Monthly Archives: December 2009

The onesies

There’s been a lot of discussion about what to call the decade just ending.* But never mind that. What about the decade just about to start, the set of ten years with 1 as the third digit? The one that starts with the last year of the first decade of the third millennium and ends with the second-last year of the second decade of the third millennium? I wish to make a formal proposal: let’s call it the onesies.

Does that sound like something a baby would wear? Yup. Good. After you made your oh-ohs (or done your naughties), you can get in your onesies. Seems to suit the general trend of the world. The infancy of a new millennium… hopefully the best one yet.

I find that onesies is also another name for the game I know as jacks. That’s good: playing pickup while trying to catch the bouncing ball.

And if you’re saying “Why not the teens?” my answer is that the first three years (10, 11, 12) aren’t teens. The teens are a set of seven years – a septennium.

* No, I don’t mean the first decade of the 21st century, which ends a year from now; I mean the decade after the nineties, which overlaps 9 years with the first decade of the 20th century. Yes, we can do that (see “When does the new decade begin?“). I personally prefer the oh-ohs. But the naughties is also good. Some people like to use the spelling the noughties for distinction. I prefer the naughties precisely because of the pun! I don’t like the aughties not only because it’s not such a good pun (even if you spell it the oughties) but because aught originally, and still also, means “something” and came to mean “nothing” just by confusion (a naught –> an aught).


As I watched the retreating form of Wen Raey, off to roll her eyes at another unsuspecting paronomast, Jess came up holding a parfait glass of something that looked creamy. She looked off towards Wen. “What’s all the hubbub, bub?” (Jess is a good one for Bugs Bunny quotes.)

Hurly-burly might be a better term,” I said, “for our new persona Fwendy-Wendy, who does not dilly-dally.”

“Well, I don’t know,” Jess said. “Raey is a Dutch name, and hurly-burly comes from a Scottish play by an Englishman.”

“Jess!” I said, genuinely surprised. “You didn’t know Shakespeare didn’t invent it? It’s attested from nearly a century before him. Reduplication formed on hurling, I believe.”

“One can’t know everything,” she said, and ate a spoon of her dessert. “There would be nothing left to learn, and one would have to sit and weep, like Alexander when he ran out of worlds to conquer. But anyway, at this party there seems not to be the kind of mêlée one calls hurly-burly; I like the luck of the Irish: hubbub may come from a Celtic hue and cry, but now it simply means the roar of a confused multitude.”

“That makes me think of the Banff Hot Springs,” I said. “I remember the general hum and rumble of conversation – it was one of the noteworthy features to me when I went there regularly as a child.”

“And was there a bubbling hub?”

“Of water? No, nothing like the thalassotherapy pool in the spa on the Queen Mary 2, or even a simple whirlpool tub.”

“But hubbub does have a good onomatopoeic effect, doesn’t it? One imagines that the Irish who used Ub! Ub! Ubub! as an expression of contempt were conscious of it as imitative of babbling, just as the Greeks formed barbaroi, for ‘barbarian,’ by imitation of the speech of foreigners: ‘barbarbarbar…'”

“I think of it,” I said, “as the sound of a battle in Ubu Roi. Jarry’s great vulgarian, leading the bumbling lubs with his toilet brush…”

Jess started to snicker. “Now you’ve got me thinking of them chanting that ‘Hug-a-mug-a Maxwell House’ ad from how long ago was that? ‘Hug-a-mug-a, hugamug-a…'”

“Well,” I said, “that would be hugger-mugger, now wouldn’t it?”

“Only if you mean the muddling sense of it. Mainly it means ‘in secrecy.’ Nothing much secret about a hubbub. Or a huddle of muggles!” She started to bubble with giggles. “Maybe hubbub is the mechanic who adjusts the Hubble!”

“Maybe it’s really Wen Raey’s redneck cousin, backwards of course: Bubbuh.” I chortled a bit; Jess was exceptionally snickerish, in spite of the absence of a beverage.

Or what was that she was eating? I began to suspect it was spiked. She caught my glance at it. “You’d lub this grub,” she said, ostending it. “I’ve had two or so.”

