Monthly Archives: April 2011


OK, what word does this word most often go with?

Well, that was easy. Cherry or cherries. What else?

Now tell me how you pronounce it.

That will be easy for most people too: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it any other way than “merra-shee-no”.

Anyone other than myself, that is.

You see, I can’t escape being aware that this word is not a German word. And sch may spell “sh” in German words, and words derived from German, but rarely elsewhere. If the word is from Greek or Dutch, for instance, the original is [sx], where [x] is the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for the consonant you hear in “ach!” If, however, the word is from Italian, sch is [sk]. The h is just written to keep the c from being read as palatalized before an e or an i.

Anyone who’s ever gotten their knickers in a twist over mispronounced bruschetta knows this one. And in the case of maraschino, the root is marasca – which is a kind of small black Dalmatian cherry – and there is the derivative suffix on it, which starts with an i, so that h is added so that the c won’t soften. Ironically, if it were written marascino (no h), it would be pronounced in Italian just as nearly every Anglophone says it now. But… it’s not. (What’s worse, if it were written that way, many Anglophones would say it “maras-chee-no”, a grating hypercorrection.)

So is it snobby of me to say “mara-skee-no”? More likely obsessive or compulsive, or anal-retentive, or what have you. But if you look in English dictionaries, you will see my pronunciation listed – sometimes as the first option, with the now-more-common one as the second. So I feel comforted that I am not being blockheaded. Which is not to say that I think the way that most people say it is wrong. But I would like to point out that that more common way is the newer way, first officialized in a dictionary a mere half century ago, and spreading from the US to England (and of course elsewhere).

Some of you may have said, halfway through my etymology, “Whoa. Small black cherry?” Well… here’s yet more I must break to you. Maraschino cherries, those red things you buy, are actually light-colour sweet cherries of the Royal Ann, Rainier, or Gold varieties, soaked in sugar water and coloured with food colouring.

So why the heck are they called maraschino? Because the original soaked cherries were soaking in maraschino.

Getting dizzy? Yes, there’s another thing to explain. Maraschino is not a name for the cherries. It’s the name of a liqueur flavoured with marasca cherries. Luxardo is a popular brand of it. It’s sweet with a slightly bitter flavour… because marasca cherries are a little bitter. Marasca may be derived from amaro, “bitter”.

So, to recap: little black Dalmatian cherries are used to flavour an Italian-named liqueur in which other cherries are sometimes soaked, and, in emulation of that, other cherries soaked in sugar water and coloured bright red are described with the name of the liqueur that is named after the cherries that these bright red cherries differ from about as much as two cherries can differ from each other. And, just to put the cherry on top, the Italian name is now commonly pronounced as if it were German.

Just a little thought, though: what difference in effect does the different pronunciation of the word have? With the “sh” it makes me think of garish mustachios, and it’s soft like a marsh too – a soft, sweet word. With the “sk” it has a kick, a skip, a zip like skis or a skee ball; it’s risky like keno in a casino and it’s sexy like mascara. It’s like… well, the adult version of the word. Put in that [k] and it kind of… loses its cherry, as it were. Even as it regains its original cherry.


Imagine yourself climbing one of the highest mountains in the world, a steep jag of rock in a corner of the Karakoram, pinched between Pakistan and China. You are hanging on a rope, swinging against a rock face, a mile above the glacier below but not so far from the glacier to your side. A chunk breaks off the glacier hanging just over there… it resounds: “Gasherbrum!” You swing on the rope, thrash for room, bump on the rock and gash your bum.

Heck, why settle for one of the highest mountains in the world? Take seven of them. Or anyway seven peaks in one massif. That’s the Gasherbrum. One might be forgiven for thinking it’s Gascherbrunn, which would seem properly Germanically alpine, but these peaks are nowhere near Switzerland or Austria. And their name is from Balti, a language that is a form of Ladakhi, which is in turn a dialect of Tibetan.

Its Balti source is the words rgasha “beautiful” and brum “mountain”. I do think brum is more suited to naming a very large thing made of rock than it is to naming a hand-holdable thing made of wood and straw, as its English homophone does. But rgasha for “beautiful”? And note that, unlike in Standard Tibetan, that opening /r/ is actually pronounced. (Tibetan is loaded with onset consonant clusters – stops preceded by such as /r/ or /d/ or both – that are still written as such but have simplified in pronunciation to the last consonant in the bunch.)

