Monthly Archives: November 2009

haruspex

Oh dear. Whatever this word means, it can’t be auspicious.

Well, that’s true. The prophecies of an auspex are auspicious. A haruspex is haruspical and practices haruspicy.

But while we could have a bird with auspex, do we have the guts for haruspex? Really?

It’s a scary-looking word – somehow its echoes of harum-scarum become hairier and scarier and lead us to helter-skelter and the desultory becomes downright demonic. We can see a hex peeking around the edges, and if the harus becomes Harry and pex turns Potter, we are brought to mind of horcrux. Not all h__x words are baleful – helix has a lifegiving glow to it – but the harrowing horror of haru and the spiteful spell of spex (which also brings to mind weak vision) may move it all well beyond the harumphing and expectorating its sound could at first call forth.

But can you divine its referent? Well, its referent can divine. Give a haruspex a critter – be it fowl or a fair sheep – and he will, once it has been sacrificed, read the tales its entrails tell. Sheep liver in particular was an important indicator for the Etruscans and the Romans that followed them as well as, earlier, for Babylonians and Hittites. Haruspex has the spex ending from spicere, “observe,” and a beginning cognate with Sanskrit hira “entrails.” (Does the word somehow resemble a string of guts pulled from an x incision?) Add one haruspex to the next and you have two haruspices. But you will not find them adding herbs and spices as they look at the liver. (Divination specifically by the liver is also called hepatoscopy, which may sound like a laparoscopic inspection of your liver, but you may wish to flee in your hospital robe if your doctor muses aloud about doing one.)

Haruspicy was useful for weather forecasts and medical diagnoses and prognoses (the more relevant, one might imagine, if one caught one’s disease from the sheep now dissected). Haruspicy did not necessarily lean on the spicy or find the sex in haruspex; it answered quotidian questions of the sort you and I are more likely to turn to the web for – and not the web of the digits of a goose or ewe, but a digital web that can make a goose of you.

And if, instead of gutting the goose, you let it fly, well, the goose may find that auspicious, and if you call the auspex, so will you – an auspex (from avis “bird” and spicere “observe”) divined the future by means of the flights of birds (auspices, in the oldest sense), and from this we get auspicious. Mind you, if you’re on Otmoor observing starlings, you may find the results startling!

cardamom

As I write this, by my desk I have a mug of rooibos chai. In the fridge, for breakfast tomorrow, awaits some leftover zelta maize (Latvian for “yellow bread”; maize in this case is pronounced like “my-zay”). In my freezer, there’s a bottle or two of gin. I currently don’t have any Lebanese coffee knocking around, but if I did, it would have something in common with the Indian-inspired chai, the Baltic bread (which has Scandinavian counterparts as well), and the British gin: cardamom, a spice that really gets around.

Cardamom is not the only spice that gets around, of course. Some of the other spices in my chai travel at least as widely – and are often found in the same recipes as cardamom: cloves, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and, of course, ginger. But, for whatever reason, in North American cuisine cardamom is not often used by itself, so people are less likely to have a clear impression of its taste or even awareness of it. And, if Google results are indicative, they have about a 40% chance of getting the name wrong and thinking it’s cardamon rather than cardamom.

Why would they think it’s cardamon? Well, that better-known spice cinnamon very likely has some effect. And rather more polysyllabic words with unstressed final syllables in English end with on than with om. So, given that cardamom is not as common a word (cinnamon gets about six times as many hits on Google as cardamom and cardamon combined; on wordcount.org, cinnamon is ranked 19,469 while cardamom is 58,400), it’s not so surprising that it might be misconstrued.

Anyway, with a slightly different turn of history cardamon could have been the official form: while cardamom comes from Latin cardamomum, from Greek kardamomon, the Greek word in its turn comes from a blend of kardamon “cress” and amomum, the name of a spice plant also called black cardamom – as opposed to green cardamom, which is called true cardamom by some (for instance the Encyclopædia Britannica and The Oxford Companion to Food). Both are used as spices and are called cardamom, as sometimes are some other related plants; green cardamom has the finer flavour. Cardamom has been used as a spice in English cooking since at least the 14th century.* It’s the third-most-expensive spice by weight in the world (after saffron and vanilla), but a little bit goes a long way.