“What is it?”

She gave me a don’t-you-know look. “Don’t be silly, bub!” She gave the parfait glass as good a lick as she could and delivered the punch line: “It’s syllabub!”

Thanks to Jens Wiechers for suggesting hubbub.


She paused for a moment and tried not to roll her eyes. Good grief, I had only introduced myself and asked her name, and it was an Order of Logogustation holiday cocktail mixer, after all. But when she replied, I understood her apprehension.

“Wendy Raey. R-A-E-Y. Friends call me ‘Wen’ for short.” She pursed her lips tightly and looked around at the decorations, which covered Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and, yes, New Year. “Yes, before you ask, yes, yes, I’m happy. At least as long as I’m not asked yet again whether I am. Or whether I’m yppah.”

Oh dear. She was in the wrong place with a name like that.

“And yes,” she continued, “I have seen the movie The Last Seduction, in which a character who likes New York and backwards writing makes up ‘Wendy Kroy’ as an alias. And I could live the rest of my life without ever hearing again the song ‘Everyone Knows It’s Windy’ by The Association.” (Actually, the title of the song is just “Windy,” but I was not going to point that out.) “Or any pun on ‘Wen.'”

Wow, was she in the wrong place.

I opened my mouth to say something. Before I could, she leapt in.

“Yes, my parents were fans of J.M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan. Yes, I know that he invented the name ‘Wendy’ a scant hundred-five years ago for that play, and that it was inspired by a nickname a child acquaintance of his gave him: ‘Fwendy-Wendy.’ Yes, I know that’s reduplication, which in English serves to imitate childish talk or to give rhythm or emphasis. Well, fuddle-duddle, as Pierre Trudeau said.”


“So,” I ventured hesitantly, “how are you liking the party?”

“So-so,” she said. She held up her drink. “Nice mai tai.” She paused. “Some weather, huh?”

“Not too cold,” I said, “but a bit… uh. …Breezy.”

A small smile twitched at one corner of her mouth. “Thanks.” She raised her glass and began to move on. Pausing for a moment, she tossed a Parthian shot over her shoulder: “…Everyone knows it is. It’ll improve, but who knows when?” And, turning away again and walking away, she added “Happy you-know-what.” And off she went to her next victim.


On entering the chthonic tenebrity of my favourite den of iniquity, I spied Maury on a bar stool, gazing at his iPod, apparently spellbound, earphones jacked in. I ambled up.

“Mind if I join you for a spell?”

He looked up at me. “That’s just what she said.” He did not indicate any present person. I surmised that her absent position might have something to do with his present disposition. “I said ‘O.K.,'” he sighed. “I should have said ‘N.O.'”

I saw that he was watching a video. He held up the iPod. “Do you know how many songs have ‘spell’ in them? And how many people have done ‘I Put a Spell on You’ and various songs called ‘You Put a Spell on Me’?”

I looked at his screen. He had a playlist including Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Nina Simone, and Diamanda Galás for the former, and some I hadn’t heard of before for the latter – The Lucky Cupids, Devil Doll, Kirka… I also noticed Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.”

“Are you trying to dispel the gloom?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “I’m just compelled. Funny… there’s no relation between the pel in compel (and dispel) and spell, but a magic spell tends to compel. And she put a spell on me.”

“Was this ‘she’ an abecedarian or an abracadabrian?” I asked.

“It’s all one. She told a tale so compelling… spelled it out. I took her word as gospel. But it was just a good story.” (Only Maury, in the depths of the blues, can make sophisticated puns: gospel comes from gód spell, Old English for “good story,” a translation of Greek euangelion.) “I saw the end of a dry spell coming, but, oh, she spelled the end, alright. She also spelled trouble – spelled disaster. And I let ‘er! I was under a spell.”

“Well, spill the beans,” I said. “How come you to be so spalled?”

