Monthly Archives: May 2010


“Hey, Joe, come vai? Whatcha eating there?”


“Joe, Joe, swallow it first. Don’t talk with your mouth full. You sound like Marlon Brando playing a Sicilian. Now what is it?”

“Muffuletta!” Joe holds out a big round sandwich wrapped in paper. “Muffuletta for you!”

“Muffuletta for me? Hey! Muffuletta for you!”

So, OK, where are these two jokers? Let’s just say they’re at Central Grocery. Where, in New Jersey somewhere? No, in New Orleans. Of course, you can get muffuletta elsewhere, but that’s where the muffuletta sandwich was invented about a century ago.

Now, for the sake of accuracy, I should say that muffuletta is really the name of the loaf, a flattish round Sicilian loaf of bread. When you slice it through the equator, add olive salad, then capicola, salami, mortadella, emmentaler, and provolone to the bottom half and put the top half back on, you have what was originally called a muffuletta sandwich. But now it’s typically called just by the name of the loaf.

So does a muffuletta sound like a lotta mouthfuls? Well, it is. The loaf is about 10 inches across. You can feed more than one person with a muffuletta sandwich (but rest assured there are many people who will eat a whole one – like the farmers who came to New Orleans for the market and went to Central Grocery to get bread, cheese, and antipasto, and then ate them separately balancing them on their knees until the store owner, Salvatore Lupo, said why not eat them together). The word itself seems pretty stuffed too – it’s a meal with two loaf halves u and u and the cheese ff and meat tt (or is it the other way around?).

And it persists in the great tradition of Italian food names: it’s not too short; it has double letters; it sounds to English ears maybe a little rude (compare focaccia, for instance); and it’s subject to multiple (mis)spellings and (mis)pronunciations (compare focaccia and many others for the former and bruschetta, gnocchi, and various others for the latter). You will hear people say it as “muff a lotta”, for instance, rather than the “moo foo let ta” that it originally is. And of course you can imagine how many different ways it gets written.

But it’s hard to be pedantic when the loaf in its native Sicily has various variations according to the dialect: muffuletta, mufuletta, muffiletta, mufiletta, muffulettu, muffuletu, muffulittuni… Well, one thing you know for sure: it’s no muffin, and you don’t see no lettuce in it neither. And to yous in Quebec: don’t wear your moufles when eating it. You’ll just get olive oil on them.

But to any muffled eater, one thing’s for sure: it beats a mofette.


Oh, isn’t it a cute little caterpillar of a word, this one! Or like a little train. Or some accordion-folding thing, like a party streamer. It also makes me think of some little kitten munching kibble: num, num, num. It would be a nightmare to read in gothic script, though; one could slip it somewhere in a sentence such as “mimi numinum nivium minimi munium nimium vini muniminum imminui vivi minimum volunt” (which means something on the order of “the very short mimes of the snow gods do not wish at all that the very great burden of distributing the wine of the walls will be lightened in their lifetime”). Actually, it’s a bit of a problem to the eyes in any type face, isn’t it?

But what nimiety of inimical mummery may animate a nominative noumenon so ominous in its limning of inanition? Oh, it is a phenomenon nonnative to humanity: a liminal element of minimal numerosity, not known in even nanomole amounts. The monicker unununium (Uuu) is an allonym from ere unanimity on its immanence; now it is known as Roentgenium (Rg). (But doesn’t Uuu look more like a train whistle – or a mother animal and two little ones?)

So why the mind-numbing union of un, un, un? Why eighteen vertical strokes, three cups, five caps, and a dot? Elemental, dear Watson. It is the 111th element. In the periodic table it sits in period 6, group 11. Some six atoms of it have been created through smacking together smaller atoms (lead and copper, for instance) – three at a time (one, one, one), twice. Others have come into being through the decay of higher-number elements. Does this seem base, ignoble even? Oh, no, I assure you: unununium – roentgenium – is more noble than gold.

No, really, it is. Group 6 is a column of noble metals – formerly three, now this one makes four – so called because of their nonreactivity: copper, silver, gold, roentgenium. The top (29) is copper. Next is silver (47), and below it gold (79); reactivity decreases as you go down the column and up the numbers – silver and gold are not decayed by oxygen, for instance, but are attacked by halogens, and silver is also affected by sulfur. Roentgenium (unununium) is likely not to react even with the halogens, but perhaps with fluorine. It is also expected to look like silver. Once there are more than a half dozen atoms of it, maybe they’ll find out for sure.

