Monthly Archives: October 2009


The first I ever noticed this word was in the title of a mystery novel: The Anodyne Necklace, by Martha Grimes. Although the book came out in 1983 and I first spotted it around 1990, I have yet to read it. But I immediately sought the meaning of anodyne. Had it to do with anodes? Negative. With dynes, perhaps? Not even if forced. No, relax… or it will relax you.

In spite of its echoes of iodine, you see, this word has no sting. Rather, its object takes away the sting – or other pain.  It comes to us from classical Greek an (a negating prefix) and oduné “pain.” So its object alleviates pain, soothes, calms… It is in service as both noun and adjective, and the adjective in particular has gained a more metaphorical, or at least intellectual, use that has been soothed down from “calming” to “inoffensive” and even to “vapid.” That’s quite a contrast to the off hint of dynamism and related words it can have.

And is the feeling of saying this word anodyne? It can be, if done slowly. Focus on the three taps of the tongue and the gaps between them: between [n] and [d] the tongue becomes concave, stretching up at the back while the lips round; then, between [d] and [n], the tongue rolls forward from the concave to a convexity, like an ocean swell rolling to shore. Perhaps like those recordings of soothing sea sounds so popular around the early 1980s.

And what is an anodyne necklace? It’s not simply some fashion accent soaked with opiate. In fact, it’s something sounding, appropriately, less likeable: a quack cure. Thanks to Ask the Quack I find that it was sold to worried parents in the early 18th century as a preventative of infant mortality, specifically to aid children in passing through teething, which was thought to be a cause of mortality (which makes the Tooth Fairy sound a bit like the Grim Reaper). A fake thread of web messages created from a real sequence of advertisements about it from the time may be read on Ask the Quack . Perhaps ironically, perhaps appositely, I find that reading advertising texts from that era has a calming effect on me, regardless of content. (It may be that I associate them with Wendy’s restaurants, which, in the 1980s, had reproductions of old ads on their tables.)

And why is Martha Grimes’s book named after it? Apparently it’s the name of a pub central to the book’s action. And certainly in pubs one may find anodynes, and in mystery novels one may find the neckless…

calque & loanword

“Long time no see!” Marilyn exclaimed untruthfully as I approached. “Here,” she said to Edgar, handing him her plate so she could hug me, “take the cake.”

“No,” he leered, taking it, “you take the cake.”

“You both – unh – take the cake,” I said, as Marilyn crushed me against her leather-clad bosom.

At this point Maury happened by. “I’d say you take the calque,” he said.

“Oh,” Marilyn exclaimed, releasing me, “is this cake a calque?”

“No,” he said, “it’s a chiffon cake. Made in a Bundt pan.” He made it, so he would know.

“Which makes it two loanwords,” I pointed out.

“Indeed. But takes the cake is, arguably, a calque – from the Greek. The phrase translates directly from the Greek in Aristophanes.”

“Surely,” Edgar interjected, swallowing, “the Greeks were not the only people to use cakes as prizes. The term could have come up independently.”

“Indeed it could have,” Maury said, “like your Adam’s apple. But not like Adam’s apple.”

“A calque from the French,” I said, with a smiling nod: “pomme d’Adam.” (Marilyn leaned over to Edgar and murmured something which I suspect was “I’ll French your Adam’s apple!”) “And,” I continued, “long time no see is a calque from Chinese, exactly word for word. In Mandarin, it’s hao jiu bu jian. Though hao in most contexts would be translated as ‘good.'”

“‘Good time no see’?” Marilyn cocked her head. “That would sound rather impolite. And unfortunate: not seeing a good time.” She gave a calcareous, calculated grin and traced a seam on Edgar’s jacket with her red-polished fingernail.

“Tracing is the origin of calque,” I said, trying to keep their pursuits in the intellectual realm. “French calque, noun, ‘copy,’ comes from calquer, verb, ‘trace,’ which itself traces back to Latin calcare, verb, ‘tread.'”

“Well, it may look like an elegant word,” Marilyn said, “with the que and that nice c to start, but it sounds like a cat coughing up a furball. Especially if you underpronounce the /l/. I’m glad this cake isn’t a calque.”

“You’re not alone,” I said; Maury finished my pun: “But it is.” (A loan, of course.) “Chiffon, as James pointed out. A French word originally meaning ‘rag’ but coming to mean a light, diaphanous fabric. And by transference from that, light and fluffy pies and cakes.”