But, although he knew I knew of his checkered romantic history, he was uninclined to tell of the spell checker. He gazed at his glass of J&B, which I surmised was far from his initial. “Only when the spell is finally broken will I have the will to spell it for you – will I even regain my words, man of letters that I am. And that will be a good long spell yet, I fear.” He emptied the glass. “And yes,” he said, “of course I know that spell meaning ‘length of time’ comes from a different Anglo-Saxon root than spell meaning ‘tell the letters’ and ‘magical incantation,’ both of which come from –”

“– the same Germanic root, meaning ‘tell,'” I said, nodding.

“Indeed,” he said. “Proving there’s no telling where words will lead.”


Word taster Roberto De Vido, reading an article in The Economist, observed this sentence: “Mr Van Rompuy has been a surprisingly effective Belgian prime minister, holding his fissiparous country together well enough for some to fret over his departure from domestic politics.”

Fissiparous! Oh, it has that hissing sound, like a bed of snakes wanting to attack each other, or at least like a hissy fit; the éclat of the [pa] after all that might even suggest a bomb with a fuse. Or it could be the sound of slate or shale sliding apart – the sliding gets visual reinforcement from the twin s‘s holding apart twin i‘s (perhaps the s‘s are the sliding of the i‘s). The fissi accurately suggestions fission, which many people may know best from nuclear fission, which again can give the word a taste of explosion.

So it has to do with splitting? Indeed. And do we know the parous? As in viviparous and oviparous? It comes from Latin parere, “bring forth,” and refers to birth, literally and metaphorically.

And in this word’s case, the metaphorical meaning seems currently supervenient. I’m sure biologists use fissiparous mainly to refer to cell division; few others seem to do so. Many of the instances of usage one will find for it are speaking of politics – Iraq, for instance, and political parties, and assorted nations. Actually, fissiparity is also sometimes known as balkanization when the various entities formed by division are mutually hostile as well, as the Balkan countries so famously can be.

But I think many people who use it really want another word, sometimes perhaps fractious or factious. Now, those words don’t have quite the length and hissiness, and the meanings are different – fractious means “unruly” (disposed to infractions), and factious means “inclined to form different parties.” But not every instance where we see fissiparous used really speaks of a case where something has been formed by division or is inclined to divide into two new independent entities. The Democratic Party in the US has been described as being fissiparous or having fissiparous organization, but from what I can see it’s still one party, and its members still part of one country.

And, turning back to The Economist, Belgium, like Canada, has a linguistic divide, and there is occasional talk of separation. But will there actually ever be separation? Actions and words are different things, and one ought not to count the pieces before the fission has occurred. Sometimes the purportedly fissiparous are just in need of pacifiers.


I was on my way home from the World Congress of Logogustation. I looked out the airplane window. Little lines of frost were making a lacy pattern on the glass. I was in a position to peruse them at leisure, as we were in a holding pattern caused by a weather pattern. Funny, I was delayed by weather last year around this time, too… it’s getting to be a pattern.

The frost, anyway, was all I had left to look at. The movies and other entertainment were done and the monitor in front of me offered little more than a choice of test patterns. I’d read through the magazine the airline provided for its patrons: the science section on pattern recognition, the psychology section on behaviour patterns, the sports section with its analysis of defensive patterns in football, the puzzles in the back in their various grid patterns… There wasn’t a whole lot to look at beyond the seat upholstery pattern. Which, on inspection, held a spatter pattern from someone’s coffee… turbulence, perhaps? Over the top of the seat I could see a reflection on the head of an evident victim of male pattern baldness.

I glanced over at the passenger on the aisle side of me, a woman around 30 years old. Her lap was covered with a quilt that she had, with foresight, brought, and she was working on some needlepoint, resting it on a box that apparently held her needles and thread. Under the box I noticed a book of dress patterns.

“That’s an interesting pattern,” I said.

“Which one?” she asked. She held up the needlepoint and a corner of the quilt.

“That one,” I said, pointing with my left hand at the box, which was done in a sort of diamond pattern, with floral patterns winding in and around, rather like a Harlequin being eaten by ivy. She lifted the needlework and I saw a unicorn in the middle of the box lid.

She half-smiled and indicated the unicorn. “That’s my patronus. You know, Harry Potter. If some needlework is going seriously awry, I say, ‘Expecto patronum!'”

