Monthly Archives: February 2011


“Oh, this does not bode well.”

Marilyn Frack gazed with consternation at her laptop. In this case, I mean she was looking at her computer. She had been doing a presentation on constellation names when her computer froze on Boötes. She tapped at it a few times and then looked up with a slight pleading in her gaze. Everyone knew what that meant: time for the resident computer geek.

Daryl sighed. He got up and walked up to the table. “Let me have a look at it.”

Marilyn stepped aside. “Well, I guess sometimes these things happen… and one has to pull oneself up by one’s boöte-straps.” She did a Hollywood flex, displaying thigh-high boots below her black leather skirt, with black fishnets to boot.

“Are those cowboy boots, then?” said Philippe Entrecote from the back of the room, in reference to Boötes being the herdsman, from Greek for “ox-driver”.

“Reverse cowgirl, maybe,” Marilyn said, winking at Edgar Frick, her other half.

“Um,” said Daryl, not so much because he had something to say as to divert that line of discourse. “Well, ironically, my usual best efforts are proving bootless. Fittingly, I will have to reboot.”

“Overall more fitting than ironic, then,” I piped up, “since her boots and reboot are related and bootless is not.”

Daryl looked up from the computer. “Reboot and boot up coming from a reference to pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, yes,” he said. “Because a part of the operating software loads the rest up.”

“But what do you mean bootless is not?” Marilyn said, sitting on the table edge and peeling off her boots in as provocative a style as she could muster. “It seems related to me.”

“It might or might not be related to you,” I said, “but bootless meaning ‘unavailing’ and to boot meaning ‘in addition’ come from a different root than the Latin root of boot meaning ‘footwear’. They have an old Germanic root meaning ‘good’ or ‘advantage’. We mostly don’t use it as such, but we use a related comparative form all the time.”

Booter?” Marilyn said.

“Perhaps butter,” Edgar leered.

“Well,” said Philippe from the back, “it may be related. He’s referring to the conjectural bat, which may be related to boot; thanks to umlaut, bat in the comparative is better.”

“Better than what?” Marilyn said, disingenuously, with a little smirk.

“A bat might be better used on your computer,” Daryl said, forcing a second reboot.

Marilyn leaned over and batted her eyes at the machine. “Is that better?”

I turned to Philippe. “Did she just call herself a bat?”

“I believe she did,” he said.

“Well,” said Marilyn, turning to us, “here’s boot and reboot.” She flung a boot at me, and one at Philippe to boot. But her efforts were bootless – she missed, and we were not cowed.

A variety of ways of using a variety

A colleague asked, “What verb would you use with ‘a variety of terms…’: is or are?”

The answer is that if you’re referring to what the various terms are doing, it’s are; if you’re referring to the variety qua variety, it’s is. Probably you want are:

A variety of terms are used. (Meaning several diverse terms are used.)

A variety of terms is used. (Meaning a specific variety is used – e.g., they’re all vulgar.)

A variety of flowers were on the table. (Assorted flowers were on the table.)

A variety of flowers was on the table. (One specific variety was on the table – presumably I don’t know what it’s called, or I would have said so.)

Generally, you’ll use the is when discussing the variety more in the abstract:

The board was discussing what herbaceous emblem to use for the society. A variety of flowers was on the table, as was a variety of grass, as well as the larch.

But very often a variety of is used as an indefinite plural quantifier, and so takes the plural, just like a lot in A lot of people are coming and a bunch in There are a bunch of questions I want to ask (as opposed to discrete singular entities, as in A lot of land was the subject of the dispute and There is a bunch of flowers on the table).


“They used a hyphen in wake up, the verb!” Margot exclaimed. “How do they propose to spell wake him up, then? As wake hyphen him hyphen up?”

Daryl rolled his eyes and looked around the coffee shop to see if other eyes were turning yet. “Happy Friday afternoon,” he said, raising his latte in mock toast.

“Come on,” Margot protested. “These things matter.”

