Monthly Archives: June 2010


I was having a tutoring session with my young student Marcus Brattle on the patio at Café Kopi Luwak when I looked up to see a lean figure with a five-o’clock shadow and a portable dog coming towards us.

Ross Ewage, noted vulgarian.

“Shit,” I said. Marcus looked up.

Ross drew abreast. “Did I hear you talking about my dog?”

“Your dog?” Marcus asked. “I believe he said, ‘Shit.'”

“That’s my dog,” said Ross, holding the small creature before him. “Shit Sue. She’s a nice little shit, Sue.”

“If we were to pronounce the breed name shih-tzu more like the Mandarin original,” I observed, “that pun wouldn’t be available.”

“Well, we don’t, and it is,” Ross said, setting the dog on the pavement. “So what’re you doing here? Just shootin’ the shit?”

I tried to steer away from the coprolalia. “We were discussing Star Trek,” I said.

“Oh, shit, that’s good shit, that is,” Ross said. “The original series especially. That shit is the shit. I mean, it’s the real shit.”

“No it’s not!” Marcus said. “It’s not the shit! It’s just shit. The later shit is much better shit.” Marcus was always quick to warm to the improper.

“Ah, you’re fulla shit.” Ross waved his hand.

“But the premises are such wild bullshit,” Marcus said.

“That’s science fiction,” I observed. “It relies on a healthy helping of what Orson Scott Card calls pseudo-scientific garbage.”

“Look,” Ross said, “it’s the same shit everywhere: you drop the crew on some shit planet, they get knee-deep in shit dealing with some dumb shit, and then by shit-ass luck they get out. But in the course of that, they come up with some really interesting shit. It’s not meant to be real life.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Marcus said.

“But the original Star Trek did it first. They own that shit.”

“You know,” I said to Marcus, “if your mother heard this conversation, we’d be up shit creek.”

“Ha! She’d shit a brick,” he laughed. “The shit would hit the fan. Ah, tough shit.” He swigged his coffee.

“Well, then why are you meeting at a place named ‘cat shit coffee’?” Ross asked.

Score one point for Ross.

Marcus looked up at the restaurant sign. “What?”

“Kopi luwak,” I said. “That’s coffee that’s been eaten by civets – often called civet cats, though they’re not really cats – and then shat out. The beans are harvested from the excrement, cleaned up, roasted, and served. It’s the most expensive coffee in the world.”

“That’s some crazy shit,” Marcus said. “It must be tough to gather that shit.”

“They have to catch it first,” said Ross, but he said “catch it” more like “cat shit.”

“I think,” declared Marcus, “this shit is a very versatile word. And it certainly has a good sound to it.”

“Yeah, it’s like sliding into home plate,” said Ross. “You can really hiss it – you can say it with clenched teeth. And it slides to a nice stop.”

“It’s just like the doors on the Enterprise,” Marcus said. “You hear when they open and close: shit…shit.”

“Yes,” I added, warming to the topic a bit more, “and while it has that hushing ‘sh’ it also carries more force than the other popular vulgarity that starts with a voiceless fricative and ends with a stop. That one has the teeth biting the lip, which restrains the air more and is less loud, more a gesture of holding something back; it then really lets the dam burst –”

Damn is not the word –” Ross said, but I cut him off and continued.

“It lets the dam burst with a more open vowel, and then it ends at the back. Shit maintains high pressure by staying tight up at the tip of the tongue.”

“Especially if you’re drinking kopi luwak,” Marcus observed. “I declare. It really gets around for an acronym.”

Ross and I turned and looked with the same expression: bullshit meter needle tipping into the red. “Acronym?” I said.

“Don’t you know that?” Marcus said. “From ship high in transit?”

“That’s bullshit,” I said.

“That’s not just bullshit, that’s horseshit,” Ross averred. “Listen, anyone who thinks vulgarities come from acronyms doesn’t know Jack shit about etymology. People don’t make vulgarities from acronyms; they make acronyms to hide vulgarities. SNAFU. SOL. WTF. Vulgarities are good old Germanic words. As they say, Anglo-Saxon four-letter words.”

Shit comes from an Old English root, the verb scitan,” I said, pronouncing it like “she tan.” “It’s cognate with, for instance, German Scheiss. It was a verb first, then a noun from that. Another form, less common, is shite. Which has been used occasionally in other terms of abuse, such as nimshite, which means ‘shit taker’.”

