Monthly Archives: May 2010

How to explain grammar

Presented at the 31st annual Editors’ Association of Canada conference, Montréal, May 29, 2010

Handout (PDF, 440 KB)

So OK. You look at the manuscript you’re editing, and you see… this:

Adding the ingredients in this order ensures failed chiffon cakes made at home is not an option.

OK, what’s the first thing you do? After sending a “seen in the wild” email to the EAC email list, I mean.

Well, yeah, you correct it, or humbly suggest a correction to the exalted author, depending on the project. But, ah, right then, what is going on here? And what if you make a correction and the author says, “No, it was fine the way I had it. It makes perfect sense to me, and it’s grammatical”?

Well… Continue reading


You are in a world of white, white on white. All ice is, white ice, made of snow, hard snow. It is in cubes, cubes on cubes, piled in regular geometric patterns; it is in diamonds, stepped diamonds, and it is in eight-pointed stars. Corners everywhere; any false turn can crack a convex vertex into your cortex. You feel that there is a figure and ground you cannot quite separate: you see a danger, and you see that it is hard, but somehow it doesn’t quite work together – you see one with one eye but the other with the other. How can you get down to the numbers on this, how can you figure it out? And then you roll over, and all these frozen edges lie soft against your cheek on the pillow: it was a dream. It was in your mind. You were upset, and all that you were seeing was your own hard anger, inspired by the place your head lay; the white on white was only your own world laid on itself.

Well! Doesn’t that seem quite a bit of embroidery on this simple word! Well, yes, in fact, it does, just as it should. Hardanger is after all a name for a kind of whitework embroidery, white thread on white thread in geometric patterns – you probably have seen it sometime on a cushion or pillowcase, or perhaps a tablecloth. It’s a mathematical discipline in its way, with much stitch counting (five-by-five blocks in tidy patterns, so many up and so many down, all symmetrical). It’s founded on a style that made its way up via Renaissance Italy from Asia; the eight-pointed star motif, so common in Nordic countries, is also to be seen in the near East.

It must be ironic that this embroidery style, so low-contrast, has taken its name from a rather high-contrast place: Hardanger, Norway, a fjordland district in southwest Norway near Bergen. It’s not certain whether the hard comes from a word meaning “hard” or from an old Germanic tribe name, but the anger – which is pronounced not like English anger but rather to rhyme with wronger – is from a word meaning “fjord” (the modern name for the fjord in Hardanger is Hardangerfjord, which does seem a bit redundant in that light, doesn’t it?). The original (and also still used) name for the embroidery is Hardangersøm, with søm meaning “work”. Anyway, it is a Nordic place, so one may think of it as being rather white, but it is hard to get away from the contrast of sharp fjord walls, and the angular light of the farther north – see Gude’s painting Fra Hardanger and tell me whether you think it looks like this Hardanger embroidery.

Indeed, Hardanger the place may seem to have much hard danger or the hard anger of high rocky cliffs, but just as the word loses some of its negative overtones in the pronunciation, the embroidery has embraced a lower contrast than the fjord – in line with the austerity of the north, indeed, but hardly in tune with the greater colour that one may sense from voiced stops and nasals and liquids. Such a stitching as this would seem to seek a whisper, nothing more: the opening /h/, and more layers of /h/ on top of it, and that would be the sum of the søm.


So I was in this bar, y’know? And they had this Jell-O… cubes of the stuff, all sorts of colours. Oh, I don’t know what was in it, but man, I had some, and I started seeing these cubes arranged in zig-zag jagged lines, like flames, like diamonds, like curves, like great big square pixels. The patterns were mathematical, too; it was intricate. Oh, it was wild, man… but it was funny too. It had me in stitches, like big stitches, I’m too serious. But that stuff was trouble. I woke up in the slam. A big castle-like prison. And I was strapped to a chair… and it had the same patterns on it… wwwwwww…

OK, no, bargello is not some electric bar Jell-O. It’s two things, but mainly, unless you’re in Florence, it’s a kind of decorative stitching. It’s stitched not on clothes but typically on canvas, and the stitches usually cross four threads and are set up in squares – and the squares step up or down in regular patterns. The squares are different (often vivid) colours, making bands that form waves, diamonds, sharp zags like curves…

I’ll tell you something else that has squares on it, though all in a tidy row and flat grey: the Bargello.