“Does it work?”

“It seems to,” she said. “Anyway, it’s quicker than a Pater Noster.” She looked at my left hand, specifically the ring finger. “Now, that’s a nice pattern.” She pointed at my gold and silver wedding band, which has poinsettias cut into it all around.

“My wife has one just like it,” I said.

“I really like that you’re not afraid to wear a ring like that. To think that guys used to not wear rings at all… so paternalistic. I’m so glad we’ve escaped those old patriarchal patterns.”

“It’s not surprising that patterns would be patriarchal,” I mused, “or that the patriarchy would have a pattern. Pattern does come from patron, which comes from Latin patronus, which in turn derives from Latin pater, ‘father.’ Pattern first meant a guide or example.” I indicated her book of patterns.

She looked at her unicorn, a vague queasiness downturning her mouth. “I kind of wish you hadn’t told me that. My unicorn is supposed to be a father figure now?” She looked at her various appurtenances. “And my sewing patriarchal, and my…” I sensed an aaagh might be coming.

“Naw,” I said quickly. “Meanings change. Established forms and patterns persist but are turned to new uses. Many of the words you now use meant something at least a little different, if not completely different, centuries ago. Think of it as co-optation. Or subversion. After all, you’re a patron of this airline.”

A little smile returned to the corner of her mouth. “And I wouldn’t want to be a matron of it.”

“Just to give you an example,” I continued, “do you like Gilbert and Sullivan?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, “The Mikado and Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance – some of my favourites.”

“You like their patter songs, then? ‘Modern Major General’ and all that?”

“Yes. …Wait. Are those supposed to be pattern songs?”

“No, but the word patter meaning ‘rapid speech’ comes from the rapid way people used to say certain prayers…”

Now she was really smiling. “Such as the Pater Noster!” She set her work on her box and patted it happily. “I think I see a pattern developing.”

Thanks to Jens Wiechers for suggesting
pattern after seeing it used to mean a model of a gun in a translation of a Chekhov short story.


In “Stairway to Heaven,” Robert Plant sings, “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving.” It occurs to me that he could be standing in a cathedral. You see, the altar in a cathedral is, in the liturgical schema (though not necessarily in real-world orientation), the east, and the door through which one enters and exits is at the west. So if you want to leave, “west” is the direction. And on your way out, you will pass through the narthex.

Nowadays, the narthex is just a vestibule (some may say foyer), a sort of lobby to the church, and typically not a very big one. Not all churches have them, either, but you’ll only find them in churches – one does not have a narthex in one’s house. The reason for this is the function that they formerly filled: to provide a place to hear the service for catechumens, pentitents, and others who were not eligible for admittance into the congregation. (These days, such a place is more often separated by glass from the nave and called a cry room, and ineligibility is determined by the volume of the infant’s protestations.)

I remember first seeing this word applied to the foyer of an ordinary-size Presbyterian church. My brother and I were still young and callow, and I recall my brother saying “Narthex!?” with that tone that indicated it was the silliest thing he’d seen in several days at least. As indeed it does seem sort of silly. It’s kind of like the noise you’d expect from a pugnacious little prognathous dog; to adolescent me, it produced an image of sniffling and snuffling with a snotty nose. The nar may make those who know German think of Narr, “fool.” On the other hand, it may seem corporate to some (with that ex on the end, as in AmEx and FedEx). It might seem like a word from some ancient hex. Or the sound of an arrow being fired and finding its mark. It might even sound like north exit. But of course it’s the west exit that it’s by!

And does the juxtaposition of Led Zeppelin and liturgical architecture seem a bit improper? Well, it gets better. Robert is not the only plant that narthex is associated with. In fact, narthex comes from Greek for “giant fennel.”

Yes, “giant fennel.” No, it’s not entirely clear how that came to be the name for the halfway-in part of a church (which, by the way, in Byzantine architecture is further divided into an esonarthex and an exonarthex). Some have speculated that it is because the space is long and narrow, like a fennel cane. Others note that narthex by extension also meant “schoolmaster’s cane,” and so there was a connection to the catechumens. It also was a word for an unguent box, and catechumens were anointed with oil in this part of the church.

