Monthly Archives: January 2011

je ne sais quoi

We had a couple of guests at our monthly Words, Wines, and Whatever tasting event: Jenna, lately graduated from Tufts University, and passing through town at just the right time; and Maury’s aunt Susan, who this time had come escorted by Maury rather than having eloped from her nursing home.

“I find the word exquisite exquisite,” Jenna said. “It has a certain… what would be the right way of putting it?”

Je ne sais quoi,” said Susan.

“Yes! Exquisite has a certain je ne sais quoi,” declared Jenna. “Thank you.”

“Actually,” Susan said, smiling politely, “I meant to say that I didn’t know what the right way of putting it would be. Words sometimes… well, they don’t fail me so much as pass me – without stopping. I’m more well aged than a fine wine. Jeunesse, c’est quoi?”*

“You sound quite erudite to me,” Jenna said. “It’s interesting, though: I’m used to je ne sais quoi having only three syllables.” (She pronounced it like “jun say kwa”.)

“Well, then, jeune, c’est quoi?” said Susan. “It does seem like a typically French phrase, with that amorous touch – the little moue you make when saying je, the air kiss you make with the quoi – ah, kissing air. I suppose if I were to stick to that my life would have less trouble. And less fun. Or maybe not. Je ne sais pas. Well, when it comes to staying out of trouble, je n’essaie pas.” She smiled sweetly at Jenna, who returned that sort of glazed smile that says “I don’t understand the language you’re speaking but I’ll pretend.”

“It’s interesting how in order to express the foreignness of something to us we retreat to a foreign phrase,” Jenna said. “But I guess it’s really a way of finessing the matter, by drawing on the perceived elegance of French. There’s even a certain insouciance to it –” She lifted her wine glass with her left hand and made a gesture as though taking a drag on a cigarette and then waving it with her right hand: “Ah, je ne sais quoi!”

“Indeed,” said Susan. Jenna’s gesture reminded her of her glass of wine. “I do think that my verre de vin needs to be rempli. …Now, doesn’t that sound so much more cultured than ‘My glass of wine needs to be refilled’?” She held out her glass to Maury.

“Well, we use many French-derived terms for the more refined things,” Maury said – “beef and pork from the French for the meat, and cow and pig from English for the animals, for instance.”

Susan kept holding out her glass. “Well, I do hope you’re not saying this old cow is being a pig in wanting another glass, Maurice. Because if I don’t get another drink, I don’t know what-all.”

“Not at all,” Maury said, taking the glass. “Shall I bring some more canapés?”

“Oh, yes, one should not drink on an empty stomach. À jeun, c’est quoi?” She turned to Jenna. “Voulez-vous aussi un autre verre de vin?

“Um…” Jenna hesitated, unsure what she was being asked.

Susan raised an eyebrow. “Jenna say, ‘Quoi?’” She picked up Jenna’s glass and handed it to Maury. “Garçon! I think she needs a little more French in her.”

*French phrases used herein:
Je ne sais quoi: “I don’t know what”
Jeunesse, c’est quoi?: “Youth, what’s that?”
Jeune, c’est quoi?: “Young, what’s that?”
Je ne sais pas: “I don’t know”
Je n’essaie pas: “I don’t try”
À jeun, c’est quoi?: “On an empty stomach, what’s that?”
Voulez-vous aussi un autre verre de vin?: “Would you also like another glass of wine?”
Quoi?: “What?”

emphasis

If there’s one thing in the English language that can be a cause of stress, it’s stress. Our words do not have a consistent pattern of stress, and sometimes it can’t even be readily guessed by looking at them: there isn’t anything within the form that shows where it goes, and so you need to have deeper knowledge of the word – or simply to have learned it by rote.

And sometimes you haven’t. Jim Taylor, in suggesting a look at this topic, mentioned a friend who pronounced cadaver as “CADaver”. Of course, only a cad would aver that a person who made such an error was somehow inferior; we can go much of our lives without hearing some words, and so it is not uncommon to be left to our own guesses. The result is that people, as is sometimes remarked, get the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle.

Ah, emphasis. It’s a way of saying which way the “oomph” faces. Actually, emphasis originally referred to putting more in a word than its denotation – that is to say, using it to imply something extra. From that it came to refer to intensity of expression, and so it is also sometimes used to mean what is also called stress or accent in words. Which is suitable, because if you have a foreign accent, you’re likely to find that the emphasis is, as mentioned above, a cause of stress.

