Monthly Archives: November 2010


I was backing up old files and emails off floppy disks today and I dug up an email in which I expounded on a word I had just invented. Why did I invent the word? Because I had something that needed a word? No, actually I made up a definition for it after making it up. Did I expect it to gain entry in the standard lexicon? Rather not. No, I just did it for fun. The word was squidgeemorrow. (It sounds invented, doesn’t it?) Here, unaltered except for typo correction (note the outdated computer references), is the original explanation, from an email to my friend Michael Corrado, sent September 12, 1995:

Squidgeemorrow is the little space that enters your mind between thought and thought so that you stare into space thinking only that you are between thoughts. Is this the mental space in which dogs spend most or all of their time? Is the essence of caninity the suspended state between the originating thought which led the dog into existence and the final thought into which the dog enters after its demise?

Is thought in fact the thing which prevents us from realizing the true nature of things, is thought the Apollonian bubble in which we float oblivious to the Dionysian reality that swirls around us? What if the true dichotomy in life is between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic? No, that can’t be, as even the absence of aesthetic is aesthetic. Even squidgeemorrow, the anaesthetic state, the pure suspended thought condition which is the obverse of the pure active thought condition in which thoughts flow as smoothly as the absence of thought in the other (and the name of this condition is Cat), has its own aesthesis, perhaps unrealized during the condition, but it will come piling out like seven and a half thousand frogs flooding out of a closet after the door has been opened by some unwotting latter-day pharaoh, piling like the commands execute in rapid sequence after you come up to the terminal in the library which someone has pressed F1 on (hold screen) and not realized what was up, and then six and a half other people have come up to the terminal and typed their life stories and a few of their fantasies into the apparently unresponsive keyboards, only to walk away in frustration and animal disgust due to their unawareness of the hold screen function; the hold screen button off, snap out of it, and the frogs are everywhere, aesthetic overload for a blinding second which is so pure as to obliterate even its own traces, leaving behind as a memory for the experient no more than the single Trident gum wrapper left on a desert road after a stop by two tour buses full of persons from an unspecified country where they speak no language known to humans (thus possibly Alabama).

So, now, why that meaning and this word? Let us taste this word for a moment. Obviously it starts with squid, and yet there is nothing squiddish about its referent. I think I simply had a feel of the squalid squishiness of the liquidity of quiddity when qualia absquatulate, desquamating like squillions of scales from a Komodo Quasimodo. And how are they cleared thus from the windscreen of your mind? Why, with a squeegee… or a squidgee. (And where does the word squid come from, by the way? “Of obscure origin,” says the Oxford English Dictionary. So why shouldn’t it originate obscurity?)

And morrow? Well, gee, an eye to tomorrow is an eye that is suspended from today. Ah, yes, if there will always be more, oh, why turn to what is here now? At best there is a memory and a promise – squid yesterday and squid tomorrow, but never squid today.

And why such a long word? Well, apart from its evidencing a bent towards a prolix jag, and its possibly caesura-inducing sesquipedalianism, it occurs to me now that this word, too, is like the frog-pile following the fugue, that flash of green aesthesis that wipes even its own traces, flashing by like a bullet train… or a dream you had just before you woke up, but forgot on the instant your eyes opened. Ah, such is life.

stench, stanch, staunch

“Oyyy,” I said, stepping into Domus Logogustationis, local headquarters of the Order of Logogustation. “What’s the stench?”

“There’s been a little backup,” Maury said, gesturing towards the lavatory. “We’ve had to call for backup.”

A tall, angular fellow in overalls came out of the washroom. Seeing me, he took off a glove and came over, extending a hand in greeting. “Hi. I am Stan.”

“Stan,” I said, shaking hands with him. “From Stanley, taken from Old English for ‘stone meadow’.”

“No, in fact,” Stan said. “Taken from Zdenek. I am from the Czech Republic originally.”

Zdenek,” Maury said. “From Latin Sidonius, ‘person from Sidonia.'”

“Yes,” Stan said. “I anglicized. I began to tire of people mispronouncing my name. All these people who think they can’t say ‘zd’. Even though English is full of ‘st’.”

“Well, Zdenek,” I said, “are you able to stanch the stench?”

He patted me on the shoulder amicably. “I am your staunch ally. But stanching is not the solution, it is the problem. The pipe is blocked.”

“And the solutions in it are not draining,” Maury quipped. “They are stagnant.”