Oh – not that those atoms are around any more, by the way. It has a half-life of about 20 minutes. But perhaps at some time we will see evanescent medals made of it to nominate some inimitable numinosity.


When I was an undergrad, living in student residence, several people on my floor were organizing an outing to a local bar called Cannery Row. One of them wrote the info on the blackboard in the floor lounge. But she spelled it Canary Row.

Ah, to think, Steinbeck’s Monterey place that is “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream” (a now-gentrified bit of former working seaman’s turf – a tourist location with a marine sanctuary hosting a population of sea lions), associated accidentally with dogs.

Wait, dogs? Do I mean birds? Oh, dogs, first – anyone who has played the original Trivial Pursuit likely knows that the Canary Islands got their name from dogs. The derivation is from Latin Canaria insula, “Isle of Dogs”, from canis, “dog”. The bird (originally canary-bird and originally green but better known in the yellow variety) is named after the islands, and the colour is named after the bird, as are most other things called canary – Australian jailbirds of the 18th century (they arrived in yellow), canary wood (it’s yellow), any songstress (because canaries sing) or stool pigeon (extending the sense of sing)… there’s a whole row of references, one, two, ten, a reef, eh…

Speaking of Tenerife (largest island of the Canary Islands), what kind of dogs were the islands named after, anyway? Well, whatever they were, the ancient inhabitants worshipped them, it seems. They may have been the forebears of the modern Perro de Presa Canario, often called Presa Canario for short; the name means “Canarian catch dog”, and the catch is that they’re freakin’ huge. They’re sometimes called Canary Mastiffs, which ought to tell you right there. They’re a kind of Molosser, which means they are related to the ancient molossus.

On the other hand, it has also been suggested that the original “dogs” after which the islands were named were actually monk seals, also known as sea dogs – a bit of a comedown from sea lions, which is what their cousin pinnipeds are called. (For real lions, one would have to cross east to the mainland of Africa and head south. The Canaries, remember, though they belong to Spain, are off the coast of west Africa.)

The word canary seems in the main to escape associations with cans by having the stress on the second syllable, rendering the first a mere skip up, like the modal auxiliary can – perhaps as in “On Tenerife can airy heights be scaled where yet can nary a dog be seen.” The only letter out of line in the word is the y, descending like the perching feet of a passerine bird, an insessorial incessant singer. It may serve to remind of the frequent following word yellow. Or perhaps it is an adit, awaiting the descent of the miners with their gas detector – the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Or it may be an anticipation of a following w – if not in Row, then in Wharf. You know Canary Wharf, do you not? The great modern skyscraper development in the east end of London? That now-gentrified bit of former working seaman’s turf? The West India Docks used to be there, but the shipping traffic dried up by 1980. One specific wharf, the number 32 berth of the West Wood Quay, had been built in 1936 for Fruit Lines Ltd., who were in the Mediterranean and Canary Island fruit trade, and so the wharf was named Canary Wharf at their request. When the largest building in the UK – One Canada Square (yes, Canada, not Canary, and named after the homeland of the developer, not after Las Cañadas del Teide on Tenerife) – was built there, the development was called Canary Wharf. Which sounds perhaps more decorous than the name (in use since at least 1588) for the large lobe of land of which Canary Wharf now occupies the northern part: the Isle of Dogs.


Should gotten be shotten, forgone and forgotten? Cast to the side like a thing that is rotten? Left on the shelf like a trinket unboughten?

