There are times when things just don’t look right, don’t sound right, don’t match what you expect, and it seems to come out of nowhere; you can’t see clearly, like you’re in a mist, and you’re full of… kauch.

Kauch? Is that like a short form of “OK, augh!” or “OK, ouch”? Well, no, but it does express something of that attitude. It means ‘trouble, worry, anxiety’. And it’s said like…

…hmm, well, there are quite a few variations on the pronunciation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Brits may say it /kjɔːx/, /kjɔː/, /kɔːx/, or /kɔːk/; Americans may say it /kjɔ/, /kjɑ/, /kjɔx/, /kjɑx/, /kɔk/, /kɑk/, /kɔx/, or /kɑx/; Scots say it/kjɔx/. And Wiktionary goes simply with /kjɑx/. Which, for those not familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, is like if you start to say “cute” but replace the “oot” with “ach” (as in the Scottish or German word), perhaps because you see something that troubles you.

Which might be, for instance, how you get to that pronunciation from the spelling kauch. Shouldn’t it at least be kiauch?

Would you settle for kiaugh? That’s the other spelling, and it helps account for those versions that sound like “kyaw” as well. But you can write it kauch and pronounce it /kjɑx/, or you can write it kiaugh and pronounce it /kɔk/. Because anxiety has its own secret reasons and distortions, hiding behind clouds, and nothing seems to go together as it should or to make clear sense.

And nothing has a good justification, either. This word, for instance. Where does it come from? Oxford doesn’t know. Wiktionary doesn’t know. Merriam-Webster (which goes only with the kiaugh spelling and the /kjɑx/ pronunciation) doesn’t know.

We do know that it’s a Scottish word, originally, and so it would seem to come from Scots Gaelic, which branched off from the same old tongue as modern Irish. And the way that /kjɑx/ would be spelled in Irish would typically be ceach or ciach. It happens that there’s no Irish word (modern or historical) spelled ceach, though ceacht means ‘lesson’ (a cause of anxiety for many people), but there is an Irish word ciach, a now-disused genitive form of the word ceo (ceo is said like “kyo” or “ko”). Of course many people get anxiety from their CEO, but this ceo means ‘fog’, ‘mist’, ‘haze’, or ‘vapour’ – or it can be used idiomatically in a phrase such as “Níl tú ag insint ceo den fhírinne dhom” (“You aren’t telling me a word of the truth,” or more literally “You aren’t telling me a mist of the truth”; thanks to Wiktionary for the example). So ciach used to mean ‘of fog’ or ‘of mist’ (or ‘fog’s’ or ‘mist’s’), but now they just use ceo unchanged for that.

But that’s not where kauch comes from either. Remember: etymology by sound is not sound etymology! You need to have a trail of attested uses. And there’s no known link. Sometimes when you try to go back in the mists of time, you just get more mist.

Just like how sometimes when you dive into anxiety, worry, trouble, kauch, kiaugh, whatever, you just get more of it.


Can you divine what this funny-looking word means?

The -oscopy is the easier part, since we see it in a variety of terms: arthroscopy, colonoscopy, microscopy, horoscopylaparoscopy, spectroscopy… In general they involve taking a look at something, and sometimes doing something to or about what you’re looking at. This -scop- is the same one as in periscope, telescope, horoscope, and assorted other words such as scopophilia; it comes from Greek -σκοπία -skopia, ‘observation’, from σκοπεῖν skopein, ‘look at’, but its various uses in English exhibit some amount of scope creep.

The gel- part might stop you cold at first. Is that the same gel as in gelid, ‘cold’? Which is the same, at root, as in gelatin and congeal and assorted other words tracing back to coldness or freezing? Then geloscopy would be, what, a cold glance? Or a cold read? Or looking at something cold? Or just looking cold?

H, no. Sorry to cast a chill on the idea, but that gel- is from Latin gelare, ‘freeze’ or ‘cause to congeal’ or ‘petrify with fright’. It traces to a Proto-Indo-European root that also descended to Greek γελανδρόν gelandron, ‘cold, chill, frost’, but that Greek root isn’t the source of this gel-.

No, the Greek root that this word draws on is γελάω gelaō (Modern Greek γελώ), verb, ‘laugh’.

So… does that mean that this word, which is funny looking (and also funny sounding, in that the stress is on the o, “jell oss co pee”), also means ‘the state of looking funny’?

