Monthly Archives: April 2009


This word may look like a bad typo for elementary, but I beg you to be charitable. It’s true that the elee beginning is very odd to the English eye, and a “long e” in the syllable before the stressed syllable is certainly a rara avis. But it’s the mo that is stressed, and indeed in eleemosynary matters the important thing is always to give mo’. One might hope that this word’s prodigality of form will encourage prodigality of giving, and that the e‘s will inspire one to give with ease. Look on the y‘s as receptacles (they do resemble toll baskets, but that’s a different thing) into which to put the coins (o and e‘s). How did this word get its shape? Blame the Greeks: eleémosuné, “compassionateness,” is a derived form of eleos, “compassion.” The Romans borrowed that to eleemosyna (and that third e is long in the Latin, too!). It made its way through the grinding wheels of assorted western European languages, arriving in English by AD 1000 as ælmyssan and making its way, even further shaved down, to Modern English as alms. This economical four-letter word – a third of the letters and a sixth of the syllables found in eleemosynary – may seem to be in straitened circumstances through giving so much to charity, perhaps. But munificence sometimes calls for grandiloquence; largesse may demand largeness; and 17th-century writers, wanting an adjectival form relating to alms, felt that a return to the Latin would be, if not structurally elegant, then at least genteel. Nowadays, however, ostentation is not the mode, and if in eleemosynary you may find meals for others, it is good form to share the letters, even if you are left with nary a one for yourself.


There is much to be seen in this word – fittingly, since its Greek parts are em from en “in, within” and phatos from the phan root relating to seeing and showing (plus the adjectival ic). Is this an epiphany for you? We certainly seem to think of emphasis as something one may hear as soon as see – words most commonly found near emphatic include statement, answer, and voice, but nothing explicitly visual. And there is such a lung thrust in the saying of the word: the oomph of emph, the fat puff of air in phat… say, is this one phat word? The hemp it’s hiding may boost its cred. But it really does seem to me haptic – you feel the gut thrust, the air blast that takes your hat and tousles your attic. Its letters can provide many minutes of diversion for the anagrammatically inclined, but if the urge strikes me I patch it over and remember the camp I am in: this is not word blenderizing. And when the parts are together in order, you get a word that is said with two bookending syllables and a big, pushy, open one in the middle, as if to illustrate. If you don’t think it looks like much, you can double underline it. Or put it in all caps – will all those long straight lines and angles be EMPHATIC enough for you?


This is not a word for a female keeper of cicadas. And although, with its buxom matching c‘s and cross-tied x at the end (and two posts of i‘s to tie the outsides of the word to), this word may seem suited to a dominatrix (it has such a nice whip-crack to it, too, with its [s-k-tr-ks] bouncing the tongue back and forth), it is a word of another stripe: perhaps a stripe left by the dominatrix’s whip, perhaps a claw mark from the cat in its midst. Whatever it is, x marks the spot – where the stitches went in. If you’re sick o’ tricks, I don’t mean to give you a scare; I just mean to give you a scar. And a Latin one at that, the spelling unchanged (though in classical Latin the c‘s were pronounced [k]). The more modern mutated version is cicatrice, taken from the French; we can use it too, though the x has been excised and the curly ending stitched on in a trice.


A demure demoiselle might demur, but with a little bit of the kitten at heart: mu, making its moue with “mew.” This French-born word’s mode is modesty, but it could be a decoy by the coy: it may seem like a wall (mur), but it meets your lips with the murmur of a ripe blackberry (mûre mûre). It is indeed “ripe” that it comes from – meaning “mature” and thus “mellow, staid.” So first it meant calm, and then it meant sober and staid, but once the medieval era gave way to the Renaissance, the reticence was made a veil and this word began to wink: the gravity was guised levity, or at the very least a restraint not quite natural. At first the term was used as readily for men as for women, but now it has become an attribute of the blushing sex: the words most likely to be near it are woman, little, her, very, and she. Feminine modesty may no longer be the cultural norm, but modest misses still have their fans – the ones held in front of their faces, beyond which you may see the lashes that await you.


