Monthly Archives: December 2010


This seems like a good word for this evening, for a few reasons. First, it’s the end of a decade, the 201st, if you start counting from the beginning of AD 1 (which is the basis for our numeration of years – AD or, if you think AD is dead, CE). Of course, many people prefer to count in what, without reference to the beginning of the count, may seem a more obvious or user-friendly way: going by the second digit from the right, just as we do with years of our own lives (for instance, I’m in my forties). We refer readily to the 1980s, for instance, by which we mean 1980 through 1989, not 1981 through 1990.

But – and this is the second reason – many people think that (just like use of circa (ca.) to mean “established in”) such use of decade is evidence that our language has decayed, or anyway our mental acuity in its regard has – we’re brain dead, can’t add, etc. A year ago, many people were writing indignant screeds declaring that it was not the end of a decade, and that those who said it was were idiots.

Well, as I explained at the time in “When does the new decade begin?“, those indignant people were really face-egg-nant people, because they were, quite simply, wrong. They were displaying mental inflexibility and an evident desire to beat others into submission with rigid rules. The fact that today is the end of a decade does not mean that a year ago today was not – it was just the end of a different decade, one that overlaps this one by nine years. A decade is any set of ten years (in fact, originally – in the 1600s – a decade was any set of ten anythings, and a set of ten years was, even into the 1800s, said as a decade of years). The 1980s were a decade. You’re being dumb if you say they weren’t, or say they didn’t end on December 31, 1989. Ditto the oh-ohs on December 31, 2009, and ditto the onesies on December 31, 2019. So this popular usage of decade is not proof of the language’s decadence.

Ah, and there’s reason number three: It’s New Year’s Eve, party time. Let’s be decadent. Now, admittedly, decade and decadent are not cognate; decade is from Latin for “ten” and decadent is from Latin for “falling down”. And decadence may be related to cadence, but the cadence is different when you say the cadence.

And how about the cadence of decade? It’s not a whole lot if you say the word (it’s almost a spondee, and sounds like someone who helps you build a deck), but you can also play it on your piano: D-E-C-A-D-E. I leave the rhythm to you, but it’s a an energetic little relation, more spry and tight than the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind but less spooky and high-strung than Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells theme used in The Exorcist. The question is, when you repeat it, do you play the D-E twice in a row or overlap? Is the second D-E a pick-up tag, going where otherwise there might be B? (And at the end, do you play the B instead? Or end on C or E or A? Say, what mode is this? Phrygian? Dorian? Fridge-doorian? It has a certain magnetism.)

Well, we know the decades loop around, like de back to de, each count arbitrarily beginning again, just as centuries do (in Roman numerals, C), just as millennia do (in Roman numerals, D and D add to make M), just as the Mayan long count will in 2012… An arbitrary endpoint imbued with meaning entirely by cultural choice. Which is not to say it’s meaningless; meaning is what minds create in interaction. Which is good. I like creation of meaning. Destruction or limitation of meaning, not so much.


I was reminded of this word this evening when I was at a spa, sweating it out in the steam and taking in some redeeming pain (a.k.a. massage). The spa in question has an almost astonishingly large collection of paintings by Norval Morrisseau, one of the great Canadian aboriginal painters. His grandfather was a shaman; his grandmother, a devout Catholic. His paintings are strongly focused on the spiritual, including totemic animals and shamanic journeys.

The word shaman brings to mind for me a dinner several years ago where (perhaps getting into the spirits) I was conversing with a member of that most unpleasant set, the crusty prescriptivists. She was the sort of person who would evince physical pain at the sound of a split infinitive. Anyway, I mentioned something or other about a shaman. I pronounced it like “shah man.”

“SHAY man,” she corrected me primly.

“Or shay woman,” I said, brushing it off.

Was she right? Exactly as right as she was about split infinitives. In other words, she clung doggedly to one viable option and militated angrily against another option that was at least equally viable and in fact had a better historical basis. Honestly, it’s a shame an’ a sin to hear such people bruiting their abuse about, especially when they (as she did) make some of their living tutoring others. Healer, heal thyself!