“In this case, as made by Maury, Bundt,” I added, and got a low-lidded look over the lenses from Maury, who did not wish more moribund jokes. But I simply said “From German for ‘turban.'”

Loanword,” Edgar said, rolling it on his tongue. “There’s a nice English formation, ironically. Loan plus word, both great old Anglo-Saxon four-letter monosyllables. Low and liquid, almost moaning, so unlike calque.” Marilyn responded predictably to this: she became lower and more liquid and almost moaned as she creaked her leather garments against his while taking their pieces of dessert and setting them on a side table behind him. Maury’s eyes rolled… rolled away and he followed them.

“Even more ironic,” I said, trying valiantly to maintain a conversation. “Loanword is actually taken from German Lehnwort.”

Marilyn looked up abruptly. “So it’s a calque!”

“Yes,” I said, “and calque is a loanword.”

“A semantic exchange,” Edgar said, cocking his eyebrow. “An exchange of tongues, as it were.” (Marilyn murmured, audibly, “As it will be…”) He smiled. “That takes the cake.”

Marilyn reached for the side table and came up empty. “Speaking of the cake,” she said, “where is it?”

“Maury took it,” I said, not without schadenfreude, and headed off to get my own piece.



Thanks to Wilson Fowlie for suggesting this pairing and the amusing twin ironies it presents.


Amid the aftermath of verbal bacchanals, a bit of bad bearing can sometimes bring out interesting phonetic effects. One morning after a late night of wine, words, and song, as I was struggling with almond butter on toast, Elisa Lively – who really is, and sometimes a bit too much – came bouncing up with a book.

“Look!” she said, thrusting an open page spread between me and my bread. “Cachexy! It’s so sexy!”

She pronounced it like “ka-check-see.” I felt obliged to correct her. However, with my head thumping and my tongue cleaving to the roof of my mouth, I grimaced out something that was intended to be “ka-keck-see” but involved two phonemes not heard in English, one of them three times: the /k/ realized with not the tip nor the back but the full-on middle of the tongue against the hard palate, and the /s/ made by hissing out the sides of the mouth with the tongue still stuck to the top.

“Oh, yes, ‘ka-keck-see,’ I see!” she chirped.

“From Greek kakos, ‘bad,’” I said, having recovered my tongue, “and hexia, ‘condition.’ Means just that: general ill health, malnutrition, that sort of fun. That must be a medical book.”

“No, it’s philosophy,” she beamed. “The author is writing of a fin-de-siècle Weltschmerz.”

I have a fin-de-semaine Kopfschmerz, I thought, but left it unsaid.

“But,” she continued, “say it again! You said it really interestingly!”

“What, cachexy? Oh…” I made a weak smile and grimaced out the almond-butter version again. My head hurt a little with every exclamatory k.

“Aren’t those sounds from Hindi?”

“Well, no, I think the stops in Hindi that are like this are done more with the tip curled back rather than with the body. The hissing s, aside from being said in English by some with oral dysfunctions, is like a sound in Welsh, the voiceless lateral, ll, only I’m doing it with my teeth clenched, which makes the pitch higher.”

“Well, what’s really interesting about it –” she made some tries at it, sounding like she was suppressing emesis, which did not serve my guts well: “k! k! ks! – is that when you have your tongue full-on pressed like that it tends to make an affricate when you release it.”

“Mm-hmm. Yes. So our x, which is not an affricate, meets its two parts in the middle and becomes one.” I reached for my cup of tea and succeeded in causing it to fall and shatter on the floor. I stood wincing for a moment before searching for something to clean it up with. Elisa observed me and then reached down to help.

“Say,” she said, ever the observant one, “you’re looking a bit dodgy this morning. I hope it’s nothing bad?”

“A bit of a bad condition,” I said, trying to wipe up with my eyes half-open. “But transitory. Could be worse. Could be cachexy.” I couldn’t smile because I was wincing.

She couldn’t resist a little play with the sound, which, it turns out, is less charming from the receiving end at the wrong time. “Well, I hope it’s not catching. Should I call you a taxi?”

“No,” I said, warming to it in spite of myself. “Similia similibus curantur: like cures like. Just pour me a Metaxa.”


You know those family gatherings… Your whole tribe drive in and get together, say at Christmas, and rub shoulders for a while, maybe play some hockey (or table hockey), maybe get along or maybe there’s some friction. Seems like a suitable subject for tribology? Perhaps in parts, but likely not the parts you think. Which parts? Ah, there’s the rub.