“You’re shitting me,” Marcus said.

“That’s no shit,” Ross said.

Marcus reached for his coffee but bumped the table, which tilted and spilled the beverages. “Aw, shit. What a piece of shit,” he said, smacking the table.

“I think that’s my cue to exit,” said Ross. As he turned to walk away, he discovered with his shoe that his dog had been busy. He lifted his foot. “Shit,” he observed.

Marcus smirked. “Shit happens.”

Thanks to Alison Kooistra for suggesting I taste shit.


Spuzhka kuprista. Grahaaalamana! Mulikusu manaritis tata. I brustu manisichi. Gremisoto lanis ticha. Skuurrman nana tata lili olo! Glossolalia!

Don’t recognize that language? Oh, come now. Analyze it morphologically. Look for structures that bespeak a syntax.

Look, people do this all the time! In states of ecstasy! Inspired by divine afflatus! Have you not heard of speaking in tongues?

No, I don’t mean the album by the Talking Heads.

See, on the original day of Pentecost, the apostles had tongues of fire land on them, and they spoke in foreign languages and were understood by those who spoke those languages. And now there is a tradition in some churches of speaking in tongues: people, moved by the spirit, reel off declarations just like the first paragraph above.

Ask them what it means. Ask anyone what it means. Find someone who understands it. Try not to be met with a glassy lolling gaze.

There is, certainly, one word up there that is analyzable: glossolalia. Fits right in, doesn’t it? But gloss is, like its alternate glott, from the Greek for “tongue”, and lalia is from a Greek word for “speaking” – or “babbling”: lalalalalala (note the difference in ancient Greek between baby babble, lalala, and foreign speech, barbarbar – as in barbarian). So it means “speaking in tongues” – or “babbling with your tongue”. Hence the American Heritage Dictionary definition, “Fabricated and nonmeaningful speech, especially such speech associated with a trance state or certain schizophrenic syndromes.”

One could probably extend it to include such things as songs that use made-up language-like syllables, such as several used in Cirque du Soleil shows; one could even include fake language that sounds like a real, identifiable language, such as Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinainciusol.”.

I’ll tell you this: glossolalia is a great word for it. It starts with that oral and shiny /gl/, and indeed the gloss here fits the meretricious fulgurence of its referent – it looks impressive, but at the heart of it is a loss. The olalia trips off the tip of the tongue, flapping it like the lingual fillip of a popular trollop (and perhaps suggesting that glossolalists have the doolally tap). There’s the hiss of the /s/ and then the liquid /l/s again, babbling like a brook, so lightly and insouciantly, ready to be sung or blathered abroad. All it really lacks is a trilled /r/.

But what is the value of it? I wouldn’t be the only person to call “speaking in tongues” into question. “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue [ah, intelligible, it has such a lovely sound to go with glossolalia, but the former has something the latter lacks], how will anyone know what you are saying? …Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning.” That (except for my bracketed comment) is from I Corinthians 14:9–10, by the apostle Paul. So, heck, if even he wasn’t for it, what is the value of it?

I’ll tell you what the value of it is for me. If I’m at home, by myself, and something frustrates me, rather than saying vile things, I simply spout glossolalia. So much nicer than coprolalia. Great phatic way of blowing off steam. Or blowing smoke, as the case may be.


Imagine, if you will, a lady of a certain repute, or, at the very least, a certain disposition towards love and pecuniary matters, such that the one were contingent on the other, or the other on the one; she might troll for a dollop of desire, if but a dollar may find its way to her, or, should some troll tickle a collop of her belly, she may yet tolerate it, if he would pay a toll. At every amorous portal will she sing tra-la-la if there but be a piper to pay her for the tune. How may we name such a Polly of amory?

If you’re thinking Trollope, you have it: I have been emulating (I will allow others to judge the success) the style of Anthony Trollope, a prolific novelist of the nineteenth century. He was certainly versed in the ways of the sexes and the ways of money; here is a quote from Doctor Thorne:

One of her instructors in fashion had given her to understand that curls were not the thing. “They’ll always pass muster,” Miss Dunstable had replied, “when they are done up with bank notes.”