But why can’t rgasha be beautiful if an 8000-foot-high striated crag of rock, rock, rock, and rock, covered with snow and ice, can be beautiful? I do admit that such things as are made of rock and ice seem to me to be more suited to voiceless stops – make that /rg/ voiceless and it would seem quite perfect for the terrible beauty of a lethal peak – but the word doesn’t exist for the mountain, after all. Well, the three highest peaks could have retained the names given them by Thomas George Montgomerie in 1856: K3, K4, and K5 (K is for Karakoram). But why not call mountains what the locals call them, if they call them something?

Ironically, the other thing Gasherbrum makes me think of is Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies, a ghoulish abecedarius of small deaths, none of which involve mountains or glaciers. There have, of course, been quite a few deaths on the Gasherbrum peaks and on their neighbour K2, none of which were small or cartoonish or involved household implements and substances. But the lure of high hard things can be irresistible – and they are to be climbed and conquered for the same reason their names are to be tasted and those onset consonants are to be said: because they’re there.


“Give me a sign!” I cried.

And then I looked up and saw it before me, glowing, golden, upon a metal standard like a great Y as in YES. And I knew what my answer was. For the sign meant “yield”, and to me that meant, more than anything else, one thing.


Not because I was yielding to temptation; for me, when it comes to cookies, the desire is pure and unconflicted and is followed immediately, so it doesn’t qualify as temptation at all.* No, there was no guilt, nor was I feeling I had to lay down my arms or render them forth like the yellow Sir Rodney. There was just the gilt of the golden sign and the golden cookies, and the resonance of nearly every cookie recipe in the English-speaking world: “Yield: 2 dozen” or “Yield: 40” or…

Look, recipes are one of the top two places you’ll see yield in print (or on the web) – the other being financial documents and articles. But, now, how does one word cover the ambit from yeast to gold to arms and asphalt? What could cause one sense to give way to another, what could render these results?

Gold, of course. And payment for services rendered, or anyway payment rendered in service.

The Proto-Indo-European root at the base of all this, you see, ghol-/ghel-, gives us, among other things, our modern gold (and gilt), as well as our modern yellow, but also – by way of the Old English noun gield and verb gieldan – our modern yield. (The tongue used to stop on the roof of the mouth, [g], but its resistance was weakened over time and now it yields with a [j] “y”.) The sense of yield was first “render a sum of money” (or, simply, “pay”). It is from this that we get the sense of “produce a crop”, and from that we get other senses of production, as in recipes. From giving forth we also get the sense of relinquishing, as in arms to the enemy. Yield was a standard translation of Latin reddere and French rendre, and so it gained commonality and breadth of use. And from that we got the rather bleached sense of ceding right of way.

So, you see, it really does make sense, even if coincidentally, that the middle light in a traffic light is yellow (though some people insist on calling it “amber”). And while it is true that most “yield” signs in the world are white and red, there are yellow ones to be seen.

And many are the golden cookies brought forth in tribute by the world’s ovens. If you are seeking a sign, look to the gold on the standard; follow the Y and say yes to the yield… and you will be healed.

* “Sin” also has nothing to do with cookies or chocolate in my world, advertising be damned. There’s nothing wrong with eating two or three, and I find I can stop after that, since I know I can have another any time I want. Guilt schmilt. I exercise.


If you’re shilly-shallying on a sale, and you’re not sure whether to shell out your shillings, it sure will help tilt your opinion if you hear another satisfied customer, won’t it? Takes the chill off, helps you warm to the purchase. So, needless to say, there’s some motivation for a seller to get someone to pretend to be a satisfied customer (and perhaps to “sh!” any ill reports). Support begets support, confidence begets confidence. And so we get the shill. (And after you cross the palm with silver and find you’ve been double-crossed, you’ll be feeling cross, and the parallel lines you thought you were on with the shill – ll – turn to perpendicularity: t. Thus does shill become… well, you get the picture.)

There are other names for such fakers, such pied pipers, sheepdogs in the wolves’ pay: fake advocacy organizations and masses of fake Twitter and Facebook supporters (who may also post comments on news stories, dozens of them actually all from the same person) are often called astroturf (because fake grassroots); they may also, on the individual level, be called sock puppets (as with someone creating a fake third-party identity to voice support for themself or respond to criticism of them). These kinds of things are altogether too common on websites that allow review of and comment on commercial entities.

There are also slightly less dodgy (and more legal) versions of shills, such as claques, people who are in an audience to start applause and laughter where the performers desire it. Audience members who might otherwise have remained reserved will join with the crowd, and will remember having clapped and laughed, too.