Wait, what? Ah, I mean the place. Which is to say the palace. The Bargello is a building in Florence, Italy, also called the Palazzo del Popolo. It’s a museum now, but it used to be a prison and guard station – executions were performed there too. The chief of guards, whose domain it was, was the bargello. Um, huh? Yeah, the building was named after the dude. But it gets better… the dude was named after a building. What building? Late Latin bargillus (cognate with German Burg) meant “castle” or “fortified tower” – which in fact the Bargello is. It has a crenellated parapet and crenellated tower, meaning they have those square teeth. So you have squares, and you have a building that refers to a man who is named after a building that looks like the building. This seems a bit like, say, a nested diamond bargello pattern.

Not that the word bargello will necessarily make one think of a detailed, rather demanding type of needlework pattern. The overtones of barge seem rather broad and pushy, and Jell-O fat and jiggly. (Jell-O manufacturers: yes, I know there’s no fat in Jell-O.) But the voiced affricate in the middle of the word has a certain acuity to it; it’s the same sound as starts judgement and justice, after all. And the the parallel lines of the ll have that linear mathematical taste too. And then there’s that bar. No, not the one with the coloured gelatin cubes. Well, maybe.

Oh, how did the building and the needlework come to have the same name? The needlework pattern is evident on a series of chairs in the Bargello. But somehow I don’t think they were ones the prisoners used.


The screen goes black for a moment. Then, in the darkness, a single curving line of a lambent red. Behind, you hear a rumble of a drum: labdanum!

The red grows, and we see that it is a bottle, emerging. Its top is a defiant metallic grey, molybdenum maybe. Again the rumbling thunder of the drum, a cretic foot struck on a taiko: labdanum! And we see… the bottle is shaped like a red fist… it contains perfume, no, cologne, no, a scent so manly and musky that none may muster the speech to capture it. Only once more the drum: LABDANUM!

Not that any perfume or cologne would be made solely of labdanum, of course. Its woody, musky, leathery, animal scent is added to the mix to make many a scent. Whatever its notes on the nose, the wearers may hope it will be as intoxicating as laudanum, a substance that, like labdanum, is also called ladanum, and, like labdanum, may be traced back to pretty little flowers.

Oh, yes, indeedy. While laudanum (tincture of opium) comes from poppies, labdanum is extracted from the rockrose. It used to be collected by brushing the fur of goats that had grazed on and by the rockrose. Sometimes the hair, soaked in labdanum, was cut off and formed into a false beard – that’s what the Egyptian pharaohs wore (along with their pschent).

Now the collection is a bit more direct, of course. But the word has nonetheless taken an indirect route. Does it look Latin? Of course it does. But Latin got it from Greek λαδανον (as in “[sniff] I smell a lad anon!”). Somewhere in medieval Latin the /b/ got inserted, and sometimes it was a /p/ instead (may a man wonder if lapdanum will get him a lapdance?). It is unrelated to laudanum.

This word, along with its rubbing bd (like a goat’s belly on a bush), its lab that resonates of science and black dogs, and its num that is either yummy or insensate, brings to my mind (if not to yours) the Russian name of the fish that the lead character in Gogol’s The Government Inspector is so impressed with that he declaims it loudly: labardan! (Put the stress on the end!) But labdanum, while impressive, is not so fishy (ambergris and musk, maybe, but not salt cod from Aberdeeen, which is what labardan was), nor is it, um, a bland scent for a numb lad. Don’t get it mixed up. And don’t think about pretty little red and white flowers. The fist thumps its amphimacer one more time, the resin resonating: LABDANUM!


Ah, the world of fashion. Millionaire designers having hats made in their mills for les filles, and may no maligner malinger near their pillboxes and pailles and felt, flannel, linen… But do you find milliner a more refined-sounding word than hatmaker, even with its clear taste of the mill? Does Miss Milly with her millions spring first to mind, and does the uncommonness of this word lead to a higher value?

