Monthly Archives: December 2008


Good golly! Does this word cause you to make googly eyez? It’s like a face: l nose, olo eyes, golog ears, ygology hands on the sides of the face, and then there’s that z – like a lightning bolt, or maybe just a telephone (“Can I phone a friend for the answer?”). It’s a perfect palindrome plus a z. What’s up with that z? Perhaps it’s like how some people file things on their computer: if it’s of bottom importance, or personal, they put a z before it to sort it low. But what is this word we’re gazing at anyway? The z gives it a racy buzz, augmented by the y‘s. One may be tempted to put stress on the first and third syllables in a double trochee, but undazzle your eyes from the mirror pattern and you will see ology, and you know what that means. This word sounds like psychology but as zaid by zomeone vrom Zomerzet. And what is zyg? Is it zig-zags? Is it anti-abecedarianism? (Or wouldn’t that be zyxology?) Is this fuzzy geology? You may note a tone of zygote. And indeed it is the front of zygote that is here yoked. So has this to do with cells, embryos? Not so fast. Rather, fasten. Our zygo root comes from Greek zugon, “yoke” (a zygote is cells conjoined to form a body), and this word refers to the branch of technology focused on joining and fastening. And so the opening z is a zap of electricity fusing ygo and ogy at the l.


Oh no, it’s another x word. (Actually, it’s the first one beginning with x that I’ve done tasting notes on.) That opening cross-out: the letter of mystery, of the unknown; like eyes of unconscious cartoon characters, negating consciousness, as it negates whatever it is superimposed on; but also like a pucker, often standing in for a kiss, and normally having the sound of kiss… without the i. Not here, though; English doesn’t allow a stop to be followed by a fricative word initially. So here we get a [z] sound, a voiced fricative – the sound of another radical, rakish, edgy letter beloved of ad men. And after the [z]? Two [i] sounds separated by a nasal, and then a schwa and a liquid. And the tongue touches its tip three times on the same spot: the alveolar ridge. Like knocking softly three times on a door, waiting for your host to open up. This word is very close in sound to venial – and has something else in common with it, too: venial is a forgiving word that sounds too much like venal, a rather unforgiving word, and xenial might make one think first of xenophobic, likewise a word rather unfriendly in tone. But isn’t xenial related to xenophobic? Indeed it is. So xenial is “like a stranger,” no? No. Greek xenos means “guest,” not stranger. Xenial refers to the friendly relation between host and guest, personally or nationally. The person knocking on the door may be unknown, even mysterious, but you greet with a xenial kiss, not with denial and negation. Look: the e and a are like host and guest facing across a threshold, the n an open door, the i a torch carried by the a, and behind one the crossroads and the other a wall, or behind one a chair and the other a street. If the guest had been turned back, he would have lain ex – by ex we may assume “outside.” And is the role of host menial? No, it’s a joy. Let’s party!


If this word isn’t your bag, that’s no surprise – but its referent is somebody’s bag, or at least it looks like one. The word itself presents a possibly confusing form. Or, rather, everything before the form is confusing. We know it means “shaped like something,” but what? The hand of the mind rattles around in the toy-drawer of words: cult? ultra? beauty? u (not) plus tri? triffid? nutri, turi, ruti… argh, this isn’t Scrabble. The beginning u, especially with an immediately following t, is rather abrupt (like a but with its head cut off), and may be redolent of extremity (ultra, utmost) or uncertainty (unknown, uh-oh), especially if the pronunciation is unclear. If you think first of Utopia you at least have the sound. If you think of uterus you are closer still, for this comes from Latin uter, which means a leather bag or wineskin, and uterus is a related word. Come to think of it, udder may be said to be related, too, though Latin for udder is uber. The shapes of the letters now seem to taunt: the u, the o, perhaps even the uberous m… But never mind; one is unlikely to guess it, and unlikely to use it. Add it to your toy drawer: you now have a word for, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “having the shape of a leathern bottle.” Paisley lovers take note.


“Out!” he raged, pointing the way. Ah, yes, the tone of this word is clearly set by its apparent constituents: out – beyond, as in beyond the pale, simply too much, but also the act of emotion in outcry and outpouring – and rage. It’s a word simply meant to be shouted! Especially with that out echoing shout and ow and now and then the growling r right after, going through the vowel to the teeth-clenching voiced alveolar affricate at the end. But why doesn’t it simply mean “rage out” or “rage more than”? Well, because the rage is really a mirage – in fact, it’s the same rage as in mirage: the nominalizing suffix -age with an r from the stem before it. Yes, the stem is outr! Outrageous, isn’t it! There’s no out in here either! But there is a similarity in sense between out and the source of outr, French ultre or outre: think ultra, as in utraviolet… “beyond.” One could say that an outrage is an instance of something outré, though the sense of outrage has always been a bit stronger than mere bad manners or bad taste. From the very first, it has signified violent or disorderly behaviour, a violent wrong done, or a gross affront – in short, a transgression (which is a going beyond). So naturally an outrage is something that would provoke an enraged outcry, and this has played quite nicely with the form of the word so that the second syllable is no longer said as in shortage (a word that has not come to be an antonym for longevity!) but instead gets an unetymological emphasis and “long” vowel (see my post on “long” and “short” vowels in English). And so, along with the preceding phrase “this is an” and a following exclamation mark, this word also hangs out in the same neighbourhood as howls, indignation, provoke, moral, widespread, shock, and of course public (for who else is raging out?).