Shill has an interesting taste, I find, that doesn’t necessarily relate to its object. It has the brittle overtones from shell, but also a sound as of a sword unsheathing; the ill ending pulls in shivers from kill and thrill and chill and perhaps spill, and it has a little look of horripilation to go with it. For some reason I also associate it with flaps or slices of flesh or meat, such as wattles and cock’s combs and cold cuts. I don’t know why. But it has a weaker effect in common words such as bill and pill and will.

The word itself is operating under something of a mask. It has no relationship to shillings or shells; it is thought to be a shortened form of shillaber, which referred to one of those people who would, for instance, pose as a stranger to play a cheating gambling game and win so that others would think it winnable. And where does shillaber come from? It happens that there is a family name Shillaber, but not one of the etymological sources I’ve looked at considers the two connected. There are many websites out there that say that it is a Yiddish word, but I have yet to find one that says what the reported Yiddish word shillaber means; moreover, a surprisingly large number of those sites use the exact same phrasing: “It may be an abbreviation of the Yiddish shillaber.”

It would seem that the plurality of information sources on the web is largely a house of mirrors. But we knew that, didn’t we? (See “Nothing to chauffeur a classiomatic” for a great example of this information house of mirrors.) Still, I feel confident that one of my readers – all of whom are, to my knowledge, real people – may have a Yiddish resource ready to hand to supply the needed detail, if it exists. (I know I should have one. I don’t.)

Thanks to my mom for requesting shill – more than a year ago…


We had just settled in at the Metaphor Café (“Service with a Simile”) – Daryl, Margot, Jess, and I – and were giving our orders to Jess, who had offered to go up and get our beverages.

“I’ll have a chai tea latte,” Daryl said.

Margot glanced at Daryl with a look of distaste. She put on a saccharin smile and turned to Jess. “I’ll have a coffee café au lait with milk.”

Jess arched her eyebrow just a little and paused for a moment. “…Regular with caffeine, or decaf without caffeine?”

“Why, regular with caffeine, of course.”

I couldn’t be bothered to play along. “Decaf latte, please, high-fat milk.”

“Surely,” Margot said, “you mean a decaf coffee caffè latte with milk without caffeine.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Daryl said.

“You started it,” said Margot.

Daryl threw up his hands. “OK, yes, I know, chai means ‘tea’.”

“Specifically spiced tea with milk,” Margot said. “You might as well have asked for salsa sauce, or entered a PIN number into an ATM machine.”

“The pleonasm police are out,” Daryl said. “I shall be denied entry into high so-chai-tea.”

“Actually,” I said, as Jess sidled away to go place the orders, “chai is just Hindi for ‘tea’. Tea with spices is masala chai in India. And that’s normally made with milk, yes. So it’s like salsa, which is just Spanish for ‘sauce’ – in English, the word is used with a more specific meaning that’s further specified in the original language.”

“But that’s the way they’ve always had tea in India, isn’t it?” Margot said. “From time immemorial?”

“Well, from before you were born, anyway,” I said. “But tea was grown almost exclusively in China until the end of the 1800s, when the British began cultivating it on a large scale in India in order not to be dependent on China. And the Indians themselves didn’t really drink it until the British-owned Indian Tea Association encouraged industries to provide tea breaks, in the early 1900s. That’s when the chai wallahs with their tea carts started circulating. But the masala chai was a local invention that stretched out the tea leaves and added some spice. Literally and figuratively.”

Chai is very similar to the Mandarin word for ‘tea’,” Daryl said, “cha.” (He said it properly, with a rising tone.) “Clearly cognate. So how did we get tea? The word, I mean.” He held up a finger and pulled out his iPad to look it up.

“From Malay,” I said.

“But tea cures your malaise,” Daryl quipped as he typed and scrolled.

I got up and did a few fluid moves. “So does chai tea. I mean tai chi.”

“Is that what that was,” Margot said. “I thought it was the cha-cha-cha.”

“Oh,” said Daryl, showing his iPad screen, “/te/ is also from the Amoy dialect of Chinese. Probable source of the Malay word.”

“Sure,” I said. “And the phonological relation is clear. Stop and affricate, both voiceless, same location – tip of the tongue – and the vowels easily transformed one to another, /a/ to /aI/ and /e/ and, in English, /e/ to /i/ – just getting more and more steeped. Every language that I’m aware of that has a word for ‘tea’ bases the word on one of those three streams: cha, chai, te. But the relation isn’t obvious to most non-linguists.”