No, it’s even more laughable than that. You see, -scopy can refer to looking at something for scientific or medical purposes, but it can also refer to looking at something for purposes of divination – as in horoscopy, whish is time-based divination, or scatoscopy, which is divination by looking at feces (perhaps watching certain TV channels would serve today), or, well, geloscopy, which is divination by looking at laughter.

Looking at? Who has seen the laughter? Not even W.O. Mitchell or Christina Rossetti! Obviously this is the broader sense of ‘look at’, meaning in this case ‘listen to’. But what can you divine from laughter?

You tell me. Don’t say you’ve never listened to how someone laughs and formed expectations of their character from it. It’s as common a clue to their persona as how they shake hands or how they dress. Can it predict what will happen to them in the future? Well… it sets up odds of how you’ll interact with them, anyway. Don’t laugh! That’s part of their future, right?

Besides, divination has also been used for things hidden in the here and now, not just in the future. You can know something about a person by how they’re laughing. Also by when they’re laughing, and at what – or whom. Not so laughable when you think of it that way, is it?


Say, what’s smew?

This is a cute but iffy little word, isn’t it? It brings all sorts of things to mind. Perhaps it has a smell, or perhaps it smears; maybe it mews like a kitten, or maybe it lives in a mews. It might spew from its maw. It seems small and perhaps new. It might be suited to smog or to snow or it might prefer to swim; it might like to eat s’mores or watch sumo. Who’s to know?

Well, this chap, for one:

You can see he’s a big fan of smew. Has been ever since he was a kid. The smew come over from Siberia and spend the winter in England, some of them right by where he grew up.

For those who can’t or don’t want to watch the video: a smew is a kind of little diving duck. The males are mostly white, with a striking black pattern, including a mask; the females are grey with brown heads; both of them have pointy bills and, typically, crests on their heads that would get them into the better kind of punk bars. Their calls sound like a cross between a chainsaw revving and a character from The Simpsons.

And they’ll just paddle along happily on the water, then abruptly dive in and, thereafter, resurface eating a fish. Icy water does not bother them.

OK, but… where the heck did they get this name? Why, of all the things they could be called, are they smew? And why, of all the things smew could be a name for, does it refer to these little ducks?

The answer is… no one really knows. The name has been in use since at least the 1600s. There’s another word, smee, that is used for several ducks, including the wigeon and the smew, and smew may be related to that, though they showed up at about the same time; smee in its turn is probably related to smeath, which is another word for the same thing and has been around about as long. Smew and smee may also be related to Dutch smient (which means ‘wigeon’) and German Schmeiente or Schmünte (which mean ‘wild duck’).

And… well, that’s all. The word might as well have flown in from Siberia. It didn’t, though; when they’re in Russia, the locals call them луток, lutok.

By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept

Here is another sentence tasting. This one is 4000 words long, but it is divided in ten parts.


Sentences do not pass through you like trains through a station. Ideas and words and strings of words come together in your mind, they have affairs, and they give birth to sentences through your tongue and your lips and your teeth and your fingertips.

Everything you hear is like something you’ve heard before. Every sentence you read reminds you of previous sentences and evokes feelings you had about those sentences. Sometimes the resemblance is weak and general, like a face in the crowd that is like other faces you’ve seen in other places. Sometimes the resemblance is strong and deliberate, calling forth all the memories you have of an old friend, or like someone you have not known but have long wanted to meet. Sometimes a sentence takes familiar bits and puts them together in a new way that is like someone you’ve never known before but suddenly feel like you have wanted to know all your life. And when you now meet, you are carried away, captured by the fame – no, you capture it and you carry it away. And make a new meaning.

And then life moves on. With or without you, it moves on. But you still are still pregnant with this sense. And you may dwell with it in palaces or in flophouses, on clean silk or on reeking cotton, or both by turns, but it is always yours, in paradise and in exile.


Have you ever read “By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept”?

Have you ever read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept? Continue reading

Pronunciation tip: Canada’s provinces, territories, and main cities

Pronunciation tip: Canada’s provinces, territories, and main cities

July 1 is Canada Day, and so in honour of that, I’ve done a video about the names of all the provinces and territories and their capitals and largest cities. If you’re not Canadian and intend to talk about Canada, you will probably find this useful. If you are Canadian and know how to say all these names, you may still find this useful because I say where all the names are from. I bet you don’t know! Hint: It’s mostly rivers, lakes, and Queen Victoria’s family.

The performance of a text

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the national blog of Editors Canada

If someone says “How about some music,” and you say “Sure – Beethoven’s fifth?” do you think they’ll be happy if you just hand them a printed copy of the score?

