Monthly Archives: February 2010


Imagine stepping onto the dance floor at a club and seeing a discobolus. How would you like that? I would not, even if the discobolus were covered with little mirrors. A discobolus is not a disco ball, you see, nor even a bolus in a disco. The stress is on the second syllable, rather like discover us: “Let’s hid behind the turntables; he won’t discobolus.”

The disco, to be sure, is the same disco as elsewhere, referring to discs – including the discus, and quoits (rings tossed like horseshoes). It comes from Greek diskos. The bolus is from Greek bolos, “thrower”, from ballein, “throw” (as in ballistic). The us ending tells us it’s come by way of Latin, as the equivalent Greek ending is os.

So a discobolus is a discus thrower. The c, o, and o are reminiscent of discs, anyway. The word starts on the tip of the tongue, swings back at /k/ to the velum, up to the lips at /b/, and then back to the tip (tip tip back lips tip tip – same rhythm as a popular hockey chant: “Let’s go, [two-syllable team name], let’s go!”). The movement is only vaguely reminiscent of the wind-up of a discus thrower.

So if there were a discobolus in the middle of the dance floor, he would truly be a diabolus in musica (and might be that way due to a diminished fifth – of Scotch, say). And if we were there dancing and he chose to hurl his discus or quoit, it would just clobber us. And would we be discombobulated? Quite.


I was at one of the Order of Logogustation’s weekly word tastings and had just been served up deliquium when I heard a sound that caused a ripple of horripilation down my spine. It was the unmistakeable creak of matching his-and-hers black leather pants and jackets, and it was right… behind me… looking… over… my… shoulder…

“Mmm, what have we here?” purred Marilyn Frack, 32 millimetres from my ear. “Deliquium! Look, Edgar!” Her other half, Edgar Frick, appeared on my other side, peering at the word I held in my hand.

“Well, now, there’s a liquid-looking word,” declared Edgar.

“In spite of the fact that there’s only one liquid in it,” I said, meaning the /l/.

“But you see,” Marilyn said, “it has two cups, u u.”

“And two candles, i i,” Edgar added.

“Well, then,” Marilyn said, turning towards Edgar, “it’s just you and I, with two cups and two candles! Let us drink deeply!”

“And perhaps,” I said, “you’ll drink so much you’ll pass out. That is, you will suffer deliquium.”

“Pass out!” Marilyn said. “Become as liquid and flow to the floor?”

“It’s a trick word,” I said. “Although there is an obsolete word deliquium that means ‘deliquescence,’ which is melting or becoming liquid by absorbing moisture from the air –”

Marilyn broke into her impression of Katarina Witt in Battle of the Blades: “I’m melting in my seat, and I don’t mean my armpits!” She smiled and licked her lips.

“I don’t think she meant absorption, either,” I said. “But while that deliquium and the sound of liquid have affected the interpretation and use of this word, the sense of swooning or syncope – actually through hypotension rather than intoxication – comes from a Latin homonym meaning ‘failure’ which is formed from a past tense form of the same Latin root that gives us delinquent.”

“One of my favourite words,” Edgar said, “to embody.”

“Then you will commit many a delict,” I said, “which is an offence against the law, coming to us from the same root by way of delictum, which means ‘fault’, ‘offence’, ‘crime’.”

Marilyn’s left eyebrow arched archly. “As in in flagrante delicto! Oo, now I could swoon!”

“We really must thank James for introducing us to this delectable lexeme,” Edgar said, leering heavy-lidded past me at his lover.

Deliquium?” Marilyn said, leaning close in on me. “Let’s. Do we lick ‘im?”

At which point I believe I lost consciousness.

My thanks to Jens Wiechers for suggesting deliquium.

“Banks Bet Greece Defaults on Debt They Helped Hide”

In today’s New York Times, my eye was caught by the following headline:

Banks Bet Greece Defaults on Debt They Helped Hide

It caught my eye because I couldn’t figure out what they meant by it. There were multiple options, none of them certain. It wasn’t until I read the third and fourth paragraphs that I got the gist:

These contracts, known as credit-default swaps, effectively let banks and hedge funds wager on the financial equivalent of a four-alarm fire: a default by a company or, in the case of Greece, an entire country. If Greece reneges on its debts, traders who own these swaps stand to profit.