“It still doesn’t excuse the redundancy,” Margot said.

“Redundancy is often a good idea for clarity,” I said. “I too find chai tea a little grating, but I understand why they do it – they need to specify that it’s tea, for those who don’t know, and at the same time the word chai has a specificity and that nice bit of the exotic that spiced wouldn’t.”

“And the latte for the milk,” Daryl said.

Jess arrived with the beverages. “Wallah!” she said, setting down Daryl’s chai.

“That’s voilà,” said Margot.

“No,” said Daryl, “that’s the chai wallah.”

Thanks (and l’chai-m!) to Kathe Lieber for asking for a bit of chai, cha, tea.


I might as well start off by saying that bobotie is the national dish of South Africa. Yes, they do like a lot of braai (barbecue) too, but various people and organizations have at various times declared flatly that bobotie is the national dish of South Africa, and it seems that there’s not too much argument about this.

So, of course, the first question is, How is bobotie pronounced? Interestingly enough, you can find some quite enormously unhelpful advice and description on some wesbites. On one bulletin board, a fellow told another poster it was like “Bo-boo-t” and then explained “it’s a long ‘o’ sound” and advised finding a South African girlfriend. Several websites say it’s “ba-boo-eh-tee”; others say “buh-booty”; Wikipedia gives a pronunciation guide that will come out like “baw boaty” if, say, a Canadian says it.

All this confusion has to do with accents and with the phoneme of the stressed vowel – it’s really /o:/, a long /o/ sound, but that’s realized as higher than the English [o] and with a bit of a release at the end. (A phoneme is a sound that we think of as a single distinct sound, even if it has a complex realization and varies according to context.) In other words, unless you’re saying it with a South African accent you’re not going to say it quite right, but if you try to say it like the South African way within your own non-South-African accent it’s going to sound wrong because that sound in your own dialect will signify different phonemes.

It’s like if I were to say “Nollins” in a Canadian way in an attempt to reproduce how people from New Orleans say New Orleans: it may sound to me like they’re leaving out the /r/, but they’re not – it just assimilates into the preceding vowel – and so if I say it as “Nollins” rather than “Norlins” I’m producing the wrong set of phonemes.

But anyway, the second question is, where is this word from originally? We can look at it and see the ie on the end, and that’s actually not uncommon for Afrikaans. Words that in English end in -tion will likely end in -sie in Afrikaans, for instance, and words that we have with -y may have equivalents with -ie. But, then, what about this bobo? Is it a word from some African language – perhaps Setswana, in which bo is a prefix for a place, as in Botswana? Or is it a name of some animal, like dik-dik? Or does it come from some European language? Is it related to Afrikaans boet, “friend”?

Actually, it comes from Malay. Yup, like blatjang, this word is a modification of a Malay word, taken from the Cape Malay, people brought to the Cape of Good Hope area from Indonesia and Malaysia as slaves by the Dutch centuries ago. The original dish, it is thought, is a dish of shredded meat and coconut flesh served in banana leaves, called botok. The plural is bobotok – yes, the reduplication is a pluralization. And, as you see, the tok became South Africanized as tie.

But bobotie is also not botok. Nor, for that matter, is it Botox (though I’m told it does a body good), nor booty, nor a boo-boo, nor even bubble and squeak. It’s a sort of meat pie. Well, what it is is minced or ground meat (which kind varies), spiced with curry and typically mixed with onion and some raisins and/or fruit, and baked in a pie dish, with a mixture of milk and egg poured over it towards the end of the baking. And typically eaten with blatjang (q.v.).

So it’s a dish from Malaysia adapted by Dutch and English settlers in Africa, with a name likewise borrowed and adapted. It’s a mixture of borrowed and adapted spices and local ingredients. It’s an import but has been there for centuries now, taking on a distinct local-yet-imported flavour. Sounds very South African to me.


This is a word I’ve liked since I first saw it in a cookbook. (I can’t remember which cookbook, but it was probably the More with Less Cookbook, published by the Mennonite Central Committee and my source for a variety of recipes – e.g., nasi goreng – not found in my mother’s other books.)

I’ve given away that it’s something to do with food, so that will prejudice your tasting of the word already (though of course the signification is an important part of the full flavour – it’s just that you don’t want it to overpower the phonetic and gestural aspects before you savour them independently). But this word has such a force to it, an almost comic-book punch: it really seems like a marching band, doesn’t it, with the trumpet going “blat” and the cymbals going “jang”? Definitely zippy on the tongue and catchy for the eyes.

