Monthly Archives: November 2009


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!


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, 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.



“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.


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.


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.



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.


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!”