“It’s like buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house — you create an incentive to burn down the house,” said Philip Gisdakis, head of credit strategy at UniCredit in Munich.

The short of it is that the banks helped to hide the debts, and now they’re betting Greece will default on them.

There are a few problems with the headline the way they have it:

  • First, “bet” is temporally ambiguous – I wasn’t sure if they were talking past or present.
  • Second, “defaults” could be a plural noun or a present-tense verb.
  • Third, the present tense is confusing for “defaults” here because it’s referring to the future – something we do in English, use present for the future (since we have no inflecting future tense, just an auxiliary-based one with “will”), but it might be better to be clearer by saying “will default”.
  • Add to this the increasingly common practice of using attributive nouns rather than adjectives, which allows “Greece defaults” to be read as “Greek defaults” or “defaults of/by/from Greece”, and the standard dropping of the relative “that”, and you have something really a bit unclear.

Now, of course, “Banks Bet that Greece Will Default on Debt They Helped Hide” is noticeably longer, which is a problem in newspaper headlines, especially since the NYT still has a print edition with actual column inches to fit within. Likewise “Banks Helped Greece Hide Debt, Now Bet It Will Default”. “Banks Set Greece Up to Fail” might seem harder to defend as a statement, but is probably a better headline all around. (The ambiguity of “set” is OK here because it happened in the past and is still happening in the present.)

But, then, is it really a bad headline? It did get me to read the article, just as the most egregious website I’ve ever seen – — has gotten me (and my friends) showing it to everyone, making for excellent advertising.

Incidentally, the title on the web page of the news article (not the headline but the title you see at the top of your browser) is “Trades in Greek Debt Add to Country’s Financing Burden” – clearer but, yes, less catching.


I’ve seen more than usual of this word recently thanks to discussions on points of grammar. In general, those who use it – to label, for instance, a use of you and I where you and me is technically correct – mean by it something like “grievously cringeworthy” (or, more to the point, “yuck yuck yuck I hate it I hate it I hateithateithateit!”).

And certainly that’s the flavour of it, isn’t it? It has a feel of grievous – with that growling /gr/ that bespeaks vigour, aggression, anger, or emphasis, from mad dogs to Tony the Tiger, descending to gross and grim and ascending to great and grand – but the extra /i/ at the beginning gives it even more energy, forcing the sound at high pressure past a tense tongue (I remember as a kid saying jee creeps when I was frustrated). And the affricate /dZ/ in place of the fricative /v/ gives it a bit more chewiness and perhaps an echo of cringe.

So it’s hardly surprising that it is commonly followed by violation(s), error(s), abuse(s), and offense(s), along with example(s), case(s), conduct, and behaviour. The word it’s most commonly seen with is most – if one is going to be emphatic, why not go all the way? The world may be crowded with egregious things, but the one you have your eye on is the most egregious of its sort!

And well that an egregious thing should stand out from a crowd – but a crowd of egregious things seems odd indeed. Why? Because the greg in egregious is a Latin root meaning “crowd” or, more accurately, “flock”. We see it in congregation and gregarious. The e is the same as in e pluribus unum: it means “out of”. So something that’s egregious is a standout – in a bad way.

But it wasn’t always a bad way. The Latin etymon, egregius, meant “excellent, eminent, outstanding” – outstanding in the good way. And that is how it entered English in the middle of the 16th century: to mean “preeminent, distinguished, outstanding”, all those good things. Uses of it in this sense can be found in works as late as the mid-19th century, for instance by Thackeray in The Newcomes: “When he wanted to draw… some one splendid and egregious, it was Clive he took for a model.”

But a mere third of a century after it had shown up in English in the positive sense, it was already being used in the negative sense we know now – the photo negative of the original sense. Shakespeare used it in the negative sense: “Egregious murtherer,” in Cymbeline. But Shakespeare also used it in a more positive sense: “Except… thou do give to me egregious ransom.” Which suggests that its use at the time was more in the line of exceptional: capable of being strongly negative or strongly positive, but either way strong.