And with that tj in the middle, there’s a fairly good likelihood (especially given where I first saw the word) that it’s from a language that has had a Dutch influence, at least in the spelling. I have long assumed it to be an Indonesian word. The ng at the end certainly has a Malay feel to it – Malay being the language from which have sprung, as independent languages but erstwhile dialects, Indonesian and Filipino.

I was right about the Malay/Indonesian source and Dutch influence, but not exactly. You see, blatjang is a word you’re going to encounter in South Africa, not in Malaysia or Indonesia. You might in those countries hear a similar word: belachan, also spelled belacan, which is a Malay name for a shrimp paste. Sambal belacan can also name a chili paste. But blatjang is not that. It’s an Afrikaans rendition of the word, pronounced more like “blood young” or “bluh chung”, and what it’s a name for is usually called chutney in English. (Chutney comes from Hindi, by the way.)

Indeed, I can hardly think of this word without thinking blatjang (chutney), because that’s how it was listed in the cookbook and that’s how it tends to show up in English references to it. But, to be fair, it’s a specific kind of chutney: a very fruity one, described in some places as like chutney mixed with jam. Apricots are a common ingredient. Of course, so are chili peppers.

So this word, and this sauce, come from the Cape Malay community first (which started as Javanese and other Indonesians and Malays who had been brought to South Africa as slaves by the Dutch). But now blatjang is a staple of South African cuisine. As one South African expat nostalgic for the cuisine of his homeland put it (at, “Nou praat jy die waarheid, boet! Blatjang met bobotie…..gevolg met melktert en Van Der Hum. Mmmmm……smaaklik.” Which means “Now you’re talking, dude! [or: Now you’re telling the truth, buddy!] Blatjang with bobotie… followed by milk tart and Van Der Hum. Mmm… delicious!”

Oh, bobotie, milk tart, Van Der Hum? One’s a meat dish (spiced minced meat with an egg topping), one’s a dessert, and one’s a liqueur. And at least bobotie, if not the others, deserves a word tasting too. If you want recipes, chef Google will oblige copiously. Of course, if you just like tasting the words, you now have a nice and zippy one. But may I suggest trying some blatjang too? Then you’ll surely think of that flavour as well whenever you see this word.


Well, you may not like this, but I’m feeling a little snotty today. I don’t mean I have a bad attitude – it’s just that my snoot does. It’s in a snit, just to spite me; I’d like to smite it, but I just snite it.

Snite? ’sright! What means snite? Well, consider that what you fight is fought, and what you wright is wrought; you abide in an abode, and what you get is got. And, similarly, what you snite is snot. (Oh, don’t wince; snot didn’t use to be a low-toned word. It was in common unexceptional usage a few centuries ago, and it’s been around for a very long time.)

I’m not making this up! The nose knows. Snite means “wipe the nose”, and has for a millennium – though it doesn’t get used much anymore. Pity: it’s much more concise than wipe your nose, and it fits so nicely with the rest of the snooty sn set: snout, snot, snoot (all cognate) plus sneeze, sniffle, snuffle, snide, sneer, snub… It’s not that all sn-onset words have to do with noses; there are ones like snip and sned and snicker, and also outliers like snow (and you’re more likely to be sniting when the snow is out lying). But there’s a lot of nose in those sn onsets, with that sniffy /s/ sound to start and the nasal /n/ to follow (and in this case, to finish the tip-of-the-tongue set with a stop, /t/).

Snite also has a couple of other meanings. It can mean “blow the nose” (especially if you do it with just the thumb and finger, a practice which I remember the narrator so disdained in Margaret Laurence’s Stone Angel). It can also mean “snuff a candle”, a sense that seems to have grown from the nose sense.

Incidentally, what’s left when you snuff a candle could (in past times and perhaps still in some northern English dialect) also be called snot. No, I don’t mean the wax drippings, though I can see why you might make that connection (boogers from bougies?). It’s the burnt, snuffed wick.

Which is what my nose feels like about now. Well, it’s nite, and maybe if I snooze I’ll feel all snappy and snazzy in the morning. If not… there’s a more-than-slight chance I’ll be looking for the smite button.