Understand, first of all, that this is not a note on get. Get over that right off. I don’t have the time to write, and you don’t have the time to read, a tasting of that word – it simply gets around far too much. Perhaps sometime when I can get around to it I will write a little operetta about it or something. Now watch me get carried away…

Anyway, gotten is – or isn’t, depending on whom you ask – the past participle of get. (Those who say it is not say it is got.) It displays very nicely a feature of English phonology – a feature that, while not universal (and sometimes considered a mark of a casual pronunciation), is so common I have heard the Queen herself doing it: in any word ending with unstressed tten or ttonmitten, kitten, button, rotten, flatten, and on and on – instead of releasing the /t/ and saying a vowel (a schwa) before the /n/, we simply hold the tongue in place, lower the velum (opening the nasal passage) and say a syllabic [n]. (If we’re really being lazy, we don’t quite touch the tongue, and the sequence becomes a glottal stop followed by a narrow nasal vowel.) If we wish to emphasize the word and articulate it fully, we will of course release the /t/ and so on, but otherwise, the principle of economy of effort gets the upper hand.

So, then, why would not the principle of economy of effort also have gotten the upper hand with the past participle of get? Well, why should it? Past participles in en are quite normal in English. And indeed the en suffix is quite time honoured for this verb too. Getten was actually the first version, and could be seen up to the 16th century; Oxford tells me it’s still common in Yorkshire. But the ablaut series (the vowel moves down and back: drink – drank – drunk, for instance) exerted its influence in the Middle English ages, so that we had get – gat – gotten (which we still get in beget – begat – begotten) in place and taking over by the start of the Early Modern English period (16th century). Then gat shifted to got by influence of gotten. And then, in some versions of English, epsecially in England, it gradually took over altogether, except in some idiomatic forms. It would seem that gotten – with its two crosses in the middle – was double-crossed and gone. And so some people, on the basis of this British desuetude, believe it universally wrong. But it persists in North America – persists and is correct even in the most formal English in North America (except in the eyes of those few  who have decided it should not be).

Well, if the British can do without it, why can’t we? Are we just out of our gotten-pickin’ minds?  Well, heck, other people don’t have a chef’s knife, a carving knife, and a filet knife in their kitchens, but I can tell you there are things I can do with each of them that I can’t do as well with either of the others. So too with get, got, gotten. It is even possible to allow a contrast between got and gotten as past participle when you use have got where one could use have: I have got to see her etchings versus I have gotten to see her etchings, the former signifying need or desire and the latter signifying past attainment. The former could be said I have to see her etchings, but it loses the punchy emphasis. And the existence of the have got usage, even if you do not use it yourself, in fact necessitates gotten for clarity in many such situations, especially given that the have auxiliary may become aurally indiscernible in some contexts: We got it versus We’ve got it – clearly We’ve gotten it removes the ambiguity.

In any event, gotten has history and analogical patterns on its side, so just because it’s gotten disused in England doesn’t mean it’s somehow ill-gotten or misbegotten. It was good enough for Samuel Johnson (“If the money with which he retired was all gotten by himself”); it was good enough for Thomas Hobbes (“Reason is not . . . gotten by experience only”); it was good enough for David Hume (“The duke of Parma, who had gotten intelligence of their approach”); I really do think it’s gotten its place in the language quite honestly. We’ve gotten away with it this long. And let us hear none of that “Well, the Brits should know, it’s their language”; it’s our language too – my ancestors spoke it as surely as theirs did, and we’ve preserved some things that they’ve changed. Why would they get to set the fashion all the time?

Thanks to Jim Taylor for requesting gotten.


A word with a dry wind whispering through it /s/, speaking of a place full of empty (o), defoliated, deflated like a balloon. You’ll likely think of a dry plain, looking like the surface of Mars, a spot so sorry that even the sun has been stolen from it. The valley of the shadow of death, perhaps… no one around… you’re so late, too late; all is gone. Perhaps it never was there in the first place.

And one may feel desolate at heart, too. It is so easy to transfer the barrenness, the sense of desertion and desertification, to the heartscape and mindscape: no sun up in the sky… how a person might feel if isolated, cut off from all human company.

Indeed, although the word readily suggests the loss of sun (de and sol), it is solus that is the true Latin heart of this word originally, via solare, “make lonely”. The de is here in the sense “to the bottom; completely”, as in denude, derelict, deplore, deliquesce, decoct. Thus first of all it is the depths of loneliness, all around you boiled away and you left with you alone and no one to relate to. I’m put in mind of a poem I wrote in high school (apologies if the vagaries of formatting result in indelicate alignments):

Now I’m in an empty room tomb
Completely bare air
The walls so far between clean
The ceiling very high sky
And I so all alone stone
Just standing on a spot dot
In the middle of the floor more
And all that I say echoes knows
In this empty place space

But what poetry is there in a desolate place? In truth, barely the least ode. No doubt echoes of desert and perhaps the hint of lack of sun – and soil, also sol – contributed to the shift in sense to a place where there is not one but no one, no one and nothing. In the main, it passed from “lonely” to “lacking” to “barren”; at times it appears to have been confused with dissolute.

