Monthly Archives: June 2009

back in a couple of weeks

I’m taking a little vacation, back around July 5. So don’t fret when you don’t see a word tasting note from me for a couple of weeks!


OK, let’s play word association: I say corvette, you say… stingray? Probably. But before this was a brand of car, the most corvettes and stingrays had in common was their medium: the ocean. Corvette was, when the word hit English (from French), the name of a type of flush-decked navy ship with one tier of guns. And it did not get its name from a little crow, even though corvus was Latin for “crow” (time and tide have turned it into modern Spanish cuervo, which may sound curvy and tequila drinkers know will get you bent); corvette may have come from Latin corbis “basket,” which may have been a reference to a basket hoisted on slow Egyptian freighters, but that’s not sure. Now a corvette is neither slow nor a freighter; it’s a fast little escort ship. Which is fitting enough given that the car named after it is a fast little thing that in its days has probably picked up more than its decent share of escorts. It’s amusing that this rather feminine word (it does have the ette ending, after all) is associated with such masculine things as armed ships and muscle cars. But, then, the occupants of each tend to smoke a lot of cigarettes, too. And there is enough about this word that is racy, aside from the races the car gets into: it has that v-neck down the middle, and that ought to rev the octet under the hood.


What difference a phoneme makes. When the tongue is at the ready, tip touching behind the teeth, a hissing slurp of saliva starting, you can say sapid and the sense is savoury, but when the teeth bite the lower lip, the start of a pugnacious grimace or the first gesture of a foul or vile word, and in releasing you give nothing but a dry breath, the taste has evaporated to vapid. Like wine that has exhaled its vapour: that is how the Romans put it, vapidus. And it is now a member of two tribes, words that begin with stressed va (among which are vanish, vandal, and vampire, but also valid and valiant) and words that end with pid (such as stupid and lipid but also rapid and Cupid). The pid sits there like a sidewalk spinner sign, waiting for a dry breeze to disperse its message to passers-by; the v would seem to be like a tooth biting at the lip. But the breeze is dull and the bite is pavid; how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable it all seems now. The thrill of an avid diva is dampened with p. How tasteless.


Look at these little level letters, each one with an opening facing one way or another – left, right, up, down and down, right, down. Ready to receive opportunities as they come, perhaps, whatever is a-comin’ in. Ironically, the letters are without points, unless you accept the ends of the lines – the tines on the m, n and u and the open tips on the c, a and e. No v or w here, though the shape of the u in the original Latin was v. This in spite of the meaning of the Latin: “sharp thing,” from acuere, “sharpen.” Now in English it’s not the acumen that’s the sharp thing but the person who possesses it. The word may sound like some Japanese borrowing (like salaryman, or rather sarariman) to refer to men who are accurate – or who drive Acuras. Or, since it’s a flexible, pragmatic word and allows stress on either the first or the second syllable, it could sound like a Syrian spice plant. But a person with acumen, though he or she may indeed be accurate and spicy, is one whose mind is a sharp instrument. And these days the word’s most constant companion by a long chalk is business (other occasional pals are intellectual – redundant, that – financial and political). Perhaps this is because the word itself reveals its true sharpness when it, like a strong business, is fully capitalized: ACUMEN. (Write it in Latin style, pre-half-uncial, and you get even sharper vision: ACVMEN. All it needs is a K for the C and it’s like a yard of broken glass.)


Perhaps you have a lodger, a pudgy old codger named Roger, grey as a badger, who likes to adjure you to judge his tadger larger than any other gadge’s, and he keeps at you, a real noodge… Not only does he badger, it’s like he has a badge on his forehead: a great big L for “loser.” Do these words, this verb badger and this noun badge, have to do with the critter called badger? You betcher! Badger, badger, badger… it mushrooms! It seems that the animal’s forehead fur looked like a badge, or anyway that’s the best stab etymologists can make at it (but they’re also still burrowing for a source for badge). Is the badger ill-tempered and persistent, constantly bad and generally saying grr, known perhaps to have barged into tea and grabbed a scone unbidden? Well, it was long axiomatic that a badger, once it bit, would not release till its teeth had met. But it’s at least as likely that it was the badger that was being badgered… by people. They weren’t treated, ah, very nicely. But anyway, to the word form before us: note the two ascenders on b and d, rising up like the stripes on a badger from the eyes. It takes more imagination to see the a as a pointy snout and the ger as somehow the rest of the creature. The sound could work: the opening [bæ] is an incipient baring of the teeth, a release of bitterness, and then there’s the tongue-bite of the voiced affricate followed by the growling [r]. But of course there’s not such an impinging tone in, say, budgerigar. Unless the little blighter won’t shut up.