The shape of this word could be a hat, of course; practically any shape, however liminal, could be a hat once you get into the world of haute hat couture. The illi could involve ribbons or flowers or feathers; the m may be the bangs and the n the bun at the back. Or it could all be something so much farther out – follow your fancy and go gaga; if you find the right fascinator you could be a mascot at the Ascot.

But whither should you follow your fancy? And what will you find there? A milliner’s shop may now be all hat, but a broader selection of apparel was formerly available. The proprietor may well be a proprietress; millinery is not a line of work that has ever been exclusively managed by one sex (whereas one would be surprised to find a female haberdasher). But the homeland of this business is unitary: the fashion hub of northern Italy, Milan.

We now put the accent on the second syllable in Milan, but it was not always thus; a half a millennium ago the English said it with the stress on the first syllable, and so sometimes spelled it Millen, Myllan, Myllon, and so on. And while if you are cooking a sauce that was first concocted in Milan you will call it milanese, the line of fashion work that came to be associated with Milan got its merchants called Milliners – now without a capital (but with much capital on the merchant side of things).

And why should fashioners of hats be forever identified with Milan? Well, why should women who are attracted to other women be forever identified with Lesbos? Why call conjoined twins Siamese? Do all our jeans come from Genoa or all our dollars from Joachimsthal? It just happens that Milan was the fashion at one time, and, despite the winds of change, the word was just hatpinned onto the language.


My word tasting class was reconvening after a brief intermission. “Well,” I said, “now that we’re all back from our toilet…”

Eleanor, near the front, immediately shot her hand up, and proceeded without waiting for acknowledgement: “Please don’t be vulgar.”

Here we go again. “Vulgar?” I arched my left eyebrow.

“Graphic. You seem to revel in the foul. There is no need to assail us with such indelicate images.”

The right eyebrow joined the left. “You find my reference to a lace doily foul?”

“You said doily?” Eleanor knitted her brows. “It sounded like something else.”

Toilet,” I said. “A word that originally referred to a little piece of fabric that was used to cover a woman’s dressing-table. From French toilette, related to toile, ‘fabric’. The same toile also came to English as toil, a now-uncommon word for a net for catching game. Of course, I’m being disingenuous; no one uses toilet to mean ‘fabric’ now. But, really, it is interesting that you find it so unacceptably graphic when it was originally intended as a euphemism. Washroom and its Latin-based equivalent lavatory are more literal, even if more polite-sounding to us now.”

Anna piped up from the back of the room. “Maybe crapper would be better.”

Kayley, next to Anna, raised her hand. “You know that’s from the inventor of the flush toilet, John Crapper.”

I was about to speak when Brian saved me the effort; he turned back to Kayley and said, “Too perfect to be true. Actually, though Thomas Crapper, the 19th-century British plumbing company owner, did make flush toilets, he didn’t invent them, and the word crap is much older.”

“Thank you, Brian,” I said, “you’re quite correct. The word crap has been in English to refer to waste since the middle ages. Michael Quinion has a very good run-down of the term and its relation to Thomas Crapper on his site, And commodes have a long developmental history that was certainly added to, but certainly not started, by Thomas Crapper.”

“But it’s in Trivial Pursuit!” Kayley protested.

I shrugged. “I know. Their research was not quite good enough on this one. It happens.”

Eleanor was sitting with her face puckered as though she was sucking on a bitter lemon, shaking her head. “It’s indecent,” she said to the fellow sitting next to her, a skinny, beleaguered sort named Rupert. “And I fail to see the connection between lace and lavatories.”

“Lace and lavatories!” I said. “Well, thereby hangs a tale.”

Anna, at the back, sang, “Give to me your lavatory, take from me my lace.” Ah, Stevie Nicks. At least she didn’t make a comment on hanging tails.

“A woman’s dressing-table came to be referred to as her toilette,” I said. “We still see that in some usages. Eau de toilette, which is a version of perfume. Toilet soap, an old term for face soap and hand soap.”

Brian raised his hand. “There are many paintings with title such as ‘Lady So-and-So at Her Toilet,’ and they’re getting dressed or doing their hair.”