But what does the word cardamom taste like? It undoubtedly gets papery overtones from card, and maternal notes from mom. The start sounds hard, the end sounds soft. It may have floral echoes from chrysanthemum, and ecclesiastical and avian ones from cardinal. Aside from other spices, words it may bring to mind include pods and seeds, but especially ground. And what wine to have it with? For me, the word is a sauvignon blanc kind of word, but its object is definitely more in the gewürtztraminer line.


*Many people, when mention is made of medieval cooking, think of the assertion that has been passed around by email that the spices were used to cover the flavour of the meat, which had become rotten. Oh, of course, those medieval people couldn’t have used spices as we do – because they taste good! Well, in fact, they did use them for that, and also because they were expensive; spices were luxury items, used more often among the rich than among the poor, and the spice trade was one of the important luxury trades that kept traders going around the world in the medieval era and thereafter. As The Oxford Companion to Food says, “spices were a distinguishing mark of medieval cuisine on more than one level, distinguishing rich from poor, town from country, special feasts from ordinary meals. Spices marked the religious festivals of Christmas and Easter, an association which is retained to the present day.” There is no evidence of spices having been used to mask the flavours of rotten meat (please remember: medieval people were not actually incredibly stupid and animalistic) or of salted meats (which were mainly eaten by those who couldn’t afford spices anyway), nor were spices used as preservatives.

 

nautilus

“Hello, sailor! What’s that?”

Marilyn Frack creaked as she leaned forward in her black leather outfit to peer at my wrist, or rather at what was on it.

“It’s a nautilus,” I said. In fact, it wasn’t: it was a watch with a ceramic nautilus-shell pattern as its face. But pragmatics allows for brevity.

“It’s naughty lust?” she said. “Fie! We’ll have none of that!” Her coquettish smile and tone made it clear she really meant “nothing other than that.”

“Indeed,” I said, trying to be as dry as I could, “we will have none of ‘fie.’ Although the spiral of the nautilus shell is often thought to be a golden spiral, expressing the ‘golden mean’ ratio, phi, it is in fact a logarithmic spiral.”

She straightened up a little. “Which means?”

“Which means that each chamber is geometrically similar to each other chamber – the same proportions but different size. An infinite logarithmic spiral will look identical at any magnification.”

Edgar Frick wandered up; I hoped his presence would detach his paramour from me slightly. Marilyn may not have a grip quite like that of the nautilus’s tentacles, which cling so tightly to prey that they will sooner rip from the nautilus’s body than from the prey, but she is indefatigably flirtatious.

“Do I hear something about a Mandelbrot set?” Edgar said.

“Another fractal geometry,” I replied.

Marilyn creaked up against Edgar’s matching leather kit. “He’s trying to nottle us.”

“Would I be so shellfish?” I protested.

“Look, darling,” Marilyn said, showing Edgar my watch, “it’s an endless succession of similar chambers.”

“Like our last vacation,” Edgar said.

“That did spiral out of control.” Marilyn paused. Then smiled.

“The nautilus,” I said, returning to my watch if possible. “A free-swimming cephalopod. It can adjust its buoyancy and propel itself by intaking and expelling water.”

“How did they come to name a weight machine after it?” Edgar mused.

“The machine controls resistance with the aid of a spiral cam,” I replied.

“So it’s not because you really have to shell out for one,” Marilyn said. She turned to Edgar. “Luscious, how much did ours cost, with the after-market leather add-ons?”

“About as much as a nuclear submarine,” Edgar replied. He knew that I knew that he knew that the first nuclear submarine was the USS Nautilus, just one in a series of many vessels named the Nautilus, including not only the submarine in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea but its namesake, the first actual practical submarine, launched in 1800.

I could see the wheels spinning inside Marilyn’s head. I almost broke into a cold sweat as I considered she might be about to launch into a line of discourse relating to rigid cylinders and seamen.

But instead of a cute observation, she made a rather acute one. “Nautilus comes from the Greek for ‘sailor,’ yes?” Edgar and I both nodded agreement. “So these various submarines called Nautilus are sailors containing sailors, recursive, the smaller inside the bigger, but similar and repeating. Vaguely reminiscent of a nautilus shell.”