“You are more apt than most people to begroan other people’s usage,” Daryl said.

Margot’s eyes popped wide. “It would be very apt to bemoan your use of a non-word!”

Moan, groan… how do you know begroan’s not a word?” Daryl said. He had pulled out his iPad and was tapping away at it.

“You meant bemoan,” Margot said.

“If I’d meant bemoan I would have said bemoan,” Daryl said with a flicker of a fake smile.

“Come, now,” I said, “can’t we be groan-ups? He used it, you understood it, it’s a word.”

“A word you won’t find in any dictionary,” Margot said.

“That may be,” Daryl muttered, continuing to manipulate his iPad, “or that may not be. …A-ha!” He turned his iPad to Margot. It displayed the be-, prefix entry from the Oxford English Dictionary, scrolled to show “begroan v. to groan at” with a citation from 1837. Margot was nonplussed, or should I say bemused. “Pity there’s no entry for be-hatch,” Daryl said, “’cause I done be-hatched this on you, be-hatch!” He made the sort of hip-hop-style hand gesture that cretins from “reality TV” shows are fond of.

I took the iPad from him and started scrolling through the very long entry. “Boy, someone’s been busy as a bee with all the be’s.”

“But it doesn’t even make sense,” Margot protested, gesturing to the list. “I mean, a lot of these words have nothing to do with being something. When you think of become, that’s ‘come to be’, right? And bemoaning is to be moaning, and bejewelled is to be with jewels, and so on.”

“I think you’ll have to leave that one by,” I said. “The prefix be- is not from the verb be, it’s from the preposition by. So adding be can add the sense of ‘about’, ‘around’, or ‘throughout’; from that it took on a broader use as an intensifier, and also came to signify result – as in bedimmed – or object bestowed – as in bewigged – or an instrumental relation, as in bewitch.” I started idly humming the tune from the TV show Bewitched as I continued to scroll.

“Oh, would you bequiet… yourself?” Margot grumbled.

“Perhaps you could becalm… yourself,” I replied with a little smirk, and launched into another musical snippet: “Let it be, let it be…”

“Behave,” Margot said.

“I’m being as have as I can,” I said, giggling. Margot leaned over to look at what was in my cup.

“Perhaps,” said Daryl, “you could bestow my iPad upon me, so I can be stowing it in my bag.”

“Here you be,” I said, handing it over. I turned to Margot, lifting my cup. “I only wish I were beliquored.”

“You can’t be telling me that’s a word,” Margot said.

Daryl lifted an index finger and scrolled quickly on the page. “Ah… yep. ‘Beliquor, verb, to soak with liquor, to alcoholize.'”

Margot slouched back in her chair and threw her hands up. “I’m beleaguered.” She reached for her coffee and slugged the rest of it back.

Here is a small sampling of the frankly enormous list of words included under the OED’s be- entry:

* be-aureoled
* beballed
* be-belzebubbed
* beblear
* be-blockhead
* bebutterfly
* becivet
* becomma
* becrawl
* becupolaed
* becurse
* bediamonded
* bediaper
* bedinner
* bedrug
* beduchess
* beduck
* befetter
* befezzed
* beflogged
* befrounce
* befurbelowed
* beglitter
* begruntle
* behearse
* bejumble
* be-Legion-of-Honoured
* bemadam
* bemissionary
* benightmare
* beprank
* bepreach
* berailroaded
* bereason
* beschoolmaster
* bescutcheon
* beshag
* beshriek
* beslime
* beslipper
* besnowball
* besoothe
* besqueeze
* bestink
* besugar
* beswelter
* bethunder
* bethwack
* betipple
* betired
* betwattle
* beulcer
* beuncled
* bevomit
* bewhistle
* beworm

I would like to thank my lovely wife, Aina Arro, for using the word begroan today, inspiring this note.


