Daily Archives: December 8, 2009


This word is typically preceded by potassium or sometimes ammonium, calcium, or even sodium. Does it, perchance, mean there is, for instance, one potassium per manganate? Ah, no, this is a different use of per: it’s the “thoroughly done” sense that has come from the “through” sense of per. We see this in words such as perfect and permute. As to manganate, it is a derived form of manganese, that element word that everyone confuses with magnesium – and the two words do, in fact, come from the same Greek root, magnesia. So anyway, what permanganate is is manganese in its highest oxidation state (thoroughly oxidated) – with four oxygens stuck to each manganese in a neat four-pointed formation reminiscent of a pocket-size tripod.

The sound of this word starts and ends with voiceless stops, but in the middle we have the nasals and the /g/. It seems like something that has a crust but a softer or more malleable inside. Actually, one typically gets permanganates in powdery form, and there’s not much that’s powdery about this word. It kind of lumps up, especially with the stress on the second syllable.

Permanganate has many overtones in its taste: pomegranate, mango, ptarmigan, mongoose, permeate, magnet, permanent, impregnate… But none of them really have the deep purple of its object. And while pomegranates have antioxidant properties, they’re not a match for the strong oxidizing qualities of permanganates, which can make them good aging agents, disinfectants, and – in some uses – explosives. (Which reminds me that grenade comes from the French for pomegranate… but that’s a whole other note.)


“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things: of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax – of cabbages – and kings – and why the sea is boiling hot – and whether pigs have wings.” Was he talking to clams? No, to a semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower, who was an elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna. Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe.

That’s very well and all, but who is the Walrus? Well, I am he as you are me as you are he and we are all together. I am the eggman, they are the eggmen – I am the walrus! Goo goo goo joob! And here’s another clue for you all: the walrus was Paul! But no, wait, The Walrus is a Canadian intelligent general interest magazine with nothing in particular to do with walruses aside from their both having a certain Canadian something about them, at least in Canadian eyes. To others, a walrus might look more like an old British colonel with a bushy moustache. And yet, as everyone knows, Wally Walrus was a nemesis of Woody Woodpecker, and the Walrus was a minor villain in Spiderman comics.

Now, how is it that walruses come to have such incoherent, surrealistic associations? And aren’t they walri? This is all less clear than a message in Morse code.

Well, to the second question, no, they’re not, it’s not Latin, it’s from Dutch possibly from Scandinavian and comes from words meaning “horse-whale” transposed to “whale-horse” or perhaps “shore giant” but probably not. And as to the first, blame Tweedledee and Tweedledum, who recite the poem in Through the Looking-Glass, but don’t blame them, because they were written by Lewis Carroll, so blame him, except he was really Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, whose biographical details would be a considerable digression, so I won’t leave you sitting on a cornflake waiting for the van to come.

But also blame John Lennon, because he wrote three false starts on songs that needed a place to be stuck and he took some acid trips and heard that a teacher at his old school was analyzing Beatles lyrics, and so from all of this he made a song that wraps up the A side of Magical Mystery Tour. The second-most-common collocation of walrus, after walrus moustache, is I am the walrus. And the walrus was John in Magical Mystery Tour but then they said it was Paul in the white album song “Glass Onion.” And after two University of Michigan students invented a hoax about Paul McCartney being dead, it became an “everyone knows” thing that the walrus is a symbol of death in some cultures. Which cultures? Well, someone said that the walrus was a harbinger of death in certain Scandinavian countries. Uh-huh, but not in the uncertain ones? Well, we’re not sure. Maybe we should ask Barbara Wallraff. She might know.

The word walrus has a round, fat, woofy or throaty sound to it, enhanced by our English “dark l,” which raises the tongue at the back when the /l/ is in the end of a syllable. It’s not altogether out of line with the grunting sounds walruses make. The w gives a certain visual echo of the moustache as well. We have no idea, of course, whether any of this helped walrus to replace the previous word used in English for the beast, morse (which was borrowed from Slavic languages and is unrelated to the family name Morse). But we may have a clue as to the associated incoherence. The morse being a symbol of death, we turn to the requiem mass and find that mors stupebit. So we may immerse in a morass of more stupid bits without remorse.

Carroll’s walrus eats bivalves in copious quantity. However, in real life, walruses eat bivalves in copious quantity. They do not share them with carpenters. But without walruses, youths and those adults who have not forsaken youthful humour would be bereft of something to do with pairs of straws or breadsticks. You can’t do it with jujubes; they just get gooey. But if you really want a tusk, why don’t you ask him if he’s going to stay? Why don’t you ask him if he’s going away? But answer came there none – and this was scarcely odd, because they’d eaten every one.