“You can get pictures with titles like that now on the web,” Anna said, “but they’re not getting dressed…” Kayley stifled a giggle. Eleanor turned and glared at Anna.

“The point,” I said, “is that the dressing-table was the toilet, and then toilet came to refer to the action of dressing, or washing and grooming, and to the room in which that was done. And then, out of delicacy, the fixture came to be referred to using the same word. And now the table has turned. We take the word toilet to be a literal word for the fixture. But, now, what do you think is the relation of the sound of the word to its developed sense?”

Rupert raised his hand. “Yes, Rupert?” I said, almost surprised.

“Well, sometimes you have to toil at what you’re doing there…”

Eleanor pulled a face as though someone had just held a fresh dog turd under her nose.

I laughed just a little. “True, sometimes. But is the ‘oy’ sound a contributor to the sense of indelicacy of this word? I mean, oily is not so nice, but doily is fine. Boil is somewhat neutral with a little negative shading. Boy is fine; goy – well, all that Yiddish oy has its own flavour which will probably vary somewhat by hearer. It also relates to the Brooklyn-style ‘oi’ kind of sound for syllabic /r/, as in ‘boid’ for bird, ‘goil’ for girl, and so on, all of which has a lower-class connotation.”

Brian raised his hand. “Hypercorrection from that has given us pronunciations such as ‘ersters’ and ‘terlet’.”

“Indeed,” I said. “Does it have the same feel to say ‘terlet’? Or to say it in the French style, ‘twa-let’?”

“French is much more elegant,” Kayley offered from the back.

“It tends to have that connotation, because of cultural images we have acquired, and the high-toned context of usage of French terms in English,” I said. “French itself has its highs and lows, and I don’t know whether I would call a language with so many inefficiencies elegant structurally – but that’s a more mathematical use of elegant. Anyway, French may get moved in a different direction thanks to less rarefied words such as poutine.”

“That would be a good word for toilet!” Anna declared. “Poo-tine! Like a canteen for poo!”

“Can you please stop!” Eleanor’s shout of disgust was taking on the pleading air of the delicate stomach.

“To return to the ‘oi’ sound,” I said, hoping to calm things down a little, “does it suggest a shape to you?”

Rupert raised his hand again. I looked at him. He waited for me to say something. “Yes, Rupert?”

“I think it’s like a spring, ‘boing boing boyoyoyoyyy,’ so I think it’s like a spiral.”

Brian smiled a little. “Like water swirling in the bowl.”

Kayley raised her hand. “Did you know that it swirls the other way in Australia?”

Brian was about to respond, but I beat him to it this time. “Actually, the direction of the swirl is really determined in the main by the positioning of the water jets.”

“But it’s like the bathtub drain,” Kayley said. “It’s the coriolanus effect.”

“Coriolis,” I said simultaneously with Brian, but we were both drowned out by Anna, who declared triumphantly, “Corral your anus!”

Eleanor was alternating between white and red. She stood and said, “Excuse me. I need to be excused. I require… to be excused. To go down the hall.” She rushed out, words failing her.

Rupert looked at her retreating form and smiled slightly. Without raising his hand, he said, “She has been caught in our toil.”

vade mecum

When I look at vade mecum, associations invade me cumulatively. I think of Darth Vader, for instance. And, what, is he covered in talcum? No, no, he’s with Meco – you know, Meco Monardo, who came out with Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, a record that I, as a ten-year-old utterly enamoured of Star Wars, naturally listened to quite a fair bit, along with several other Star Wars–related things. (Anyone who was around in 1977 is sure to recognize this music – note that the video that has been posted with it uses clips from later movies in the series too.) I was always sure to have some Star Wars thing or other with me wherever I went, as an indispensable appurtenance.

Hmm. It occurs to me that my indispensable appurtenances have changed somewhat. Now I do not leave the house without my datebook. I use a Letts, but some people prefer to use a Quo Vadis. I also have a pen and pencil and handkerchief, but I do not, as some do, always carry a comb – another thing that arrives with this word, mecum not only sounding a bit like “my comb” but having those comb-like m‘s.