But, now, why isn’t it “emPHAsis”? After all, it’s “emPHAtic”. Well, for this pair in particular, we need to go back to the source – Greek: emphasis has come to us unaltered from Greek, and in Greek, the stress – the emphasis, one may say, although in classic Greek it may have been more a question of vowel intonation than of emphasis – is on the first syllable. The word comes from em “in” and phainein “show” (we see the same root in, for instance, epiphany), and the rules of Greek morphology move the stress to the first syllable in this case. On the other hand, in the derived Greek word emphatikos, the added suffix puts the stress on the last syllable – a syllable which we have dropped in English emphatic, and we’ve put the stress, as we generally do in -ic words, on the second-last syllable (the penult, as it’s called).

So what this word has within it that guides its stress is its Greek origin. And origins turn out to have a lot to do with English word stress. English has gotten its wordstock from a lot of different languages, and different languages have different rules about stress – and we sometimes, though not always, keep the stress when we borrow the word.

Some languages, like Greek, have stress that shifts and that is not really consistent from word to word – on the other hand, Greek also has accent markers to show which syllable gets the stress (though in modern Greek they’re not always used). Some languages have stress that is contingent strongly on vowel length – Latin has this characteristic. Some languages have stress and vowel length independent of each other: Finnish and Hungarian both always put the stress on the first syllable regardless of which vowels are long or short. Some languages have consistent stress without contrastive vowel length: Polish, for instance, always has stress on the penult, but doesn’t really have a long-short vowel contrast.

English, for its part, does have some predictable patterns, and to some extent they relate to what we call “long” and “short” vowels – though in Modern English the distinction is one of quality rather than of quantity (long vowels in English actually were, more than half a millennium ago, just extended versions of the short ones, but that all changed during what’s called the Great Vowel Shift). But much of that actually relates to the other languages (especially Latin) that we got the words from. In truth, Old English (which is what was spoken in England from roughly the 7th to the 11th century AD) put the stress as a rule on the first syllable of the root. (If there was a prefix tacked on the beginning, it wouldn’t receive stress.)

What this also means is that when we add a suffix that came down from Old English, it will probably not affect the stress of the word. Suffixes such as -dom, -ful, -hood, -man, -ness, -ward, and -wise don’t draw stress to them – though -wise with its “long” vowel gets a secondary stress. On the other hand, suffixes from French, such as -ee, -eer, -aire, -elle, -esque, -ese, and -ette, tend to grab the stress.

Meanwhile, words we get from Latin – such as cadaver – tend to get stress on syllables that in Latin had a long vowel (in cadaver, the second /a/ was long: /ka da: ver/). Words that come from Greek sometimes follow Greek stress patterns, and sometimes just get the accent on the antepenult (the third-last syllable) in that grand old English habit: Socrates was said in Greek with the stress on the penult, but in English we shifted it to the antepenult. Words we got from French, if we present them as French words not much changed (more typical with more recent borrowings), will get stress on the final syllable, but there are many words in English that came from French long enough ago that the stress has changed. And of course those words usually are derived from Latin words, which will add further influence.

So how do you know what syllable an English word is stressed on – which syllable gets the emphasis, as it were? Dude, look it up.

But, ah, if you’re on a desert island with no internet and there’s a maniac who’s going to hurt you if you don’t know the pronunciation of this or that word (in real life there are many more such maniacs than there are desert islands to put them on), start by identifying the bits of the word. You can ignore all the inflectional suffixes – things like -ing and -ed and -es and so on – but of course you will need to take note of any suffixes that tend to draw the stress (including -ic, -icity, and -idity, which draw it to the syllable before them).

If the root has two syllables, the stress is probably on the first – unless it’s a loan word or one of those verbs that pair with adjectives and nouns (insult, perfect, torment, escort, etc.).

If the root has more than two syllables, look at the penult of the root. If it has a “long” vowel or the vowel is followed by two or more consonant sounds before the next vowel, it’s probably stressed. If not, the stress probably goes on the antepenult.

Unless it doesn’t, of course.

amphigouri

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbel in the wabe; all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe. And in the fulvious amertrube lay the amphigouri…

No, wait, that’s not it. If I wanted to completely desecrate Lewis Carroll’s work and get it all wrong to boot, I’d ask Tim Burton. But something’s afoot… So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf, to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. “What! no soap?” So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots. And the amphigouri sang “Den itan nissi.”

Oh, no, no, it was Nana Mouskouri who sang “Den itan nissi,” and the rest was made up by Samuel Foote for pronunciation by some panjandrum in an amphitheatre. But where is the amphigouri?

Well, I suppose it depends on what kind of amphigouri you want. Certainly an amphigouri of jabberwocky or some similar phantasmagoria could be rather gory (but then we might prefer to call it an amphigory), but others might be more, um, figurative. Or you could proceed post-haste to postmodernism (or at least Saturday evening post-modernism): visit www.elsewhere.org/pomo/ for a postmodernist amphigouri (and every time you visit or even refresh the page, you will get something new).

