Daily Archives: July 5, 2010


Marcus Brattle, my (de)mentee, is at that impressionable, mercurial, protean age where nearly every meeting is a manifestation of some new bent. The latest is hip-hop and dancehall, which sits a bit oddly on his British-accented tongue. At our most recent meeting, as he slouched up to the dining room table in his house wearing an exceedingly baggy T-shirt and idiotically baggy pair of pants, plus a backwards ball cap with – um, yes, I think it indeed is – fake cornrows dangling from it, I had cause to remind myself of the merits of how much his mother is paying me and how good her espresso is.

“Yo yo yo, de Mar-cuss is here.” He flopped down and started rapping through a bit of “Eye Deh A Mi Knee” by Sean Paul: “We keep drilling it and we keep filling it and all this time say we never put a pill in it. The gal them say them love how we still in it, we free willin’ it and we know we can’t stop killin’ it… Ever thrillin’ it, we value and we illin’ it and from we deh ’bout inna them life nothing ill in it…”

“De Mar-cuss has evidently been practising,” I observed drily.

“De Mar-cuss is ill at it. Now he be illin’ it. De Mar-cuss is licensed to ill.”

Cute. A Beastie Boys reference. “De Mar-cuss is certainly a beastly boy,” I said. “He is also become an illeist, I see.”

“De Mar-cuss is de illest!”

“Not illest,” I said. “Illeist. Rhymes with silliest. Resembles it too.” I had a sip of espresso.

Marcus looked at me warily. “Yo, what dat, yo?”

“It’s not yo, and it’s not you. More to the point, it’s not I, it’s he. An illeist is someone who refers to himself – or herself, though guys seem more prone to it in my experience – in the third person. Like Bob Dole, who always said ‘Bob Dole will do this’ and ‘Bob Dole believes that.'”

“Who’s Bob Dole?”

Pause. Mental readjustment on my part. “A guy who ran for president of the US before you were born. Never mind. …It comes from Latin ille, meaning ‘he’. It’s constructed in contrast with egoist, which is formed on ego, meaning ‘I’. It’s a bit ironic, because illeists tend to be egoists, I find.”

“Yo, it sounds important. It sounds famous.”

“It sounds like Bucky Katt from the comic strip Get Fuzzy.”


“I actually like that Latin word ille, though,” I said. “The shape of it makes me think of my hair standing on end when I hear an illeist. And if you say it in the proper Latin way, it has a luscious double l – ‘eel lay’.”

“An eel lay? Oh, that’s ill, man.”

“Well, never mind, in English it’s said like ‘illy’.” I knocked back the rest of my espresso.

Marcus smirked. “I have news for you,” he said, back in his usual dialect. “I’m not the illeist. You are.”

I cocked my head skeptically. “How so?”

“That espresso of which you’re so fond. What brand did you think it is?” He gestured towards the kitchen, wherein I could see a can of Illy espresso. “That makes you the Illy-ist.” He launched into a bit of the Beastie Boys: “But I’m chiller with the Miller – cold coolin’ at the bar. I can drink a quart of Monkey and still stand still. What’s the time? – it’s time to get ill.”

I stared at my empty cup. “It is indeed.”


When I was young, I would on occasion see this word, pretty much always in the phrase infrared light. I had the sense that it was a special kind of light that one couldn’t see – light that permeated the dark, even. My feeling of this word was certainly conditioned by how I assumed it was pronounced: as in plus frared, the latter rhyming with flared. It sounded clandestine and hot, and perhaps in some way impaired. Its /r_rd/ had a dark massiveness that reared and roared, the mouth starting pursed, then opening briefly and returning to pursed, like a flash of a searchlight or a glimpse of a star.

And I actually heard of, and knew, infra-red for some time before I realized that this infrared was in fact infra-red written without the hyphen! (How infra dig.) Indeed, the hyphenless spelling generated more heat than light. It was also somewhere around that time that I came to understand that infrared (“below red” – infra being Latin for “below” and red being English for “red”) made a pair with ultraviolet (ultra being Latin for “beyond”).

Indeed, perhaps I should have inferred it sooner. Naturally, the different pronunciation comes with a different feel. It has two syllables in a row with /r/ in the onset, which puts it in the company of such as rarity and rural – but with the /f/ before the /r/ it may be a bit easier to say than rural, since the /r/ after the /f/ can be reduced. As well, the middle syllable is the unstressed one. And it has three short bumps rather than a bump and a flare.

So there is more to this word than meets the eye. And indeed one ought to be careful not to infer too much from the infra. It may be below the visible spectrum, but it’s not a minor thing. You can find it all over the place; it’s anything but rare. You’re emitting it right now. So is the sun; in fact, the majority of the solar radiation that hits the earth is infrared. You can’t see it, but you can feel it. Now, certainly, visible and ultraviolet light also produce heat, but at least visible light generates, for our eyes, more light than heat. But all things that emit heat emit light (in the broad sense referring to all electromagnetic radiation, visible or not) – it just happens that most of the time that light is infrared.

Imagine if we could see infrared with our eyes. No human could lurk in the darkness unseen. We would have an even more clearly defined dichotomy between warm things and cold things. Sunlight would be much brighter. Fevers would be obvious, stoves hard to look at; restaurant servers and coffee cups wouldn’t need to warn you of the heat. And a worthless blaze would be less likely said to give, as Polonius (in Hamlet) says, “more light than heat,” since more heat would of course mean more light.