This word is pronounced with the first syllable like tribe, not with a “short i“; it doesn’t sound like it’s the study of tribbles, however much you might want to cuddle up with them… though it could be the study of that cuddling. Tribology is not science fiction, you see; rather, it’s the science of friction.

Well, actually the science of surfaces rubbing together. Minimizing friction is often a matter of special concern. Lubrication engineering keeps the world running smoothly (remember: WD-40 for whatever doesn’t move that should – and duck tape for whatever moves that shouldn’t). In 1965, the chairman of a working group of lubrication engineers sought a nice, proper, scientific ology for his field. What did he do? He called the English Dictionary Department of the Oxford University Press. The person he spoke to relayed a Greek-derived suggestion given by one C.G. Hardie: tribo, from tribos “rubbing,” plus ology, which ultimately comes from logos, “word.” Tribology.

So, in other words, the Oxford English Dictionary not only knows exactly when and how this word came about, it (i.e., the people who make it) actually invented it. Those slippery beggars!

But of course it does run up against the effects of resemblance. The googly ology is fine and sets the tone and field well, but that trib – well, pace Chicago’s daily (Tribune is related to tribe – which is thought to come from the root that gives us three, but that’s a whole other story – and not to tribology), you’re likely to get some unexpected news. I can only hope it won’t cause tribulation (now, there’s a sibling to this word), but if it does, I will try apology. It just happens that the tribologist at your family gathering may ignore your family group dynamics (except inasmuch as they involve, for instance, lip gloss) in favour of studying your hockey puck’s slide… or getting bearings on the engines of the various cars parked out front.


In historical documents, it is not uncommon to see photos or other references to someone or something given with an approximate date such as circa 1900. (Words most often found near circa are B.C., A.D., photo, and a variety of round dates.) It may also be used occasionally in approximate recollection: “Circa 1975, I read a lot of Shazam! comic books.” But many people circle around this word uncertainly, not sure how it should be used. You may see signs on restaurants or stores declaring them to be “circa 1985” or “circa 1997.” What’s that about?

Well, it seems they think that circa, in photos of buildings from a certain time, for instance, means not “about” or “around” but rather “established” or “founded.” So we have a bit of a semantic circus, as it were. But if circa – and circus, for that matter – makes you think of circle, then you’re at the origin: a Latin root referring to circles and roundness. Circa is taken directly from the Latin for “around” or “about.” And the two round c‘s can only reinforce that effect.

Those two c’s were both pronounced [k] in the original Latin, though in English they have the tongue do a half-circuit in the mouth, from tip through middle (the /r/) to back. Another word that closely resembles circa has a similar pronunciational history, but with the added detail that it came from Greek but was passed through Latin to give us the c rather than k spelling: Circe.

What’s Circe? Rather, who is Circe: a sorceress whose place Odysseus (or Ulysses, in the Roman version) hung around for a while. Her name is from the Greek kirké, “falcon” (but is now said like “Sir See”). When Odysseus’s men arrived, they found what seemed like a circus menagerie of docile animals. In fact, they were previous visitors, drugged and transmogrified. Many of Odysseus’s men were soon thus transmogrified, too, but Odysseus was warned, and when he went to free his men, he was met by Hermes (in his pre-fashion-designer days!), who gave him a herb which would protect him from the spells of Circe so he could bargain with her effectively (which he did; the movie version of that part would be rated R or X). What was the herb? It was the holy herb moly (Greek molu). So by eating holy moly, he was protected from being transformed.

Which reminds me of Shazam! Its protagonist had only to invoke the name of the wizard Shazam to be transformed into Captain Marvel (good newsstand competition for Superman). It happens that characters in the Shazam! comic books liked to exclaim “Holy moly!” I read these comic books circa 1975, as I have said, but I did not learn until circa 15 minutes ago what holy moly originally referred to, before it became an expletive. And so I am come full circa, as it were.


Here’s one for the “it looks funny so it must be right” types. This is a word for someone who checks (audits, oversees) an organization’s accounts. Clearly controller couldn’t be a proper term for that; after all, control is an ordinary term, and is just used for mechanical devices and psychological dominators. Comptroller means someone who counts – well, count is from the Latin root compt, and, really, don’t we want our words to display the glorious Latin etymological heritage rather than this debased Anglic corruption?

