum puto? We can wander as wide as Molly Bloom’s closing thought soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting for that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathingsuits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear them I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope Ill never be like her a wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces but she was a welleducated woman certainly and her gabby talk about Mr Riordan here and Mr Riordan there I suppose he was glad to get shut of her and her dog smelling my fur and always edging to get up under my petticoats especially then still I like that in him polite to old women like that and waiters and beggars too hes not proud out of nothing but not always if ever he got anything really serious the matter with him its much better for them to go into a hospital where everything is clean but I suppose Id have to dring it into him for a month yes and then wed have a hospital nurse next thing on the carpet have him staying there till they throw him out or a nun maybe like the smutty photo he has shes as much a nun as Im not yes . . . [it continues for quite a long time]

lutarious

From Latin lutarius, from lutum, ‘mud’. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, lutarious means “inhabiting mud.” Wiktionary (like others) expands the definition a bit: “of, pertaining to, or like, mud; living in mud.” But both agree the word is obsolete.

As though living in mud, being like mud, sheer muddiness of nature and dwelling, mind and body, were obsolete. As though the world were not a big ball of wet dirt.

Here’s a poem.

lutarious

I am lutarious, I
like fresh wet soil under my
fingernails, between my toes,
squishing in and out of my pores.

You like it clean and dry,
the dust, the rocks, blue sky,
hard, and whispering of death,
no muck, no suck, no breath.

You scorn my wormsome ways,
streambeds, puddles, bays,
ooze, nematodes, cnidaria,
as though you contained no bacteria.

But in a millennium or two,
when they find mummified you,
your face like a parchment scroll
unchanged and unread in your hole,

I’ll be dissolved, remixed,
reborn, remade, unfixed,
untraceable, fungible, teeming
with living and loving and dreaming.

eucratic

Which would suggest that eucratic means ‘pleasant power’ or something like that. And, well, it sort of does. Canadians tend to be familiar with the phrase good government, as in “peace, order, and good government,” which is generally taken as the Canadian answer to the American “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” though of course each is intended to imply the other: Canadians believe that with peace, order, and good government, you can have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, whereas Americans are more likely to believe that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the appropriate basis for acceptable peace, order, and good government. But the point here today is that both countries (among many others) can have good government, which is more on the line of what eucratic implies (allowing that it’s an adjective, not a noun).

But what is that, really? Let me quote from the single English source for this word, the translation (unsigned) of Fragments of Politics and History, vol. 1, by Louis-Sébastien Mercier: 

Is this word Greek to you? That’s OK; it’s Greek to everyone. If it looks a bit Socratic, it is: Socrates’s name, Σωκράτης, means ‘safe power’, and the cratic in eucratic is the same cratic as in Socratic and democratic and all the other cratic words, from κράτος, meaning ‘power’. But the eu is from εὐ- meaning ‘good’ or ‘pleasant’, as in euphoria(‘pleasant bearing’), eulogy (‘pleasant words’), euthanasia (‘pleasant death’), and even euphemism (‘pleasant talk’).

It is a maxim among physicians, “that no body is perfectly sound.” The same may be said of every government: the least imperfect live in a middle existence, in a state truly eucratic, that is, where good and ill are intermingled, but where the good preponderates.

Here’s from the 1792 French original, Fragmens de politique et d’histoire, vol. 1:

Les médecins disent, nemo perfectè sanus, personne n’est parfaitement sain. On en peut dire autant de tout gouvernement : les moins imparfaits vivent dans un moyen être, dans un état véritablement eucratique, c’est-à-dire, mêlé de bien et de mal, et où le bien l’emporte sur le mal.

So you can see that English gets the word from French. However, in French as in English, the word (at least in this sense) is traceable to a single source: the one you’ve just read. Which, of course, assembled it from the Greek kit.

But still. It’s a good word, as good as one could ask for, for good government, a good state of a state – as good as one could ask for.

clipsome

Let not the clipsome go unclasped,
Nor yet the handsome go ungrasped;
Chase me, embrace me, squeeze me well,
And let us snug and hug a spell.

What is clipsome? It’s something that many a person feels after a long time of lockdown. No, not needing a haircut – I mean, that too, but that’s not what clipsome means. It means embraceable, huggable, claspable. Like Judy Garland and all these lads in Girl Crazy

Why is that clipsome? Well, consider the clip – I mean the kind you use to hold things together, not to cut them off. This word clip comes from an old Germanic root meaning ‘clasp, embrace, kiss’; that was its first sense in English, too. From that came a sense ‘grip tightly’, and from that came a word for devices that grip tightly. Sort of like clamps, but, at least these days, a little smaller and lighter – clamps can hold lamps, but clips are sized for lips (well, ouch, but I couldn’t not use that). And as late as the 1800s, the ‘embrace’ sense was common enough that clipsome was a sensible word meaning ‘fit to be embraced’.

In case you’re wondering about that other clip, by the way, the one you do to hair, it comes from a different root, one that comes from the sound – just like clapclickclank, et cetera. Scissors make a “clip, clip” sound (or at least they can; the ones I use tend to sound more like “snip, snip”). 

And so it just happens that we have a phonaesthemic doublet. Some words that start with cl- have to do with abrupt onset of sound or action: clack, clang, clank, clap, and the rest of the largely onomatopoeic (if regularized) bunch, plus perhaps cliff. Other words that start with cl- have to do with things being or coming together: clam, clamp, clan, clasp, cleave, clench, cling, clot, clump, cluster, clutch… There are, of course, other cl- words that have nothing to do with either (clerk, clever, clinic, clover…), but cl- tends to show up a bit more often than chance would have it with one of these two general senses. 

Which shouldn’t be so surprising: most of us don’t bear etymology in mind when speaking; we just think of words in terms of resemblance – the more words have a certain feature to them, the more we are likely to associate that feature with that sound. The bigger the cluster, the more clipsome it is.

Geierfaszination

Here’s another word we all need, especially right now. Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) asked Twitter,

What is the German word for “feeling physically nauseous from anxiety at the news but also morbidly unable to look away and stop scrolling”

She got a number of responses, of course. I’ve decided, however, that the mot juiced is Geierfaszination – “vulture fascination,” i.e., inability to look away when you see a vulture eating something (e.g., your cat).

Don’t bother looking it up; it’s not in any dictionary. I’m not even going to call it a “new old word”—I’m owning this puppy up front. (And any German speakers out there who find it ill formed are welcome to issue a correction.) If you want to say it out loud, it’s said like “guy-er-fass-i-na-tsyon” or however close to that you’re up to.

The word is made of two plain parts. Geier means ‘vulture’ (it traces back through German roots relating to ‘greed’ and ‘desire’ to a root that mainly gave rise to words meaning ‘gladly, willingly, eagerly’ in various Germanic languages, such as German gern and Swedish gärna). Faszination is plainly the German cognate of English fascination, from Latin fascinare ‘bewitch’, which traces to fascinum, which meant ‘evil spell, witchcraft’ but also meant ‘penis’ and, binding the two senses together (and – according to some people – the origin of both), ‘a phallus-shaped amulet worn around the neck as a preventive against witchcraft’ (to quote Wiktionary).

Which means that the roots of this word for ‘vulture-fascination’ could also have developed to mean ‘eagerly wear a magic dildo around my neck’. And, frankly, if you saw someone walking down the street proudly wearing a magic dildo around their neck, you might well feel queasy and worried but have a hard time looking away.