Monthly Archives: September 2009


Oo, this word sounds nasty. At the bare minimum some tortfeasor, a retorter of tortiloquy and assorted distortions, and perhaps altogether a tortor, that is, torturer, no? Someone who twists words or twists bodies? And someone feminine, because of the trix, certainly (ah, to be a trix or not to be a trix…).

Well, you’ve got the general trend, but there’s a twist. And I don’t just mean the twist in tort, which, in all of the tort words above, comes from Latin tortus, “twisted,” past participle of torquere, “twist.” No, the twist is that into the scorching torch is flying a moth. Yes, a little lepidopteran, licked in its tricks, its wings aflame and trailing smoke, wishing it could turn over a new leaf and go back to its larval days. Or should I say go back to its larval days and turn over a new leaf – you see, the larvae of the tortrix moth have a habit of rolling leaves. It is from this that they gained their name (they are, Latinately, Tortricidæ of the Tortricoidea; tortrix just means “twister” or “roller”).

But don’t let that endear them to you. Let me put you in mind of something less pleasant than finding a worm in your apple: finding half a worm in your apple. And guess what that worm probably is: a larva of the codling moth, one of the Tortricidæ. That one isn’t named tortrix, but the ones that are also like to eat fruit, or the leaves of the fruit. So they will do you tort and undo your torte. (Torte, by the way, is one word not related to torquere, though it does trace back to Latin.)


Until today, I had known this word only as the name of the town in which one found Fredonia (not Freedonia, setting of the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup; this one was the site of the first gas well in the US). New York State’s counties are subdivided into towns (other places tend to call these townships), and within towns there may be villages. It happens that my grandmother used to live in the village (10,000 people, but not a city, so a village) of Fredonia, in the town of Pomfret, Chautauqua County, New York State. The name always made me think of apples (pommes, and they do grow around there) and perhaps British people (poms), and guitars and worries. Oh, and French fries (pommes frites). On a typographical day it might remind me of Nofret, a face named after an Egyptian queen. But what it did not make me think of is a marine fish.

In fact, there are several places called Pomfret, and not one of them is on the ocean (though some are an easy drive from it). And yet it turns out that pomfret is also the name of a large, roundish fish of the sort that looks permanently dismayed – it has a horrified frown as though it had just found itself in a village miles and miles from the ocean. Which ocean, by the way? Well, pomfrets swim in all of the non-icy ones. The biggest pomfret, in ichthyological Latin the Brama brama, gets up to a metre long and is, apparently, good eatin’.

So how did all these landlubbin’ places get named after a fish? Well, they didn’t really. The fish’s name was formerly pamflet (though I must say they look like a rather more substantial bit of literature); that, in turn, is thought to have come from pamplet, a diminutive form of either pampo or pamplo, both Portuguese names for this fish or a similar one. It’s not really clear, however, why that p became an f.

As for the towns, they all trace back to Pontefract, the name of a town (in this case the more usual sense of town) in the West Riding of Yorkshire, part of Wakefield, southeast of Leeds. Its name comes from Latin for “broken bridge.” In the grand tradition of British pronunciation, the phonemes got sanded down over time, and locals came to say the name as “pomfret.” Pomfret was at one time written on maps as the place name, but now it’s Pontefract. And some little licorice coins once referred to often enough as Pomfret cakes are now as a rule Pontefract cakes. These sweets display the local castle, picturesque enough if you’re not Richard II, who was murdered there in 1400 (or, as Shakespeare put it in Richard III, “Within the guilty closure of thy walls / Richard the second here was hack’d to death”).

Personally, given all the various food options associated with pomfret, I’d still go with a slice of my grandmother’s Concord grape pie. No fish, no foul (but maybe a county fair), no licorice, but guaranteed purple teeth.


I’m sure you’ve sometimes had to mail an envelope, say for some abecedarian endeavour, perhaps an essay on Monet (or something for money), and you wanted something plain vanilla – you wouldn’t send your precious words in the buff, but you would send them in the buff envelope, a ten-by-twelve item roughly the colour of skin in the Pacific Rim. What do you use? A manila envelope, of course.

And then lick it to seal it. Is it yummy, the glue on your manila envelope? The word manila, with its two nasals and a licking liquid, does have a certain deliciousness, no doubt abetted by its ice cream overtones. But why manila? Why name it with this Philippine word with its whiffs of thrilla and Manilow? What about this brown paper makes the place name tag along?