You would think worship is a fairly straightforward thing, no? Especially for monotheists? Well, yea and nay. Some sects manage to keep it fairly lean and consistent. Others have levels and a sort of a trail from being duly devoted to venerable beings to the full-on worship of the supreme deity. And if the distinction is serviceable, and the services are distinct, it is maintained.

Well, at least in theory. Or even in practice, but not necessarily with the terminology. You tell me – or ask any Roman Catholic you know: do you know what latria, dulia, and hyperdulia are?

Well, given the context, you might guess that they’re levels of devotion. But now tell me which sounds like a greater level to you. Does dulia sound more duly devoted, or duller and diluted? Does latria lean towards lateral, or lætare (rejoice), or some kind of idle latria, or maybe even a latrine? We can guess that hyperdulia is like dulia but moreso…

Well, I’ll tell you. The one that is suited for the ritual of the liturgy is latria. (And if you’re doing it in a narthex, you could call it atrial latria – and, if you’re a catechuman, it may be a trial atrial latria too.) Dulia is what is due to saints and angels – a lower level of veneration. And for the bonus prize, hyperdulia is… anyone? We’re talking about Catholicism here: who’s better than the other saints but not as high as God? Give yourself a point if you said Mary.

Now, some other sects of Christianity see the veneration of saints (even of Mary) as idolatry, a rather idle latria, one might say; some even proscribe images, iconography, and other such forms – they become cross if they see more than a cross. I won’t dive further into the theology of the dispute, but I will say that the word for the form of worship that is the worship of forms (idle forms), that idol latria, is well formed as idolatry. You see, idolatry comes from Greek εἰδωλολατρεία eidololatreia, from εἴδωλον eidolon “likeness, idea, fancy” (from εἶδος eidos “form”) and λατρεία latreia “worship, service to God” – that’s the same latreia that is the origin of latria.

Dulia’s Greek source, δουλεία douleia, also refers to service, by the way, but it’s bonded servitude, as in what a slave does. An inferior kind of service, to be sure, but the word has evidently escaped the bonds of “ownership” – you don’t belong to the saints in Catholic theology.

The word latria is a fine enough word, anyway, with its light Latinate sound licking on the tip of the tongue; it almost sounds like something one might produce in a spree of glossolalia. It’s certainly more singable in its way than worship, though worship has its place in many more hymns.


Quick: What’s Canada’s national sport?

Actually, that’s a trick question. The obvious answer – hockey (duh) – is Canada’s official winter sport. The answer many of us learned a long time ago – lacrosse – is Canada’s national summer sport. (It was bruited about for years as being the official national sport, in spite of hockey’s much greater popularity, but it turned out that it was not in fact official until 1994, when a member of parliament tried to make hockey the official national sport.)

But seriously, lacrosse? Labatt’s would seem more Canadian – oh, sorry, Molson makes Canadian. Le cross-checking would certainly be more familiar to most Canadians. Even le croissant would be more familiar to most Canadians. For that matter, le skicross is getting popular – I just watched a Canadian take the world title in it. (In fact, Canadians seriously rule in freestyle ski in general. We won 8 out of the 12 golds at this year’s World Freestyle Ski Championships.) But I digress!

Lacrosse is a nice word for the sport, anyway; it may seem a little frilly to English ears and eyes with the la to start and the e on the end, but the sport itself is more thrilly, and you can see a bit of it in the word form if you want: the stick at l whipping the ball (e) across – the ss may even look like a bit of motion blur.

We may note that hockey and lacrosse have some phonetic similarities: both have two syllables with a ricochet off a /k/ in the middle; both have the same vowel sound in the stressed syllable; both have a voiceless fricative on the stressed end – as long as you allow /h/ as a fricative. Lacrosse has a more French accent in that the stress comes at the end – and of course in that it’s a French word.

Actually, it’s two French words, la “the” and crosse “stick”. Calling it lacrosse is like calling it thestick, but that’s its name, even in French now. Not that French Canadians use crosse to mean “stick” anymore. But they didn’t invent the game anyway; it – or an earlier version of it – was played by various First Nations well before any Europeans ever saw it.