“Yes,” I said, relieved and impressed. “That’s a rather entertaining line of thought. And submarines probably have Nautilus machines on them for exercise. And of course they have other features like nautiluses: buoyancy and propulsion, and perhaps the inner structure…”

“A long succession of chambers with seamen in them,” Marilyn said, leering at Edgar and sweeping her hands over him.

…”Look at the time,” I declared, glancing perfunctorily at the hands sweeping over the nautilus on my wrist. And escaped.

parabens

What do you say to a Brazilian when you give her cosmetics for her birthday?

Parabens prá você!

OK, I’ll explain that one. Parabens, in English, are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid (whence their name); you will see various of them – such as methylparaben and propylparaben – in the listed ingredients in cosmetics, shampoos, shaving gels, moisturizers, and toothpaste. You may, if you’re a label reader, recognize the words.

But how does parabens taste to you? Do the p and b and maybe the n somehow have a calming, soothing effect – rather like the natural-sounding paba once so popular in such things as sunscreen (and short for para-aminobenzoic acid)? Or do you think of chemicals such as propane and paraffin and benzene? Does it seem, perhaps, like a drag parachute you pop out of your Mercedes Benz to slow down quickly? Do you get an echo of parables, or pure beans, or problems? Taste it and see.

No, no, don’t drink your shampoo! And, yes, why should we talk of taste when it’s a word for a class of chemicals? Well, why not? All words have tastes, and anyway, parabens are also used as food additives. Wot, really? Well, sure, why not – some of them occur naturally in plants; for instance, methylparaben is found in blueberries. (Remember: even naturally occurring things are chemicals.)

And what do parabens do? They’re preservatives – they have anti-microbial properties. There has been some suggestion that they may affect breast cancer and may perhaps weakly mimic estrogen, but that remains, as they say in the sciences, controversial.

OK, but why did I bring Brazil into this? Well, in Portuguese, parabéns means “congratulations,” but is more of an all-purpose word: it can be used where anglophones might say That’s great, Well done, or Happy birthday. In fact, the words they sing to the Happy Birthday song in Brazil are as follows:

Parabéns pra você,
Nesta data querida,
Muitas felicidades,
Muitos anos de vida!

And why do they say “congratulations” on the notice of your advancing age? Perhaps because you’re well preserved.

requited

I have this image of Pierre Abélard, as he brought Héloïse to the convent of Argenteuil, singing to her the Willy Dixon song that Led Zeppelin did on their first album: “I can’t quit you, babe, so I’m gonna put you down for a while…” But while he didn’t quit her, he did requit her, and though his was not an unrequited love, it was in the end a nun-requited love – though by that time it was through the prophylaxis of French letters. He had made his quietus with a bare body; he was not acquitted; for a time he was quieted, but he would not quit.

Quiet, quit, acquit, requit, requite? Is that quite so? And in a tale of iniquity and inequity, which if any of them may apply? Quiet, please: let us begin. In fact, let us take our quietus from classical Latin: it meant what we mean by quiet, noun. From it came, in the 4th to 6th centuries (AD), quietare, which meant “become quiet” and then “make quiet” and, by the 11th century in England, “discharge” – not a gun, a debt. And did this lead to quit? Quite. Yes, and quite too. In fact, quit formerly had a long vowel and was a homophone of quite, which is fair enough, as quite meant in the first place “thoroughly complete” (as in paid in full, for instance) and quit meant “pay, redress, etc.” From that it came also to mean “set free” and “leave.” (Similar progressions of sense occurred in French with their version of the word.)

And from this came, too, acquit (from Latin ad + quitare) – meaning “settle or discharge a debt” and now a more legal sense of the same – and the twins requit (now not really used, but seen in older literature) and requite. And requite means “repay” or “make return of.” But it, too, is seldom used as is; add the past participle ed suffix to make an adjective, and then the negating prefix un to that adjective, however, and you have a much better-known form.

And what is unrequited? Say it together: love. So what, now, do people say is requited? Love, mainly. It’s not the only thing, but thanks to such as Wordsworth – who wrote of “Being crazed in brain By unrequited love” – this word’s worth is less in the principle and more in the interest it has gained from followers of Aphrodite, in spite of its mercenary tones.