Well, not now; now the tone does not need to be specified. The positive sense is obsolete and forgotten. In fact, the tone is eclipsing the remainder of the sense; the idea of exceptionality or salience is being drowned out by the basic point-and-scream response it evinces. (Come to think of it, it rather does sound like he screeches, doesn’t it?) And so a very common error of usage comes to be described as egregious. So what term is left for truly outstandingly bad instances like, say, Thou may giveth it to I?


This word is an obsolete word for “people, nation, race”; it’s cognate with the German Leute. Fittingly, it’s also the reverse of edel, which is German for “noble”. And it’s the name of a municipality in Belgium, known for a statue called Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Zeven-Smarten, “Our Lady of Seven Sorrows”, which is a local pilgrimage destination due to its purported miraculous powers.

It’s also a newspaper term for the introduction of a news story (the first sentence or so). So, for instance, when the levee breaks, you want to bring it on home with the right lede: “The levee broke this morning, just a few hours after a young man sat on it all night and moaned. ‘The levee has broken, and I have no place to stay,’ complained Bob Plant, 24.” You don’t bury the lead below the lede, for instance by sticking the main topic in the second paragraph after covering less pertinent facts in the opening paragraph.

That’s bury the lead as in /li:d/, “leed”, not as in /lEd/, “led”. It’s the same pronunciation as lede, which is, in fact, the same word. Dazed and confused? It’s that word lead that causes the problem. Printers used to use lead (the metal) in setting type, so they wanted a distinctive spelling of the other lead for clarity. (Another group who wanted a distinctive spelling were the group Led Zeppelin, who figured – probably quite rightly – that Lead Zeppelin would often be read and said with the wrong lead.) And it does look old-school journalistic – the stereotyped grizzled hack with a cigarette l next to his heavy-lidded eyes (it is late in the evening, after all) and bulbous (rhinophymic?) nose, ede.

Journalistic terminology has a whole set of these respelled terms, all the way they are for distinctiveness (so as not to be confused with content actually to go into the story, for instance). Others include dek (for deck, itself a jargony term for a subhead or highlighted first sentence above the main story), hed (for head, as in headline), graf (for paragraph, with the advantage of brevity), and tk (for to come, of course – What do you mean it should be tc? Get with the program!). They may aid clarity and efficiency for printers and journalists (perhaps less now than formerly), but they also put a nice little electrified fence of in-group jargon around the biz, and help those who are “in” to feel “in.” But why should it be different for journalists and printers than for any other groups? (Say, have you noticed how lede is similar to leet, a.k.a. l33t or 1337 – see teh?)


I sang in an excellent concert this evening, Verdi’s Requiem with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (hence my presence), conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. This word would thus seem appropriate.

What? It’s not about blending pitches? Well, I knew that, actually. It’s not some move or measurement in baseball, either. And while the p, b, and d are reminiscent of musical notes (two of them backwards), I don’t find the word euphonious, though its central consonant cluster does remind me of some words from when I used to sing with a choir that did music from the Republic of Georgia. In fact, one would expect its association with music to be mainly with rock music. I don’t say that because there have been at least two bands named after it – Pitchblende, a 1990s American art-punk band, and Pitchblend, a 2000s British alternative rock band. No, I say it because pitchblende is a rock.

Pitchblende is a compound word, just as it appears to be, and entirely from Germanic roots. The pitch is the same pitch as the sticky black tarry stuff (unrelated to the other pitch, which has evolved to refer to inclination, tone, etc., as a noun and throwing, etc., as a verb). The colour of pitchblende is very dark, just like pitch, and just like the mood in a requiem. The blende is misleading, which is apposite given that it basically means “misleading” – its source is a Germanic verb blenden, “deceive”, and it is used of ores that look like something useful but aren’t. Sort of like the e on the end of it, which not only is silent but does not even affect the quality of the preceding vowel. Pitchblende was useless at the time it was named. That’s because nobody had a use for uranium at the time. Pitchblende, you see, is an older name for uraninite.

