Monthly Archives: May 2009


It’s hard to see this word without thinking of rich suds being rubbed into your hair – or into the long, lush hair of some model on a TV commercial. Or just maybe into a carpet. There is nonetheless a clear taste of the sham in the beginning and of the poo in the end, neither a very pleasant thing by itself (although sham also has fabric senses), and combined seeming to refer to scam scat. Few people are likely to think of champagne too quickly, in spite of the bubbles and the identical first four phonemes, because of the different images of ch (in the French style) and sh. What they will think of, and mention, quite often is conditioner. This word has even been borrowed from English to French – but in the gerund form, shampooing. That oo [u] is quite atypical for French! But, now, this word in English is both a verb and a noun. Which came first, and where did it come from? Well, there’s the rub. Or, to be more exact, there’s the “Rub!” The Hindi imperative of “rub” – or, more correctly, “press” – is campo (“chaampo”). This is the verb that was used for massaging. So if your muscles got a good rubbing, this is the word that came with it, and by the mid-19th century we were using shampoo in English to refer specifically to massaging the head and hair with soap. Why did the initial affricate become a fricative? I like to think that the smoothness of the sh seemed more apropos, and the oo is also smooth and mousse-like. Pity that it didn’t stay with the [o], though – then the choices for a messy head could be shampo or chapeau.


By George! This could be a word for a beautiful canyon or similar scenery (denizens of Ithaca sometimes say “Cornell is gorges”). But more often it’s used for someone of resplendent, immoderate beauty – full lashes, lush lips, bounteous hair, unstinting physiognomy. A diadem in the clavicle of a soirée. Beauty you could eat – and gorge yourself on. The stressed syllable of this word puts the mouth into an attitude of astonishment: not only are the lips rounded, the tongue is pulled back and down. So the vowel can be held long and it’s like saying oooooooohhh! And then you follow with the underlining echo of just – not just as in It’s just me but rather as in That’s just incredible! Say it: just gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous… Not that just shows up next to gorgeous that often (it doesn’t need to, really); absolutely is more likely. But the more classic lead-in is drop-dead (and if you see drop-dead it’s very likely to be followed by gorgeous). And what sort of thing does gorgeous describe? Such things as scenery, girl, woman, and – don’t pretend to be surprised – blonde. Now, where does this word come from? It looks like gorge, which is also the French word for “throat” (coming from Latin); are they related? Some sources say “yes” and some say “we don’t know because we don’t have data.” It is known that it comes from Old French gorgias, “elegantly or finely dressed”; this seems to connect to jewelry or kerchiefs, adornments of the throat, but the details are not entirely agreed on. Now, of course, the sense has shifted, and the clothing can be incidental; I defy anyone to say a person needs jewelry, a scarf, or even clothing at all to be gorgeous. Appropriate, yes; but gorgeous is a law unto itself.


A word made to be murmured, whispered, rustled with the lips pursed, purred. Such a simple set of sounds and symbols: three soft hisses and a retroflex or trill joined by three vowels of decreasing definition (though the stress is on the middle one). Such a set of little lines, too, a row of low verticals interrupted only by three curves, so much like the unintelligible pseudo-script used in cartoons to represent whispering. It practically begs for an extra us on the end – or one less su at the start – to set the symmetry. This word has a Latin source, of course. It appeared in English in the 19th century. Meanwhile, its synonym (or near-synonym) susurration has been in our tongue since about 1400. That word, though, can have negative overtones (or should I say undertones): not just careless whispers but malicious ones, but less so now than in earlier uses of it. There is also a verb, susurrate, and an adjective, susurrous. Another verb, susurr, seems to have been cut short – in time, I mean: no one uses it anymore. Susurrus is not much spoken, either… but go to a library and you’ll be sure to seem to hear it everywhere.


Oh, now, here’s a word for something you get up to. And the word gets up, too: look at those three dots in a row, like high spirits, high hands, perhaps lighters held aloft or, well, who knows what – better duck. And they’re bookended by the h on one side and, on the other, what used to be an h but has gotten a bit of a kicking so that the lower part (n) has separated, and not without damage to the upright, which is splintered (k). Clearly damage accelerates quicker when aided by a lot of liquor.