So what, then, is an amphigouri? Well, to obnubilate in the clearest manner possible, it is a dicurtical strication of thematic varietation, surpondial but fundamentally based on an either paraciliastic basilon nor why it does when divagate. The morphological ecdysiation is in essence not merely evanescent but always already precluded by diasynchronic fuscus; we may identify amphi from a stereotopical conspectus, but beyond that we can but gather that the gouri. In semantic terms, it is paradipsically exemplified as follows:

There once was a clear amphigory
Who said, “That’s a whole nother story.
Parodic fantasia
Is prolix aphasia:
No guts, and quite often no rhyme, either.”

If that’s clear as mud, well. Very well, in fact, even if a muddy well. What I’m saying is that an amphigouri is a piece of nonsense writing, often but not necessarily in verse, typically aiming to parody. Also, an amphigory is a piece of nonsense writing, often but not necessarily in verse, typically aiming to parody. Which is to say that amphigory is another spelling of amphigouri, and in fact is probably the better-known spelling for English speakers, especially those who have ever seen Edward Gorey’s book Amphigorey. Amphigory is an English spelling of amphigouri, which we have also taken straight from the French. (I just happen to find the French spelling more exotic-looking.) And the French got it where? Well, the amphi is clear enough: “both sides” or “about”. But what’s it doing there? Is the gouri from agora or the same root as the ending of allegory and category, or is it from gyros “circle”? One way or the other, it’s made of bits borrowed from Greek, but apparently put together without a mind for coherence.

The term can also be applied to speech or writing that is not intentionally incoherent. And of course it can be applied to a work of literature that one may assume is meant to be obscurantist but is not parody per se. Which brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs…

prolix

Ah, the excesses up to which one may occasionally get in the course of assorted verbal frolicks – to be of a disposition to expatiate at great length, whether loquaciously or merely garrulously, whether in sesquipedalian mode or frankly monosyllabically, but regardless of the contextual details to prolong one’s side of a dialogue simply for the relish of speaking or of being heard or both, add verbal licks one upon the other, avec ou sans prologue, practically ad infinitum… to be, that is to say, prolix. For why use one word when 59 will do? Nor need you be a pro; an amateur may still be pro (for) LIX (59).

The word prolix is ironically short, though it does come with an abundance of related forms: prolixious, prolixity, prolixively, prolixly, prolixness, prolixous, and prolixt. And it rolls off the tongue so nicely, prolix, opening with a stop at the lips, then rolling through liquids to end with /ks/, so the tongue  touches its different positions, and with one back and one front vowel to boot. The x of course gives it that extra eye-catch, though one may find it reminiscent of a mouth that was formerly open o but at the last is not just shut but puckered shut x – or are those the eyes of the listeners?

To me, it also seems like an ideal name for an Asterix character – perhaps some tedious, garrulous sort who goes on at far too great length (unsurprisingly, there is a character named Prolix in one Asterix book – he’s the soothsayer in Asterix and the Soothsayer. Of course, he’s Gaulish, with the ix – another irony, since, like most of the fake Gaulish names in the Asterix books, prolix is from a Roman word: prolixus).

But it may have a little taste, too, of sex, not just in sex but in minx, dominatrix, and perhaps one or two other words. But that is no more than a taste; the tongue is too engaged in talking to pause for play. Ah, too prolix for frolicks! Lo, being talkative has its prix.

skosh

Well, it’s Robbie Burns Day. I had my bit of haggis on the weekend – since my wife can’t abide the stuff, I take it when I can get it – and now I’m honouring the bard with just a wee skosh of Scotch, without skoosh. I’m not in the mood to get sloshed, but I might top it up just a skosh, unless my wife scotches the idea.

Ah, skosh. You can hear it just splashing in the glass, can’t you? Of course, it doesn’t mean “a splash” or “a dash” necessarily; it just means “a little bit”. But it has that fun splashy sound and sits on the page with that jaunty k, very much like skoosh, which is another fun word. If skoosh sounds to you like soda fresh out of the fountain, that’s because it means that – a carbonated drink, or any splashing beverage, really, or a spray of aerosol. And the verb skoosh means, basically, “gush”. It’s onomatopoeic, like a quick sketch of a sploosh.

But back to skosh for a wee sec. It has something in common with Scotch, certainly; the difference in sound is only that Scotch has an affricate at the end where skosh has a plain fricative. It also has as much in common with skoosh, just a difference in vowel. But are they related?