But, while pitchblende is uranium oxide, it also has some other things in it as a product of the inevitable decay of uranium – which is like the inevitable decay of the flesh (libera me, domine), but uranium isotopes do nothing but decay, half-life through half-life (is that an asymptote to morte æterna?). One of the products of that decay is helium, first found on earth in this rock, though it didn’t make it light. Any light, in fact, is more likely to come from the glow of radium if you extract it from the ore: pitchblende is also the rock in which Marie Curie discovered radium.

Which is why miners in the Joachimsthal* mines, where Curie got her pitchblende, had unusually high rates of cancer. But their excess mortality is also not why pitchblende is an appropriate word for my concert this evening. It’s because of the radioactivity. The Verdi concert will have its own radio activity, you see: on CBC 2’s Choral Concert on the morning of April 18 (2010). It’s really worth a listen – Noseda is a fantastic conductor.

*Joachimsthal is where silver coins were minted in the 16th century that came to be called Joachimsthalers, and then thalers for short, which mutated to dollars. Joachimsthal is now called Jáchymov, because it is now in the Czech Republic. So from coins it has passed to Czechs. But they still get credit!

Thanks to Alan Yoshioka for suggesting pitchblende.


“Dude,” Jess said, setting her pint down and leaning forward, “let it go. You’re harshing the squee.”

“I…” I paused. “What?” I glanced at Daryl, who seemed to have understood her.

“You’re harshing the squee,” Jess repeated. “Don’t go pick pick picking at fiction all the time. Willing suspension of disbelief! Sci fi is allegory anyway, so never mind about their needing three years to learn the language after arriving on the planet.”

“Harshing the squee.” I pulled out my soft leather Letts and my Cross mechanical pencil and wrote it down. “Does that mean what I think it means?”

Daryl reached into the basket and grabbed a sweet potato fry. “It means you’re pissing in the popcorn.” He dipped the fry and relaxed back with it.

I looked at the two of them. “This is apparently a term I’m supposed to know? It’s current? Squee?”

Jess smiled. “You’re getting old. And out of touch.” She stuck her tongue out.

Squee is a noise fangirls make,” Daryl said. “You know, anime fangirls, so excitable. It started out as onomatopoeia –” (“An ideophone,” Jess interjected) –”and has become a verb and a noun and probably an adjective too somewhere.” Ah, yes, the versatility of the English language – and of ideophones, which are words that have a performative aspect to them, like lickety-split, whoosh, and so on.

“No doubt,” I observed, “the fangirls become ‘woo girls’ once they’re old enough to get into bars – those girls who scream, ‘Partyyyyyy! Wooooo!'” I sipped my dark pint. “Squee is a really nice, expressive word. It has an imitative feel to it, as you say, but also draws on some good current phonaesthemes. It echoes squeal and squeak, using the /skw/ to intensify the high-pitched /i/, sliding in on the /s/ and then, like a shuffleboard puck, knocking the rest of the word forward with the /kw/.”

“And that /i/ by itself,” Jess added. “An expression of glee, as in whee and whoopee and yee-haw.”

“And there’s also the hint of squeeze and squeegee cut off,” I mused. I reached for a sweet potato fry and found I was taking the last one.

“Another reference you’re too old to know,” Daryl said, “is that Squee is also the name of the main character in a comic book series.”

“Oh, come now,” Jess said. “Surely James has read Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.”

I looked at them with a slight smile and washed down the rest of my beer.

Daryl was getting busy with his iPhone. After a moment he held it out to me. It was displaying the webpage , which turned out to be a treasure trove of citations from popular culture of uses of squee. I scrolled and read. Scroll scroll scroll. “Only tweenage screams of ecstasy have the strength to cut a hole in space itself!” Scroll scroll scroll. I stopped and stared at yet another must-take-out-my-Letts-and-Cross-pencil word. “Nerdgasm!” I looked up. “Squee!”

The waitress had just happened by at that very moment. Jess turned to her and said, “He needs another.”

The waitress looked at me. “I think I might need to see some ID.”