The original players didn’t call it lacrosse, of course; some of them called it something that sounded to Anglophone ears like baggattaway, which traces to a verb meaning “hit” or “beat”. The Iroquois called it tewaarathon, “little brother of war”. Who first called it lacrosse? Ah, well, thereby hangs a bit of mythology.

The commonly passed-around story, you see, is that the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf gave it that name because the stick looked like a bishop’s crozier. This story is so widely accepted that you can find it on the website of the Canadian Lacrosse Association (who, however, are off by two centuries on when Brébeuf was around) and in the Wikipedia article for the city of La Crosse, Wisconsin, which was – yes – named after the sport.

But there are stories and then there’s evidence. And, as my friend and colleague Barb Adamski discovered, etymology can involve a heck of a lot of historical dumpster diving. Barb went through all of Brébeuf’s diaries and found… no basis at all for the crozier story. Add to that the fact that jeu de la crosse for “stick game” was a reasonable French phrase of the time – a century earlier François Rabelais had spoken of a game of the same name being played (along with many others) by the thelemites in Gargantua. (My, the things you’ll come across!)

So we can’t necessarily credit Brébeuf for lacrosse, though we still owe him for his carol’s serene loveliness – the Huron Carol, that is. And we can credit Barbara K. Adamski (note the /k/ in the middle again!) for setting the record straight – read her Canadian Encyclopedia article on lacrosse and an article on her research work, “City writer gets the scoop on lacrosse,” both of which I am indebted to for information presented above.


Today I got an email newsletter from an acquaintance, or anyway his business, inveighing against an inconsistency of usage. “The legal inspired way of converting verbs into nouns by adding ‘ee’ to the end of the verb has been out of hand for some years now,” the newsletter informs me. It notes that while an employer employs an employee, and a payer pays a payee, an escaper does not escape from an escapee, nor an attender attend an attendee nor a stander stand on a standee.

Agh! How awful and nasty! These dreadful inconsistencies! How could they have escaped us, these, ah, these escapees from a linguistic loony bin?

Indeed, I too have long thought escapee, attendee, and standee to be odd exceptions to the apparent pattern, where the ee is the object, not the subject, of the action. However, before we launch a crusade, there are some things that ought not to escape us.

First, as the newsletter says, this has been going on for some years now. To be precise, escapee has been around since at least 1876, and standee since at least 1831 – while attendee is a newcomer, having shown up in the mid-20th century. On the other hand, employee was around by 1850 (and its older form, straight from the French, employé, since 1834); payee, genuinely venerable, was with us by 1758.

The fairly indiscriminate usage of ee to denote a party somehow associated with an action, well established especially in North America for a century and a half (meaning it’s very well entrenched, like many other illogical things in our language, and why did you ever expect logic from English?), stems, it is quite true, from an original Norman French suffix denoting the direct object of an action. I employ you; you are employed; you are an employee. It has spread to various other uses; for instance, a lessee is not a property that has been let but the person to whom it is let. And, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “in a few words . . . the suffix is applied app. aribtrarily” – for example devotee.

But, then, why not call out payee as well? If you pay someone, you are actually paying money to them – they are the indirect, not the direct, object of the action: the money is not called the payee. (The OED points out also that someone is the payee even before they have been paid, as long as they are the one who is supposed to be paid.) This would also put a hole in standee referring to what is stood on – naturally, to be consistent it would refer to what is stood.

And, on the other hand, some actions where we think of the grammatical subject as the agent may also be viewed as having the subject on the receiving end. For instance, if I am a devotee, I may devote myself to something or someone, but we do say that I am devoted to it. And it just happens that, while we now say I have escaped, we formerly said I am escaped. You’ll find that usage throughout the King James version of the Bible, for instance – see Psalm 124 for an example: “Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers.” Escaping was not an action so much as a state change that we underwent. I am escaped; I am an escapee.