“In fact. But this is not something I can fix with a snake. I will need to bypass it with another pipe.”

“A stent,” I said before I could stop myself.

“That’s the extent of it,” Stan said. “I will affix it to a stanchion for support.”

“That’s quite the stunt,” I said.

“Well,” Stan said, smiling indulgently, “it is just because the pipe has been stunted. But let me finish the work now so that my stint here does not go too long.” He turned and went back to the washroom.

“Interesting,” Maury said, “the different effect of affricate versus stop at the ends of these words. Stench and stink come from the same Old English word, but stink seems more acute and stench perhaps more thoroughgoing.”

“I’m sure drench and quench and such words have some effect on stench,” I said. “Plus the wetness of the fricative portion at the end.”

“The vowels, too,” Maury noted. “The vowel movement between stench and stink is rather like that between stauunch and stanch, which are even more closely related, being actually different forms of the same word: verb ‘stop the flow of water’, adjective ‘impervious to the flow of water’, both from Old French and possibly ultimately related to the Latin etymon of stagnant.”

“The velar /k/ stop is stickier and, I would say, denser in feeling than the lighter alveolar /t/ stop,” I said. “Stint – ‘cease action’ or ‘a limited period of action’; stunt – ‘stop the development of’ or ‘athletic display’; stent – ‘temporary medical bypass or drainage tube’. None of them as strong in the sound as stink, stank, stunk.”

“Two from Old English and one eponym,” Maury said, reflecting on stint, stunt, and stent. “I’m not sure where the family name of the good dentist Dr. Charles Stent came from.”

An encouraging sound of gurgling came from the washroom. Maury and I went over to look. Stan appeared to have solved the problem. “That was quick,” I said.

“Well, gentlemen,” Stan said, arising, “when you are well trained, the draining takes over. So I have given you express service. But I hope,” he added, taking off his gloves and reaching for his invoice pad, “when you write a cheque to Stan the Czech you will be unstinting.”


Ah, beddie-bye! Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite! And, snap, off goes the light. And then you start thinking… What is there under my bed? Is there something hiding in that dark space under there? What if I look down under the bed, and I see… a six-foot-long insect… and it looks at me, opens its mandibles slowly, hungrily, and says “Boo!”

Ah, did I spook you? Oh, but you’re a big boy now. And of course, when you were a kid and were afraid of such things, you would always be comforted by the presence of your mother or father. Company chases away the ghouls – and the whim-whams, jim-jams, and heebie-jeebies that send you into flying fantods. Conversely, loneliness brings out the hobgoblins, bugbears, bugaboos.

So where’s really lonely? Really, really lonely? Imagine being a prospector in the mountains. High mountains, with big spires of rock. Desolate. No one around, not for hours or days of walking. Just you, and the critters, and the great loneliness. As you camp in your tent at night, you are surrounded by nothing human – but you hear the wind in the trees, the clattering of scree; it could be a chorus of banshees screaming about your tent. Oh, yes, this is a place to fill your mind with imagined spooks. And no wonder if, your prospects not panning out, you decide to take a powder and flee the camp. But before you do, especially if you’re a Scotsman, you might have named your claim after the boggarts that bother you: Bugaboo.

As, it seems, one Scottish prospector did, in the mountains near Inverness – that’s Inverness, British Columbia. And the pass and creek that were in the claim came to have the same name, and from them so did the range they were in: the Bugaboos, with their glaciers and granite spires, all part of the Purcell Mountains.

And now being now, the prospects for those peaks come from a different goldmine: a bit of Ski-Doo, indeed, but also lots on the same street as Picabo: skiing. Heli-skiing, to be precise. Yes, there are holidayers in these Canadian mountains, thanks to Canadian Mountain Holidays and other operators. They’ll take the powder – no bumps to boogie in the bugaboos! And it just happens that, given where I grew up, I knew today’s word first in the plural and in relation to heli-skiing – along with Monashees.

Come to think of it, the word has a bit of a sound of something you could shout for an echo off those granite cliffs as you boogie by on your boards, no? Even if the voiced stops give it a warmer, softer, damper sound than the dry, hard, powdery areas covered by the range. (It’s hard for me not to think of the Bugaboos as being shorter and rounder, just on the basis of the name.) Well, so it goes: after all, the word wasn’t invented for the mountains.