The first I ever recall seeing this word was in an amusing collective art project called Beyond Exceptional Pass, displayed in the Whyte gallery at the Banff Public Library in 1978 (and preserved in a book, of which my father bought a copy – the which is now sitting in my lap as I write this). It was a fanciful natural and explorational history of an exceedingly strange place somewhere in the Canadian Rockies (in the Rear Ranges, to be precise). Somewhere around Tunoa Vale and Wake-Up Col, in an area explored by such notables as the Swedish pair Bjorn Frie and Liv Frie, along with the Azzyu lichens, are various exotic life forms belonging to the forgotten phylum. The explorers, not knowing just how to deal with them, assigned them all to the phylum Phorgettum.

Those who have studied biology and remembered much of it will know that a phylum is a rather high level in taxonomy, a division of kingdom and itself in turn divided into classes. Originally, the idea was that all members of the phylum were assumed to have had a common ancestor; now it’s more accurate to say they share a basic body plan.

So humans, for instance, are members of the phylum Chordata (of the kingdom Animalia), because we have backbones. So do an absolutely huge number of the critters around us; they’re all in the same phylum as we are. Taxonomically, we humans are just off in a little corner: Mammalia are just one type of chordate, and primates just one type of mammal, and hominids just one type of primate… In the kingdom Animalia, there are about 35 phyla, of which most are slimy things you’re probably never heard of, including quite a few different kinds of worms, which are apparently more different from one another than we are from, say, fish. And while there are over 100,000 species of Chordata and well over a million species of Arthropoda (which includes insects), some of these phyla have fewer than 100 species; two of them have one each (Placozoa and Micrognathozoa).

But I’ve been encountering the term phylum lately in linguistic contexts. When we study languages and their relations to one another, a phylum really is a group that is assumed to have a common single ancestor; family is another word sometimes used interchangeably. From that proto-whatever, various dialects formed and then diverged enough to be distinct languages (the line between dialect and language is very fuzzy, but at a certain point you know it’s a different language), and those diverged some more and so on. Indo-European is one language phylum. In Africa, there are generally thought to be four phyla: Afroasiatic (which includes Arabic and Hebrew, as well as Hausa and Somali, and a few hundred others), Nilo-Saharan (which includes Maasai and couple hundred you’re sure never to have heard of), Khoisan (which includes a couple dozen languages of the “Bushmen” and “Hottentots” – languages with a lot of click sounds), and Niger-Congo (which includes more than a thousand languages, some 500 of which are Bantu languages, ranging from Swahili to Zulu and Xhosa – yes, Xhosa is Bantu, not Khoisan). The especially interesting thing is that if you draw a tree of descent and divergence of the Niger-Congo languages, you have all these branches off near the top with just a few languages on them, and further down some branches with more languages, and then, way down in one corner several levels down, are all those Bantu languages. It’s like going down a hall with offices off it, opening a door into one office and finding doors into a few other offices from that office, and then opening what looks like a closet door in one of those offices and finding a concert hall.

It seems that in languages, as in creatures, most branches at high levels of division don’t branch that much further, but some just keep going and going and going. It’s sort of like file folders – real ones or ones in your computer: many have just a few items in them, but some have subfolders within subfolders within subfolders, and they’re pretty stuffed. Well, that’s just the way you file ’em.

Phylum is clearly taken from Greek, with that ph (which is typically either professorial or, lately, rad); its etymon is phulon “race, tribe”. It brings to mind (for classicists) the Battle of Phyle, about 404 BC, which was fought to restore democracy to Athens. It may also make one think of philtrum, the grooved bit of your upper lip under your nose. It may seem a lumpy kind of word, perhaps presenting itself humbly; at the very least, it has a softness and roundness to it, and nothing especially sharp-seeming. Which is fair enough for such a blunt instrument. It cannot escape having a bit of a silly or jokey overtone for me… presumably because of my first experience of it.


Just as Thanksgiving is often (especially in the US) called Turkey Day (an appellation I detest, incidentally, perhaps even more than I detest May Two-Four for Victoria Day), Shrove Tuesday is often called Pancake Tuesday. But shrove does not mean “pancake” (“Wouldja like some maple syrup on yer shrove there?”).