There is something about saying this word, too, that makes me think of quenching thirst, perhaps the vaguely drinking-like action of the tongue it uses. You may blow two kisses in saying it, too: a small one with the /r/, which we typically say with some rounding of the lips, and a bigger one with the /kw/. Then the tip of the tongue takes a trip of but two steps, not the three Nabokov discerns in Lolita, and rests. And if your kisses to the air are returned, or your letters Frenched – perhaps catching you after edit but before you are done your query – you may find yourself not only requited but quite red.


Thank you to Roberto De Vido for suggesting today’s word.

 

maffick

It was a right jolly night at Domus Logogustationis, the clubhouse of the Order of Logogustation. Our local branch had prevailed against a hostile acquisition bid on the building that would have driven us into the street. Instead, it was our celebrations that drove us into the street, mucking up the traffic: we no longer needed to camp out watching for padlocks on the doors; the siege had been lifted. Needless to say, we were not behaving like boy scouts – rather more boorishly. Long words (excellent words!) were falling like snow as we careered tantivy into the laneway. Elisa Lively twirled along the sidewalk singing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” until overtaken by hypoxemia.

“What are you doing?” a passer-by asked.

“Mafficking,” Philippe Entrecote replied.

“What?”

Ross Ewage, the noted vulgarian, leaned over. “As in ‘Keep yorficking hands off mafficking building!'”

“As Baden-Powell might have said, yes,” Philippe said, nodding smoothly.

The passer-by moved on in that quick-stepping way people do when they conclude they have been talking to a dangerously crazy person. Ross turned to Philippe. “Baden-Powell? As in the founder of the Boy Scouts?”

“Yes, it was he who held Mafeking during the siege. Two hundred seventeen days, hemmed in by the Boers. He used cute subterfuges such as having his men place fake land mines while the Boers were watching them – and stepping and ducking to avoid imaginary barbed wire. The Boer War was basically a white-against-white war, but Baden-Powell put three hundred native Africans on the perimeter with guns.”

“To get shot first, no doubt,” Ross said, as a cava cork traced gravity’s rainbow past his ear. (“Sorry!” shouted Maury.)

“Rather. He also put together a cadet corps of adolescent boys. That helped inspire the Scouts, which he formed seven years later when he was back in England.”

“So mafficking really wasn’t just partying but mayhem – a battle! The Siege of Mafeking!”

“Actually, the verb maffick was backformed on the basis of the celebrations when the siege was lifted, May 17, 1900. Naturally the British citizens in Mafeking were very happy to see the departing backsides of their Boerish opponents. The celebration spread rather far, certainly across South Africa to Cape Town, and, I believe, even to London. It was a major victory in the war. Waggish journalists reporting the celebrations spoke of ‘maffickers, mafficking as hard as they could maffick.'”

“And the neighbours,” Ross said, “were probably saying ‘Those rotten ma-fickers.'” He might have pronounced it slightly differently, come to think of it.

Elisa spun to a stop and grasped Philippe’s shoulder for stability. “Language!” she shouted, but it wasn’t clear if she was chastising Ross or simply exulting.

“We’re talking of mafficking,” Ross said.

“Change the affix and make it mafficks!” Elisa shouted. “Let us maffick in the traffic!” she sang to the tune of “Roll Me Over in the Clover.”

“Read the f‘s as long s‘s,” Maury said, leaning over, “and you have Massic, an ancient Italian wine.”

“If you could degeminate and change it to g, it would be magick,” Ross said.

“It would,” Philippe said, “not least because f to g is not a known transformation.”

“It’s a typo!” Elisa shouted into his ear. She grabbed the cava from Maury. “You need some more of this!”

“Make like Tantivy Mucker-Maffick,” Maury said. “To quote Thomas Pynchon: ‘Tantivy’s been drunk in many a place, From here to the Uttermost Isle, And if he should refuse any chance at the booze, May I die with an hoary-eyed smile!'”

“But,” Ross half-shouted, “what the f*** does Mafeking mean? I mean the place name! Where they had the siege!”