Well, first off, the place name’s not a tag-along; it’s Tagalog. (The stress is on the second syllable there, by the way.) Manila is from may nila, “there are water lilies.” Which may fit your impressionist disquisition but hardly goes to explain the enveloping connection. For that, we have another thread to follow.

The thread in question is made of the abacá plant. (No, the thread is not called dabra.) It’s a relative of the banana, and one of the main places it’s grown is around Manila. Although it’s not hemp, ropes made of it came to be called Manila hemp. And the sturdy, strong, light-brown paper made from Manila hemp was called Manila paper. Such a sturdy paper is good for enduring the myriad insults of postal service, and so envelopes of it became popular.

But you know how it is… if there’s something good that’s popular, someone will make a cheap knock-off. Now manila envelopes (note how the name has become lower-cased as it’s lost its thread) are just whatever brown paper the makers feel like using. And instead of protecting your precious papers with a virtual lamina of manila paper, you’re stuffing them in a buff bluffer.


I was breaking fast (having breakfast, as we might more commonly say) with Montgomery Starling-Byrd, ex Oxon, certified toff, than whom I can no more pretentious be, try though I may, and with Grace Sherman, a model of manners from Mobile. I was biting a butty (a buttered bun, to you) while he scarfed a crumpet and Grace had just java (i.e., coffee), and between chews he was regaling us with accounts of his various peregrinations (you know, wanderings).

“In Wales, then, we found our way to Snowdonia, where, although it is served by a picturesque train, we chose shank’s mare –” he looked over at Grace and, for the benefit of one not a subject of Elizabeth II, added, “anglice, we walked.”

“You walked to it from Snowdonia?” Grace asked.

“To what?” Montgomery cocked his head slightly.

“Anglesey,” Grace replied.

“No, no, we walked up Snowdon. It would be too far to walk to Ynys Môn.”

“To what, honey?” Grace said, drawing out her vowels in that charming Southern way that suggested she thought him crazy, adorable, irritating, or some combination thereof.

“Honey?” Montgomery said, looking at his crumpet and the table’s contents. “I have some, thank you. To Ynys Môn, anglice Anglesey, as you say.”

“Well, I can say Ong-glissee, as you say it, or Ang-glissee, as I say it.”

“But I don’t say anglice ‘Anglesey’ or Anglesey ‘anglice.’ Although I would imagine, being American, you say anglice ‘ang-glissee.’ …I say,” said Montgomery, turning to me, “what do you find so amusing?”

I couldn’t bring myself to say “The pitfalls of pomposity,” though I had it in mind. Montgomery was right that those in North America who say anglice at all say it with the first syllable of anger, while the British standard is with the vowel of on. But Grace, respectable word taster though she is, and familiar with parts of Welsh geography though she might be – such as the peak of Snowdon and the island of Anglesey (“angla-see”) – was quite innocent of the word anglice. It’s not a polite enough word, you see, even though it seems oh-so-very-polite, because it really tends to mean “in case you didn’t get that.”

Well, it means, first of all, “in English.” That’s its Latin meaning, and it was originally used to introduce translations of words and phrases: “Qui mihi amat et amat canem meam, anglice ‘love me, love my dog.'” It has since come to be used more often to introduce plain English versions of idioms and fancy speech. We have a variety of other ways of doing the same, but of course they don’t bespeak classicist erudition so pungently.

I should not say that it is only used to suggest that one’s listener is insufficiently knowledgeable; one may also use it to suggest that the source one is quoting is unnecessarily obfuscatory or jargony, or even, in that faux-modest way, to suggest that one is being simply too erudite or, conversely, too slangy or jargony. And, of course, if one is in such company as knows the word and appreciates a bit of abstruseness de temps à temps (anglice every so often), it can be a fun little thing to toss in. But, lofty though it be, it is not angelic.

And what a word to look at! Really, the first time I saw it, I had no clear sense of how it ought to be said. It has a certain sense of slipperiness thanks to the glistening glice, which may seem to have the pronunciation of the beginning of glycine or that of glycerine, though in fact it has been shaped by the old-style English tradition of Latin pronunciation. The lice also has an unetymological entomological bent, and the ice tops the cupcake nicely. But that angl puts the right kind of English on it: eyes that know Anglo-Saxon will likely seize on its sense, though its particular angle may entangle them. (Some may, nonetheless, have the grace to overlook it.)

My notes have been getting rather long of late. Do let me know if you find them a bit much to read.


“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“European who?”