And how was it invented? Why, from bug plus boo, of course. The boo is the same one ghosts say. The bug is not the insect one, however – although the insect bug may have come from it; no one’s completely sure. No, this bug is via Middle English bugge, possibly from Welsh bwg, which refers to a ghost. And our bug here, which is the same one in bugbear, means an object of terror, especially an imagined one. Such as the one under your bed. Oh, yes… exit powder hound… enter sandman.


This word demonstrates a phenomenon that everyone who uses language (especially English) should be interested it – because they are all interested in it; that is, they should take an interest in it, as they all have an interest in it. What I mean is that they should not be uninterested, as they are not disinterested.

OK, clearly, before I address the phenomenon, I need to address a matter of interest that might otherwise come between form and sense. It is, of course, the various related meanings of interest – the meanings that allow for the joke, “What’s the difference between a bank account and a politician? With a bank account, the more principal you have, the more interest you get; with a politician, the fewer principles you have, the more interest you get.”

Interest is, in the first place, something that pertains to a relationship. And by that, I don’t exactly mean the “OK, is there something between you two?” kind of relationship – except I do, too. It’s first of all a business relationship, indeed, and there is a legal claim between two parties or between a party and a property; there’s something between them – Latin inter, “between”, plus essere, “be”, makes interessere, a verb that became an English noun interess and from that an English verb interess, and those ended up morphing to interest (possibly from the past tense of the verb, interessed, but perhaps just from the epenthetic /t/ that sometimes shows up after a final /s/).

So if you have an interest in something, you have a share in it, something to gain or lose. If it gets you money, then you are gaining interest. From that comes the non-business sense we use when we say “Interesting!” And both are still used, but unquestionably the psychological sense is the more common.

And now we get to the interesting phenomenon. It has to do with a rule that guides commerce and also applies in vocabulary: in general, rarity increases valuation. Words that aren’t often used can tend to gain a certain added value from their rarity – a certain impressiveness factor. They also have a greater novelty effect. In short, they are like shiny, pricey little toys. These words are typically called low-frequency words by linguists.

Now, one possible effect of this is that such words get pressed into service to mean something that already has a word – a word that doesn’t mean exactly the same thing – just because they have a nice, ornamental effect. And who can be surprised? This is why people get shiny oak desks and brass nameplates, it’s why people buy expensive Swiss watches that can’t keep time as well as cheap quartz ones, it’s why people drive Ferraris on city streets, it’s what accounts for most of the annual revenues of Hammacher Schlemmer. Ayn Rand made a variety of mistakes in Atlas Shrugged, but one thing she pretty much got right was the part where the fantastic new alloy Rearden Metal, once made available for general use, is put to use for a wide variety of silly things that really don’t need it at all.

Oh, yes, sometimes people use their shiny new toys inappropriately. This is especially true in language. I find that unusual (foreign) punctuation marks and diacritics are especially often put to ornamental use. The umlaut is a favourite, as manifested in music – Blue Öyster Cult and Mötley Crüe being notable examples, and Spinal Tap (with an umlaut on the n which I can’t here reproduce due to character set limitations) parodying them – and elsewhere (a wine and art event in eastern Ontario calls itself ArteVïno, for instance).

Features of pronunciation are also subject to status-oriented fads. This is, for instance, how “r-dropping” came into New York and Boston English: it was at first a Britishism that was a mark of higher status; once it had been taken on by the lower classes, it was subject to becoming déclassé for the upper classes (moreso in New York than in Boston).

And, of course, words are subject to faddism of this sort too, and are at times pressed into service to mean things that are other from their established (dictionary) senses and that already have words that mean them. And here is where we get to the main point of interest.

If something holds no intellectual appeal for you, it is uninteresting, and you are uninterested in it. If you have no stake in something – you are in a position of impartiality to it; such financial holdings as you may have had have been divested, or such personal ties as you may have had have been released, or perhaps you never had any – you are disinterested. This is a nice distinction; it allows a person to be one and not the other, for instance (impartial but fascinated, or involved but uncaring).

Now, I will confess that disinterested has about as long a history of being used to mean “uninterested” as it has of being used to mean, well, “disinterested”, and uninterested was even at some past times occasionally used to mean “disinterested”, but over time the useful distinction has become well established, such that if a person sets out to learn the “proper” meanings of the words, the distinction is learned. But of course that’s not what always happens. Often people will see the word and make a guess at what it means.