Oh, but these are merely youthful high spirits! Well, high jinxes, too. Not etymologically, though – jinx comes from the name of a bird (jynx, better known as wryneck) said to be used in witchcraft (perhaps to curse a person with torticollis, given its other name), whereas the jinks in hijinks is a plural noun referring to a drinking game (yep), named with a noun referring to a tricky, elusive turn (as in rugby), which in turn is a conversion from the verb jink, which refers to the same action, the sort of move you would make with a 250-pound tackle aiming for you – or perhaps a machine gun emplacement behind you. It’s also somewhat like the moves your fingers make when typing hijinks. (The sudden change may also bring to mind hikinuki, a sudden change in kabuki – I mean a sudden change of costume!) And the verb jink? Just made up because it sounded right for the move. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it onomatopoeia, but the move doesn’t really go “jink, jink, jink”; it’s more in the way of sound symbolism: there’s that jumpy j and the quick-as-a-wink ink. As to the hi, it’s not a greeting (though the greeting “Hi, Jinx!” might lead to some hijinks), it’s high shortened and attached. The word was originally high jinks.

But, really, high jinks just does not party as hard as hijinks. Hijinks is a word for laughing off all manner of inebriated indiscretion and misjudgement, such as having some drinks on the links and using one of the lakes for a jakes, or going out for sushi, having too much sake and ending up dressed in hijiki (just don’t feast on the stuff; it’s slightly loaded with arsenic, dears).


There are several ways to say this word, and in the end I’ve no clear proclivity to one or another. It did come to us most immediately from French, so come on, diva, say it with flair if you wish. But you can also go with the Oxford English Dictionary’s suggestion and make an end of it. The French word came, after all, from Latin, as did Portuguese, Spanish and Italian endivia (no going “on” with that version; the beginning is the “end”). The Latin was intibus or intubus – now, that sounds downright surgical, and uncomfortably close to incubus (close to any incubus is uncomfortable) – and there’s a 10th-century Greek entubon which, pronounced like modern Greek, would be “en-dee-von.” Anyway, this word gives a different, softer, more elegant feel than chicory, the name for the genus of which endive names two species. Especially softer and more elegant if you stick with the French pronunciation, or at least keep away from the broadly anglophone one, which sounds like a short way of saying “nose-dive” and blends two rather downer words. Its object is a quite elegant-looking thing, too, among the most proper of the fancy greens, and as tidy and contained as the word: calm light green and yellow, and none of those ruffles or streaks (nor, perhaps ironically, is its appearance veined). And the leaves can hold a variety of choice spreads and mélanges, spoon-like. Or mix it up and the result is almost divine.

Peking, Beijing, whazzup?

Pity the capital city of China. No matter what, its name gets mispronounced. It used to be written Peking, but that led to millions of people saying it like an act of voyeurism. Now it’s written Beijing, and anglophones all over the world can’t believe that a j could represent anything like how we say it in English, so in the spirit of foreignness they blubber the b and say the j as though it were French.

In fact, the phonemes involved in the name of China’s capital are such that Peking (the Yale transliteration), Pei-ching (Wade-Giles style, but never commonly used) and Beijing (Pinyin style) are all arguably viable, but all misleading in one way or another for the simple reason that the sounds used are not all sounds we make in English. Continue reading


Arg, it’s ugly. Could it be the love child of Anu Garg and Olive Oyl? Perhaps not, but it certainly gurgles in your gorge grotesquely. But it will not gorgonize you: it is the gargoyle itself that has turned to stone – or always was! We all know what this word’s ugly referents are: those stone heads on Gothic buildings, representing demons, goblins, gremlins, and assorted other gnarly lugs. Does the name come from the ugliness of the g sounds? From the throatiness, rather. The Germanic and Romance languages have a variety of words in the garg, gurg, and gorg line that relate to the throat – unsurprisingly! The word gargoyle came from was Old French gargouille, “throat.” So, OK, throat? Yes, because gargoyles are water spouts. You have a roof. It gets rained on. You need to drain water off it, and you don’t want it just hitting the ground all around, so you drain it into gutters and they drain into spouts that pour the water out and away from the building. And before the advent of modernism, the idea was that things should be, you know, ornamented. Public fountains were built with water coming out of mouths and assorted other physiognomic orifices; why shouldn’t great public buildings also drain water through amusing or shocking heads? Well, at least until the early 18th century, when cities started requiring buildings to have downspouts that carried the water all the way to the ground rather than just gargling it down from great heights.


Well, here’s another one of those Greek words. And it isn’t going to win any beauty contests, is it? That awkward k up front, that weird euo sequence – where the heck else do you find that? – and of course the ph at the end. You know it’s Greek because of the morpheme morph, which refers for form or shape, but morph always seems a little clumsy, perhaps because of echoes of Murphy (as in bed and ‘s Law) or pehraps because it seems like what you’d say if you had a sock stuffed in your gob.