Confetti! The very word bespeaks not just the flurry of fluttery little paper particles but the fete that it flatters. Can’t you see the glitterati (perhaps a return tour of Scritti Politti, or Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti”) in an open-top Bugatti (or a vaporetto in Venice), tossing dolcetti and other confections (but no confit – that would be discomfiting), then trotting into a palazzo as the paparazzi pop a smattering of titillating photographs?

Just two questions: How did we get in the habit of tossing paper bits (perhaps fresh from the base of your hole-puncher or the bin of your shredder) for celebration at weddings and similar parties? And why do we call these shreddies “confections”?

“Confections”? Why, yes. Well, more exactly, sugared almonds, which is what confetti means in Italian. Surely you’ve had them at some fete sometime, especially if Italians were involved (I most recently had them at just such a do for a relation’s first communion). Perhaps visions of them danced in your head at some point in your childhood – after all, such sugared fruits, nuts, or seeds were also, even a century ago, called sugar-plums. But another name for them is comfits.

Which is, as you see, close to confetti. Fair enough; they come from the Latin conficere, “make ready”, from con “with” and facere “make”. So does that mean that a baby from which candy is taken is literally discomfited? Well, discomfit is cognate with comfit, but the split in meaning goes a bit farther back – it’s just an opposite to “make ready”.

And that is also the root of confit, as in that tough preserved duck you can get in fancy restaurants – it’s been immersed in something just as the comfits have. Now, I’m sure if someone were throwing confit at you you would want it confiscated (though confiscate is not cognate with confit), but would you be happy if they were pelting you with candied almonds?

I mean, sweets are very nice, and there’s a long history of throwing them at people to show approbation and good wishes. This was especially so during carnival time in Venice. (Beads make do similarly in some contexts now.) But they can cost money, and they can also hurt.

It seems that the money consideration comes foremost, for early substitutes for the bon-bons thrown during carnival time in Venice included some made of plaster, which can also hurt and leave marks. Paper, of course, was cheaper still, and more innocuous, so it ultimately prevailed. And it also made a nice substitute for rice, which, along with other grains, was traditionally thrown at weddings to symbolize showers of blessings from above. (By the way, birds will not explode if they eat dry rice. Rice needs to be cooked to swell, and it can’t swell beyond the volume of the liquid it’s immersed in, which is what it absorbs to swell.) So it spread from carnival to other sorts of carnality.

Which leads me to mention that confetti is an anagram of to infect. Make of that what you will (as little as possible, I hope). I should also say, though, that it is an anaphone (rearrangement of sounds, not letters) of phonetic – or close enough (a slight difference in one vowel). And in Italian, the spelling of confetti is phonetic… in English, however, we shred it just a little.


When you see this word – which may not happen often – what do you do about the l in it? You might be inclined to say it, but you ought not to (as with walk and caulk – oh, balk can also be spelled baulk). That l is a ridge that was left between the furrows in the field of this word, but is now to be driven over, disregarded; though it may seem to be a structural beam, or a dividing line, do not recoil at it. Simply disregard it. What I’m saying is: the l in balk may seem a balk, but do not balk at it or let it balk you; simply balk it.

Balk, you see, is an old Germanic word that meant first “dividing ridge” or “bar”; an old meaning is “a ridge left between ploughed furrows.” But it can also refer to a structural beam or similar bar. Or, by extension, the area behind a line on a billiard table.

The noun balk also has meanings that relate to the verb balk, which derives figuratively from the noun balk. To balk can be to stop short or shy away from (not related to the noise chickens make, though it does sound like baaalk balk balk), or to avoid or refuse or let slip, or to ignore, or (in baseball) to make a certain kind of error – or, on the other hand, to put an obstacle in the way or to frustrate. So a balk can be a refusal, just as balking at something is refusing to do it (cue Hall and Oates: “I can’t go for that!”).

That, anyway, is the bulk of the available senses. (Bulk is not related to balk, by the way.) As you can see, this term is not balk and white – I mean black and white. Or perhaps it is, both at the same time… Word taster Allan Jackson, in suggesting this word, has mused on whether it is a contranym (a word that can mean opposite things). I think there’s a case to be made for that: is hesitation a contrary to outright refusal? Perhaps (inactive versus active), or perhaps not (both non-doing); but hindering someone and being hindered are at least obverses of each other. (There is also the matter of Fairuza Balk, whom most lads would not balk at looking at, but that’s a digression.)

You can even see the different senses of the word in its letter forms, if you want: the obstacle b versus the rebound k (consider the upright bar to the the base – or just see the rebound off the ball)… Or is it just the bursting of a bubble, b > k?