And it just happens that “uninterested” – often itself no more than a long way to say “bored” – is a rather more common thing to speak of, and less nuanced, than “impartial due to lack of a stake in the matter”. It also just happens that disinterested is – or used to be; this is gradually changing due to the shift in use that I’m talking about here – a somewhat lower-frequency word than uninterested. It also is seen in more formal or technical or “important” contexts, and words are known by the company they keep. So it has come to be used for the same denotation as uninterested, but with the connotation “higher value” or “more impressive” or “more erudite” or similar: “I am disinterested” equals “This is uninteresting, and I’m smart.” (Always remember that when you say anything about anything, you are also saying something about yourself, about the context, and about the person or people you’re talking to through the way you choose to say it.)

Now, being a linguist, I am of course duty bound to be first of all a descriptivist, but being an editor and, after all, a user of English, I feel that I have not only a right but a duty to take an active interest in language usage, because, after all, I unavoidably have an active interest in it. And I like the use of disinterested to mean “free of any stake”; it’s a useful distinction. So I will continue to maintain and promote it, even in the face of what looks like an inevitable trend. But I will say this to thee: if thou usest disinterested as a synonym for uninterested, thou interrest the word in the crypt of redundancy, and thou interrest its sense in the crypt of meanings that no longer have words.

But now ’tis late, and I’m into resting. So I leave this in trust to you, and explicit est scriptum.


There once was an earl named Merle – a bit of a lout, actually – who had a fancy for a pretty girl with hair in ringlets. She was from the country and wore a country-girl’s apron skirt, and she liked perfume and jewelry. He was rich, and he wanted to see her dance on a bump on a lump on a log, twirling her skirt in the wind, to the sound of bagpipes from somewhere east of Moscow. So, bearing gifts, the Merle the earl thought, “I reckon this pearl and a little myrrh’ll make the pretty rural girl with the curls unfurl her dirndl and go for twirl and a whirl on the knurl of the burl to a Ural skirl.”

But she just hurled at the churl. Well done, girl.

Earl, url, irl… at one time, and still in some dialects, these had different sounds. But in many cases they’ve merged now to a syllabic /r/ followed by the final /l/ – a double liquid, and just incidentally a murderously difficult combination for speakers of many other languages. Not because it’s actually so hard to say – watch yourself doing it, and you’ll find that if you’re North American, you just hump the tongue up in the middle of the mouth, and then turn the tip up to touch – but because it’s nothing they’re used to saying; it doesn’t belong to their phonemic sets.

There are plenty of things that don’t require any more effort that most English speakers have similar trouble with. The Vietnamese name Nguyen, for one. But for most English speakers, this /rl/ rhyme segment of a syllable is nothing so hard – especially since we’ve merged the different original sounds really just by way of reducing speech effort. (There are exceptions, as Laura, commenting on my note on thrall, has reminded me – and thanks to her for suggesting these words.)

But although they sound the same, do we think of these the same? Don’t earl and pearl have a sort of higher-toned sense to them, with the extra “silent” letter and the association with riches (also not hurt by similar words such as earn)? Don’t the url words seem somehow lower-class or more blunt because of the u that we associate with the dumb “uh” sound, plus of course the senses of words such as burl, hurl, and churl? But what is the effect on it of URL, as in a web address? And what about irl, which shows up in some archaic words (thirl and tirl) and the uncommon skirl but mainly is seen in whirl, twirl, and girl? Doesn’t it seem somehow lighter? Does the little echo of skirt add to this? How about just the thin, spindly i?

Of course, there’s also the erle in Merle and some other names (including La Perle, an Edmonton neighbourhood I lived in 20 years ago) – not as thin, but still more elegant than url. And then there are cases such as in rural, Ural, and myrrh’ll, which are thought of as two syllables and so are often more filled out. And there’s the orl in world, which can get extra drawing out from the /w/ and /d/ bookending it – when I write it in verse, I instinctively treat it as two syllables, but not everyone else does!

And where do all these words come from? Well, not any East Asian languages, true, but they do have various origins, many but not all Germanic. We can trace most of them well back into the mists of time, but some, well, we’re not exactly sure about. Just where, for instance, did that girl come from…?


Who here used to watch All in the Family?

What did Archie Bunker say when he wanted someone else to be quiet?

I’m betting you just said “Stifle yourself!”

Now, some horsey people among the readers may wonder how a dislocated knee would cause someone to be quiet, but most of us are not familiar with that other word stifle, which as a noun refers to the joint on horses and similar animals that equates to the knee, and as a verb refers to dislocation of same. There’s no particular reason to think the two stifles have a common origin. But of course I wouldn’t want to stifle further etymological research. Especially since the origin of both words is entirely uncertain (French estouffer seems likely related to the non-horse [but not non-hoarse] one).