That was the idea, anyway, when, circa 1500, comptroller was introduced as a respelling of controller. It was a mistaken idea, not just because all words change and it’s silly to partially change the spelling of a word to manifest some point of its etymology (like that inserted b in debt), but because count – and compt – has no relation to this word.

The word controller comes from counter-roller, and counter is from Latin contra, “against”; the original reference was to someone who kept a counter-roll – a copy of a roll or document – for checking. In fact, all our modern English usages of control trace back to this administrative and auditing function. From double-check to keep in check is not such a far step, and the exercise of influence may extend to all kinds of guidance. But comptroller stays closer to origins, as evidenced by words most commonly found near it: office, state (in the US, of course), and currency.

The form of comptroller is suggestive of nobility (comte, i.e., count) to go with the royalties, and also perhaps of tidiness (kempt), but where there is coin to be counted you find, as so often, a troll hoping for a comp (better to keep your coins in a roller). The two o‘s could be eyes or rolls, the two l‘s the rolls unrolled for cross-checking. But that central consonant cluster, mptr, pounds itself right in the middle, like a muddle of arbitrary bureaucracy (I am put in mind of French dompter, which means “to tame” and is cognate with English daunt). And why not? Its presence is, after all, arbitrary and misguided – at least the mp part (oh, those MPs!).

Oxford lists just one pronunciation for comptroller, identical to that of controller. The American Heritage Dictionary, however, tells us that a spelling pronunciation – with [mp] instead of [n] – may be the more common pronunciation now. And why not? This word isn’t controller, after all, you know! It’s different! And it’s spelled differently! And so, even though comptroller and controller are the same word – dictionaries insistently list comptroller as a variant of controller – they’re different just because they are. It manifests the association between markèdness (funny-looking-ness) and formality and correctness: in English, we have this frequent assumption that something that seems odd but is used with an air of authority must be not only correct but more correct and, of course, more formal. I cannot but lament that this fact is quite beyond my control. But at least I can double-check the results.


Remember what the dormouse said?

Wait… what dormouse, where? Oh, wasn’t it something about treacle?

Well, he’s dead now, isn’t he?

And is that spelled correctly, anyway?

Your response to the sight of this word will help place you in a cultural context. Do you think first of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, wherein a narcoleptic Dormouse with a treacle fixation is seen at the tea party with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare? Do you think first of the Alice-inspired drug trip song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane? (Do you then think of the scene in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when Thompson, in the tub with the song on his tape player, instructs his lawyer to hurl the player into the water at the climax of the song – but the lawyer instead hurls an orange? Or do you think of the philosophical polar opposite, the invented “true story” drug-scare book Go Ask Alice?)

Do you think “dead as a dormouse”? (The original expression is dead as a doornail, by the way; that phrase existed already in 1350.) Do you think it should be doormouse, a sort of rodent version of a doorman, perhaps a Disney character?

Do you think “What the heck is a dormouse, and why is it called that?”

To answer the last question, a dormouse is a somewhat cute rodent (in some pictures even adorable), larger than a mouse. Dormice have a reputation for somnolence, perhaps because of their lengthy hibernation, and perhaps because of their name, too. The dorm is thought to be from Latin dormire or French dormir, “sleep” (think dormitory, normally called dorm now). But it’s not certain that it is. Even if it’s not, it may have to do with sleep.

And, on the other hand, it may be the mouse that’s the misconjecture; the rodent may have been called dormous – inclined to sleep – and the mous mistaken, for obvious reasons, for mouse. So this word may well be an eggcorn – a misrendering of a word or phrase on the basis of a mistaken etymological conjecture that happens to “make sense.” And doormouse for dormouse is in its turn an eggcorn too: people change it because it seems sensible for it to be door plus mouse. Aside from that they have nothing to do with doors. But if you never actually see them in real life, how would you know?

This dorm, now. Does is seem a somnolent sound to you? Nasals often bring sleep to mind, and the /or/ is like a yawn – and has a sound of snore (until morning), too. But those of us who have lived in dorms probably don’t associate them with sleep. More likely with the period of our lives when we got the least sleep!

As to mouse, it’s one of those words that are so common they don’t so much have echoes as they are echoes in other words. But it has travelling companions. By rhyming, mouse tends to go with house. By collocation, with computer (and field and a number of other things, and especially – by a wide margin – Mickey).

I’m getting sleepy now. I hope this is enough for you to… feed your head. (Which is, according to Grace Slick, what the dormouse said. Remember?)