A musical score is intended to be performed, and you don’t have a performance without musicians and a conductor – and the stage and lighting crew. And any two performances will be different, at least slightly and sometimes significantly.

A novel or a short story – or a nonfiction book or article – is, on the other hand, a finished work. You sit down, you read it, you get the same thing every time. Right?

Ha, no.

We’re all editors here, so we know how many pairs of eyes and hands have worked on a text before it’s published. But we might casually assume that once the wording is finalized and all the errors are fixed, the text is done and all printed versions are fungible.

Even though we know it’s not true.

We know it’s not true because we know that reading a nicely laid-out print magazine version of an article is a different experience than reading a text flow of it on a website. We know, if we’re proofreading, what a difference some seemingly small things can make – misalignments, for instance, or bad breaks.

And we also know it’s not true because when we’re shopping for books, if there are several different editions of the same work, we will choose carefully between them. Just as we may choose between a performance of Beethoven’s 5th that is fast-paced and percussive and one that is more stately and smooth, we may likewise choose carefully between two editions of, say, Jane Eyre. One of them might be on pulp paper in a casewrap hardcover with a photo on the cover and a small, tight type face with narrow margins and no paragraph indents, while the other might be a trade paperback with a stylish minimalist cover, creamy, durable paper, and well-set type in a graceful face. You’ll get the same story, sure, but you won’t get the same feeling from reading it – about the story or about yourself.

A book is a performance of a text. So is a magazine layout of an article. So is this website’s presentation of this article you’re reading now.

Different performances differ in so many details. If it’s a website, are there pictures? How wide is the text column? Is it cluttered with ads? What font is it in? If it’s a book, does it feel cheap or luxurious? Is it light or heavy, soft or hard? What does the cover look like? Do you like the type face? Is it easy to read in low light? Do the pages turn easily? And, for heaven’s sake, how does it smell?

Does all this seem peripheral to the actual text? Tell me this, then: if you’re buying an audiobook, does it matter whether it’s read by Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Waits? Helen Mirren or Siri? You’re getting the same story, right?

Sure you are. But a different performance. And the difference between type faces in which you read Sherlock Holmes stories can be as affecting as the difference between Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock and Basil Rathbone’s. The difference in page layout, paper, and binding can make as much difference as the set design of a production of a play. The page is a stage – or a concert hall.


Mike Mallet leaned back in his desk chair, swirled the ice cubes in his glass of cheap Scotch, took a slug, and leveled his eyes at the peculiar man sweating in his direction from the other side of the desk. “Mister Brainum, you won’t be seeing your clown in centre ring again.”

“I… understand there was some sort of mishap?” Brainum said, wringing his handkerchief. He dabbed his forehead with it and went back to wringing it.

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” Mallet said, and leaned forward over his desk, “he was jugulated.”

“I… oh! I…” Brainum did two more cycles of dabbing and wringing. “I…” He took his spectacles in his hand and inspected them. At length he put them back on his face and looked up. “What does that mean?”

“Well, we came in, and found him on the floor with a considerable mess: broken eggs, a broken pitcher, and… Bonzo wasn’t looking in top form either.”



Brainum smiled faintly. “His name is Ziggy.”

“Well,” Mallet said. He lifted his glass and tilted into his mouth an ice cube, which he crunched for a few seconds. “I think he was more zaggy by the time we found him.”

“It’s because he was a Libra,” Brainum said.

“…You’ve lost me.”

“Greek for Libra is ‘Zygos’,” Brainum said, more-or-less accurately.

Mallet nodded sagely, pulled open a low drawer in his desk, pulled out a bottle of whisky, and refilled his glass. He drank the glass down, refilled it again, and put the bottle back. “I did not expect to be learning Greek today,” he muttered as he shoved the drawer shut.

“But what happened?” Brainum said. He patted his jacket pockets as he spoke and found that he did not, in fact, have a flask on him, or a cigarette, or anything at all.

“Well, we think he was juggling some eggs…”

“Oh, ‘jugulated’,” Brainum said.

“Nothing to do with it,” Mallet said. “It was interesting that he seemed to have dropped them just as they were in a perfect alignment—”

“A syzygy!”

“He might have done better with a squeegee.”

“‘Syzygy’ is also related to ‘Zygos’,” Brainum offered helpfully.

Mallet looked at him the way he would look at a raccoon trundling past a picnic table. He lifted his glass and then didn’t drink any of it. “We thought the smashed pitcher had something to do with it…”

“Smashed picture?” Brainum said.

“Pitcher,” Mallet said, and set his glass down. “Jug.”