This was also true with a number of other verbs – I am fallen and I am come are two. And at this point a light should be on over the heads of those who speak Romance languages. What are those phrases in French? Je suis tombé (not J’ai tombé) and Je suis venu (not J’ai venu).

This does not, mind you, excuse attendee. But this is English, and there will ever be escapees from the expected patterns, won’t there? Anyway, you can use other words, for example audience members.

But still, why not escaper? That was, after all, what was used in the King James Bible. Yes, that’s right – the theoretical justification for escapee on the basis of usage 400 years ago does run up against the fact that escapee has only been in use since 1876 (remember?). And escaper is a nice amphibrach, three syllables with the stress squarely on the middle one. With escapee, you have two “long” vowels and so can’t avoid stressing both of the last two syllables – and, while you’re at it, you might stress the first one too. It sounds like a three-letter initialism: “SKP”.

I won’t say that I think that that is the very reason for the success of escapee. More likely it’s because it’s the more marked and high-level-sounding word, and we do tend to like those. But now I’m wondering, if I here deny that the word escapee came originally from SKP, standing for (let’s see… hmmm…) Subject of the King’s Prison, how long it will take before someone forwards me an email in which it is contended in all earnest that that is exactly where escapee originally came from.

And, really, with rubbish false etymologies being sent around like email herpes, a bit of derivational inconsistency seems hardly even a punishable offence, let alone one that might involve a jailbreak…


The English have long had a liking for playing with words, often mutilating foreign words for fun. I remember a British veteran of WWI telling me that the soldiers had taken to pronouncing Ypres as “wipers”.

There are also stories of Rotten Row, the name of an avenue in Hyde Park, being a bastardization of Route du roi, and of Elephant and Castle, a street and neighbourhood south of the Thames, coming from Enfant de Castile. And these stories are so charming and entertaining that it would be a shame to have to say toodle-oo to them.

Ah, yes, toodle-oo. That’s another one said to come from French, specifically from à toute à l’heure. But it has a problem shared with Rotten Row and Elephant and Castle: a complete lack of any evidence, beyond similarity of sound, of a French source. And etymology by sound is not sound etymology, as linguists will tell you – it’s exceedingly easy to find sound coincidences with seemingly plausible related meanings. (Meanwhile, Ypres has not been renamed Wipers, but there is no reason to think the British soldiers did not say it as “wipers”; I got that from the horse’s mouth.)

Of course, if there were a single clear origin it would be easier to lay to rest forever the French origin theories. But one simply doesn’t always get a nice, easily traceable source. So, yes, your honour, it is possible that the accused had, without anyone knowing, become an expert marksman, and that he drove 500 miles in three hours without anyone noticing, let alone stopping him, and that he managed to get his wheelchair up three flights of stairs. After all, the victim was shot with a weapon of the same type as the accused had been seen looking at in a store two weeks ago, and was known to have bullied the accused in elementary school. And it is possible that these terms come from French.

But there are other possible origins that may be a bit less of a stretch. For instance, Elephant and Castle comes from an inn sign taken from the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, which featured an elephant with a castle on its back. And there are several streets called Rotten Row in towns throughout England, and there are various more likely possibilities for its origin – route du roi has not been entirely discounted, but it is not convincing.

As to toodle-oo, we know that it showed up in the early 20th century, no later than 1907 – not a time when French influences were prone to appearing spontaneously in English discourse. Aside from the supposed French origin, which is discounted by researched etymological sources, there are two main ideas about its origins. One sees it as coming from tootle, which is a variant of toddle, as in toddle off – it means to walk with a tottering or waddling step, like a young child, or, more loosely, to amble; toddle off just means “go” with a somewhat leisurely tone to it. The other sees it as coming from toot, in imitation of a car horn; its occasional co-occurrence with pip-pip, which is also imitative of a car horn, supports this. (The merger of the two, tootle-pip, was invented much later, in the 1970s.)