But just as the English sense has reduced from one person to none, a place without traffic at all, and emotional desolation is reduction to a sorry state indeed, we may look to another language to see how excessive traffic may rub a word nearly smooth of sense: French désolé, commonly the short way to say je suis désolé, which literally means “I am desolate” but has come to be a sorry statement – that is, a statement of “sorry.” As when (for instance in The Killing Fields) the officer hands back the passport with barely a shake of the head and a “Désolé, monsieur.” The “sorry” that really means “sigh, please go away” – if it means that much.

Well, as word taster David Moody has reminded me, Lena Horne has gone away, and there is no sun up in the sky. This is a new desolation, and not just a mumbled “Sorry for your loss”; as David writes, “To be truly désolé is to have the very sun snatched from out of the sky… as it was after Lena Horne’s last appearance in a picture or on a soundtrack.” Not simply loss; not merely isolation (which comes from Latin for “island”); desolation. On the date we look back and lose, we are desolate.


This may sound like something one does with a freshly caught fish, but look beyond that to its echoes of the old British empire and its South Asian trading. For me, the word always brings to mind the play Mr. Price, or Tropical Madness, by Stanislaw Witkiewicz, set in Rangoon (and written on the basis of a 1914 trip by Witkiewicz and Bronislaw Malinowski to that area of the world). Rapacious colonials straight out of a crazier version of Conrad spew (or, in the version done at the University of Calgary when I was a student there, sing) lines such as “We’ll drink to the success of our General Rubber and Coffee Trust. Long live coffee and gutta-percha, united in an invincible mass of power and glory. Long live tropical fantasy!”

It seems to me that that play was the first time I encountered the word. Of course, a boy growing up in Alberta in the 1970s and ’80s would not have had so much cause to hear of gutta-percha. This is indeed a tropical word, a Malay phrase rendered in English style: getah “gum, sap” plus perca, the name of the tree that makes the sap (in English it tends to be called the gutta-percha tree, it seems).

And it is a word of the height of British imperial glory, that excursion that also gave us punch, bungalow, dungarees, pajamas (all from Hindi), amok, bamboo, gingham, kapok, launch, orangutan, rattan (all from Malay), and many others, all washed down with gin and tonic (invented to help make the quinine go down easier) under the midday sun – which, of course, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in.

You can just hear the plummy colonial officer’s accent saying this word, the rhythm and final vowels of it already signalling foreignness, something that had come from some Singaporean gutter perchance, and beating its tattoo on the tongue with a tap at the back, one at the tip, a pop at the lips and a catch on the tip: back-mid-fore-mid, like a military march or whatnot. Not so unlike a vocal warmup I learned in acting class: butta gutta butta gutta butta gutta.

Gutta-percha’s virtues for such things as sealing roofs, gutters, and perches had long been known to the Malays when, in 1842, westerners first noticed that the sun-dried sap of this magnificent tree made a latex that could be made flexible again with the aid of hot water, and which would not become brittle like unvulcanized rubber. More gloriously still, it did not react with things like acid or enzymes, conduct electricity, or taste good to fish. It thus enabled the first undersea cables (in 1851) once a means of extruding it as an insulator had been invented.

Many other things were also made with it, thanks to its plasticity: pistol grips, rifle butts, furniture, jewelry, canes… In 1856, U.S. Congressman Preston Brooks used a gutta-percha cane to beat Senator Charles Sumner so badly he required three years to recover fully. (Brooks did this in the senate chamber; he had originally thought of challenging Sumner to a duel, but a fellow representative counselled him that Sumner, though a senator, was of lower social standing and so did not merit a duel.) Speaking of sports, gutta-percha golf balls (known as gutties) were quite popular for half a century.

