Daily Archives: October 25, 2010


…we looked around through the detritus, strewn about the room like a hurricane-tattered landscape, and at length discerned a grey cloth heap in the corner in the shape of a cloaked lad. A nudge with the toe provoked a peek from inside the cape, and then the raffish ragamuffin threw off his covering, stood up with a wry smile, adjusted the ragged red scarf at his throat, surveyed the remnants of his uninvited sojourn and, without so much as a “please” or “thank you,” swung himself through the window and on to his next adventure. What a scapegrace!

Ah, scapegrace. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a likeable definition: “A man or boy of reckless and disorderly habits; an incorrigible scamp. Often used playfully.” And the quotations confirm the impression that this is a word of 19th-century literature – an era when scapegraces often showed up in novels, perhaps in a tattered cap and with a hearty “Wotcher, mate!” The word has a certain dash to it, not only through the internal echo of vowels but through the rough beginning – scape so much like scrape, and with its hissing catch and the dangerous echo of escape – followed by the smooth, nay, grace-ful ending, which subsides into another hiss but carries such a smoothness of sense.

And why would we use this word for that kind of person? Well, the idea is that he escapes, or has escaped, the grace of God – in other words, he’s a little heathen, ain’t he. Sounds kind of Huck-Finn-ish, dunnit? Or perhaps Oliver Twistish. So, yes, the scape is taken from escape (which ultimately comes from Latin ex “out of” and cappa “cape, cloak”, suggesting an uncloaking). It is altogether unrelated to landscape (which really ought to be landship if you want it to match the modern forms of its components). And the grace is of course the same grace as in grace of God (and also the grace of my wife when she’s in skates on the ice) – which traces back to Latin gratus “pleasing”, which is also the source for several words for “thanks” (grazie, gracias, etc.).

Just incidentally, scapegrace is also used for birds. I don’t mean female humans – it’s only very rarely used for them – but rather as a name for the red-throated loon, which is seen (among other places) around New England and the Maritimes, including Cape Race in Newfoundland.


I have a CD from the mid-1990s of the Tufts Beelzebubs, the all-male a cappella group from Tufts University (where I went to grad school); it has a number of excellent renditions of popular songs (one of my favourites is Pink Floyd’s “Hey You”). Among those songs is Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening.”

If you’re familiar with that song, you’ll remember the line “There was music coming from the room next door, And my mother laughed the way some ladies do.” Well, as it happens, I’ve always had a sort of idea of what that laugh might be like – a sort of pleasant closed-mouth chuckle. Other people have other ideas; Paul Simon didn’t imitate it, so it’s open to imagination. Well, guess what: one of the members of the Beelzebubs did imitate his idea of it in the recording. The sound that follows that line, in their version, is no melodius chuckle or titter. No, he cachinnates.

Cachinnates! I mean, how cack-handed! Like some cartoon witch! Most unpleasant; a fly in the ointment of an otherwise good rendition. Such cacklin’ ain’t my idea of a good performance.

From context, you probably have an idea (if you didn’t before) of what cachinnate means. You also may have a sense of how it’s pronounced (like “cack innate”). You may nonetheless have some questions about this funny-looking word.

First of all, there is no established link to cackle, though both likely have origins in imitating what they name, and some people believe there is a link between them. But lest I mislead you, cachinnate does not mean “cackle” exactly; it means “laugh loudly or immoderately” – in other words, the word’s tinny taste conveys accurately the unpleasantness of its objectionable object.

Secondly, it’s from Latin, if you weren’t sure – the ch may have led you to suspect Greek, but the Latinate ate suffix is gotten honestly, so to speak. So why the ch for /k/? Well, Latin didn’t have a k – it represented the sound with c. But later on the c came to be an affricate before /e/ and /i/, and so in order to represent /k/ an h was written after the c, which is just as they do it in Italian now.

The result, to English eyes, is of course a bit odd, though not necessarily risible. While the sound of the word echoes cackle and crack, the sight of it may bring to mind Cochin China (an old colonial name for southern Viet Nam) or perhaps not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin (a phrase that may be accompanied with cachinnation, but that is of course followed by huffing and puffing and, ideally, blowing the house down). And of course both sight and sound have a taste of tinny, as mentioned, the sight doubly so with the two tin cans c and c.

But although the cachinnation in the Bubs’ recording of “Late in the Evening” jars me, I suppose I ought not to be too hard on them. Cachinnation is at least a sign of a sense of humour. I will always prefer someone with an innate cache of cachinnation over an agelast.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting cachinnation.