If it sounds, at any rate, like the sort of thing P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster might have used, well, he was indeed an early user of it. The earliest use so far found comes from a 1907 issue of Punch magazine, which, as The Phrase Finder points out, employed P.G. Wodehouse at the time. Another early user was T.E. Lawrence (as in Lawrence of Arabia), who in 1908 wrote in a letter “Tootle ’oo.” It would seem it was a bit au courant with the smart set of the time. It remains in usage, as we know, but with a general taste of reference to the effete toffs of the legendary Wodehousian era. Toodle-oo has since then also been abbreviated to toodles, which is even more popular, if not quite as much a reference to another social milieu.

It’s a fun word, regardless. The oo and oo seem like the embouchure of a person making the /u/ sound, or perhaps the end of a flute on which one is playing something that sounds rather similar. The /dl/ in the middle adds to the musicality – it does show up in filler syllables in various traditions, from the lodle-lodle-lodle-lo of some shape note music to yodeling, and it seems imitative of twiddling keys – and has a certain frilly ornamentation to it, with the tongue cupping to the roof of the mouth and then pulling away from the sides, perhaps giving a reminiscence of the fringes on the canopy of an old horseless carriage in some form of frippery. You know, the sort of old car that had a bulb horn that might even go “toodle-oo” as the car and driver toddled off.

Thanks to C. Fletcher for suggesting toodle-oo.


With this word, I may get an image of cupping or curling the hand to carefully take aside some selection, but I may also get an image of killing and counting skulls. When you put a cull in your sack, is it a treasure lovingly collected or an excess head cut off?

The meaning is on one level the same: selecting and removing. But what the removing is done for, and what is done with what is taken and what is left, is the point of variability here. One may commonly hear on the one hand of culling information or stories, and on the other hand of culling animals from herds. Ah, indeed, one hand keepeth and the other tosseth away. The meanings run in parallel like ll, but one retains like a cup sitting up u and the other drains like a tipped cup c.

Cull is cognate with French cueillir, coming from Latin colligere; the origins denote selecting, collecting, choosing, gathering. So the hand that cups and keeps came first – a sense you may see in older poetry is particularly that of gathering flowers: “What hand but would a garland cull For thee who art so beautiful?” as Wordsworth wrote. Oh, yes, cut them with a sickle, and so cull them, but lovingly, those calla lilies and luculia, to colour the culler, that gentleman caller, and the gal he’s coolly calling on. How could such a cull be culpable?

But of course we flower up the less pleasant things as well, to seem perhaps less cold and calculating or at least less callous. Those capering caribou we cull for the sake of the tundra, they too are selected, plucked from their surroundings, perhaps, like flowers, decapitated, their capitals placed on display – though on some manly wall, not in a dainty vase.

And when we cull information, do we do it to keep what we cull, or to keep the remainder? And do we take the cull and display it, or discard it, or put it to use? Well, it’s your call.

Sears and the cooperative principle

Last week I was in a Sears store in downtown Toronto. I had in mind that I needed some more socks and, lo and behold, they had SALE signs all over their socks racks. I went up to a rack of multi-packs. The sign said, buy 1, get 25% off; buy 2, get 30% off, buy 3, get 35% off. Now, their socks were not outstanding prices, but when you knocked that much off it was persuasive. I selected two packs of three socks and took them up to the cash. The girl rang them up. The price seemed a bit much. I asked her what it came to before tax (just in case my math had been wrong). She explained that the sale didn’t apply to multi-packs.

I said, “Well, I’m not buying them” and took them back to the rack, about four metres away. As I was hanging them back up, I said, “Why would you do that? Now I’m not buying the socks, and you’ve just pissed me off.” One of her co-workers came over and helpfully pointed to the line of 8-point type at the bottom of the sign saying that multi-packs and certain brands were excluded. I pointed out that the sign was on a rack that had nothing but multi-packs on it. Now, why would you put up a sale sign on a rack that did not have any items on it that were on sale? A reasonable person would simply not expect that. Effectively, the sign that proclaimed in large type that these socks were on sale had, in print you had to lean close to read, “except everything.”