But, now, by the by, why the ph anyway? I mean, we’re addicted to that weird little digraph – the New York Times tried unilaterally to replace it with f in the earlier 20th century and had to give up. Italian has successfully replaced it with f, though the spelling convention – and a number of borrowed Greek words – came by way of Latin. And why did the Latins spell it that way? Well, it seems to have reflected the way the Greek letter phi was pronounced at the time – as [p] plus [h] rather than, as it later came to be, as [f]. So it was something that arose from the nature of the source material, and then came to be an ornament. And now it’s used in words like phat and phishing in reflection of that convention even though they’re not derived from Greek (phat most likely came about as a respelling of fat, not as a shortening of emphatic). So it’s sort of like those seams that used to be painted on nylon stockings – an ornament there just as a reflection of a necessity of a different material.

There are quite a few things in the world that are like ph, actually – things that are either ornaments made from necessities of the material (heightening the grain in a wooden item, perhaps, or making the stitching in a garment an ostentatious design feature) or, more usually, things that emulate necessities of another material that have taken on an aesthetic valuation (fake stitching moulded into vinyl and fake woodgrain on, well, all sorts of things). These things are called – have you guessed? – skeuomorphs. And it’s not because there’s something skewed about putting non-functional spokes on a car hub, or making a digital camera emit a loud synthesized click, or any and all of the 3-D styling you’re looking at on your computer screen right now, or stone carved to look like fabric (oh, the modernists hated skeuomorphy!), and you won’t be skewered by them either. Greek skeuos means “vessel” or “implement” (noun). And although the ancient Greeks produced a lot of them – any stone statue is one (or many) de facto unless it represents, well, stone, and even then it might be one – the word seems to have been invented in the late 19th century by an Anglophone. Who, of course, couldn’t make an English word out of English parts. Noooo! He had to borrow bits from another material – ancient Greek – because that was more aesthetically valued.


Here’s a word with a flavour like tagliatelle aglio e olio, perhaps to be eaten in the midst of an imbroglio in a seraglio while listening to Natalie Imbruglia. Ah, the great Italian gli! You may say it with glee, but don’t say it like “glee.” The closest we can come in English phonotactics is to ditch the g and say it like “lee,” but actually the l is palatalized, producing a movement of the tongue rather like one you might make while trying to free it from an excess of almond butter. But while the movement is a slinky sliding, the sense is cutting: intagliare means “cut” or “engrave,” and comes from the late Latin verb taleare, “cut” – also the source of tailor and, yes, tagliatelle (which names a noodle rather like linguine, but wider). In carving terms, intaglio is the opposite of relief – I don’t mean it’s more work, I just mean that it’s concave rather than convex. If you find it a lingo requiring extra effort, let me assure you that you will get gain with your toil. You very likely have examples of intaglio in your own abode. Go to your medicine cabinet and pull out the pills. If they’re the uncoated kind, made with lots of hydroxypropylmethylcellulose as inert filler, they probably have the company logo and indication of active ingredient intagliated (that’s the past participle of the verb form).


Does this word remind you of virgin, verge, or virgule? It’s related to two of the three, and presents an irony with the third. It has such a vigour of voice to it, it might seem to refer to something quite earthy, or perhaps to a low-cut blouse, as the v may suggest. But although this word comes – unchanged in form – from the Latin for “rod” or “twig,” it has transferred neither to root nor to branch but to the skies above, and the plunging neckline is replaced by a veil – one that doesn’t plunge far enough. If you look at clouds, you sometimes see a hanging fringe that looks like it might be rain, but, like a torture of Tantalus, it never reaches the thirsty earth. The aerial virgules (virgule: “little rod or twig”) may seek intercourse with the watercourse, but they merely whisk the air (whisk is also related, more distantly, to virga), perhaps brushing an airplane (on occasion, one belonging to Varig), but never reaching the ground, frustrating Fred Astaire and Burt Bacharach alike. It is but a verge on a cloud, merely verging on the ground – verge, referring at first to the rod (virga) of office, and then to an area subject to the jurisdiction of the Lord High Steward (within a twelve-mile perimeter of the king’s court), came thence to refer to precincts, bounds, limits, and ultimately fringes. So certainly, with this chaste veil of rain (chased but not met), this word relates also to virgin? Ah, but here is the twist to this taste. Virgin comes from virgo (remember, astrologists?), which, despite its apparently masculine -o, is a feminine noun. Virga is also a feminine noun, yet it refers to something more masculine (and verge has been used by zoologists to refer to molluscs’ male members). But how is it that with the -a you have the rod, and with the -o you have the maiden? And we see that virgo, agitated, can bring vigor, while virga may borrow a letter to produce a gravid result. Yet with this virga, never the twain shall meet.