Does such a lass seem like a bit of a trull? Trolling for banknotes, as it were? Well, it may be from troll (verb, originally meaning “wander about”) or trull (“prostitute”, derived from the aforementioned troll) that we get trollop (“prostitute, slattern”). Now, this trollop is not related to our novelist’s name, Trollope (though I cannot say whether there may have been some influence in form); the family name is a toponym from a place in northern England – a place that was originally named, in Old Norse, “valley of the trolls” (this troll also not related to the troll that gives us trollop). But it does seem that Trollope’s own interest in actually earning money with his writing, his scorn of those who disdained lucre, and his workday approach to the craft – not waiting for the muse but actually writing to a daily quota – made him a literary trollop in the eyes of some critics.

Trollop does, of course, have aesthetic appeal quite apart from its novel literary sense. As Jim Taylor says, “It feels like a fascinating word, with those contemptuous plosives. And that very upright double-l in the middle. Could the symmetric o’s be breasts?” Jim has been delicate enough not to mention the sheer iconicity of an ollo ensemble.

But aside from the visuals, with which you are free to play further, there is, as Jim says, the plosives, and, more, the overall feel of the word. It belongs to a set of words with similar sound: dollop, collop, polyp, gallop, fillip; a little more removed, rollick, colic, killick, and bullet, billet, ballot, pullet, prelate… They all start and end with stops, and have a little flip of /l/ in the middle. It gives them, to me, a sort of taste of cold cuts or similar bits of meat you flip onto your tongue, or perhaps of music trills, or little flips or flops of things (whipped cream, perhaps). Brief but longer than abrupt, and with a light touch in the middle. Now, consider: how are trollope and slattern different, and how similar?

And how are a woman who loves for money and a man who writes for money different? And is every pecuniary motivation so poorly looked on? The answer to the latter question is hinted at by Trollope in Doctor Thorne: “There is no road to wealth so easy and respectable as that of matrimony.” Ah, so constancy excuses venality. Now, is a writer of novels who does it for money constant – to his craft – or promiscuous – writing so many different books? Was Trollope a trollop? And does it matter, really? Trollope in his autobiography reminds us of the main thing: “Of all the needs a book has, the chief need is that it be readable.”

my bad

Margot sipped her latte and grimaced. “I wanted it made with nonfat milk!” she protested.

“Whoops,” Daryl said, pulling his own from the tray he had just brought. “My bad.”

Margot grimaced even more. “Your bad? Why can you not speak good English and say my fault or my error?”

“Since when is bad bad English?” I said with feigned innocence.

“If anything,” Jess said, playing along, “it’s gotten better. Aside from its positively toned colloquial use in African-American Vernacular English, its presence in English seems to stem from an original word bæddel referring to a hermaphrodite or effeminate male. Leaving aside the fact that that is the exact opposite of the modern slang sense I just mentioned, it’s not very heartening to think that such people were the subject of such opprobrium that they became the byword for poor quality. So much better to see this word and its original subjects separated and freed from that.” She sipped her cappuccino with ostentatious propriety.

By this time, Margot was looking at us over her glasses with one eyebrow raised. “You know what I mean. We don’t use bad as a noun.”

Daryl started whistling a recognizable tune from Ennio Morricone. Jess paused for a moment, then named the movie Daryl had in mind: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!” She high-fived him. He turned to Margot: “The bad.”

“But you’re not referring to your group of bad people!” Margot said.

“Well,” I said, “why can’t we have a bad if we can have a good? You know, a good as in a good thing done? Here – let me give an example.” I turned to my laptop and opened a recently viewed article, Nicholas Kristof’s “Most Valuable Helper.” “Manute Bol,” I said, summarizing, “a seven-and-a-half-foot NBA star player originally from Sudan who died just this past weekend – June 19, 2010 – was so focused on building multifaith schools to help bring peace in his native country that he not only got his fans to donate to the cause, he not only buttonholed members of congress for it, he donated most of his own wealth. The first school will open soon. Is that not a good? Has he not done a good?”

“Well, yes,” Margot said, “but it’s not really idiomatic to say that one has done a bad. It sounds like child talk, in fact.”

“Perhaps it’s from the talk of a non-native speaker,” I offered.

“Well, I wonder if that’s where it came from.”