Where does this word shaman come from? At least some of us may now be inclined to associate it with First Nations (Native American) spirituality – sweat lodges, purifying pain, et cetera. But it comes from a part of the world much farther east – a part I associate first with a massive meteor airburst in 1908, a blast 1000 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb: Tunguska. There, where the heavens came down with devastating fire, is mostly a lot of trees and empty space, but there are also some people: the Tungus. And it is from a Tungusic language that we get the word shaman, by way of Russian and German – in all of which languages the first vowel of the word is like “ah” and not like “ey”.

Which is not to say that someone not from a Tungusic culture can’t be a shaman (nor that anglophones can’t say “shay man”). The experience is one found in many human cultures: a person with unusual spiritual susceptibility, one who likely was led to the spirit world by a health crisis (as Morrisseau was), one who has gone on a spiritual journey and perhaps regularly goes on them, one who experiences the divine fire and (again like Morrisseau) has visions. Often a wounded healer, one whose own pathology is the channel for the divine. (“There is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.” Thanks, Leonard Cohen.) Morrisseau had problems with spirits of other kinds – alcohol, to be specific. But a shaman is not a shame-an, one who takes on shame, and though one may be touché (too shay), he or she is not a shay man: the man is not our man. These are but things of one’s own one brings to the word and sees in it.

The shapes of this word are such things, too. Is the s a snake or a wisp of the spirit? Are the a a totemic animals, spirit guides (they do look like hieroglyphic hawks as seen in the Egyptian books of the dead: a a)? Is the h a sweat lodge (hear the steam coming out: shaaaa)? Or is it the shaman, or the spirit, first standing h, then bent m, then reduced n? Only you can decide. Who are we to be? There’s the rub.

Where’s the rub? Well, at the spa this evening, for me. The massage therapist and I conversed about metaphysics – we agreed that the reality of reality was overrated and largely co-created. Much of it is but things of one’s own one brings to the world and sees in it. Why may it not be made of layer on layer of common imagining, awaiting a plumbing of the depth, an externalization through internalization, projection through injection, the transcendent function? Time for inception: Go west, Jung man. “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving.” “When you make your secret journey, you will be a holy man…”

Oh, yes, we talked about music too. And then I took a steam bath. And had a shower, man.


Hmmm… this word looks like a shed that’s been pruned a bit. Maybe someone breezed by on a sled and sliced it… No, not sliced. Snipped. This is, after all, a /sn/ word, not a /sl/ word. The /sl/ words are slicker, sleeker, slipperier; they slash and slit, slide slenderly; they may be slow or sloppy or slack, but they still slurp, even if only slightly. With /sn/ words, the liquidity is replaced with a nasality, sniffing from the snoot – a snee may snicker, but a snout will snort snarkily or snap snidely.

Indeed, this is no snow sled, nor for that matter a shed that has shed or been shorn. But we do hear the /Ed/ rhyme, which stops with a dullness that treads towards the heavy, although words such as red and bread counterbalance dread and dead, and the echo of the poetic diction of the past tense, draggèd forth from time to time, gives it a tinge of gravitas with a whiff of fancy.

It adds a layer of flavour to this word – a verb, as it happens – to know that it is related to the verbs snithe and snathe. Ah, don’t those two have a sound! Snide and scathing, like Snape from the Harry Potter books… prone to cutting remarks. Well, actually pruning and making cutting marks. Snithe means “cut”; snathe means specifically “prune”. And so does sned. In particular, it refers to lopping off branches (or parts thereof). Such may be done, for instance, to a Christmas tree to give it a smart shape and to fit it into our warm dens… or, after Christmas, to fit it into the shed until it can be taken away. Send not to know for what the shear sneds… it sneds for thee; it sneds thy tree. Such are all our ends.


It’s a word as Christmassy as a Christmas tree – and as crisp in sound as Christmas tree, or as the crisp winter air Christmas is typically associated with. Crisp is of course relative – as I write this in late December, a quick check tells me the temperature in Bethlehem is only a couple of degrees lower than the temperature inside my apartment; outdoors here in Canada, of course, it’s much more like what Christina Rossetti envisioned: “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone”… a very northern version of Christmastide.