I also wouldn’t want to stifle innovation, dissent, competition, or creativity – or laughter. Maybe a yawn, though. All of these are things commonly spoken of as being subject to stifling. Or, more to the point, all these words are often seen after stifle – which itself may be preceded by trying to or could. The word stifling is actually a little different: the number one word to come after it, by a long chalk, at least in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, is heat.

And why would anyone want to stifle heat? They wouldn’t, of course. Nor would they want to be stifled by it, but it’s quite something how often people can speak of the heat as being stifling. Especially since you would think that if the heat is stifling them, they wouldn’t be able to speak. (And why are stifling creativity and stifling heat operating in opposite directions? One stifling is a present participle and the other is an adjective formed from the same.)

Well, figurative is figurative, eh? How often do people speak of stifling literally? As in causing the death of someone or something by depriving of oxygen? They may sometimes use smother or suffocate that way, but whereas He smothered the dog or He suffocated the dog might be taken to mean the dog had been killed, He stifled the dog would much more likely be taken to mean the dog had simply been silenced one way or another (but probably not by death).

And why do we need three words for basically the same thing? Well, in part because they have little differences of connotation and usage patterns – smother, for instance, generally produces an image of something soft being held over the face (and has the added flavour of its culinary use: steak smothered in mushrooms is acceptable; steak stifled in mushrooms or steak suffocated in mushrooms is not); suffocate seems to focus more on the sensation of asphyxiation; stifle, as we have seen, carries more of a sense of silencing or impairing.

But they also have different tastes from the feel and sound of them. True, they all start with /s/; two of them also have /f/. (And we think again of asphyxiation, which is the most literal of the bunch but does not automatically refer to an act of one person on another.) But suffocate has more of a gasping or coughing sound, and an echo of suffering; on the other hand, smother has a well-known rhyme in mother, and some other echoes too. Stifle has the cutting edge of the /aI/ central dipthong, which sounds like an exclamation of pain or woe and gives it a taste in the vein of rifle and knife, not to mention life, which may be ending. But probably not literally. (It also echoes Eiffel, as in Tower, but the different spelling attentuates that influence; those who hear it are more likely to think of a Bunker.)


“Alright,” I said to young Marcus Brattle, “let’s get down to work, and no skiving.”

We were at the dining room table at his house, my young mentee and I, and today’s topic was syntax. Marcus had not so far warmed very much to the syntax trees I was having him draw.

“Skiving,” Marcus said. “Sounds like good sport.”

“And you’re always game for good sport,” I said. “But let’s start by drawing a tree for that sentence: ‘Skiving sounds like good sport.'”

“No, but what I mean is, it sounds rather like skydiving.”

“Indeed it does,” I conceded. “With a little insertion. And looks like skindiving, with a little insertion.”

“In fact,” said Marcus, writing the word out, “it looks like skiing, with just a little v in the middle carving a snowplow through it. You know, I’d like to ski for a living. But of course if you do it for a living it’s not skiving. Sport is much more fun when you’re getting away from work to do it.”

“Getting away – but are you simply carving off, perhaps darting quickly and lightly as another meaning for skiving has it, or slinking away, as French esquiver – a possible source for skive – means?”

“Slinking away in something slinky?” Marcus said. “Perhaps your skivvies?”

“I would think that would be a short break.”

“But you know,” Marcus said, “this word conceals a horde of Vikings.”

“And is raiding other towns and countries a way to shirk work, the ultimate laddish road trip,” I asked, “or is it work itself? I’m inclined to think the latter, since skiving is often used in the army to refer to dodging duty.”

“Dodging mopping and boring things like that,” Marcus said. “Everyone likes marauding and destroying. It’s fun.”

It occurred to me that Marcus had, in his little way, some direct knowledge of the enjoyability of marauding and destroying.

“Well,” I said, “but the point is that with skiving there’s no risking.” I wrote the rearranged letters and showed the v pinching together to become an r.

“There’s risking getting pinched,” Marcus said, meaning getting caught. “There’s risking your mentor noticing that you’re not doing any work.”

I paused and raised an eyebrow. He had succeeded in diverting the work he didn’t like for a couple of minutes already.

“But thanks,” Marcus added with a little smile, “for being a good sport.”