Well, skoosh appears to have been invented in Scotland. Scotch, for its part, is short for Scottish, an originally Germanic word for the truculent Gaels who could not be displaced from the northern part of Great Britain. (Scots Gaelic for “Scottish” is Albannach.) Meanwhile, skosh is a shortened form of sukoshi, Japanese for “a little” or “somewhat”.

Japanese? Oh my, wrong island. Yes, in fact, the term was brought into English by American servicemen, a half century after skoosh first appeared and many centuries after the roots of Scotch. Well, not to worry. The Japanese make some mighty fine whisky, too. It’s not peaty – not seaweedy, either – but has a nice, smooth, highland-style taste, with the sort of refinement you might expect from the country that invented sake. If you’re the sort of person who likes Macallan and Glenlivet, I suggest giving Yamazaki (made by Suntory) and Yoichi a try. (I’m told they also do Islay- and Speyside-style whiskies; I just haven’t tried them.)

Now… who can tell me what the Japanese is for “Here’s tae us! Wha’s like us? Gae few, and they’re a’ deid!”

“Whom” is a foreign word

Yet again I’ve been discussing with colleagues the question of where to use whom (and, more particularly, whomever – see I must disagree with whoever wrote that). One thing the issue shows us (in case we hadn’t noticed) is that whom and whomever are no longer parts of current English. By which I mean they are not part of the language that most English speakers speak – they are, effectively, foreign words, or at best part of a second language that the user may not be altogether comfortable with. Continue reading

tuches

The matched black leather outfits of Edgar Frick and Marilyn Frack came creaking through the door of Domus Logogustationis. Marilyn paused to flip her feet up in turn and examine the soles of her shoes.

“Step in something?” Daryl asked.

“The neighbours’ pipes burst or backed up or something,” Edgar said.

“And we had to avoid raw sewage,” Marilyn added.

“Well,” Maury said, nodding towards Ross Ewage, “I’m sorry to say you’ve just walked right into him.”

“I was wondering what smelled like ass,” Ross said genially.

“Yes, well,” Edgar said, “it tuches a while to get here.” (Tuches is pronounced rather like “took us”, dear reader.)

“Bummer,” Ross replied.

“So sorry to butt in,” Marilyn said, walking past Ross and bumping him with her behind, which resembled nothing so much as a throw cushion from a leather sofa.

Daryl had begin thumbing away on his iPhone. “Shit,” he observed.

“Thanks,” said Marilyn, “but I stepped in some already.”

Daryl looked up at me, Maury, Ross, and the dynamic duo in turn. “How do you spell tuches?”

“Now there’s a question for the ages,” Maury said.

“It’s just that I can’t find it in the dictionary.”

“Ass,” said Marilyn.

“It’s not my fault!” Daryl protested.

“No, sweet cheeks,” Marilyn said, “that’s what it means.”

“I know what it means,” Daryl said, “I just want to know where it comes from.”

“Many a man has wondered where good ass comes from,” Ross observed.

“Yiddish,” said Maury. “Originally from a Hebrew word for ‘bottom’, tahath.”

“So how do you spell it, anyway?”

“Well,” said Ross, “you can spell it like touch us, minus the o.”

“What good is it,” Marilyn said, “to touch us if we don’t get an o?”

I looked around. “Am I suddenly on Hollywood Squares?”

“Would that make the plural tuchi?” Daryl said.

“It’s not Latin,” said Maury. “Anyway, better with an e before the s. Like touches – again, alas, no o.”

“Well, you can o me one,” said Marilyn.

“That’s an anagram of chutes,” Ross said. “Plural tucheses is an anagram of she’s cute.”

“Some also render the first vowel as an o,” offered Maury. “T-O-K-H-E-S or T-O-C-H-E-S.” He nodded at Marilyn gallantly. “There’s your o.”

“But that’s an o with a chest,” Ross said. “Wrong end.”

Edgar stepped up to his consort. “You can also spell it like tuck us.”

Ross smirked a little. “Or as an anagram of suck it.”

“Ross!” I said. “Can we keep this just the teeniest bit polite? I want to put this on my blog.”

“You want to put my tuches on your blog?” Marilyn purred, settling onto the arm of my armchair with a leather squeak.

“Well,” I said, “that would be one way to end it. But –” I looked at my watch. Marilyn nudged her butt a little closer in response. I continued: “– I think I have enough to round it out now, with just a few finishing touches.”

“Well,” said Marilyn, nudging even a bit closer, “there’s no rush. It’s no crime to get a little behind.”

I stood up and Marilyn – by accident or not – slid abruptly into the chair I had vacated. She sighed and threw up her arms. “Edgar!” she said, patting the small remaining bit of cushion next to her bottom. “Come tuck us in.”

“And with that,” I said, donning my jacket and bracing myself for the cold, “goodnight.”