So this fruit of imperial excursion made possible commercial and cultural excursion and assorted ballistic activities. Many of gutta-percha’s uses have since been supplanted by newer, better materials (vulcanized rubber, polyethylene, etc.). But it still has a few applications. Most notably, if you have a root canal, gutta-percha will be used to fill the resulting space.


“So,” I said to Albert Denton, of the Sheffield branch of the Order of Logogustation, “how about that election of yours?” We were lunching at a restaurant on Spadina on the first day of the E8 word tasting summit (the eight main English-speaking countries), held this year in Toronto.

“We haven’t got a proper government,” he said. “Our parliament’s bloody well hung. Pardon.” He ate a spoonful of soup from a bowl the size of his head.

Also at our table was Ross Ewage, who heard his cue. “Well hung?!” he said. “Then I’m sure they’ll all be men enough to rise to the occasion.”

Albert glanced at Ross. “And you should be bloody well hanged.” Ross raised an eyebrow and mounted an assault on his soup.

“So nice of those judges of past centuries to have used the archaic weak form of the past tense in passing sentences so we could have that distinction persisting to the present,” I observed.

“Ironically,” Albert said, “the weak form was the intransitive.” He paused for another sip. “Our modern hang actually came from three different verbs, as you perhaps know: an Old English strong transitive, an Old English weak intransitive, and an Old Norse causal verb. But in the end they all merged into one… and, funny enough, though they all merged into the weak form, they moved towards strong vowel-changing inflexion, and the past tense hung was actually invented then by analogy. As they say, Who would have thunk it?” (This discourse was given an extra resonance by Albert’s Sheffield accent, which has u‘s as in hung and thunk said like the vowel in book.)

“So,” I said, “three parties, as it were, all coming together to a common agreement by finding a third way… with just a little dissenter off to one side.”

Albert allowed himself a chuckle. “As if the Tories and Labour got together and shut out the Lib Dems.”

“I’m quite amused at the level of dismay your situation has been greeted with in England,” I said. “It’s rather common in Canada, with four parties sitting and a first-past-the-post electoral system. Some people say minority government should be the accepted norm, most likely with set times between elections to preclude such things as bullying the other parties by making any chancy vote a confidence vote. But I really do think an important difference in the way we see things is the term we use. Minority government: Well, it’s still government, and in Canada, minority doesn’t have such a bad sound to it, since nearly – or perhaps actually – a majority of our citizens are members of identifiable minority groups.” I looked around us; more than half the people in the restaurant were East Asian. “Whereas hung parliament means it’s suspended, hanging in midair, perhaps by the neck…”

“Or it has the sword of Damocles hanging over it,” Albert said. “It’s as though the election campaign was a great binge, and now we’re all hung over from it. Well, it could get to be like game meat that’s been hung too long… It gets very ‘high,’ which means ‘rancid’. But the term hung parliament only dates back to the last hung parliament we had, in 1974. Simon Hoggart, of The Guardian, was really the one who spread it. It just happens that in England, after an election, the ruling party doesn’t automatically change; there has to be a resignation or vote of no confidence first, which is a matter of course most of the time but not when, as in 1974, no one had a majority to force the loser out. And Edward Heath, prime minister at the time, tried to stay and build a coalition. Well, his party did get more votes, though fewer seats. In the end he had to resign in favour of Harold Wilson. But it was contentious, as I hope this one will not be.”

“Well,” I said, “one would think that everyone would want those who are hung to agree.”

“Speaking of which,” said Jess, appearing over my shoulder, “I’m hungry. Sorry I’m a bit late.” She grabbed the remaining chair. “I see it’s pho all around. What’s the topic of discussion?”

Hung,” said Ross, with extra lung.

“Huh,” Jess said. “What’s the preposition?”

“An indecent one,” Ross said.

“Well, is it hung up, hung out, hung over, hung around…?”

“Well,” said Albert, “we’ve hung in there.”

“A couple of blocks that way –” Jess jerked her thumb towards the door – “there are paintings, hung by the curators with care. And no doubt curtains hung too.”

“Down the block, I think I saw a store called Hung Far Low,” Ross snickered.

“Yeah, you probably didn’t,” said Jess, “though this is Chinatown, with lots of Vietnamese places, too. Like this one. You’ll see Hung here and there.” She held up the menu that the waiter had just handed her. “I case you forgot where we were.” The restaurant’s name was, of course, Pho Hung.

