Daily Archives: October 13, 2009


I’m not making this up: as I write this, I can hear sirens out on the street. Ah, the sounds of alarm – so hard on the ears! They’re like cancer drugs, which are (for the most part) poisons that are aimed to hurt the cancer more than they hurt the rest of your body. Targeted toxins, as it were. Similarly, sirens hurt my ears, but it’s for a good cause. The same goes with alarm bells – targeted toxins for the ears.

Or should I say tocsins. Yes, the noxious overtones are ever-present in the word tocsin, although it’s not related to toxin. Rather, it comes (via French) from Latin for “touch” and “sign,” and has been used to refer to bell signals – especially alarm bells – since at least the 16th century in English and somewhat earlier than that in French.

No surprise that the word most often found near this one is sound – the verb. And if you can hear them over the din, there are familiar rings other than toxin in this word, too: klaxon (originally a brand name, apparently based on Greek for “roar”), referring to a loud horn (though the word sounds too metallic and percussive for that to my ears, but certainly it is harsh); moccasin, which has exactly nothing to do with tocsins whatsoever unless you happen to be wearing them when the alarm bells go off; in hoc signo, a reference to a divine vision that was a call to the alarums of victory for Constantine (and the first tocsins were church bells, too); Tonkin, as in the Gulf of, which is where incidents took place (or didn’t but were said to have) that precipitated large-scale American military involvement in Viet Nam; talk sin, which may be like thought crime (call the police!) or may be like a 1-900 line (police the calls!); and perhaps syntax, which may sometimes make an editor say “Hell’s bells!” but is generally no real cause for alarm.

Today’s tasting was suggested by Roberto De Vido.