This word blends and clips voices but brings them together as they come out of the mouth. Its first part is lip, a word that, in various variations, has shown up throughout the Indo-European languages: Latin labium, Persian lab, Swedish läpp, Old English lippa… So many lips in so many tongues. It may look as though there are plural lips, but the s turns out to be the start of synch, also spelled sync. The spelling, at odds with the pronunciation, gives a clue to the source of the second part; it may sound like sink but it is without basin – it’s from Greek, though it’s cut off in half-time. The syn is “together,” which is fitting, as it brings together the lip and the ch. The ch is the start of the root chron, referring to time; synch is short for synchronization, a word that many people don’t have time for all of. But if the time is out of joint, then simply disjoint it and adjoin it. Take the tip of this dactyl and touch it to your lips: ssshhhh! Loose lips sink ships!

After all, when you lipsynch, it is not your voice, or at least not then and there; you bring your face, your movement, to be spoken through by the absent breath. You are bound by these vocal cords. Together your vision and the sound form one of those loose lipsynch ships, a raft of blind voice and dumb show. But to be the smokesperson, the mirror to nature, you must do it without mixup or slip. You are like a spy for the voice, the linch pin of the fantasy for the audience. You are the s of this word, the joining of fully present lips (but less there than seems) and the voice spread across time, seemingly together but clipped from another moment. Words come from the fabric, shiny clips chins ply… You are the ventriloquist’s dummy, a warm prosthesis for an absent speaker. It may seem like a fish tied to a fowl, this cooperation of English and Greek, but this love of language is the language of love: it is no sin for lips to come together in – or out of – time.


Think of the sun flashing off ripples of water. Think of a long row of metal slats and the effect they have as you speed by them. Think of the vibrations the mm in this word can produce in the eyes. This word slides in with a sh that, though a voiceless hushing sound, may, if slid into, drown out the soft voiced reverb that follows. Oh, this word has echoes – or should we say reflections. The shaking of shimmy and shiver, the glow of glimmer, the sun-sparkle of summer (oh, how distant sights shimmer in the summer heat!), the sizzle and steam of simmer… This is a word that shines and vibrates with soft but strong energy. It forgoes the cut and skitter of glitter and shuns the shock and crackle of sparkle, preferring a lambent hum. The play of shadows and vibration weave through this word’s history, a Germanic one all the way back and always with an eye to light. It has transferred to a certain subtle, effortless style of movement, too, epitomized by Wodehouse’s Jeeves. Not for the gaudy, garish, climbing and striving set, this word; if it’s shimmer time, the living is easy.


A hard word for a hard sparkle, like the eye-cutting flashes of a diamond. It has that shiny gl plus front vowel to open, so you know what the business is: you see it in gleam, glisten, glint, glimpse (which originally was a near-synonym of glimmer and came from the same root), the glass that can so often produce those visual effects, the glamour that they may attend on, and, of course, glister – a word now known almost exclusively from the phrase all that glisters is not gold, and not so well known from that, either, as glitter is so often substituted in the phrase. But what glitter has that none of those others do is the dry, quick, voiceless stop in the middle, before the liquid end: the hard edge of cutter and the flying particles of spatter, the asperity of bitter and the jumpiness of skitter… but also the thirst of water. The echoes of clutter and clatter seem faint, and glottis is engaged mainly just in the saying.

This word has litter in it, but if you are among the glitterati or have the glitter attitude, the litter in question is likely the one you are carried on by your slaves: g and r hold the ends, and you are in the middle, with your title, reclining (but is that a tiger hiding in the low trees?). Does the shape of the word glitter? The little dot on the i and the crossed-off ascenders on the t‘s may bring to mind the cut and sparkle of a diamond, but to some that may seem facetious. Yet even if all that glitters is not diamonds (or gilt), this word was born with the silver spoon. It may be related, in the mists of the past, to Greek chlidé “luxury,” but it can be traced to the Germanic, probably joining our party during the Middle English period from Old Norse. And now it can be found on the banners and invitations – and sometimes the cheeks of the girls attending. They probably will not be listening to Gary Glitter.

Whoever tells you to always avoid splitting infinitives is wrong

Yet another colleague has called for backup to respond to someone who insists that splitting infinitives is always and without exception wrong.

Siiigggghhhhh. Really, do these people never, ever look anything up? Continue reading


A word for sawing logs… zzzz. Does this word actually have anything to do with slum or lumber? Well, if you’re dog tired from a day in the sweatshop, you can lumber into your slum and slumber, but otherwise, no, not directly. But there is that heaviness (so humble and bumbling) that you also get with lump and slump, here with the blunted edge of the [b]. This is a word you could manage to mumble out when nudged in a somnolescent state. And then, when you’ve rolled over, the snore rumbles. This word is pure Germanic, cognate with Dutch sluimeren and German schlummern – in English we denasalized the [m] before releasing to the [r], making an epenthetic [b]. So you get a sound like a dozy inhalation – slum – and then a puff back out through loosely closed lips – ber. Ah, that delightful dozy state leading into a midday nap, perhaps concluded when the minister calls for the hymn after the sermon. But, listen, sisters, what word do you think is this one’s favourite playmate? Why, it’s that darling of the sleeper set, and so unquiescent: party.