I was smiling as I tapped a few more keys and pulled up a Language Log post by Geoffrey Pullum, “Pick-up basketballism reaches Ivy League faculty vocabulary.” “In fact, it has its origins in pick-up basketball games at the collegiate level. In the 1980s, it came to be popular to say my bad if you made a bad pass or missed an opportunity – similar to how a chorister might raise his or her hand after singing a wrong note in rehearsal, to acknowledge the fault. Now, that might indicate an origin in African-American Vernacular English. But actually, there’s some pretty good evidence – as you’ll see here –” I turned the laptop towards Margot – “the person who started it was not a native speaker of English. He was a native speaker of Dinka, a Nilo-Saharan language. It caught on probably in part because he was such a salient player. Here’s a quote from a USA Today article written after he turned pro.” I pointed at the screen.

Margot read it out: “After making a bad pass, instead of saying ‘my fault,’ Manute Bol says, ‘my bad.’ Now all the other Warriors say it too.”

Daryl had an impressed and pleased look. Jess, grinning widely, said, “Well, I think his good was good enough that we can take his bad!”


I’m most used to seeing this word occasionally in news reports of earthquakes. In places like Canada, where it’s not the everyday word, we can chalk its use up to the desire not to use the same word over and over again (this can become a sort of mania among some reporters, leading them to exhaust the thesaurus on occasion, perhaps even to the point of writing things like “He won a cucumber-eating contest, munching back two dozen of the indehiscent pepos”). However, in my younger years, following the principle that if you use a new word it must be to give some new shade of meaning, I concluded that it must refer to a specific instance of quaking, rather than the whole pattern of shakes and aftershocks that can characterize an earthquake.

Ah, well, no, it’s just a southern US word for “earthquake”. And it does have a nice feel to it, doesn’t it? The building starts a-tremblin’ and your books start a-tumblin’… It resembles tremble closely enough (perhaps as though an earthquake had disrupted the word) that one might conclude that it is a higher-class version of the same, sort of like divers for diverse. It has more of a tam-tam or kettle-drum sound, with the tem, rather than the rolling in of trem; then it rolls off afterward, like the echo of thunder or like smaller aftershocks. The mbl has a certain phonaesthetic effect, showing up in tremble and rumble and crumble and tumble and stumble and shambles – like rocks falling down a cliff.

So where does this word come from? A process similar to the one that gave us bust from burst? Actually, it probably comes from a merger of two words. But that merger is of two Latin words into a Spanish word: the verbs timere “fear” and tremulare “quake” (or “tremble”) into the Spanish verb temblar. And the noun form of that verb in Spanish is temblor, with the stress on the second syllable. It means shaking, for instance of the knees.

It happens that temblor is not the most direct translation of earthquake into Spanish; that would be terremoto. Temblor is used in Spanish first of all to refer to trembling of the body and such things. But of course it can be applied to the earth as well. It is thus a sort of Spanish periphrasis – a new word for the same thing so you don’t have to use the same old word all the time. Indeed, English-language journalists are not the only ones who like to shake things up a bit.

And, to give us another word for “earthquake” to add to our collection, we borrowed it into English in that sense. Now, nouns of state with the suffix or are not new to English; we have such as pudor and furor. And, like those ones, this one gets the stress on the first syllable in English. But no one in English uses temblor to mean “shakiness” or “trembling”; it’s just used for the big ground rumbler (or even just a little shake of a quake – but you will find people will use it more readily with something considerable).


Let’s start with what this isn’t: namely, a heavy metal band. Sorry! Does look like it, though, doesn’t it? It’s the umlauts – but they make such a nice effect on the o‘s, too, like a pair of eyes with bushy eyebrows, or perhaps two steaming pots viewed from the side.

Well, you can guess how they’re pronounced: like [e] (as in eh) but rounded – like in schön. Now guess the next thing from that: do you think this word has anything to do with pork?

Well, consider that pork comes from French porc, and ultimately from Latin porcus. Next, consider that rounded front vowels written with umlauts are not something one finds in Romance languages. (It’s not that they don’t have rounded front sounds; it’s that they don’t use the two dots to signify them – those are used for other purposes.) Could a porcus–derived word have been borrowed into another non-Romance language? Oh, it could have. But not in this case.

But it’s no surprise if people think that it does have to do with pork. After all, pörkölt is a meat stew. Mind you, the stew is most commonly made with beef (though it can be made with pork, or rabbit, chicken, road kill, whatever…). This gives rise to a situation just like with hamburger: why ham – and why pörk – with beef?