“It’s actually Setswana,” Philippe said. “It’s originally, and now again, Mafikeng, and it means ‘place of stones.'”

At this Elisa and Maury burst into song, the Rovers hit from the early ’80s: “Oh, why don’t we all just get stoned… Get drunk and sing beer-drinking songs…” They continued up the street in raucous jubilation. We all mafficked so hard we might have been mistaken for sports fans, except we were in Toronto and nonetheless had something to celebrate.

in excelsis

A carol sing is not always a good idea among word fanatics. Although they provide many wonderful archaic usages to savour, things can get a bit contentious at times. And so I’m frankly not sure what I was doing in late November singing quartets with Daryl, Margot, and Jess.

Actually, I do know. We were rehearsing. Of course you have to rehearse before Advent in order to be ready to sing when people want you to sing. And we were doing “Angels We Have Heard on High” – or was it “Ding Dong Merrily on High”? – when we came up against that perennial choir catch: excelsis.

There were four of us. On the first pass, there were four different pronunciations.

“People,” Margot said, lowering her music, “don’t you know Latin? Never mind how it’s been bastardized over the past couple of millennia. C is pronounced [k]. ‘Eks-kel-cease.'”

“We’re not singing classical Latin,” I said. “We’re singing ecclesiastical Latin. Grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation changed some in the centuries between the one and the other. Note how we’re not pronouncing the English words in fifteenth-century style.”

“That’s right,” Daryl said. “The c before i and e became an alveopalatal fricative. So it’s ‘ex-chell-cease.'”

Jess and I both winced. (So did Margot, but she does it so often you hardly need to say so.) “That’s not quite right, either,” Jess said. “While c became ‘ch’ before the front vowels, sc became ‘sh.’ No need for a transition through ‘s-ch’ either. You can also see this transformation in, for instance, Norwegian and Swedish: ski is actually said with a fricative, similar to our ‘she.’ And in ecclesiastical Latin, xc before i or e is ‘ksh.’ So it’s ‘ek-shell-cease.’ Just sing it all like Italian.”

“Or you can go with the English tradition,” I added. “I admit I’m not the world’s hugest fan at all times of what happened to Latin when it got run through the Great Vowel Shift and all that along with English – ‘nil nice eye bone ’em’ for nil nisi bonum and all that – but when you look at these songs, they’re really English songs with the Latin borrowed in. So you can sing ‘ek-sell-cease’ just as the guys who wrote the words most likely had in mind.”

“Sounds like ‘In Excel spreadsheets’!” Margot snorted. “Or ‘in eggshell sheets.’ Daryl’s version sounds like a cash register or a pachinko machine.”

Jess smirked slightly. “And you find your anachronistic stop-laden classical version somehow more euphonious?”

Excel is related, etymologically,” I pointed out. “Latin ex-cellere, ‘rise above others,’ with the cel related to celsus, ‘lofty.'” Margot was undoubtedly gratified that I said the Latin the classical way. “Excelsus is ‘high,’ so the English just repeats the Latin anyway: ‘on high,’ ‘in the highest.’ Actually, the word used could as easily have been altissimis – Saint Jerome preferred that version.”

“And then we wouldn’t be having this argument,” Daryl said.

“We shouldn’t anyway,” Jess said. “How can anyone hear in excelsis without thinking of Christmas? And how can anyone be –”

Margot jumped in: “– anything but stressed out by the pre-Christmas season? Yeah.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m going to throw my vote in with Jess, so that gives us a plurality, which is enough to win. It’s the shell, icky or otherwise. Let’s try it again.”

We ran through the song again, with Margot giving the grimace we all expected from her at the appropriate point, but going with the decision. As we were singing, Elisa wandered by and stopped to listen.

“How’d we sound?” Jess asked her when we were done.

“Excellent!” Elisa declared. “On key, gives me chills… don’t cease!”

gerrymander

This word carries an air of improvisation, with its echoes of jerrycan, jerry-built, and jury-rigged, and it has a wandering sense, with its clear hint of meander and its long, wandering form (starting with that squiggly g). It almost sounds like a phrase (‘Dja remand ‘er?). In usage, it inevitably has a sense of seaminess, corrpution, or anyway political dirty-dealing: redrawing the borders of electoral districts so as to give an advantage to one party.