This word has a sound perhaps reminiscent of steel shears cutting sheer fabric: the sh like metal against metal, the sliding ee subsiding to r. The tip of the tongue sheers away from the alveolar ridge as you say it. And, no doubt, the homophony with shear has affected its usage; nautical uses for curves of trajectory or form seem to have come from shear. But the two words are not etymologically related. They both come from old Germanic roots, but this one did not have to do with cutting. Rather, it started out as meaning “free and clear”; from that, it came to “lean,” “thin,” and “fine” meanings, which have remained with fabrics; finally, it arrived at its most common modern senses of “absolute,” “pure,” and such like. Its phonaesthetics no doubt affect its meaning. The individual sounds start with the opening expulsion of air at sh – used to hush or to express stress, caution, and exception (as at the beginnings of exclamations such as sheesh and similar) – and move to the high and tense ee, a noise made when standing on a chair to avoid a mouse or as a sound effect for a high-speed fall. The r may give a Doppler-effect sound of rapid passing. The tension of the tongue in saying the ee may have an analogue in the palms-up air-clutching gesture used with phrases such as sheer brilliance and sheer stupidity. This word also likely draws on its echo of fear – as well as of clear and sheet. You will know from the company it keeps that along with denoting purity and absoluteness it can connote a certain respect, even fear, on the part of the speaker. On the one hand there are sheer cliffs, which can inspire sheer terror and sheer horror in the acrophobic; on the other hand, there is sheer inventiveness, sheer willpower, sheer bliss, and a host of similar others: always strong attributes that lend to strong emotions. And then, of course, there are sheer stockings made of sheer fabric smooth like sheer ice and inspiring sheer pleasure or sheer folly.

holiday disruptions

Word tasting notes will be somewhat sporadic over the next couple of weeks, due to holidays and travel. And a happy Christmas or other celebration of your choice to you all.


A word that lends a wildness to heat. This word carries so many resonances: torture, horrid, torrent, torment perhaps, the ripping sound of tor and the twisting words that start with tortorsion, tornado, torque – plus the unpleasant words ending in rid: acrid, putrid. Ascenders at each end box in a plateau on the orr (and is the dot on the i Soundgarden’s black hole sun?). Or perhaps they’re the tropics bounding the torrid zone. The topics are often thought of as wet, however, while this word communicates a dryer heat – coming straight up from Latin torrere, “to dry with heat.” Do you wish to rid yourself of this word? You might think twice. Common collocations include romance and affair. You’ll also see it with pace and growth. Such positive uses for a word so seemingly negative! Evidently dangerous and wild heat has its value… metaphorically.


A short, homely, rarely used word, but one that may yet be of service. Robert Service, for one – I’ll venture to reckon that most who know this word think immediately of “the men who moil for gold.” And that context in itself gives you a decent idea of the meaning. If you figure it means to make yourself moist toiling in the soil, you pretty much have it. Although it could be collapsed machine oil, it’s really elbow grease. And what is elbow grease? Sweat, of course. Latin molliare “moisten” became Middle French moillier “soak, stain, drench oneself,” whence modern French mouiller – and this word. But from getting wet we came to working hard (with the aid of rhyme: toil and moil was, and occasionally still is, a fixed phrase). Turmoil may have been involved in this, too, though it’s not clear whether it’s related to this word. From the sense of making oneself wet and muddy we also got grubbing in the ground, pig-style, making it a minor move for a miner to be a moiler. Especially since a moil is also a pointed rock-cutting tool for miners. Other words moil are the stub left in glass-blowing after the blown item has been detached, and, from Irish and Welsh, a hornless cow, or just hornless. Hornless, stub, and cutting may remind us that this word sounds the same as one pronunciation of mohel, which refers to the person who performs a circumcision. But in that case, it’s a minor, not a miner, who is being cut, not cutting, and we’ll just stop there. For those of us who work at desks, moil may seem like a useful word for things we see other people do (perhaps as we drive by in our cars), but, say on a day approaching Christmas, you may find shopping moil an apposite pun.


Another word that sounds like what it means. It might make you think of the noise your joints may sometimes make as you arise. Doctors will think first of lungs, however: think of the rale produced when you are in the throes of a chest infection… rattle, crackle, pop. On reading crep, think not of the French pancakes but rather of the paper or the fabric. Or consider craps, the rattling sound of the dice! The cr shows up in many words of this texture: crack, crumble, crush, creak – it’s almost a coughing sound, or the beginning of a growl or of grab but with the crispness of the voiceless [k]. If the pitate makes you think of potato, just think of the crispy chips and again you have the sound. The vowels in this word are all mid-high front, producing a higher-pitch effect (through the higher harmonics between the narrowing of the tongue and the mouth opening), while the consonants hit the three locations of voiceless stops, starting at the back, leaning the tongue forward through the r to the first vowel, bouncing off the lips and then tapping twice on the alveolar ridge. This pattern makes it a sound that can be produced repeatedly, like the bony fingers of death tapping on a windowpane or tabletop: crepitate crepitate crepitate crepitate… If death is coming for someone already decrepit, so much the more apposite; decrepit comes from the same root, Latin crepare, “crack, creak, rattle.” Someone who is decrepit is aged and weathered to the point of constant crepitation. But perhaps it is simply that death is coming by way of a rattlesnake, whose tail is tipped with a crepitaculum, which, famously, also crepitates; it rattles both its tail and the nerves of those around.

confident in or about?

A fellow editor was wondering about the distinction, if any, between confident in and confident about.  This is what I make of it: Continue reading