“European in the pecan.”


“I don’t get it.”

So, now: why didn’t he – or she – get it?

Could be that there are several ways to say pecan. Since it comes from Mississippi Valley French pacane, which in turn comes from Illinois pakáni (Illinois was an Algonquian language, i.e., Native American), the rather pretentious-sounding “p’cahn” pronunciation is closest to the origin. The similar version with [æ] before the [n] is also in the ballpark. But if you happen to look at this word with Anglophone eyes, well, it does look like it should be said “pee-can.”

Now, admittedly, “pee-can” doesn’t really sound pretty, and that by itself could motivate a person to prefer “p’cahn” (just as similar kinds of echoes have driven pronunciation mutations for harassment and Uranus). But “p’cahn” or “p’can” sounds rather like a chicken pickin’ in the coop, no?

Still and all, it is a foody kind of word. It has a cryptic hint of canapé in its form, but look at the shapes of the p and c for clues to its most common collocation: pie. It’s also often preceded by butter and associated with praline. It’s a very popular nut for a nut that’s not a nut… Technically, it’s a drupe, just as cherries are. (I think I’ll avoid puns on nuts and drupe around pecan, though.) But, then, technically, strawberries aren’t berries and bananas are. Botany really makes a mess of common semantics.

But to return to the original question, person B above actually didn’t get it because there’s nothing European in a pecan. They’re indigenous to the Americas, in particular to parts of Mexico and to the southern and southeastern parts of the US, and up to Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. In fact, the pecan is the state tree of Texas. And no doubt their schools teach that you find the area of a circle using pecan pi.


Maury, Philippe, and I, in our student days, had a custom of taking tea with the lovely Liza. I showed up every Saturday, and every Saturday Philippe was also there. Only every second Saturday did Maury show up. One such Saturday, as we were sitting sipping tea while Liza had gone to the kitchen to fetch some cookies, I asked Maury, “Why is it that you only come every other Saturday?”

“What do you mean?” he said. “We all do. Don’t we?”

“Well, Philippe and I are here every Saturday.”

“Yes,” said Philippe, “and why is it that you lads don’t show on Wednesdays?”

I turned to Philippe, an exclamation mark hanging over my head. “Wot! You come twice a week?”

“Well, certainly,” Philippe said with a little shrug. “It’s what she said we were to do. Don’t you remember?”

“What I remember,” said Maury, clinking his teacup onto the saucer, “is that she said, ‘Come biweekly.'”

“Well, yes,” I said. “Come by weekly.”

“But certainly it was ‘come biweekly,'” Philippe affirmed, making that palms-up “obviously” gesture. “And that’s what I’ve been doing.”

I looked from one to the other, nonplussed. Just then, the cute and acute Liza reemerged bearing shortbreads. “When you told us to come biweekly,” I asked her, “what did you mean?”

The right corner of her mouth canted up; her left eyebrow arched. She swept her eyes over us, alighting them last on Philippe.

“Just what you heard,” she replied. “Cookie?”

Since then, I have come to understand how semantics can lead to some antics. But there are few semantics more antic than those of this word. It’s not a contronym (like cleave and cleave), true, but darn close. We know from the Latin-derived bi that there are two of something involved, and the Anglo-Saxon weekly (from words for “week” and “like”) sets the point of reference, but beyond that it’s like not knowing the difference between a square and a square root (which, if you’re a negative one, can become a real – or imaginary – problem). Clearly this affixation is a match made in heck.

We can avoid it with various circumlocutions, of course. There are even other words, arguably clearer: fortnightly (but in Canada we seem not to have fortnights, unless it means sleeping out in your childhood play structure) and semiweekly (which, however, to my eyes risks the same misunderstandings).

But the ambiguity does make it useful for play, as do its other properties. It has two doubles in it – a double-u and a double e – and the rotating forks at the end (opening rightward on k and upward on y) may be imagined as relating to a shift of perspective. And of course there are the various puns that can be made on it.

Which takes me back to the tea. Maury and I were feeling like we’d been had, but, more importantly, that we’d been had less often than Philippe. For tea, I mean.

I remembered the axiom that fortune favours the bold. “Well, then,” I said, seeing if I could outflank my smooth friend, “what say we do dinner on Fridays? I’ll buy weekly.”

“I’d gladly treat you Thursdays and Sundays,” Philippe riposted. “Biweekly.”

Maury, ever the impecunious schlimazel, knew he could not compete. He rose, took his coat, said “Bye” weakly, and left.