Even more northern and Canadian would be the Huron Carol: “’Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled…” Ah, but that’s a particularly native nativity: “’Twas in a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found; a ragged robe of rabbit fur enwrapped his beauty ’round…” I’m put in mind of the similar presentation I first saw as a kid on the Stoney (Nakoda) reserve, which as it happens my dad has recently written about in his column: Christmas story in Stoney points to hope for humanity. Braids and buckskins, and a babe in a moss bag (they’re comfy, moss bags, by the way; I spent lots of time in one when I was that age).

But should a nativity be native? Well, um… Funny how we don’t always think about the link between nativity and native, obvious as it is at a mere glance (indeed, nativity could mean “nativeness” if it weren’t already in use to refer to the birth of Jesus). The shift of stress results in significant phonemic changes and a definite shift in reference. One may certainly speak of being a native of this place or that – but that’s not the overriding flavour native has now (and indeed, when my dad first arrived at the Stoney reserve, when they asked him where he was from, and he said he was a native of Buffalo, they told him he wasn’t a native!). Oh, “the natives are restless,” we all know that one… but the nativity is very restful. Sleep in heavenly peace, eh?

Still, why not a native nativity? If we can sing about ice and snow when those were not likely present at the actual birth of Jesus (which probably wasn’t in December anyway), if we can have songs and art that present the infant Jesus as some pale, blonde Germanic sort, if we can sing joyously that Little Lord Jesus made no crying (seriously, a man who as an adult was very good at creating stirs was somehow a perfectly quiet little baby?), why not also a native nativity?

The essence of the nativity, anyway, is the birth – of course, it has the Latin root for birth, nat, as seen in such words as prenatal – but also the humble surroundings. The very shape of the word nativity lends itself nicely to the humble birth: look at the symmetrical centre, tivit, and tell me you don’t see a manger (a hay trough) and two flanking parents. True, that tivit is surrounded by a nay, but that may be not so much naysayer as neigh-sayer. And anyway, who knows what else we may see if I tantivy mix up the letters? Well, it may come to vanity, but it may as readily give a glimpse of the tiny vita represented.

But while changing the letters may change the word, a little switching and replacement in the nativity scene does not impair its central theme, and may remind us of the common bond of humanity and the experiences and hopes we share – for instance, an African nativity scene (, or a Japanese one (… You really don’t need to be a Christian to appreciate what such depictions are getting at. (Of course, some people like to have fun with it, too; see


No doubt you came out of this Christmas with oodles of gifts – enough to fill a cab, I’m sure, or even a caboose. Any more and your full-to-overfull house would go kaboom. Books, booze, toys, togs, the whole kit and caboodle. And maybe, if you are an ailurophile, even a caboodle of kittens.

Ah, well, even without the kitten caboodle, or a cab with oodles of noodles, poodles, doodles, or, uh, Boodles Gin (which may or may not be served at Boodle’s gentlemen’s club in London, but surely is at the Boodles Challenge tennis event), or even a couple canoodling in the back, there is the eternal question: what the heck is a caboodle?

It will no doubt clear things up if I tell you that the whole kit and caboodle is a more recent version of the whole caboodle and of the whole kit and boodle, and that caboodle is thought to come from kit and boodle. (I frankly think the presence of kit was just the needed little nudge in the direction of adding that phonaesthetic ca or ka at the beginning, which has the sound of a small explosion preceeding a bigger one, or of a backswing or other preparatory step for some sudden éclat; we see it in not only kaboom but ka-ching, alakazam, and various places also as the variant ker: kerplop, kerplunk, etc. Not to mention its effect on words that just happen to have it, such as catastrophe.) So caboodle doesn’t exist as a word outside that phrase, and is really a variant of boodle.

Oh, boodle? Well, I’d think you’d be able to guess what it means – “pack, lot, bunch,” typically with a dismissive tone. Its source? Uncertain, but perhaps Dutch boedel, “possession, estate, etc.” But, now, boodle by itself has an almost silly sound, doesn’t it? A little daft, with that loopy /u/ spelled oo, and the tone we can get when we hear words containing it (noodle is a silly word for one’s head or brain, and can also refer to playing around idly, for example on a piano; poodle is a name for a dog that is seldom taken seriously, even though they do bite; doodle is a light, probably inane drawing; oodle is an overeager term for a large quantity; toodle-oo is a light way of saying farewell). It has a playful boo and then idles or toddles off at the end. But add the ca and you get an echo of kaboom and a sense of leaping-up magnification.

