Monthly Archives: September 2008

each writer should remember this

An example of what you get when you apply what you think is a rule in defiance of what sounds natural, from :

The Green party and the Bloc Québécois each has nine per cent.

The mistake is in thinking that it has to be “has” because of the word “each.” But the word “each” is not the grammatical subject of the sentence. The two party names are, as a coordinated compound subject. So of course it’s “have.” “Each” is an adverb, and could have been moved to the end – which would have made the grammatical structure more obvious:

The Green Party and the Bloc Québécois have nine per cent each.


A bright-eyed word of school days. The smell of “pew” and its restricting churchy sound only impart a puerile and disciplinary air suited to it and do not diminish its pull for people – especially its counterpart the master. We see the two rosy cheeks and smile in between of pup, and indeed many a pupil is but a pup. Add an il like a hand raised to ask a question and you are in the right class. But in the other lens we see this word collocating with “dilated” and carrying airs of eyes, clinics, drops and drugs. And yet this is a reflection of the first sense: Latin pupilla is a doll or the little girl who carries it; it gives us both the star student (also from pupulus, the little boy, whilom an orphan ward) and the mirror of her little image in the teacher’s eye (as a doll, pupa – also a chrysalis, like the student).


A sound word for an abrupt encounter. You know just what it is the moment you hear it; that rap on a melon you hear could as easily be a rap on your melon. The low opening knock receives a hollow nasal resonance and a high echo. The b, bellied out like a balloon, is chopped and popped to a k. This word has the dumb tones of bunk and bum and some of the hardness of conk and the rudeness of honk, but if you try to bank it you will hit a wall (and, if you are a runner, when you “hit the wall,” bonk is what happens – that sound of your blood sugar level hitting bottom). Some people use it more loosely when two bodies bump with each other. Oddly, this obvious onomatopoeia appears to be a child of the 20th century. We feel sure that it will not go away as long as the school of hard knocks is holding classes.


A word that runs fluidly, prettily, and not overlong. O, that its object were such an experience! Fourteen kilometres per syllable, more than five per letter – but the last syllable of the word is as long as the first two together, which is closer to the reality of the race, where the last quarter is as hard as the first three quarters together. We may note a fairly even run from m over a, r, a, but then, spiked by the t, we hit a wall at h – but there is no option but to go on. The word, mellifluousness notwithstanding, sweats endurance from every pore for those who know it. It starts with echoes of mare (a fast horse or the end of a bad dream) and perhaps even marriage (commitment and endurance); the remainder does not echo, it is echoed, in telethon and myriad other -a-thons. The word’s course has been as long and anfractuous as its race is. In 490 BC, Athenians put the Persians on the run at a place called Marathon, named after the fennel – marathron – that grew there. A runner carried the news of the victory – or, according to one source, ran to Sparta to ask for reinforcements. In 1876, Robert Browning write a poem about this; the runner, reaching Athens, 25 miles distant, shouts victory and collapses dead, which will sound about right to many a modern marathon finisher. In 1896, the modern Olympics were born, and a race from Marathon to Athens was held, inspired by Browning. In 1908, to make the race reach from royal children at Windsor to royal adults in London, the distance was extended to 26 miles 385 yards; after some further deviations, it was permanently set in 1921 at the London distance, and thus it remains today, about 6 miles past the point where a human’s fuel tank normally runs out (look for a future word tasting note on bonk).


Look carefully; by hook or by crook, this word may fool you. It stares cagily back with two blank eyes, then speaks with a beak of a k. It could pass for a rock in a brook, but it will come out as a castle – or a crow. The trick, if you check, is that it is not one word but several. The raucous Corvus inspired a Germanic name, known in Old English as hróc. Persian rukh, which may have been a chariot or bird, is the foundation of the castle in chess – its upper storeys come from the word’s disguising itself as Italian rocco, meaning castle. A rook may also be a fog or a rookie. Or it may be a verb: a legal move in chess, or a cheating move in life (the sense of swindling comes by way of the bird – as Mr. Cairo found when he was rooked by a falcon). It was once applied also to the person who had been rooked, making a rook a gull. It has but four letters, no more than three phonemes, but trust not the rook on the roof of your castle, or you may get took, and rue it.


A precious word for a deprecated grooming choice. Few now are the men who grow beards; facial hair is no trophy, and its grower may be thought a pogue. Along with these echoes, there is the thought of the unsophisticated cartoon character Pogo and the bucolic backwater of the Poconos. The medically minded will think of atrophy and hypertrophy, no prize either of them. The four pilgarlic o‘s, so like glabrous domes, give no hint of the hairiness hiding within. But if a man neglect his razor for one day, he has already commenced this process, which takes about as long to look good as the word does. The word, oftenest used with a wink, says as much about the speaker as about the subject and, if words were priced, would come in above the cost of a barber shave. It was grown by those ace beard-wearers the ancient Greeks; it uses their words for beard and growth – not the word for award, however prized their beards may have been.

so why fund the arts, then?

Margaret Atwood has a brilliant piece on arts funding in today’s Globe. A real jaw-dropper, in fact. Now if only the facts she mentions could be mentioned by the news media and in campaign ads.

I forwarded this piece around, and got a couple of responses that questioned the validity of her position. So I added some thoughts of my own: Continue reading


A word that has Monty Pythonian resonances for some and a jammy flavour and staining colour for others. A compound word, made of two recognizable parts, the first of which may bring to mind Mormons, Presbyterians, Plinys, or simply brothers or sisters, and the second of which simply smacks of tiny fruits that stain white shirts and go nicely on desserts. A pause for reflection may bring out a doyen’s funeral. All three vowels are written e, although the second has a different sound, and there are three r‘s as well, along with an l and two voiced stops, making a word that never whispers, hisses or sighs. The plant, interestingly, is Sambucus in Latin, which is a whole other world phonaesthetically. And why is there no youngerberry? Because the berry comes from the elder tree, which has nothing to do with greater age; it comes from ellærn, which may be related to maples or holes. Both parts of the word are as Anglo-Saxon as you could want. The plant is reputed to ward off evil influence… but beware of cutting it; it will be revenged, perhaps through the cyanide found in its seeds, twigs and leaves.


A word to wake the attention. Continue reading


A buxom word. Continue reading