Fulford fulminates – pfui.

The National Post‘s Robert Fulford has gone on a grammar gripe to mark the unofficial but much-bruited National Punctuation Day.


More “language as gotcha game” thinking. While standards are important in language, they exist to serve communication, not vice-versa. We certainly want children to learn consistency and discipline in their usage, but we should also want them to think about why they do what they do and to focus on language as something enjoyable and to put their main emphasis on effectiveness of communication. Punctuation ranting leads to truly a**hole-ish behaviour like this: Come on, perspective, please! Language exists for connecting people; if in our focus on language we disrespect people, we have lost the thread entirely.

And to address the apostrophe issue that Fulford fulminates on, I need to point out again that apostrophes on possessives are neither necessary (we get by fine without hearing them in speech) nor historically appropriate. They were forced into the language during the Renaissance by people who mistakenly believed that our possessive was contracted from “has” and who thought the written forms of words should manifest their origins (but only to some extent… for instance, a b was reinserted in debt to make it look more like debitum; why not add the i and the um while you’re sticking in silent letters?). “Ancient tradition” my ass. Fulford should take a short course in the history of the English language and study some Old English inflections. (See to see what our possessives used to be – they’re in the G. row, for “genitive.”)

The comments on Fulford’s article give further evidence to my contention that most people who go on about other people’s grammar don’t know grammar as well as they think they do. One fellow attempts to maintain a strict distinction between literal “farther” and figurative “further” when there is only a general trend, not a lexicalized difference. In response, another fellow, trying to sound authoritative, writes “written by whomever feels the urge,” which is altogether nonstandard; the relative pronoun here is the subject of a subordinate clause, and as such should be in the nominative, if we’re going to be insisting on the rules. Another one corrects someone on a supposed misplaced comma that’s not actually misplaced. And so on.

English is fun because it’s crazy. But it’s also frustrating for the same reason if you’re trying to be a stickler about it. Three points of advice:

a) remember why you’re using it;

b) know your stuff, and know what you don’t know;

c) enjoy it, please, and let others do the same.


OK, stop. Don’t look up. Close your eyes and spell this word out loud.

OK, check now. How’d you do?

This is indeed the sort of word that may confuse ya – or outfox you. A variety of spellings may be found for it; fuschia, fuscia, and fucia are all common enough. And they would seem to make more sense. How did it come to be spelled that way, anyway?

Well, rather, how did it come to be pronounced that way would be the right order of things. It was named (in 1703) after 16th-century German botanist Leonhard Fuchs. He’s far from the only person to have a plant named after him by appending the neo-latinate ia on the end; for instance, Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US minister to Mexico, introduced the plant subsequently named after him to the US (and you will notice that the /i/ has been dropped in common pronunciation), and American anatomist Caspar Wistar had a now well-known plant named for him after his death (there was obviously some inconsistency in the spelling, given that we call it wisteria).

So anyway, Fuchs, which is German for “fox,” is not pronounced like “fewsh”; it rhymes with kooks, even in German (the velar fricative becomes a stop before the [s]). In theory, this word should be said “fooks-ya.” But aside from that sounding rather rude in Northern England, the average anglophone who looks at this word is unlikely to think of saying it that way.

The next question, though, is: what do fuchsia look like? I’m sure you know what colour they’re supposed to be. No doubt Herr Fuchs had no idea that, a half millennium after his time, his name would have transmuted from a reference to an animal known for being red to a soft, mushy word for a very floral, feminine kind of magenta. But the flowers actually come in a variety of kinds of red and purple. As for the flowers, they’re dainty little things that grow drooping downwards, looking rather like escapees from an especially florid ballet production, petals out like skirts and stamens down like spindly legs.

But it seems that the colour beats the flower in popular usage now. This word tends to be found near other colour names and near words such as dress, silk, hair, and lipstick. Not that the plant is rare or difficult; it’s actually quite hardy, surviving, like this word, rather better than you might expect.

Now, look again at this word. Does it look like a word for that kind of flower or colour? Really, I don’t know; you tell me. The f by itself bears a certain resemblance to the flower, but if I look at that fu and the ch it seems rather unfriendly and coarse. If, on the other hand, I think of how it’s pronounced and just glance at it as an ensemble, the effect of the sound takes over; I forget its past and heed its “fewsha.”