This is a word the exact origin of which is well known – it traces to a political cartoon (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Gerry-Mander_Edit.png). The governor of Massachusetts in 1812, Elbridge Gerry, signed into law a redistricting the state to disadvantage his opponents and favour his party to ensure more wins than a strictly proportional representation would have allowed. One of these districts wandered in a shape that a political cartoonist (Gilbert Stuart) saw as like a salamander. His editor, Benjamin Russell, suggested the term Gerrymander as a blend of Gerry and salamander.

There are two things to know about Gerry and salamander. First, while today we just think of a house-pet lizard when we see salamander, the salamander was long given mythic qualities and endowed in the imagination with various magical powers, including a great affinity to fire. In effect, it was akin to a dragon in the mind of the Massachusetts man in 1812. Second, the last name of Elbridge Gerry (not Eldritch, but given what we’ve just said about salamanders, you may wonder) was pronounced like “Gary,” not like “Jerry.” (There’s a town in New York State that has this same issue: Gerry, near Jamestown, not said like “Jerry.”) But most people don’t know that, and haven’t known that for a long time, so gerrymander starts with the affricate, not the stop.

Gerrymander is both a noun (the original usage) and a verb (the now more common usage). Some may argue that there is value in gerrymandering, constructing anfractuous districts to form coherent voting blocks of like-minded people to allow them representation. However, it may be argued that this is not really gerrymandering unless it results in their having significantly less (or more) representation than they would proportionally get: it is not simply the form but the results that matter in the definition. If you create districts such that party A gets overwhelming wins in a few districts and narrow losses in many others, you can allow party B to get more seats with fewer voters by letting them win narrowly in many districts and lose by wide margins in a few. That’s gerrymandering; putting together districts that allow different groups to have a reasonable voice in the legislature isn’t.

But it also has to be deliberate. The sort of accident of geography that allows the Bloc Québecois to gain far more seats in the Canadian Parliament than a national party with many more voters (Kim Campbell may remember this especially bitterly) doesn’t count. Gerrymander imputes deliberate wrongdoing, and without the deliberateness or the wrongdoing it’s just funny-looking or unfortunate… or proof of the need of a better electoral system.


Thanks to Dianne Fowlie for suggesting today’s word.

 

I

Who am I? What is this I that I perceive? The most essential thing in the universe or a pure illusion? Is it as solid as a metal beam or as evanescent as a candle in the wind?

Reflect, Grasshopper. Reflect on yourself, because your self is mere reflection. This shining I is a mere mirror, and even the mirror is not there when you – with your eye, your seeing part, which you may mistake for your I – look for it.

You look in the mirror, and you say, “I see.” And indeed I C spells the source of I: in Old English, I was ic, said sometimes as “eek” and sometimes as “each” – the two sides of the self, one of fear, withdrawing, the other of distribution, sharing, outgoing. It was sometimes after written ich. Make this capital: ICH. In a serif font, the formal way, an I is like a steel beam (an I-beam, in fact), reminiscent of an H on its side. Make it more like an H on its side and you have 工, the Chinese character for gong, “work.” But Chinese for “I” is wo – the self is only half of work, for action is the rest. The character for wo, however, is a slashing pattern of seven strokes, 我, half of which is a spear and the other half of which is said to be a hand, or grain, or another spear: fighting, action.

The self is the ready hand: the letter I began as an arm and hand, Phoenecian yod, which lost first the hand, then the elbow and wrist, and soon became the smallest of letters, a mere stroke, iota, ι, the famed jot of jot and tittle, the small wisp of Hebrew yod, י. You see the strong hand, but when you follow it, it vanishes into smoke, it is the merest small thing.

But I was not I then. In Hebrew, when you speak of yourself, you do not say an I, you say ani. In Greek, like English an Indo-European language, “I” the speaking first person was – is – ego, written in Greek letters εγο; in Latin, it is ego written first EGO (as we ever write our selves in our own minds). These little letters we love, e g o i etc., came about later, as scribes shrank them in brisk writing: the I became a little single stroke, at risk of being taken for one half of an n, one third of an m, so they added a dot, like a finger, a flag… a flame. We are a candle burning down. No, we are not: we are only the flame. We consume the wax, but the matter of the wax passes in other forms into the air; when it is burnt, however, the flame – which was only ever an ongoing reaction, not a discrete object – is gone. Ay, gone.

