Daily Archives: November 15, 2009


“Well, I thought it was clever,” Rupert said. He pursed his lips, stared into his Scotch on the rocks for a moment, and then continued. “And so did she. Certainly at first. I mean, it was too perfect. My name is Rupert Stein and hers is Ani Lithgow. Stein and Lith – the rock theme was on a silver platter, as it were. But I’ll get back to the silver in a moment. I mean, there was silver in the rings, but the silver in the rupiah – oh, well, hm.” He paused and had a drink.

“Rings,” I said, prompting him out of his intermittent funk.

“Yes,” he said, “when I gave her the engagement ring, I had rupestral engraved inside. A nice anagram, Rupert S., A.L. I said as I gave it to her, ‘I’ve taken a lichen to you.'”

He was lucky he’d met a suitably inclined word taster to become affianced to. Abstruse puns aren’t usually thought of as romantic. But he knew that she knew that rupestral meant “growing on rocks,” from Latin rupes “rock.” And because she was a word freak, she would have had the taste of pest in the word but would not have felt it apposite in this case. Or not initially.

“I suppose it had a nice rock on it,” I said.

“Oh, a good stone,” he said. “But a rolling stone gathers no moss, as Ani later pointed out. Anyway, I bought it as a set with the wedding ring, which I also had engraved: rupestrian. Because when you’re married it’s carved in stone. And another great anagram: Rupert S., Ani.”

“Of course, rupestral also means ‘carved in stone’ or ‘written on stone,'” I said.

“Yes,” Rupert said, “they both do. We actually thought of cave paintings as a decorative motif for the wedding.”

“We?” I raised an eyebrow.

“Well,” he said, “perhaps I more than she. Anyway, she thought it would be better to theme with the blue dresses that she was having for the bridesmaids.”

“Blue,” I said. “Aniline die?”

“It was her way of reminding me that two can play the name game.”

“It occurs to me,” I said, “that planning wedding details around puns on your names – especially competing puns – may be –”

He cut me off. “A rocky start? How original of you.” He drank a bit more of his Scotch. The ice clinked. “I mean, obviously we were focused a bit too much on ourselves, I on me, she on her. The name thing was symptom more than cause. But maybe if I had eased it up a bit, not gone the extra step.”

“All this rock punning is a bit much, anyway, given that Rupert has nothing to do with rocks,” I observed.

“Well, it comes from Germanic roots for ‘bright fame’ or ‘famous fame.'” He rolled his eyes. “Not worth the effort. I suppose if I has been given the more standard version of the name, Robert, this might not have come to pass as it did. But it did. And it was really the invitations that were the cause of the rupture.” He paused for a moment and winced.

“I suppose Ani wanted papyrus,” I said.

“Which we agreed on,” he confirmed, “overlooking the fact that the papyrus of Ani was an Egyptian Book of the Dead. I guess there might have been a curse of the mummy. But mainly of her mummy, who didn’t think so highly of me. But it was the seal that sealed my doom.”

“On the invitations?” I said.

“Yes,” he said, “the idea was for the seal to have the impression of a coin in the sealing wax. You know, rupography.”

Yes, as it happened, I did know rupography – taking an impression of a coin or medal in sealing wax. From Greek rhupos “sealing wax” plus the usual ography. “That was a problem?” I asked.

“It was the coin,” he replied. “I guess I should have gone with a rupee, but I didn’t like the pee. So I wanted it to be a rupiah, which is the unit of money of –”

“Indonesia,” I said, nodding. Come on, man, I know that!

“Well, as it happens, the rupiah isn’t worth a whole lot. A hundredth of a cent. You can’t even really get a one-rupiah coin. Which is what I wanted, not 25 or 100 rupiahs or whatever. Anyway, rupiah may, like rupee, come via Urdu from the Sanskrit for ‘wrought silver,’ but their low-value coins are aluminum. So I decided to go to a silversmith and get a fake coin made, with a ring to make it easy to hold. This wasn’t a cheap thing to do, you know.”

I was trying not to say that the money might have been better invested otherwise. Wordplay isn’t just cheap, it’s free, for heaven’s sake.

“So we had the invitations printed up on papyrus. And Ani thought it would be nice to have the seal done with a grey dog on it, which is the family seal of the Lithgows. I suppose I didn’t need to mention to her that ‘grey dog’ was folk etymology and that Lithgow really comes from ‘damp hollow.’ Things got a bit damp and my words began to ring hollow after that…”

“Relations got a bit rupellary?” I said. (Rupellary means “rocky.”)

“Where there were any at all,” he replied, making sure I heard the any–Ani pun. “And then I took it upon myself to seal the invitations all myself, as a surprise to her, with this fake coin. But I hadn’t inspected it closely enough. You may find it hard to believe, but I don’t read backwards print so well. And I just didn’t really stop and look at the seal as I was making it. I really thought they all said rupiah.” He pronounced the [h] at the end clearly.

A pause ensued.

“And when I showed her what I had done, her mother was there too. And her mother is a dermatologist.”

Another pause. I was thinking. Then my eyes grew wide. “Ohhhhh nnoooooooo,” I said.

There’s no delicate way to explain this, really. Rupia – no h – is the name of a nasty skin condition that shows up in advanced syphilis and involves crusted pustules. And what he was telling me was that his invitations had blobs of sealing wax on them stamped with this word.

“At that juncture, Ani pointed out to me that rhupos, aside from meaning ‘sealing wax,’ also means ‘dirt’ or ‘filth.’ And her mother, who doesn’t like puns much, nonetheless indulged in a play on my name and eruption.”

He finished his Scotch and looked over his shoulder towards the bar, the imminent source of his next. He turned back and made one more observation, drily: “Those who are joined by the pun shall be severed by the pun.”


“Hey, you idiot, what’re you doing with that scythe? Man, you’re lucky you only got a little cut; you could have taken someone’s head off – or your own, which probably wouldn’t make a difference!”

Ooo… a scathing rebuke for one who escaped relatively unscathed from a misadventure.

Now, how is that? If the rebuke is scathing, then the person is scathed, right? Funny, though… the past participle adjective keeps its literal sense even when used consciously as a metaphor, while the present participle adjective is entirely figurative and refers specifically to use of language (speech or writing). We can see these patterns in the collocations: relatively, escape(ed), and emerge(ed) are the most common words coming just before unscathed, while scathing is most often preceded by wrote and issued and followed by report, critique, criticism, review, and letter.

Scathe was first of all a noun, meaning “harm” or “damage” (or, in the misty past, also someone who inflicted same). From there it easily became a verb (as so many nouns have, and yet despite cries of doom and agony from prescriptivist voices our language not only emerges unscathed from these conversions but thrives on them). The verb, in more recent centuries, took on a frequently more specific sense of scorching, blasting, burning, etc.; one may be tempted to imagine some phonaesthetic inclination affecting this, but although scorch and scald have the same onset and flame the same vowel, we must remember that bathe seems to have no such overtones, nor the fairly similar save either, and certainly not, say, lathe. The heat anagram of the rhyme portion of this word also probably had no formative influence on it, though it adds to the flavour now.

But scathing does lend itself to emphatic use, with the extensible lead-in /s/ and the opening-closing arc of the vowel /eI/ with an equally extensible and vibrating voiced fricative after it. Unscathed, for its part, gives a little echo effect when preceded by escaped.

And how does scathe get mixed up in all this? Well, it may be that he-cats (and any she-cat) have a decent supply of lives, but people less so, and even one who cheats death may still have to pick up the dice he cast.