This word stays right at the front of your mouth, as though you were worrying a flaxseed with your incisors. It can be said quickly with the merest movement of the mouth and just a smidgen of sound. It has clear echoes of midge and midget, both words for diminutive objects, but it’s not too far from fridge and bridge either. The /sm/ onset brings flavours from many words: small, smack, smash, smattering, smear, smell, smile, smirch, smirk, smite, smithereen, smooch, s’more, smother, smudge, smush… And the high front vowel sets the size at small; you know it’s somewhat less – and neater – than a splodge.

It showed up in English in the mid-19th century, but we’re not sure where from. Perhaps from smitch. “Oh, right, smitch!” you say. “Uh…” Yes, smitch is a no-longer-used word meaning “a little bit.” And it? “Of doubtful origin,” the Oxford English Dictionary declares. Oh, come on lads, give us some etymology. Just a smidgen?

To look at, certainly, this word is not unusually small; in sight and sound it has two parts, easily snapped in half for those who want less. But write that half down and it’s almost as big as it was to start with – smidge – which is unsurprising: how often have you said you wanted only a bit and then had nearly the whole thing?


My incredibly beautiful wife is an incredibly beautiful dancer and an even more incredibly beautiful figure skater. She spent her 20s as a professional figure skater, she has a level 2 skating coaching certification, and she has an MA in dance. So naturally, she’s the first person I turn to for help tasting a word like this.

I walked into the bedroom just now. She was sprawled on the bed, half-covered in papers, watching TV. I awkwardly raised my right leg, awkwardly canted forward, attempted to maintain my balance while holding my body in a T of which the vertical was one leg, the crossbar my torso and the other leg. “What’s this?” I asked.

“In dance, arabesque,” she said. “In skating, spiral. In gymnastics, scale.”

“Why is it called an arabesque?”

She looked vaguely guilty. “I don’t know…” She smiled slightly and shrugged. “Are you going to take away my MA now?”

I came back out to see if I could find out what a T-shaped dance position had to do with Arabs.

Yes, arabesque does mean “Arabian”; it’s not some coincidence. And it’s a nice, ornamental word, too, long, with many curves, and the well-balanced ascender and descender in the b and q, well suited to ornaments in calligraphy.

Now, we may do calligraphy, but, really, no one does calligraphy better than Arabic calligraphers. The sinuous, cursive forms of their alphabet lend themselves well to it, and the Islamic proscription on iconic (pictorial) art (observed with varying stringency, but in some quarters adhered to absolutely) led to a great efflorescence of calligraphic and geometric ornamentation. The artistic impulse will out, after all, even with strict constraints, and many a mosque has myriad motifs in repeating linear and polygonal forms. This style of design, as it happens, is quite reasonably called Arabesque.

Naturally, the design charmed Europeans who saw it, and they copied it. Well, in their own way, with their own historical influences and without the constraints of a proscription on iconicity. Swirling, twining forms – what could those lend to? Well, a more literal efflorescence, with leaves and branches and all that. Other extended uses have followed, typically with reference to ornamentation, orientality, or both. Arabesque, for instance, also names a musical form that is brief and ornamental.

And so, in 1830, we find (with some help from Oxford) in C. Blasis’ Code of Terpsichore the following:

Nothing can be more agreeable to the eye than those charming positions which we call arabesques, and which we have derived from antique basso relievos, from a few fragments of Greek paintings, and from the paintings in fresco at the Vatican, executed after the beautiful designs of Raphael.

In other words, it seems that the position is named after figures in artwork taken by Europeans as being Arabesque, though actually it wasn’t necessarily all that Arabesque. (Hardly the first national misnomer ever!)

The word rolls about in the mouth nicely, first with the liquid [r] and then flowing from front to back: [b], [s], [k]. The word, of course, makes one think of Arab and perhaps of Moorish architecture, but also carries foody tones of bisque and barbecue (though the object may be more like a curlicue).

My wife has come out to explain the skating part further. “It’s a spiral,” she says, “because you’re on a curve. You’re on one foot – you’re always on one foot – and you’re skating a curve.”

“And in gymnastics it’s a scale because it looks like a set of scales,” I hypothesize. She agrees that this makes sense.

“So if that’s a spiral,” I ask, “what’s a camel?”

“When you spin,” she says. “And if you hop from one foot to the other when entering, it’s a flying camel.”

Which could present a rather scary picture – if one put oneself in the shoes (or sandals) of an Arabesque person. No wonder Aladdin preferred a carpet.

Today’s word was originally requested by Elaine Phillips.