Ay. This is how we say I. This is not how we always said it. Our long vowels shifted half a millennium ago. Before that, the ich lost the fricative at the end and we said it “ee”: simply the narrowest opening at the tip of the tongue. Tighten the tongue a little more as you say it, and whisper as you do so, and you have German ich. But when “ah” became “ey” and “ey” became “ee” we needed this sound of I to be more distinctive, and so we swooped into it, starting at “ah” and narrowing down, like a hand swinging through the air and pointing at a spot.

In other languages it widens from the spot. In Scandinavian languages, you have jeg – the j a glide, like our y – or similar words. In Slavic languages, you have ja and similar words. In Romance languages, you have Spanish yo, Portuguese eu, Italian io, French je – this last has a fricative, but it was once a glide, too, as its first letter has descended from none other than I. Thereby hangs a tale: what we see now as j was first an ornamental i with a tail; when the glide sound came from the vowel, it was written the same way at first, but when we decided we needed a separate letter for the glide – or for the fricative or affricate it had become – we kept the j for that. If we needed another version still, we used y. And sometimes, in English, where the i seemed too small for the vowel, we wrote y instead. See that y: like an i and a j joined. In Dutch, words once written with y – such as the river Y – are now written with ij (and the river is het IJ). The self plain and the self fancy, extended: together you have branching, division, or you have dowsing, divination, depending on your direction. Widening or narrowing: your self is your choice. Which shall you do?

We aggrandized our little i. When we stopped saying ich we were left with a jot and a dot. It was not big enough; the I does not want to pass unnoticed. So it gained an infusion of capital. In other languages, politeness may dictate the upper case for the formal other person: Sie in German, U in Dutch (which, informally, says je for “you”). Honour may dictate it for royalty and deity: Your Grace, His grace. But we, we who see ourselves as the axis of all, we plant a flagpole at our north pole of the self: I. How we forget that when all rotates around a point, the point around which is rotates has no size, no dimension. It is a perfect nothing. Without it the action could not be happening, but it is only there as a result and part of the action. It itself does not move; it is still, there. And when the action stops it is not still there.

I is not the most common word in English; it sits, according to wordcount.org, at 11th place – ay, ay, 11. The most common pronoun, in eighth place, is it. The most frequent actual noun is in 66th place, after so many function words, pronouns, auxiliaries, and staple verbs. It is what the I exists in: time.

What does the I stand for? among other things, I stands for the heaviest element commonly used by living organisms, an element rare in many places but soluble in water and so concentrated in seawater: iodine. It stains and it stings, but we need it. Without it our thyroids underdevelop, with bad effect; iodine deficiency is the leading cause of preventable mental retardation.

But our little candle, the small i, takes us to the root of this all. And if our self is defined in opposition – the spear against spear, the ego that opposes, the reversal seen in reflection, the inevitable entropy of the candle – then our self is a negative one. And the root of negative one is i: an imaginary number, not countable or accountable in the real world, but still usable for describing and calculating things in our lives. The square root of 1 is 1; the square root of –1 is i. One less than nothing, and reduced by one dimension.

This is your I, grasshopper: a useful illusion, a mere effect of and part of action. You see a line between yourself and the world, but I, the line, is all there is, and even that is nothing real.

Email joke writers, please read this

I receive and forward a lot of email jokes. I’m pretty well known among my friends for being a nexus for humour. But in my years of reading emailed jokes, I have observed that there are many people out there who really don’t understand how to tell a joke well. (Worse, if I receive a joke several times over the course of a few years, it typically gets more and more ruined each time I get it – people are destroying it with their unneeded and misguided additions.) I’ve had to edit quite a few just to un-kill them. So I’ve decided to give some advice for those who want to write down some joke they recently heard to send around. Please read this and heed these pointers if you want to be funny. These are not tut-tutting po-faced rules! They are practical advice based on experience. The entire point is to be funnier.

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