If I were to carry any other book with me, it would be a book too cumbersome to carry: the complete Oxford English Dictionary. As it is online now, I could actually have it with me if I had an iPhone, which, for those who have one, seems to be quite the ultimate vade mecum – a useful thing that one carries about everywhere. It goes with you – after all, vade mecum is Latin for “go with me”.

Perhaps the epitome of a vade mecum, certainly in science fiction, is nothing to do with Star Wars but rather the eponymous book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Of course, the galactic guidebook that Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent carry is not available to us now on Earth. For those interested in sci fi or fantasy, their vade mecum may be Marc Okrand’s Klingon Dictionary, or it may be a Dungeon Master’s Guide, or, if they play ChthulhuTech, they may use the Core Book – although there is a volume for ChthulhuTech called Vade Mecum, it requires the Core Book, ironically.

But a person interested in tasting words could do worse than to have a Latin reference (among a few others). That, at least, would make it plain that the plural of this word could never be vade meca – you see, mecum is not a neuter noun; it’s a pronoun plus preposition. The cum means “with”. So you treat the words as a phrase entire and pluralize accordingly. After all, the plural of go-with-me would not be go-with-us.

The two words that make up this compound have a certain contrast in pronunciation, with a vibe on the lips and teeth and a touch on the tongue tip in the first, a sort of wool vest of a word, and then in the second word a nasal with the lips bouncing to a velar touch of the tongue and back, making a word like a pillow with a table knife in the middle. Of course, that partly depends on what you make ’em; there are several ways to say this. Most likely nowadays you will hear a vulgate-ish pronunciation, “vah day may come”; formerly in England, the old British style of saying Latin would have prevailed, “vay dee me come”. Of course, in the original Latin it’s neither; it’s “wah deh meh coom”, but while a day may come when we say Latin commonly that way, I’m not waiting for it – or writing it in my Letts.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for asking for vade mecum.


Grab yourself a glass of Pimm’s and pull up a chair; there’s a regatta going on. Ah, yes, a nice regatta, with white sails all rigged (tt) moving at a regal pace across the harbour. Well, it looks regal at this distance. In the Olympic coverage of sailing regattas, they don’t have the nail-biting, body-part-crunching second-by-second coverage that characterizes some sports; rather, they have relaxing piano or guitar music and a summary of who accomplished what. Rowing, of course, is entirely another thing, but even doing the sailing at boat level is not so serene – watch those guys hanging off the side, knees at 90 degrees and bodies  half upright: how long would your quads and abs last doing that? It’s competitive. It’s a race! It’s almost as vindictive as a vendetta.

But still, when you think of a regatta, what do you think of? Quite likely the view I had out my bedroom window this afternoon: a cotillion of white sails decorating the water and moving more slowly in the visual field than a mobile. Perhaps you’re watching it from a waterside bar calling itself Regatta.

This word actually is a bit on the pizzicato side for something that has that kind of white-pants-white-jacket yacht-club air. (Apologies to my fellow native Calgarians and other dry-land people, who may not be all that up on yacht clubs; there are several in Toronto and environs, ranging from the upper-crust to the merely rather expensive but accessible, and they are well known, especially the top tier.) But think of it as something one may attend after a light lunch of frittata. And focus as much on the reg, which is not the reg of register nor even the reg of regular; it’s the reg of regal and regale that sets the atta-tude.

Ah, yes, white-glove service, egg white frittata, white pants and white jacket, a few little whitecaps, white sails… Truly a regatta de blanc. But, oh, don’t call the Police: their album, Reggatta de Blanc, has two g‘s, and the title is a pseudo-French translation of “white reggae” (French for reggae is actually reggae; the tapping of the atta, like an opening riff from Stewart Copeland’s drums, shows up again with their next album, Zenyattà Mondatta). But then the album opens with “Message in a Bottle,” and how could you not think nautically? And the almost relaxed, almost spacey slow groove with tipping and tapping in “Walking on the Moon” – it takes me nearly back to the music for the television coverage of regattas.