“Oh, jugulated!” Brainum said.

“Nothing to do with it,” Mallet said. “And it turned out that the pitcher didn’t hit him. He knocked it over as he fell.”

“So what… how… jugulated?” Brainum said, and dabbed his forehead, and wrung his hanky.

“You don’t know much Latin, do you, mister?”

“No,” Brainum said. “It’s all Greek to me.” He let out a quick squeaky laugh that he quickly stifled into a hiccup.

“You know what this is?” Mallet drew his fingertip across his collar bone.

“Eczema?” Brainum said.

“The collar bone,” Mallet said. He lifted his glass and, eyes fixed on Brainum, pointedly drank 1.25 ounces of Scotch in a gulp. “The yoke.”

“Zygos!” Brainum said.

“In Latin, ‘jugulum’. I’m sure the Latin is related to the Greek.” He was right, as usual.

“He broke his collar bone?”

“Do you not know what the veins that go right past it are?” Mallet leaned forward, the veins in question bulging in his neck.

Brainum shrunk back and clutched his handkerchief until the blood all went out of his knuckles. “Uh… jugular?”

Mallet flopped back and raised his hands in hallelujah position. “Someone came up behind him and slashed his neck through the jugular veins. Jugulated him.”

Brainum’s eyes popped wide open like two overboiled eggs. “Jugulated means…” He shakily drew his finger across his throat in the classic gesture. Mallet responded with an emphatic thumb-up, a gesture which, by the way, in the Roman circus meant ‘Yes, go ahead and dispatch your opponent. Jugulate him, impale him, whatever!’

Brainum suddenly knitted his brows. “But… how did you not see that right away?”

“It didn’t take long to notice it,” Mallet said. “But all the eggs had landed right on top of his clavicle, obscuring the matter at first.”

“Oh…” Brainum said. He hiccup-giggled. “The yolk was on him!”

Mallet leveled his eyes on Brainum, to the extent possible. Then he shoved his glass across the desk. “Here. I think you need this.”


This is an odd-looking word, isn’t it? It has a form that you don’t expect, with that cb together (not referring to citizens’ band radio, of course), and it’s not obvious where the stress should go. It’s like a basis with no basis in reality because what is parec, is it like paregoric? I bet a lot of people have trouble with it, except maybe not if not a lot of people have ever used it. But I don’t intend to go fishing here. This word is an odd duck but I don’t mean it’s plunging its bill into the water to pull out odd fish…

Where was I? Oh, right. This word parecbasis. It seems perhaps most akin to parabasis, if you’ve ever seen that word (it’s when the chorus in a Greek drama gets its own turn to address the audience directly), and parabasis has the stress on the antepenultimate syllable (third last), just like anabasis, which is a word for an expedition from the coast into the interior of a country and is the title of the most famous book by Xenophon.

But I digress. If we look in the Oxford English Dictionary (which is probably where you’re looking if you’re even seeing this word, to be honest), we see that the historical citations are… well, as the OED’s note says, “Though the sense is clear, it is interesting that almost all early uses evidenced involve transmission errors.” Transmission errors? Well, it’s just that there’s a 1584 citation that has it as parecuasis, and a 1589 citation that says “Parecnasis, or the Stragler,” and a 1599 that spells it pareonasis, and a 1678 that puts it as parechasis.

But then there’s the 1989 citation from Modern Language Notes (modern! this is ancient Greek, really) that says “It is the absolute of irony, of the parecbasis, the function of the relentless play of language and thought scrutinizing, among other things, their own staging.”

So is parecbasis language scrutinizing its own staging? Are all those other spellings just the word standing in front of its wardrobe mirror trying on outfits before settling on the one it’s gone out in? …I mean, maybe, but really the par is from para, παρα-, ‘beyond’, and the rest is from ἔκβασις, ‘go out, digress’. And the word means not so much self-scrutiny, or trying on different looks, but just wandering off topic. As the 1678 quote says, “a digression, in Rhetorick, it is a wandering in discourse from the intended matter.” To quote a Monty Python sketch, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so anyway, I said to her, I said, they can’t afford that on what he earns, I mean for a start the feathers get up your nose, I ask you…”

But if you want to know more about something you can always start with Wikipedia, right? This is a rhetorical term (or a term for a rhetorical failure rather than a rhetorical figure), and Wikipedia is replete with articles on rhetoric. And Wikipedia does have an article on Parecbasis. I’ll quote it in full:

Parecbasis is a genus of freshwater fish in the family Characidae. It contains the single species Parecbasis cyclolepis, found in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru.