Thanks to Sheila Protti for asking for something on hung parliament.


I wouldn’t be surprised if this word made you think first of peregrine falcon. That would seem to give it a somehow nobler air, that aloofness of birds of prey, with the possible hint of patrician and the distinguished air that many words starting with p can seem to have. The /gr/ in the middle of course has a bit more grip; it here makes for echoes of green and plants a grin in the heart of the word. But the pere brings back a French father – and an English pear, perhaps. The scope of the word gets a boost from the expanse of the nation. And perhaps that nation is one you cross on foot, as one makes one’s pilgrimage across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.

One need not be making a pilgrimage to be on a peregrination, but anyone who is on a pilgrimage is making a peregrination. This word comes to us little altered from Latin peregrinatio, “travel”, “journey”, “being abroad”, but the same root – or its noun form peregrinus, “journeyer” – has wandered a little farther to show up also as pilgrim and pilgrimage, the first /r/ now transformed to an /l/. A peregrination thus will always be a journey or wandering, most typically by foot (although in the modern world cars and airplanes are not proscribed), and sometimes symbolic.

Which leads me to what this word makes me think of first: the text of the music by Sergei Prokofiev for the battle on Lake Peipus in the movie Alexander Nevsky, directed by Sergei Eisenstein. The words sung over and over, a leitmotif for the Teutonic knights, are peregrinus expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis. When first encountering it (and having to sing it), I understood the first part – “a pilgrim I waited” – and thought the second part had something to do with feet and with something that looked like cymbals but clearly couldn’t be. Well, in fact, it was – Prokofiev had snipped words from four places in the text of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and stuck them together to make something meaning “a pilgrim I waited, my feet on the cymbals”. It starts comprehensible but then kind of wanders off (in the grand tradition of lorem ipsum)… neither you hearing nor I repeating can make it not clash; whatever you’ve awaited, what you get is just symbolic. So don’t have a bird; just relax – go get a glass of San Pellegrino, which will have journeyed from Italy just for you.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips, currently on a peregrination of her own, for suggesting this word.


OK, with a plant – actually a whole genus of tropical herbaceous plants that produce pretty flowers – with a name like this, the first question is quite obvious… is it costive?

Actually, we may assume that it is not – it’s related to ginger, and while that’s a non-binding relation, we may assume that something runs in the family.*

The various species of costus are in fact used for various medicinal purposes. Costus igneus (fiery costus, or spiral flag) is thought to build up insulin in the body. And Costus speciosus has been claimed to be good for treating fever, rash, asthma, bronchitis, and intestinal worms. The Kama Sutra says put it on your eyelashes to be sexier (would Benylin do?). Of course, that claim may be specious.

For the ordinary flower buyer, however, the main feature of costus species is that they are pretty. They often have a flame-like look to them (which would remind one of the word holocaust except that that word is not now used to refer to burnt sacrifices, as its transferred meaning has become entirely dominant). They are lively, hot-looking flowers, suitable for adorning a señorita’s hair – or the coat of arms of Nigeria. In short, they seem almost utterly at odds with their Greek-derived name, which is rather cold and a bit hard, echoing cough and a bit of tussive and mixing up scouts.

There are probably other echoes and wordplays available; I will leave you to work them out. Perhaps you may wish to do so while meditating on a potted Costus speciosus (you can easily buy them – in the US they cost $15–$20 potted).

* For those unfamiliar with the word costive: it means “constipating” or “constipated”.


Montgomery Starling-Byrd, lately elected Grand Panjandrum of the Order of Logogustation, was in town and made a stop by our local Domus Logogustationis for the monthly Words, Wines, and Whatever tasting event. We took this as a chance to generate a little extra interest and invited various parties to come be addressed. And so Montgomery stood in the middle of our Rather Good Hall (not quite up to the level of a Great Hall) surrounded by students, journalists, and student journalists, and gave a rousing and mercifully brief discourse on why English should be viewed as a game, and not one with tightly fixed rules, either. He then entertained questions.

One young fellow in a red shirt piped up: “Why does the name of your society mix Latin and Greek? Doesn’t that seem a little sloppy?”