Ah, the Mel Tormé of wine grapes. It produces a smooth, luscious, thick red from its black grapes – when well made, its blackberry notes sing in your glass like a blackbird… which in French is merle. Oh, I know, French wines don’t traditionally go by the grape variety, and merlot is in the French context best known as one of the three varieties that go into red Bordeaux (or, as the British call it, claret). But in the New World, where wines quite often go by varietal name, many merlots have been made. And it is a wine that you can pour on a date as you murmur low, or with this blackbird (yes, merlot does come from merle) you can be singing in the dead of night…

But in recent years things have gone a bit Sideways for merlot. Ah, yes, that movie with Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh, wherein the lead character waxes poetic about pinot noir (the grape of the great Burgundies, true, but also a grape that has produced more overpriced crap wine than probably any other – you’re at the high-stakes table with pinot) and inveighs against – cannot abide – threatens to leave if anyone pours – merlot.

Well. That almost seemed to deal a coup mortel against merlot, at least among the mid-level wine snob set. The pretty-plumed blackbird gained the look of a molter; the merle was nudged closer to merde. And it will be some time before the word will be largely free of the taint it acquired from that movie. But merlot is not some harlot – nor does merlot rhyme with harlot. No, to quote a probably apocryphal bon mot from Margot Asquith speaking to Jean Harlow about the pronunciation of Margot, “the t is silent, as in Harlow.”

Indeed, one may rhyme it with Margaux, which just happens to be one of the best châteaux of Bordeaux – and, of course, Margaux wines contain merlot, along with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. In Margaux the merlot sings beautifully, smoothly but not without tremolo.

And the word? Well, it depends in part on how New World or Old World you want the style. The most New World style – I really mean anglophone – starts it like murmur: smooth and quiet and without any real edge. But if you keep a taste of the French influence, it starts like mare, and then it can be a real dark horse. If you go with a Spanish way of speaking it – they do make rather nice merlots in Chile, for one – it gains just a touch of spice with the thrill of the trill. Say it in the Old World style – like the French – and you get the tongue gurgling a little in the back, but that deep tone is not of the gutter; it is shy but inviting, revealing depths that then come out to a pure finish, no contracting to a diphthong… a word best said by a beautiful Frenchwoman. And drunk with a beautiful person of whatever culture and sex.

childish and childlike

Someone who lives on the same floor as I do has discovered that the down-arrow button at the elevators can be rotated to point sideways or upwards. Practically every day now, I come to the elevators and find it pointing the wrong way. Just out of a habit of tidiness, I turn it to point down. But lately it doesn’t take long for it to be re-pointed. I have no idea who’s doing it; I’m not aware of any adolescent boys living on my floor of the building. Well, whoever is doing it is certainly a bit childish.

Does it do harm? No, but it’s disruptive for the sake of being disruptive. It aims to call attention to itself. Now, children love to play, and they are known for having open and inquisitive minds (although mothers of some picky eaters may snort at the idea); that’s not a bad thing at all. Simple joy and wonder is very engaging and something we ought not to lose; it is even recorded that Jesus enjoined his followers to be like children. But was he asking them to be childish? Or childlike?

So what’s the difference? Both childish and childlike signify behaviour that recalls the behaviour of children. Why wouldn’t they mean the same thing? Why even have two words for it?

Well, we know why. Children are little angels and little devils all rolled into one – a child may be mild or wild, and we may stop and wonder whether it’s only coincidence that those three words (child, mild, wild) have come to be the three rhymes with that spelling. And adults who emulate some quality of a child may emulate a positive or a negative one. So the word we use varies accordingly. It’s a difference of tone, of connotation. There are even contexts in which one could safely use childlike but would risk tut-tuts or worse for using childish – it’s such a deprecatory term as to be itself a touch improper, because insulting.

It’s a sign of maturing linguistic understanding when a person comes to realize that denotation is not all there is to words. Words are known by the company they keep, for one – certain words for certain things are unacceptable in contexts where other words for the same things are perfectly allowable. And this is, of course, also related to the connotations and implications of words – which are bound together with the pragmatics of their usage. If I use a vulgarity where I might have used a polite Latinate word that denotes the same thing, it means that I am aware that I am being transgressive, impolite, and maybe a bit childish too. For that matter, if a mother calls to her son, “Stevie,” it simply means she wants him to come see her (though the tone of voice will certainly matter), but if she calls out “Stephen Maxwell Davidson,” the formality probably means she’s upset with him, even though the denoted object is the same and the required action is not per se different.