Well, it’s like this. There’s a verb, pörkölni, which means “roast” or “singe” or, according to the Oxford Companion to Food, “roast the surface to the point of almost burning” (my paraphrase). This word pörkölt comes from that. So is this stew made with meat that has been nearly burned? Well, no. It just happens that in the early 1820s, when paprika was first imported to where this stew was invented, it was discovered that meat rubbed with it before cooking had just that hot-roasted kind of flavour they liked. So the stew – basically meat, onions, and paprika, and maybe some tomatoes – became very popular. In fact, it came to be served often to visitors from other countries. It’s a pretty common dish even in North American cuisine now.

Not heard of it? Well, what we call it is a name that has been transferred from a soup made with the same kind of meat and seasoning but extra liquid and some potatoes. That sort of soup was named “herder’s meat” (or “cowboy meat”), gulyá hás, which shortened to gulyás. But the s in this language is said like English “sh”, while the [s] sound is written sz. So, with the /l/ losing the palatalization, the name we generally use for this kind dish is goulash. And we often stick extra things in the dish, like noodles. When I was a kid, the “Hungarian goulash” we had was ground beef, noodles, onions, tomatoes, paprika, and I’m not sure what-all else.

By the way, if you’ve heard of paprikash (as, for instance, in When Harry Met Sally: “Waiter, there is too much pepper in the paprikash, but I would be pleased to partake of your pecan pie”), or paprikás as it’s spelled in Hungarian, it’s the same as pörkölt but with sour cream. Mmm!

But I like the word pörkölt, and not just because it’s misleading (and looks a bit like a pair of Elton John’s glasses), nor just because it sounds like it could be Turkish, nor because it sounds just a little like a bad word in Finnish (perkele), nor because at any rate it’s not from an Indo-European language – Hungarian is related to Finnish and Estonian (not too closely) but not at all to, for instance, German – but just because of the sound of it. And I don’t mean how it sounds like people who worship that noise cats make (purr cult). It just has a forced kind of feeling, with that second vowel exactly the same as the first, and both leading into liquids, and the word bookended with voiceless stops. Maybe like riding a bike down a couple of steps (a longer set of stairs would be like helter skelter). And it’s abrupt: those vowels are not to be held too long. If they were, the double dots would become double accents – and the word would look very surprised, pőrkőlt, and sound like slamming on the brakes at high speed and skidding to a stop.

I gotta say, though, a good bowl of pörkölt – like a good word – is worth stopping for.


Another week, another class of Introduction to Word Tasting. I began by striding up to the board and writing moist.

I was not disappointed at the response; I had been prepared for it by reports from others.

“That word is offensive to women,” said one of the students before I could even turn around. On turning, I found that it was Kayley. Several other female faces in the classroom wore expressions of mild or severe distaste. None of the guys seemed discomfited, except for Rupert, who seemed ready to flinch – but, then, he usually did.

“Why?” I asked her.

“Well, everyone knows it is.” Some of the other females present nodded.

“I didn’t say ‘Is it?'” I said. “I said, ‘Why?'”

Anna, who is not subject to discomfiture (she’s a carrier), volunteered, “Moist panties!”

“Wait,” said Brian, turning, “do you find wet offensive too?”

“Um, no, it’s not nasty like moist,” said Kayley.

“Uncomfortable moisture,” Anna added. “Feminine products.”

“How about dry?” I asked. “How about muffin? If I say we’re in a tight spot, or a word can be loosely defined, is it offensive? How do we choose which ones are tainted by association? And is this word really tainted? You know, Duncan Hines advertises its cake mixes as ‘So moist. So delicious. And so much more.’ And I really think they’re marketing to women.”

“Duncan,” another one of the females – Jenna – snorted. “Clueless male.”

“Duncan Hines is a brand of Pinnacle Foods,” I said, “which is run by women as well as men. The person named Duncan Hines died more than 60 years ago. And if we’re talking about clues, I’m still looking for evidence that you have a clear sense of why you should be offended by moist.”

“Well, if it’s not obvious to you…” Jenna said, waving her hand.

“That’s a non-answer,” I said. “But not to worry: even if you’re unwilling or unable to articulate it, that’s why we’re here. Words have overtones; words have aesthetics. And people spread ideas about words. If nice words like picnic can be poisoned by false stories, certainly a word like moist can be poisoned by groupthink. Exactly when does a given connotation or collocation or other echo come to dominate a word? Sometimes things just catch on. There are Facebook groups dedicated to hating the word moist.” I pulled a piece of paper out of my pocket. “Not so long ago, the satirical website The Onion posted the following: ‘CORRECTIONS: After receiving fewer e-mail complaints than usual, it occurred to us that we have failed to incorporate the word “moist” into any of our recent articles. The Onion regrets missing the opportunity to offend its fragile readers’ delicate sensibilities. Moist.'”

