Daily Archives: November 23, 2009

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!”


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.