A word for where the heart meets the earth: the place on the floor above which the fire burns. Although the sound of the word might seem to have a cold breath about it, no one seems to notice, for it can also be the sound of a breath blowing to help the tinder to ignite or the embers to glow, and the word just carries an air of homey, old-fashoned warmth around with it from sense and context. And don’t the h and h look like the ends of a fire grate? Such an essential word didn’t have to be borrowed, of course; it’s always been in English, since before there was English to be in, and the only spelling change was from o to a (and the final th was ð). The pronunciation has shifted a wee bit more. In Scottish and northern English dialects, this word still rhymes with earth (both of which, in the mists of time, had a vowel sound more like what we say in air now), but elsewhere it’s supposed to be said like heart with a fricative rather than a stop at the end (but many people who have not heard it will say it to rhyme with earth on seeing it, I’ve found). Since modern homes have no need of a hearth per se – though some still have one – hearth is seen mainly in historical works, metaphors and clichés now. Home is where the hearth is – hearth and home is a common coupling, and The Cricket on the Hearth is the name of a Christmas story by Charles Dickens. But hearths still get modern literal mention; you will find from collocations that a stone hearth is most often spoken of, and sometimes a brick hearth. Whatever the material, though, when you hear the word, it’s as warming as an Irish coffee on a winter night.


This word has that sort of foreignness to it that one gets from words not of a distant place but of a distant time. The schal in particular may strike a few among us (e.g., me) as also being a Middle English spelling of shall. But this word does not relate to shall; rather, it comes from Old Teutonic skalko, servant. The sene may make you think of the Latin root for “old”, and you’d be right about the “old” but it’s again by way of Old Teutonic (which has a common origin with Latin, way back). But more amusingly, this word, which sources from Old Teutonic and resembles a Middle English spelling of an original English word, and has the sch that normally shows up in words from Italian (and Latin), Greek, Dutch, and German, came to us most directly from French – Old French took the Teutonic seniscalc and made it into seneschal, which form was borrowed directly into English at a time not long after French was the ruling standard, right around 1400. So it was a Middle English word, but its form comes from the French. Find me another French loan with sch!

But, now, how shall we say it, and how shall we use it? Because it came from the French, the sch is the sound we normally spell sh. But we still stress the first syllable. As to its object, a seneschal is a majordomo of a sovereign or great noble, or a cathedral official, or in some cases (as in the Channel Islands and the Society for Creative Anachronism) an administrative or judicial officer. Does that make sense, or will you challenge it? You may find your lens aches at too much exposure to this word, with its medieval orthography in which may be found chess, lances, lashes, chases, and other such scenes (but at least you may heal sans leech). But no need to get all mixed up. This word is not like a spiced olive that you may drop into the martini of any conversation; rather, it is a ball of incense for a period piece book. Readers of medieval murder mysteries will surely see it soonest.


This is a fun word to look at, with its iddi like two torch-bearers side by side at a gate, and outside those first u and t – neighbours divided by the gate – and at the ends q (like a d turned down) and y (like the q popped). It seems strange and perhaps wants to party. But what is its essence? It does not refer to a ball game for wizards, or a quaint Newfoundland village, or a cephalopod, or some especially obtuse individual, nor is it a going rate for a cuppa. In fact, it has two rather different ambits of meaning. On the one hand, and originally, it refers to the inherent essence of a thing or person, its basic what-ness – quid is Latin for “what.” In this it has at times been opposed to haecceity, a word that makes me want to sneeze just looking at it (stress on the second of four syllables, by the way, if you try to say it); haecceity comes from haec “this” and refers to the this-ness of a thing: its present individuality. Haecceity is the particularity of a thing, what makes it not any other thing, whereas quiddity involves qualities that may inhere in other things as well and may define a genus. Haecceity was an important term for Duns Scotus, a very sharp medieval philosopher (known as Doctor Subtilis for his subtle thought) whose ideas and advocates fell out of favour during the 16th century; humanists used his name – ultimately persisting in the respelling dunce – first for sophists and hair-splitters and later for general dullards. And perhaps for digressers? Now where were we… Well, if you think the matter of haecceity a trivial point, a peculiarity, or a small nicety, then it may ironically be called a quiddity, for – here we get to the other hand, if you were waiting for it – this word now has been ushered into the company of the other quaint and curious qu words, with the help of alliterative phrases: quibbles and quiddities, quips and quiddities, quirks and quiddities… It generally refers to a subtle bit of wit, or perhaps simply a quip, but can also be a quirk of personality, something that makes a person sui generis… which would seem to be more of the haecceity than something of the quiddity. But we don’t want to get too subtle here.