“It’s come to be an ‘everybody knows’ thing,” Brian observed. “Except that not everybody knows.”

“And, indeed,” I said, “common agreement is what gives words their power. For instance, we can manage to use Latin-derived words for some body parts and functions without giving offense, but the Anglo-Saxon equivalents are considered very vulgar. Connotation undoubtedly involves groupthink. But again, why moist?”

“Well, because of what it goes with,” Kayley said.

I looked at further notes on the paper. “Air, soil, warm, eyes, keep, cool, tender, heat, skin, dark, cake…” I looked up. “Those are top collocations according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English.”

Rupert raised his hand. “Toilet.” He almost smiled, remembering how Eleanor, our resident flutterbudget, had been driven into retreat by that word. “It sounds like toilet.”

Oyster!” Anna exclaimed. “Mmmm… moist oyster!” Kayley turned and looked at her with a face that said “You’re creepy.”

“The ois have it,” I said. “Especially when followed by that wet-sounding s. I think it’s a real factor.”

A hand from the side of the classroom. “Yes, Dawn,” I said.

“I don’t find it offensive,” Dawn said.

“Neither does my wife,” I said. “And there we have the other side of it: there may be a groupthink that dogpiles on moist –”

I winced, because I know what Anna was about to shout, and she did not disappoint: “Moist dog piles!”

I continued. “But it’s an in-group thing. Certainly there is some cultural and perhaps physical basis that leads some people to dislike it – probably a prurience about certain bodily features and functions, maybe a recollection of unpleasant sensations. But distaste and offense are different things. I dislike the word onus but I’m not offended by it. Moist is only offensive to those who decide they want to be offended by it. Being offended, of course, gives a person power in our society – control over others. That’s one motivation for this kind of groupthink.”

Dawn’s hand again. “So where does it come from?”

“The groupthink?” I asked.

“No, sorry, the word. The… etymology.”

“Oh!” I said. “I’m glad you asked. It comes most immediately from French, but the trail back from that is unclear, though it certainly goes to Latin. It’s thought that it’s a blend of mustum – ‘unfermented grape juice’ – and mucidus, which gives us the modern English word mucid.”

Brian’s face now took on a tinge of distaste. “Please tell me that doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means.”

I made a “sorry, but” shake of the head. “It’s an adjective relating to mucus. It can also mean ‘mouldy’ or ‘slimy’.”

Three or four voices declared, “Yuck!”

Anna’s face lit up. But before she could oblige with another interjection, Kayley turned to her, glaring, and said, “Oh, dry up!”


If you see your money devoured, going down the drain (y), if you feel like a diver – entirely under water – your debts have overwhelmed you, and you aver that the die is cast, this is a word for you. It’s a term from old Scottish law; it means “bankrupt” and can be a noun or adjective.

As it happens, it is pronounced exactly like diver, and some people think it may actually have come from diver – the Oxford English Dictionary has two citations from around 1600 that have it in the context of being “drowned in debt.” The more commonly given etymology derives it from devoir, French for (in this case) “owe”, but there is no clear explanation for the shift of stress or the change of the first vowel.

It’s an odd-looking word, isn’t it? It seems constricted at the start – y isn’t automatically seen as a wide-open vowel – and the yv is a pair of notches (perhaps on a tally stick), or almost even a w with a tail or foot or hook on it. Or an accordion file, stuffed with bills owing. But the sound of it has that wide arc of the [aI]. Meanwhile, the back half looks open, with its two vowel characters, but in fact it barely has a vowel, if at all; many will say it with a syllabic /r/.

For further confusion, consider that when this word was in its heyday, u and v were one character with two sounds, written two ways, but the shape tended to be varied according to position and taste and not according to sound, so one might see it as dyvovr or dyuour. So many things about this word thus seem bivalent, or ambivalent, and anyway deceptive. It almost aims to defeat: if it had been spelled divour, we could see an IOU in it, but instead all we know is that we see you and our but hear I – so again we do not know which is the reality, or if they both are; we cannot tell which is black and which is white, as it were.