But never mind that. You want improper? Pick up the play The Bacchae by Euripides. You will find that Bacchus (Dionysus) and his followers wielded wands of – yes – giant fennel. The giant fennel, narthex, was a symbol of this god who stood for, well, golly, a whole lot of things that the Church has over the ages stood against.

But there’s also another connection that’s even better. Consider Adam and Eve. They fell from grace by coming to gain knowledge that was promised to make them see as gods – to have knowledge of good and evil. This coming to knowledge has a story attached to it in classical Greek mythology, too, but the angle is a little different. Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give it to mankind – he was not just the fire-bringer but the bringer of knowledge, the person who gave divine insight to humans. For which he was a hero to humans (quite unlike the snake of Genesis). Not to the gods, mind you; they bound him to a rock, where he was daily de-livered by an eagle until he was ultimately delivered by Hercules. (Since I’m talking about the Greeks, though, not the Romans, maybe I should say Prometheos and Herakles.) But the reason I mention this is just that when he stole fire from the gods, he hid it in a fennel stalk. And this learning, this enlightenment he brought, has obvious parallels with the learning of catechumens. They get their knowledge thus from the fennel stalk of their schoolmaster and from the fennel stalk of Prometheus. It’s not exactly buying a stairway to heaven – learning to climb one, rather – but there they are, by the door, in the west: you can hear them, the voices of those who stand looking.


A few years ago, I happened on a comic on the web drawn by Brooke McEldowney, the guy who draws the popular newspaper strip 9 Chickweed Lane. This strip featured a fairy, a pretty chick with insect-type wings and a mottled green body, which just happens to be lithe and frankly pretty hot, like more or less every female McEldowney draws. The strip is sort of still going, though it seems to have transmuted to an illustrated serial novel. Anyway, the fairy’s name, and the name of the strip, is Pibgorn.

It’s really pretty easy to misread that as Pigborn, isn’t it? Weird to suggest that a hot-looking chickie with wings is born of a pig (about as weird as calling a figure skating jump “sow-cow,” I suppose). But of course it’s not suggesting that, since it’s not Pigborn, it’s Pibgorn. It still seems to me to have a sort of “hee-yuk” feel to it, the gorn like “I’ma gorna gitcha” or just somehow corny. The pib puts me in mind of carbonated beverages in cans, partly because it’s just slightly reminiscent of the sound of one opening, partly because Mr. Pibb is the name of a soft drink (Coca-Cola’s Dr. Pepper–style drink), partly because Pabst is the name of a beer. Put pib and gorn together and you get something vaguely reminiscent of popcorn.

But actually it’s a Welsh word. As I mentioned in my tasting of crwth, it’s the name of a musical instrument. What kind of instrument? Well, pib means “pipe” and gorn is corn modified due to its position (Welsh does that a lot) and that’s the Welsh word for “horn.” So pibgorn = pipehorn, except in English morphology we put the words together as hornpipe. But why call a fairy Hornpipe if you can call her Pibgorn?

So does a pibgorn sound like, for instance, a tin whistle, or a flute or piccolo? Nope. It’s not transverse blown and it doesn’t have a fipple. It’s a reed instrument! It has a body that’s somewhat like that of a recorder or other finger-stopped pipe, but it has a horn stuck in each end, point in, so that you blow into one and the sound comes out the other. The reed is inside the blow-in horn, which is smaller. It has – I was about to say a reedy sound, but duh – a sound that will be familiar enough to aficionados of medieval music and fans of groups like Corvus Corax (drums and reed instruments for headbangers), and is a bit like a bagpipe minus the chorus of drones (more than a bit – you can use a pibgorn as the chanter on a set of Welsh pipes). Actually, it will be reasonably familiar to people all over the world, as many cultures have similar instruments.

Does the word sound like the object? Well, the finger-stopping can make the notes sound as though they start and end with [p], [b], and [g], but the reed sound has a higher, buzzier sound to it, almost as though one wanted to make the vowels [i] (“ee”) but say a [v] at the same time. So only kinda sorta, I’d say.