Sure, sure, caveat emptor. Well, I didn’t buy, and – having heard about a similar experience my wife had – I don’t now really have any inclination to shop at Sears. So caveat vendor. That was a stupid thing for them to do.

But of course you don’t expect me just say that and leave it be, do you? That’s not what this blog is about. Naturally, I’m going to explain why it was a stupid thing for them to do and how that all works. Continue reading


First off: this is not a texting abbreviation for skunks, skinks, or skanks, not an initialism, and not the name of a rock group (that would be INXS or XTC or maybe NKOTB). It’s true that there are some SKNXs out there: one stands for Forum Skandenberg, which a Romanian competitive armwrestling forum; another stands for Saskatchewan Grain Car Corporation, and may be seen stencilled on the sides of some railway grain hopper cars. I don’t have either of those in mind.

But put those SKNX rail cars in mind for a moment. Imagine you’re at a level crossing somewhere in the prairies and your bad luck has gotten you stuck waiting for a long grain train to pass. Car after car rolls by in nothing like a hurry: SKNX – SKNX – SKNX – SKNX… Trainspotters might be busy writing down the car numbers, but you’re so unexcited. Your head gradually tilts back; your eyelids gradually lower. Try this while (or just after) you’re reading now: tilt your head back, relax your tongue near the roof of your mouth, and inhale. Relax some more and keep breathing that way. Perhaps let the airway through your nose close up and your tongue drift ever closer to closing up at the back of your mouth. At a certain point you will produce a sound…

And what sound? Well, it varies, of course, but let’s turn to the comics for an answer. No, I don’t mean zzz – I’ve heard enough people snoring, and not one of them really sounded like “zzz”. I’m thinking, rather, of the Blondie comic strip, for instance the one where Blondie is doing a crossword while Dagwood is recumbent on the sofa. She says to him that she needs a four-letter word for sleep. He replies, inconscient, “SKNX!”

Ah, yes. That‘s a sound of snoring. Of course the n really stands for the velar nasal, /ŋ/, that as a rule comes when /k/ follows and that we elsewhere write with ng. Or, rather, when said inhaling, it stands for a snort that doesn’t even have an International Phonetic Alphabet character.

It is much to Chic Young’s and Dean Young’s credit that they managed this bit of inventive insight while other strips tend to stick with the king’s new clothes of zzz. Of course, snores are often more drawn out than that, and Dagwood’s snores are often extended by several more x‘s: SKNXXXX-XXXX-XXXX, for instance. (Are the caps for volume? For emphasis? No, they’re caps because all dialogue in Blondie, as in most other comic strips, is in all caps. It’s a simple local orthographic choice. So really, in a non-all-caps context, I have no need to keep the caps.)

But is this a word? Well, if zzz is then sknx is, and some dictionaries – including The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, and the Random House Dictionary – include zzz as an interjection or a characterization of sleep. It’s onomatopoeia for sure, and it may even be an ideophone. Snoring itself is of course not normally uttered intentionally, but snoring itself is also not uttered phonemically (hence the difficulty of spelling it exactly). Reference to snoring, on the other hand, is as intentional and phonemic as onomatopooeic reference to any other sound, be it meow, squeak, grrr…

I like the look of it, too. The k reminds me of the tongue constricting the back of the throat, and the x is like so many cartoon eyes representing unconsciouness. But there is one question: how do you say it when you’re simply saying, for instance, “He was sknxing away on the couch”? It has no vowel, but it does have a syllable peak – the nasal between the two stops. But just saying it casually doesn’t sound right. My recommendation is to use an uncharacteristic airstream mechanism, a pulmonary ingressive one.

That means inhaling instead of exhaling. Oh, and tilt your head back too. And close your eyes and think of grain cars. Or, if you’re a trainspotter, of Romanian armwrestling.