Daily Archives: August 3, 2009


Ah, this looks like a nice, fair word, no? Whatever semel is, it seems soft enough, perhaps like flour (semolina? there is an obsolete word semel for a fine flour cake). The whole word flows nicely on the tongue and lips, with fricative, nasal, liquid, then stops and another liquid, and a nice open trochee/dactyl rhythm. And of course we recognize parity: it’s that word of evenness and fairness, like wage parity! No, this isn’t a word for the salmon life – you know, work like crazy swimming upstream and fighting millions of others, spawn once, and die.

Actually, it is. “Spawn once and die” pretty much sums up the sense of this word. So sorry – this is not the parity of equality. That comes from Latin par “equal”; this one comes from parare “bring forth.” And semel? Latin for “once.” Guess what: you got suckered. Oh, it looked nice enough, sounded sweet enough, so you signed on. But never mind: if you’re semelparous, you were born to do it just once. At least it’s simple – and simple echoes nicely in semel too. So do semi and semen, neither of which is etymologically related. And salmon too.

So many false leads! Well, at least you’re not subject to salmon parity, heading like the universe to a big crunch and big bang (Pacific salmon, to be specific; the Atlantic ones get several shots). But though you may not see this word often, you’re actually surrounded by semelparous things: most annual plants, for starts, and a lot of insects too, not to mention protozoans. Not us, though, and good thing: so much of the arts and crafts of humans – from countless songs and novels to a variety of appliances and applications – exists solely because of humans’ iteroparity, the converse of today’s word.


A short word greatly beloved of Scrabble players – a word that can breathe new life, or at least a sigh of relief, into one’s game. How lucky we all are that the Pinyin system of transliteration was adopted in Mainland China. Before it, the Wade-Giles system was used, and the word was spelled ch’i. And before that it was the Yale system, which rendered it as k’i. So you should say it like “key”? No, actually, the closest English sound to the Pinyin q is “ch,” so the English plural of this loan word, qis, is pronounced the same as cheese.

And Scrabble isn’t the only place Anglophones can use this word to display their IQ. If you’re into natural medicine, especially (but not limited to) Chinese medicine (notably acupuncture), this is an important term. It is used to refer to life force, the flow of energy. (It’s not the same chi as in t’ai chi – that’s ji in Pinyin, a different character meaning something else.) If you have health problems, it’s because of a blockage or imbalance in your qi. Fittingly, in a serif or semi-serif font qi looks a bit like a person standing on the right massaging the head of a person on the left.

Also fittingly, this word – even more so in Mandarin than in English, because of the palatal affricate and the falling tone – sounds sternutatory: I’m sure you’ve said it many times in the act of sneezing. Why is that fitting? Just because literally qi means “breath,” “air,” “odor.” Chui yikou qi means “blow out a puff of air.” The breath is vitally important, of course; other languages and cultures have used it to designate life force: Greek pneuma and Hebrew ruah, for instance. Air is also what makes down and similar fluff so soft and warm… which is not why the fluffy underwool of the muskox is called qiviut (an Inuktitut word, and a [k]-like sound), another word you can play in Scrabble.