And try kit and boodle against kit and caboodle. The first is two trochees, reminiscent of the triplets of liturgical Latin:

Fed a poodle with a noodle,
But he ate the kit and boodle
And concluded with exudal.

It’s fairly simple, rhythmically. The second makes a dactyl of the first foot, and really gives us something like alakazam or Kalamazoo or thingamajig, but with an extra unstressed beat at the end – much livelier. It also has a repetition of the /k/, with a /t/ (typically glottalized) between, which gives a clicky catchiness before mooving into the noodle-muddle of boodle – perhaps like the clickety-clack of a train loaded with goods (the Polar Express, perhaps?), including, of course, a caboose.


I often get a taste of something gill-like – or perhaps like a flap of a fabric frill – from ill words, such as the girl’s name Jill and the place name Antilles. I find the word Antilles to be a somewhat delicate-seeming word, a bit French-ish (its Greek overtones from Achilles notwithstanding), in contrast with other names that can also be used for that sweep of islands from just north of South America to just south of North America: the West Indies (which includes some islands not part of the Antilles, such as the Bahamas), the Caribbean islands, and the various names of the individual islands, which include assorted territories of colonial countries (including the Netherlands Antilles, British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands, French West Indies) as well a goodly number of independent – but not always affluent – nations.

The pronunciation of Antilles varies from language to language. The word is a little different in some (Spanish Antillas, Portuguese Antilhas, Dutch Antillen) and clear enough in those versions, and the French pronunciation is obvious enough to those who speak French. An anglophone, on the other hand, may well be confused until he’s told. But, as I have already hinted, it’s a rhyme for Achilles. It sounds like until he’s. It may make you think of Milli Vanilli, that duo of great dancers but musical impostors. Such an echo would be basically useless, however, neither of the front men of that group being from the Antilles.

Nearly as useless would be the echo that it tends to have most strongly for me: anthills. Anthills are, after all, beehives of activity – ah, let me rephrase that: they are anthills of activity. Oh, heck, you know what I mean. They’re regimented, and busy busy busy. This is not the image of the Antilles – we’re talking the Caribbean, mon. Irie is what it’s all about. Relaaaax. the sun will always shine. (OK, a hurricane here, a hurricane there, but the sun still comes out after.) The weather is always warm. There are always beaches, and rum punch. Tourism is very big in these islands. For those of us who have taken vacations in the Antilles, they certainly are not useless. But you know what is useless? Folk etymology.

I’ll explain. I was recently in Aruba and Curaçao, both part of the Lesser Antilles, both territories of the Netherlands. One of the bits of touristic information I was given suggested that Antilles came from the Spanish designation of the Lesser Antilles (the smaller, more southern islands) as Islas Inútiles: “Useless Islands.”

Oh, folk etymology on place names abounds. I’m sure to get into this topic again. As to Antilles, it would be tidy to have a cut-and-dried origin. But in fact it seems that Columbus called the islands he encountered Antillas because he had been told to expect to encounter an island called Antillia before he got to the Asian continent. Cartographers at that time did, it seems, feel free to posit as certain – and even to map out with some specificity – places that they had simply concluded ought to exist, or had somehow come to believe from hearsay were there. Why, to make things up just because they decided it was so! Who does that? Aside from half of everybody at least, that is. Which is why we get so much BS circulating as etymology.

Oh, and where does Antillia come from? That’s disputed, but a rather plausible explanation is that it’s from Latin for “before” (ante) and “islands” (illas). So the Antilles are the islands before the mainland. Fair enough: we stopped at them before we got to Panama and Costa Rica (we being my wife and I, among others on the boat). Which in turn we stopped at before we came back home…

back in a couple

I’m just stepping out for a little break now. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks. Don’t worry!