Not that regattas were always quite so genteel; the original regatta was a race held on the Grand Canal in Venice and undoubtedly at least a little rougher, given that it was 17th-century Venice we’re talking about, the very chronotope of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and a town known for naval aggression and pride. The word, in the regional Italian dialect, meant “competition” and appears to have stemmed from the same Latin root that gave English capture. But then some 18th-century toffs decided to have one on the Thames, and, well, here we are. Do have some more Pimm’s.


Picture a congress of conger eels, all heaped together – perhaps several juries of them, dozen by dozen, but all in a pile, writhing as they may. Or not. Actually, make it a pile of paper cutouts of eels. Or, for eels, substitute whatever it is that’s piled up on your table or desk right now. I can tell you that before my very eyes is a heap with subscription renewal notices, bills, a candy wrapper with contest info, a photocopy of instructions on core exercises, a few pieces of note paper with things noted on them, and who knows what else beneath (I’m not peeking right now) – a real congeries of papers.

Did I make you stop and say “wait” there at a congeries? Ah, yes, this singular word seems as though it has had an s tossed on the end for no particularly good reason, just to add to the heap. It’s a word, like kudos, that appears plural when it’s not. But kudos, at least, is a mass object. Congeries is a countable: if one pile of accumulated detritus or assorted objects is not enough, you can have two congeries, three congeries, and so on… indeed, this noun does not decline (heaps never do, now, do they?), not for the plural anyway. But it just happens that people always seem to observe one messy heap – one congeries – at a time. Fair enough! Being faced with a whole series could give a person rabies!

We can see, though, that a person can get used to a congeries (the one on my desk has some archeological value) and perhaps also to a congeries – after all, we allow a series without batting an eye. But where series comes from Latin series “chain” from serere “join, connect” (which also gives us, for instance, insert and assert), all nice and ordered, congeries comes from Latin congeries “heap, pile, collected mass” from congerere “carry together” – which also gives us congest: a surfeit of stuff. The pertinent morphology is nonetheless identical; in both cases, the ies ending in the Latin is two syllables, with the e being long, meaning that this word in the Classical Latin would be said somewhat like “con Gary Ace”. In Modern English, unsurprisingly, it has mutated to “con juries”, “con jeeries”, or “conjure ease”.

Words, of course, are not formed of letters heaped together in whatever order (they aren’t formed of letters at all; they’re formed of sounds and represented with letters) – if you were to grab from this word as though from a bowl of popcorn, the results could make you cringe, even if with proper scoring and a good singer, no matter what region you may be in; best to ignore until it cries gone. But a congeries of papers on your desk can’t be conjured away.


You probably don’t know the meaning of this word – it’s not very common. So tell me: what effect does it have on you before I say what it means? It makes me think of velleity (a whim, a wish, an inclination) and Elise Velle, whose singing can send little frissons down the spine. But of course there are other things that may more commonly come to mind: vellum (crackling material to prick and tickle with your pen), jelly (which shivers and twitches), villain (who may make you shudder or simply irritate you), maybe lick and tickle – and perhaps even a hint of the horripilation that such things may produce.

Ah, horripilation: the hair stands on end. You see it in this word: the lli – ooh, that i looks like someone’s plucked one. Imagine! Imagine someone sneaking up behind you, running a feather down the back of your neck – and plucking a hair that happened to stand up! Would that not make you twitch a bit?

The connection, apparently, seems natural enough – or anyway used to. This word comes from Latin vellicare, the frequentative of vellere, which meant, as OED puts it, “pull, pluck, twitch, etc.” So its English senses started with “prick” and “irritate” and the related “pull” and “pinch” (the shapes of the v and ll seem to play with that sense as well); from there it readily proceeded to “twitch” and “cause to twitch” (all these senses are still at least somewhat current). And “tickle” and “titillate” proceed from that, it seems; we see Erasmus Darwin writing, in 1794, “So when children expect to be tickled in play . . . by gently vellicating the soles of their feet, laughter is most vehemently excited.”

Now, tell me, does that description not vellicate you, one way or the other? The dryness with which the classic childish activity is described may irritate you, make you twitch, or tickle you entirely. Try this next time you’re having an intimate phone conversation: say “I’m gently vellicating the soles of your feet.” See whether it doesn’t produce a frisson (or, indeed, most vehemently excite laughter). Do you have the pluck to do it?