In some other countries, the same day – the last day before Lent – is called Fat Tuesday, but, of course, in the local language: in French, Mardi Gras. The reason is the same reason as calling it Pancake Tuesday: traditionally, one ate up all one’s remaining store of the richer foods – which includes the eggs, milk, and butter used in pancakes, and whatever other fat you may have – before starting the penitential season of Lent, forty days of giving things up. Such as, you know, fun. But shrove does not mean “fat”.

Fasting of course also meant giving up meat. Goodbye to meat! Or, in Latin, carne vale! …Which is a purported etymon of carnival (which is now also the name of a cruise line on whose ships you can eat rich foods nonstop). The point is definitely to party hearty! Woo hoo! Get porked up on pancakes (and bacon, too, I reckon, and steaks, and so on, chocolate too, for sure), and then – if you’re a Catholic, as everyone in Western Europe was (or else!) when this tradition started – you go to confession to be purged of your sins (possibly after going to a different altar to be purged of your gastronomic sins).

And what is confession, penance, and absolution? It’s shrift. That noun is formed from the verb shrive, which has as its past tense shrove. They are all related to words for writing, including the whole script and scribe family. Now, shrove does have a past participle, shriven, so you might expect that the Tuesday on which one goes to shrive would be Shriven Tuesday or Shrift Tuesday, but for some reason it has become shrove. Perhaps because shrove is easier to say with a mouth full of pancakes.

It really is a mouth-full kind of word, isn’t it? The whole thing can be said with the tongue very concave. There are some foodstuffs that have a shr connection – shrimp, shrooms, Shreddies – while other words using it can be less pleasing: shrew, shriek, shrill. The ove, which may recall eggs, gives it a bit of a resonance of shovel, which is what one does to pancakes today, into one’s mouth. And then one hovers by the griddle awaiting more.


I don’t know whether you’ll find this word pretty, with its collection of five round letters and a tall, straight one. It has a certain prettiness of sound, at least in the opening: the aspiration on the /k/ spreads onto the /l/, devoicing it, making that voiceless liquid which seems so mystical and charming in Welsh (written ll), and with the stop at the beginning it is rather reminiscent of the voiceless lateral affricate famous in Tibetan (written lh as in Lhasa) and also present in Icelandic (written ll), among other languages.

It’s a word that seems to involve a relaxing effect, too: the unstopping at the beginning, the easing into the voice, the relaxation of the lip muscles from the tight ring at /o/ to the wider /æ/ and then the fully relaxed final vowel. It makes me think of Dulcolax, a brand name for a laxative that, the way they say it on their commercials, seems almost to have a laxative effect by itself.

And fitting that cloaca should seem laxative, just as it is fitting that it anagrams to lo, caca. Oh, its referent is something you will want to cloak (perhaps in a garderobe – which means “cloakroom” but in medieval times was also a word for an indoor outhouse, as it were). A cloaca, you see, is a waste canal. If cloaca sounds like it should be a kind of bird, well, it’s a kind of thing that birds (and monotremes, e.g., the platypus) have: a single excretory outlet, rather than the two that mammals have (known generally as “number one” and “number two”).

It’s also a kind of thing that cities have. Most cities don’t call their sewers cloacae, but the Romans did – why not? It’s their word, taken right from them, and derived in its turn from cluere, verb, “purge”. Rome had its Circus Maximus; it also had – and in fact still has – its Cloaca Maxima, running in a tunnel under its fora and letting out in the Tiber. (Now it just drains rain, but it was formerly a full-on sewer, and a big one.)

And it’s a kind of thing some art galleries have. Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has made several versions of a machine he calls Cloaca. It is “fed” a meal twice a day, and that is processed through a series of containers, which emulate the action of the human digestive system. At the end of it is a conveyor belt, which carries away what comes out of the end of the “digestive” system.

I suppose now would not be a good time to mention that cloaca also has echoes of chocolate, would it? I might be safer noting the hint of Coca-Cola. Well, anyway, I think we’ve gotten to the bottom of this word.