Or perhaps we should say yellow and brown. Under Scottish law in the 17th century, debtors were required to wear a coat or upper garment that was half yellow and half brown, along with hose and a cap similarly half yellow and half brown. (No mention of where they would get the money to pay for this new habit.) And so even in clothing we have the same duality and the same paradox. After all, how does it come to be that someone half in yellow and half in brown can be seen to be entirely in the red?


A rumbling burbles from a bloated belly nearby. Not to be a boring prig, but what barbarian is plaguing us with their borborygmus?

Well, it’s not really such a social infraction as all that, especially given that it’s often followed by the question, “Was that me?” Hard to get upset at something when it might be you.

And it’s anything but new. The ancient Greeks did it (in spite of their often being presented, as Peter Shaffer’s Mozart put it in Amadeus, as “so lofty they shit marble”). We know they did, because borborygmus is their word (as filtered to us through the Romans, whom we know to have had earthier appetites – panem et circenses, decline and fall, and all that).

Now, to us, borborygmus might sound like a frog. To the Greeks, though, at least to Aristophanes (a very earthy Greek indeed), frogs sounded like brekekekex koax koax. Borborygmus may also sound like the rumbling of boulders (marble bounding through the immaculate colons of Titans, perhaps). But one thing it seemed to sound at least a little like to the Greeks was the speech of foreigners. I say this because the classical Greek word barbaros, from which we get barbarian and its kin, was imitative of their perception of the speech of foreigners – which was also compared with stuttering. And barbaros does have a certain resemblance to borborugmos, the Greek source of our word du jour. Clearly repetition was a common feature in Greek onomatopoeia.

In fact, repetition may have been more to the point than the blunt voiced stops, rounded vowels, and rumbling liquids; bowels rumbling with liquids could as readily sound sharp, as Aristophanes illustrated when comparing (in The Clouds) the rumbling of thunder with flatulence caused by an excess of soup: papax papax and then papappax and up to papapappax.

Now, of course, papax is really a hapax legomenon (a word only found once in recorded literature – another one such, if the OED‘s citations cover the ambit, is borborology, meaning “filthy talk”), but I’m sure most of us recognize the sound. Indeed, other cultures have used similar phonetics to represent the phenomenon. I am put in mind of the Nakoda (Stoney Indian, a branch of the Sioux) word borhborhingen, which, in a somewhat literal translation, means “fart machine”. It’s actually their word for automobile… presumably because of what comes out the tailpipe, though cars do run on gas.

Thanks to Jim Taylor for mentioning this word.


In an email discussion on typography, I mistyped smart quotes as smark quotes. One of my colleagues, John Firth, declared it a useful word, “a combination of smart and snarky,” for describing “things that, although worthwhile, are sort of showoff-y, too. Like curly quotation marks.”

Well. I like that. It’s like being smart with a smirk! The mark in it can connect with getting high marks – or with “mark me” in the archaic sense (“look at me”). It might even be a bit smarmy. And surely it’s an attribute of many a shark (of the human kind) – though it sounds rather more like the sound made by a cross between a snake, a duck, and a dog. But, if we’re sticking with animals, I would have to say the key trait of smarkness would be cockiness.

It happens that there is already a word smark in use, though within a limited sphere. That sphere is pro wrestling fandom. In the vocabulary of pro wrestlers, taken right from good old criminal cant that’s been around for more than a quarter millennium, a mark is a gullible person, specifically one who believes that pro wrestling is real, not staged (this would describe me and my brother when we were kids, watching Stampede Wrestling on TV every Saturday – and then my brother would want to try some of those moves out on me… he’s three years older, by the way). This usage comes from mark meaning “target”, which is related to all the other senses of this good old Germanic word (and unrelated to the name Mark). Blend it with smart (another good old Germanic word, meaning first of all “causing pain” – from the verb smart, which we still have – and then proceeding to senses of vigour and acuity and thence to intelligence and looks) and you get a wrestling fan who knows it’s staged, and may in fact pride himself on all his insider knowledge about it (whether he really knows all that much or not), but nonetheless is a fan. A smart mark – a smark. Cocky, perhaps a bit of a pain. Ah, how he may watch the ring with that Weltschmerz of the “in the know,” maybe even a smirk on his face… but let him not forget that, even in the staged fights, there’s a lot of rough-and-tumble and bruising, and a welt (or similar mark) smarts.

So can we use smark to mean “useful but showoffish”? Well, why not, if we can get others to accept it? It rather describes itself, doesn’t it?