And just in case you like weird plurals – imported forms not like the standard English – this word gives you two great options other than the standard English pibgorns: you can call multiples of this pibgyrn, or you can go all the way and use what the Welsh would: pibau cyrn. (Remember, as an added treat, that c is a [k].) Impress your friends! Intimidate new acquaintances at parties! “Yes, I had two pibau cyrn, but I sold one and bought a crwth.”

When does the new decade begin?

There has been some discussion among some people around my office as to when the new decade begins: January 1, 2010, or January 1, 2011. Someone finally asked me… they probably gave up on getting a simple, short answer that would persuade them, so they went to mister have-you-got-five-minutes. Here’s my disquisition: Continue reading


Some of you may know that my wife, Aina, is a figure skater. She used to skate with touring shows; now she’s a coach. So, although I’m not a particularly good skater myself, I always welcome the opportunity to go skating with her, because it means I can watch her skate, which she does with an unwordly grace (yes, unwordly: not everything can be suitably conveyed with words). Tonight we went down to the nice rink at Harbourfront and I watched her, after a bit of warm-up footwork, take advantage of a patch of cleaner ice off in the side lobe to reel off axels and double salchows.

You may remember my mentioning salchows in my tasting of cognoscenti. (You will notice that I capitalized the jump names there. Now that I’m actually focusing on one, I find that although it’s named after a person, as the name of a jump it’s lower-cased.) The salchow is the jump with the memorably odd name. When I was first watching figure skating, in my youth, I heard them talking about “sow-cows.” It’s a funny word when you hear it like that – images of fat, slow animals spring to mind, quite at odds with the twiggy little things (and buffer but still lean guys) you see flying over the ice in conjunction with this word. It was some time before I saw it in print and connected the word with what I had heard. (Seen out of context, salchow is more likely to remind many people of Selchow and Righter, the original makers of Scrabble and Parcheesi. And the chow may make one think of something figure skaters don’t appear to eat too much of.)

So why is this jump – which has been referred to by some as a “half-axel” because, like an axel, it involves taking off and landing on different feet, but instead of taking off forward (only an axel does that) the skater instead three-turns from a forward outside to a backward inside edge, then swings the other foot and takes off – saddled with this odd name? Add toe pick and it’s called a flip. Take off on the other foot and it’s called a loop. But done as it is, it is among the ranks of eponymous jumps: like the lutz and the axel, it’s named after the skater who first did it in competition. The jumps’ originators were Alois Lutz, Axel Paulsen (funny they don’t call it a paulsen), and Ulrich Salchow.

Who was Ulrich Salchow? Geez, you people! How soon they forget! He only won the world championships ten times – a record, tied with Sonja Henie. I mean, OK, that was from 1901 to 1911, so maybe a little while ago, but still! He landed the first salchow jump in competition in 1909. (The first woman to land one in competition did so in 1920, but it was called “unladylike.” I beg to differ.)

And where does this name of his come from? Well, he was Swedish. That doesn’t mean his name was originally Swedish – actually, you’ll more likely see it in Germany, but it looks originally Polish to me (I don’t have solid evidence of that). Anyway, in Sweden, it was said, roughly, “sal-kov.” But it’s one thing to get Anglophones to say a ch as [k] and quite another to get them to say a w as [v], it seems. And how did the /l/ become a [w] on many tongues? Anybody who lives in Calgary ought to have a line on this one – listen to a Calgarian (or most any Canadian) say Calgary and you will hear that the /l/ has been relaxed so much that the tip of the tongue doesn’t touch, and you just get the raising at the back (characteristic of English /l/ after a vowel in a syllable), like [w] but less rounded. This is really a very normal and expectable phonological transformation. The extra rounding to make it a real [w] is just the cherry on top.

And the cherry on top is just what my beautiful Aina is when put in a rink. No sow, no cow, nothing half-axel’d about her: just an irruption of grace into the wintry scene, performing a jump that, by happenstance, has a remarkably graceless-looking and -sounding name.