A word for a discombobulated, shabby, ramshackle building, perhaps collapsing clapboard, an architectural jalopy. It certainly has a slapping sound of boards tumbling, doesn’t it? Well, or how about bricks or stones? If those seem more suited to crumbled rubble, well enough, but this word did originally refer to the stones of a building being dispersed as if thrown: Latin dis “away, asunder” and lapidare “throw stones” (from that lapidary lapid root – how far we are from lapis lazuli in this wind-whistling hovel with its panels flapping in the atmosphere). This adjective is now much more common than the verb from which it comes, though one could still say that careless tenants (and weather) dilapidated a building, or simply that the building dilapidated (it’s an ergative verb, like break – the object of the transitive is the subject of the intransitive). The written form of the word could seem to have boards sticking out at all parts: ascenders, dots, and descender. The sound of it we have already explored; the percussion of the word is more accentuated in the common mispronunciation dilapitated (if a person is decapitated and so brought low, then a house that has oft crepitated may seem suitably dilapitated, I suppose). And what words do we commonly see it with? Houses, buildings, and homes, as well as structures, dwellings, and barns, and even apartment, and of course old, but also that great – and spooky – contrast, mansion.


Should we go fishing with this word, we may find ourselves at Worf, a name for a linguist and for a Klingon. Benjamin Lee Worf hypothesized that the language we use affects the way we act on or even perceive reality. Worf came to the idea because he found that people treated “empty” gas drums carelessly, when although empty of gas they were full of explosive vapours. A Maine merchant who unloaded dozens of unsaleable cappuccino bowls to tourists by calling them chowdah bowls would likely agree with Worf. But many linguists take issue with his idea, or particularly with the simplistic version of it that suggests that people can’t conceive of things they have no words for, a prima facie absurd notion. Perhaps his namesake Klingon should be set to resolving the issue in a less cerebral way – for instance, by throwing someone off a wharf at warp speed. The old word for throw, after all, became our modern word warp, cognate with German worfen, while the old word for warp became our modern word for throw in a twisted little linguistic semantic metathesis. But we’re at sea here: neither of these is related to wharf, which comes from Old English hwearf. Wharves – or wharfs, if we prefer the older British-style plural – are, in origin, embankments at water’s edge for docking boats at; now they may be wooden or similar structures. Tell me, though: if someone builds an embankment at water’s edge, what do you see its function being? How about if it is a dock? How about if it is a wharf? Three names for what could be the same structure. And for which of the above do you envision fishing, and how readily? In San Francisco there was one that was favoured for docking fishing vessels. Now the fame of Fisherman’s Wharf has fixed an image in the mind, and it may for some predipose them to thinking of fishing when hearing the word wharf. Now tell me, if a boat is coming into or pulling away from a wharf, what sort of sound does its horn make? Are you more inclined to think of a train-whistle-type sound, like a “wharf, wharf”? Tell me next what noise a dog running after the boat makes: “bow wow” or “woof woof”? (Or does it say “arf arf,” to match the end of this word?) And if a Klingon were piloting the fishing boat… Well, no need to be silly. Klingons prefer warfare to wharf air.


Here’s a word to keep on your tongue – it stays mainly at the tip, but its object can continue on. It has that great Germanic str onset that covers the waterfront from striking to stringy, strain to stroke, straitjacket to strumpet. And then it goes on to rhyme with noodle, poodle, and the rest of that kit and caboodle. ‘Strue! Does it sound crisp like pastry? Not really, though it does sound like something to be served by a damsel in a dirndl. We’ve only had this word in English since the late 19th century; we got it from the Austrians: it’s German for “whirlpool.” Not that you see a hint of a whirlpool – or of the phyllo-like millefoglie of the pastry – in the shape of the word. A little play will find anagrams of turds, led, and rust in it. Ah, how rude! And yet how sweet. How do you like them apples? Probably a fair bit – although strudels can be made with other fruits (and even with mushrooms), the one that is a standard collocation with strudel is apple.