You know, I really epxose myself to risk writing this blog. I make much of my living corecting and otherwise tiyding up people’s prose, and any typo or other slipu-p I make in writing is here on pubic display. Every pecadilo is like cutting open a vien and spiling my copruscles and sphalma.

No, no, not plasma. I really did mean sphalma. All the other errors in that paragraph are mere samples, a few shreds of the sphagnum of orthographic mishaps that afflict even the best and most careful of us from time to time. And of course I make a bit of my income tidying it up for other people – but I don’t have a budget to hire someone else to tidy it up for me! (Fortunately a few people volunteer unbidden to let me know of my errors.)

What is a sphalma? In Greek, σϕάλμα is a noun meaning ‘false step, stumble’, or ‘fall, failure’, or ‘error, fault’. In English, when it’s used (as it seldom is), it means, according to Oxford, “An error or slip in writing or copying.”

That’s a pretty broad definition. It includes not just typos but a whole sphere of faults. Usually if you put, for instance, stationery for stationary (or vice versa), and someone says “You have an error,” you might defensively say “Oops, it’s a typo,” because you’re miffed that they seem to think you don’t know the difference and you want to make sure they know it’s a mere fault of reflexes, not a deficiency in your knowledge. But if I make a sphalma, it may be my fault, but it’s not my failing.

What’s more, sphalma sounds like some biological thing, either a bodily fluid or some kind of small-scale crawly slimy entity. So people who speak of it can direct their disgust at the word rather than at the person who generated the textual mishap. And a proofreader can hang out a shingle: SPHALMA EXTERMINATOR.


I was sitting outside working the other day when a ladycow came for a visit. It alit on the table next to my computer, then crawled up the side of the case and paused for a respite at the top; at last, and suddenly, it flew away.

“Wait,” I hear you saying. “That’s not a ladycow, that’s a…”

…a what? What you call it depends on where you’re from. If you’re from Canada or the US, you probably call it a ladybug. If you’re from England or most of the rest of the English-speaking world, you probably call it a ladybird. A few people call it a ladycow, or even a cow-lady, and some at least used to call it a ladyfly.

All of these names have something in common with pineapple: they are compounds of two roots, neither of which correctly names the object.

A ladycow is, of course, neither a cow nor a lady. When you call it a ladybird, it is still not a bird. And, strictly speaking, it is also neither a fly nor – at least in the entomologists’ sense – a bug. It’s a beetle! A pretty little red beetle. A member of the Coccinellidae family, which is so named because of their scarlet colour; if you go down the rabbit hole of the etymology of Coccinellidae you arrive eventually at Greek κόκκος, which refers to a grain, seed, or berry, but especially a scarlet berry, or the colour scarlet, or a dye made from crushing scarlet beetles.

I said that the names were compounds of two roots, but really lady is itself originally two roots: it comes from Old English hlæfdige, ‘loaf-kneader’. This little beetle that visited me did make some gestures a bit like kneading a loaf while it was resting, but many insects do that, and it’s not exactly what this one is known for. So why all this lady? It’s referring to Our Lady, the Blessèd Virgin Mary, who was sometimes depicted wearing scarlet and who, though immaculate, had seven sorrows, which are reflected by the seven spots (maculae, you could say) on the best-known kinds of ladybug. Some other languages have similar associations for it: German Marienkäfer and Spanish mariquita name it for Mary; Russian божья коровка names it for God; Dutch lieveheersbeestje names it for the “dear lord” (lord, by the way, comes from hlæfweard, ‘loaf-guardian’ – you see, nobles really are well bread!).

OK, but why bird? Well, it does fly… and some regional German and Swedish names for it call it a ‘hen’. And it’s so much prettier than the average insect, no? As lovely to see as a bird?

OK, but why cow?

I mean, uh… why not… ? Cows eat grass and, uh…

Well, ladycows mostly don’t eat grass. Most kinds of them eat smaller insects, such as aphids. (Some years ago, a surplus of aphids in Ontario’s wine region led to a surplus of ladybugs, which in turn lent a marked flavour to the wine, because you can’t easily remove them all from the grapes before crushing. No word on whether they made the wine redder at the same time.) So they’re pretty, and they eat insects… how about ladyfrog? No? Some frogs look awfully similar. Well, then, why not ladycat?

But neither of those has been used. Ladycow, on the other hand, showed up in the 1500s and is apparently still used on occasion.

I’ll say this: I’m sure glad it wasn’t any other kind of cow stepping all over my computer.