Montgomery arched an eyebrow slightly. “It’s hardly the first macaronic word in the language. In fact, we mixed logo and gustation partly as an expression of the sort of play I was just speaking of. It’s true that a more cleanly Latin formation would be verbogustation. However, that would have far too strong a taste of bogus.”

The assembled scribes scribbled. One said to her friend next to her, “Comma with the however?”

Red shirt looked back over his shoulder. “Never!”

A green-shirted young woman said, “What do you mean, never? Always!”

“No,” said a slip of a thing in a black dress, “a period.”

“A period?!” said the first. “Oh… no, I meant after.”

“Not a period!” said red shirt. “Always a semicolon. One should not start a sentence with a conjunctive adverb.”

Montgomery’s eyebrow raised a titch more. Before he could interject, the first woman’s friend, a girl in a pink button-up, said, “People don’t speak with semicolons. Didn’t you learn that? Any journalism professor will tell you that.”

“I speak with semicolons,” Montgomery interjected. “And I believe some journalism professors do as well. However, in this instance, I intended however to be the start of a new sentence.”

“Boy,” said red shirt, “you really are a lot of descriptivists, aren’t you? Throwing Strunk and White out the window?”

Maury, in the background, had anticipated this, and had plucked a copy of the very book off the shelf. He handed it to Montgomery open to page 43. Montgomery read aloud: “Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is ‘nevertheless.’ The word usually serves better when not in first position.” He handed the book back to Maury. “Two observations: first, even were Strunk and White holy writ, which it certainly is not, that is a recommendation, not an absolute rule; second, as just mentioned, it is not holy writ. It is opinion. And whoever told you never to start a sentence with however is terribly misguided.”

“We need rules,” protested red shirt.

“We have rules,” Montgomery said. “Otherwise me to able you understand wouldn’t be.”

A chorus of “What?” broke out.

“Exactly,” said Montgomery. “Now, let’s see what you all have for the disputed phrase. However you may have it, it is likely to be understood; however, you may have it in a way that transgresses the expected norms of standard English.”

Those assembled surveyed their transcriptions. Aside from assorted other errors and inaccuracies, the following renditions were found:

…verbugustation, however that would have…
…verbogustation, however, that would have…
…verbogustation however, that would have…
…verbogustation. However that would have…
…verbogustation; however that would have…
…verbogustation; however, that would have…
…verbogustation. However, that would have…

“Formally,” Montgomery said, “only these last two are correct, and it is the last which I intended. Conjunctive adverbs are offset from their clauses with commas. If they come first in a clause, the preceding clause boundary is marked with a period or semicolon, as always. A however without commas setting it off is the other however.” Montgomery paused for the briefest of moments. “Which, however,” he added, “is the same however. It is simply differently used.”

Several of the scribblers were darting their eyes around at their friends to see if they had successfully parsed Montgomery’s latest utterance.

Montgomery continued, warming to the subject. “The ever – which, incidentally, is as etymologically puzzling as dog – is attached to wh-words to give them a sort of generalized, indefinite force: whoever said whatever whenever wherever however. (There may seem to be no whyever, but whyever shouldn’t there be?) As a conjunctive adverb, however is shortened from however this may be, which is why we treat it as a dependent clause. We see a similar shortening, for instance, in the use of as far as: whereas formerly all would say as far as ‘however’ goes, now many will say simply as far as ‘however’. Goes to show, doesn’t it?”

Montgomery smiled slightly and gave his little round button of office a tweak. “Clearly there is some confusion over this word; faced with it, we hover between certainty and despair, and know not how to veer. But let its form serve as a mnemonic to you: just as it has a w and then a v, you may think of it as having a single mark – a comma – after, and a double mark – a semicolon – before, or a double-strength pause – a period. Then your usage will not change as the weather.”

Another pause. Most of those who had been writing were no longer certain whether to write or not.

“However,” Montgomery added, “those are the formal rules, required of editors; linguists have the luxury of simply observing the variations. And in the Order of Logogustation we usually hew slightly more to the linguist’s side, with a healthy dose of fun tossed in.” He smiled. “Are we having fun yet?”

Red shirt, stuffing his materials in his bag, looked up. “Whatever.”