Daily Archives: August 23, 2010


This is a crisp, hard, almost brittle word at the start, its sound glittering like a cut diamond, gleaming at the end with the /li/. The crosses of the t‘s add to the angularity, and the short high front vowels keep it clipped and quick before it opens wider into two “long” vowels (really diphthongs). For all that, it’s musical, four crisp beats in two trochees (but you may say it in a three-time rhythm), like tapping feet and perhaps a fiddle, say, at a ceili.

And why not a ceili? After all, the grain this word names was first bred in Scotland – and Sweden. Yes, it’s a cereal grain, the mule of the breadbasket: a cross-breed between wheat (genus Triticum) and rye (genus Secale) that is sterile… until treated with colchicine (I wonder if mules would like a chemical that would let them reproduce).

Triticale sounds technical, strong, important, not trite; it’s a plant with a critical trail, the first man-made crop species. And it can grow in places where wheat cannot, and it has a high lysine content, good for feeding people and animals; it’s thought of as a crop of the future, which, given that its name sounds like a planet from Star Trek, seems reasonable enough.

But how can it replace wheat? Wheat is a softer, shorter word, and we easily think of flour with it… How can something called triticale become soft flour? Why, by being triturated, of course, just as is done to wheat for the same purpose. And rye – European bread and Canadian whisky – can triticale supplant it? Well, why should it – augment it, rather. After all, triticale is an augmented-feeling word (long like the name of a Sri Lankan city, perhaps), suitable enough given that triticale grains are somewhat larger than wheat grains, though not quite as large as rye grains.

But at least the linguistic blend is Latinate. Had it been in Gaelic, it might have been something like cruithneachteagal. Of course, in Swedish it could have made veteråg, which sounds earthy – though more like a name for a troll, perhaps, than something scientific. But had it been a simple English concatenation, it may have been wheatrye, which would have been pronounced like “we try”. And of course we try – that’s how we come up with things like triticale.

carboy, demijohn, delope

The Words, Wines, and Whatever tasting event was drawing to a close, and Maury’s aunt Susan, eloped from her nursing home, was feeling delightful. “Maury!” she said, throwing her arm around her nephew. “My glass is empty. The bottle is empty. Fetch me a carboy.” She tittered as she titubated.

“Fetch you a car?” Maury said. “Shall I call you a cab?”

“No, you silly thing, call me your aunt. I didn’t say I wanted a car, boy. I’ve had more than enough cars and boys and boys in cars in my life. I said I wanted a carboy.” She giggled again. “A large glass jug.”

Maury sighed. “I feel you need to be contained.”

“I’d take a demijohn. Though a demijohn often leads to a full john.” She smiled happily and, looking around, spotted a still-unopened bottle of champagne by the bookshelf. “Maury, my boy. I want to look something up. Let’s repair to the bookcase.”

“What would you like to look up?”

“A Scotsman’s kilt!” She giggled some more. “I want to explore the origins of carboy and demijohn.”

They made their way to the shelf; Susan positioned herself in such a way that the bottle was not obvious to Maury but was within her reach. She pulled out an etymological dictionary. “Funny two words for glass jugs both sound like names for patrons of prostitutes.” She flipped some pages. “Of course, I’m sure those demi-Johns and car boys like nice jugs.” She found her page: “From Persian qaraba, ‘large flagon’. Ay qaraba! A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”

“A flagon,” Maury said. “I think you’re flaggin’.”

She flipped some more pages. “Now… Is demijohn from Persian too? Or Arabic? Oh, I see: cognates in Persian and Arabic seem to have been borrowed from the French, as our word is: from Dame Jeanne, ‘Lady Joan’, because it looks like a fat lady. This word has had a change of sex!”

“Not one, but two, cases of reanalysis,” I said. “Under the influence of alcohol, quite evidently.”

“Speaking of which…” Susan grabbed the champagne bottle and started to undo the foil.

“The evening is concluding,” Maury protested. “You really must return.”

“I eloped at the beginning of the evening,” Susan said, “and once I have dealt with this small matter I will delope.”

Delope isn’t related to elope, though,” Maury said. “It’s a pistol dueling term; it means ‘fire into the air’.”

“I know,” said Susan. “I’ve read books by Georgette Heyer. One does it when one’s opponent is simply not up to one’s level. And, Maurice, lad, you are not as looped as I. Therefore, I must delope.” Whereupon she popped the champagne cork into the air. It whizzed past Maury’s ear and ricocheted off the ceiling.

Maury took the bottle from her, drank a good draught straight from it, and handed it back. “Time for the genie to go back in the bottle,” he said, and went off to arrange for a taxi.

Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for mentioning delope.