But, now, why negative ish and positive like? At this point we must wander into speculation. It would seem reasonable that like would be more likeable. It has shown up repeatedly in words such as godlike and gentlemanlike, after all – but also in such as devil-like and Brutus-like. Still, it has that light sound and the lick and kiss of /l/ and /k/. And it has been reinforced by usages in translations of the Bible and by such writers as Shakespeare (“I thought the remnant of mine age Should have been cherish’d by her child-like duty” —Two Gentlemen of Verona).

As for ish, it, too, has had its tone reinforced by Shakespeare (“What cannot be avoided, ‘Twere childish weakness to lament” —Henry VI part 3) and others. And while it may rhyme with wish, it is more wishy-washy in tone: things that are ish are imitations or are inclined towards something, and perhaps not something esteemed. We know foolish, of course; those opposed to Roman Catholics have over history referred to Popish people; even if it appends to something positive, ish may weaken it: “Is she pretty?” “Prettyish.” I can’t think its sloshing, hissing sound helps, either.

But can we find counter-instances? Would we find similar results with other words suffixed with the same pair? Hmmm… we know clownish; how would we receive clownlike? Mannish versus manlike? (Manlike, like gentlemanlike, appears more often in the related form with ly in place of like.) Some would produce semantic differences – bookish is not like booklike. The only one I can think of that would go the other way is one where the ish form has undergone amelioration: devilish shows up with words such as charm, where as devil-like, not commonly used, just means “like a devil”.

And how about other cases (not involving these suffixes) where a parallel denotation results in an opposite connotation? I leave this as an exercise to the reader. It should be easy. Or easyish, anyway.


A word like a blast of mephitic steam from the foul mouth of some demon. Its object is often lately somewhat blasé and ephemeral, at least in some cultures; in others, it can eventuate in blasts and fumes, and not necessarily just verbal ones.

The topic is currently a dodgy one. In truth, it has been dodgy through much of history, but as respect for freedom of speech has grown, and cultural insistence on piety (or at least religious observance) has waned, freedom to speak irreverently or even hostilely about religion – and sometimes about one or another specific religion or deity (most especially the religion that has been a dominant and sometimes oppressive force in Western cultures) – has been taken advantage of. It’s not at all difficult to find music, books, humour, movies, what have you, that engage in and perhaps even revel in what many would call blasphemy. In our culture now, we accept vigorous and not always respectful discourse on such subjects, and it is expected (and I will not say unreasonably so) that an all-powerful God won’t be hurt by it and that whatever religion is in question can just suck it up and speak for itself.

But of course we know that there are many people who are very, very, very touchy about the topic, especially people from cultures that do not prize free speech as highly as they prize ideological conformity. (In particular, they are likely touchy about blasphemy of their own religion but at the same time not inclined to recognize any utterances about another religion as blasphemy.) And, honestly, it is somewhat outside the ambit of these notes to wander very far into what is really a very large debate (others have covered it quite well anyway, discussing both freedom and responsibility of speech – the same good manners that tell you not to call someone “ugly” should tell you to be reasonably civil when disagreeing with their religious beliefs; see Interfaith panel on freedom of speech expresses hope about a recent panel on the subject, for instance).

But it is germane to note that when one person’s words are labelled “blasphemous” by another person, and when that other person reacts with not just ordinary words but death threats, sometimes acted on, the word blaspheme (and blasphemous and blasphemy) is clearly associated with a strong negative reaction: not just the strong negative reaction by those threatening or performing violence but a strong negative reaction against the intolerance and threat of violence. I certainly think I know more people who will be upset by blaspheme because of the image of others using it against them (or those they empathize with) in conjunction with threats than I know people who will be upset by it for the idea of someone blaspheming.

So this word has, from either side, a threatening, malevolent tone, perhaps of some blatant Mephistopheles, or perhaps of some brutal Polyphemus: scheming or raging, goat-horned or one-eyed. And who is to blame?

Indeed, blame is inescapably related to blaspheme. You see, the Greek word βλασφημος blasphémos “evil-speaking” (the phem root refers to speaking – but, by the way, ephemeral is not related; it comes from epi+hemera) has come down to us in two forms: the one still resemblant to the source, the other sanded down by time and usage through forms such as blasmar to our modern blame. The perfect companion to blaspheme… so to speak.