Daily Archives: April 13, 2011


This word has some lovely qualities, with its opening and closing voiceless fricatives and its liquid and nasals in between – all soft and lovely. Its associations add to that feel for me: the /hεlm/ makes me think of actress Katherine Helmond (famous from the TV shows Soap, Coach, Who’s the Boss, and Everybody Loves Raymond), of Helen of Troy, of Hellman’s mayonnaise and perhaps of the playwright Lillian Hellman (who has a lovely name but was perhaps not such a soft and pleasant person as all that). True, it also makes one think of helm, helmet, and Helmand (a province in Afghanistan), but at least those are all nice-sounding words. And the second half of the word, /mɪnθ/, has nice associations as well: echoes of mint, a rhyme with plinth (which may not be soft but at least has classical connotations) and (in English pronunciation) absinthe

The shape of the word is also notable. I don’t know whether you find it lovely or not, but it is a good collection of humped parts (n, m) and tall parts (l and, a bit shorter, i and t, and, with hump attached, h), like a colonnade with towers, perhaps.

Al together, it makes a word you’re not likely familiar with. It sounds as though it might name something from the Bible, though actually it’s taken from Greek, ἕλμινς helmins, combining form ἑλμινθο- elmintho-, naming pretty much what it names now.

And what it names now is surprisingly common, though much more so in less developed parts of the world. But, say, can’t we just ignore the sense on this one? The meanings of words are generally fairly arbitrarily attached to the forms of the words, though of course there can be interplay, and sometimes I feel like the meaning is really just some other thing that has attached itself to the form. Something that you’d really rather not have to think about.

And believe me, helminths are fairly high on the list of things I don’t like thinking about, let alone seeing pictures of.


They’re parasitic worms. There. Now I’ve said it. And don’t you wish I hadn’t?

Such cases as these

A colleague had been discussing the difference between such as X and such X as with some friends, and asked for further insight from the rest of us. I gladly weighed in:

The first thing to note is that it’s actually a choice between X such as Y and such X as Y. But those two constructions are not the same thing, though they can mean similar things. Continue reading


I do have a likin’ for this word. It’s so soft and moist and comfortable, the lips coming together like stacked pillows on the /m/ and then the /s/ at the end refreshes with the coolness of the other side of the pillow. The shape of the word is even and compact, like a little piece of what it refers to. And of course my taste for this word is strongly influenced by what it refers to, that simple plant that forms a sort of green fur coat on rocks and dirt and trees and so forth. I love lush green places, and nothing is as lush and green as moss, especially when you have masses of moist moss, perhaps in the mist in the morning…

Another reason to think of moss as pretty is of course Kate Moss. Actually, she’s a friend of mine. No, not the famous Kate Moss, though she’s pretty too. This Kate Moss is the wife of another friend of mine, a fellow I’ve known for years and met in choir.

And choir is the reason I was thinking of this word tonight. You see, in musical scores you will sometimes see più mosso or meno mosso. I’d like to think that it means “more moss” and “less moss”, but there’s nothing soft, moist, furry, dense, or heavy about what mosso means in music. In fact, it refers not to the moss but to the rolling stone that gathers none; mosso is the past participle of muovere “move” and, in music, means “animated”, “rhythmic”, etc. So più mosso is quite the opposite of peat moss, but meno mosso might mean a bit more moss on the rock (or the classical, as the case more likely is). (The word moss is not related to mosso; it’s an old Germanic word.)

About that proverb, by the way. Today when we say “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” we probably think (aside from the inevitable popular music references from rolling stone) that it means that you won’t get old and mouldy and tied down with unnecessary commitments if you keep in motion – that it’s good to be like a rolling stone. But it was not always thus. “A rolling stone gathers no moss” originally meant that if you never settle down, you never accumulate friends, wealth, etc. Think back even to Bob Dylan: his song is about a person who is “without a home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone” – the subject of the song is not in a happy state; he’s scrounging for his next meal.

So moss was seen as a good thing. And I think it still is a good thing. It’s not just a soft, likable, lush green thing that grows all over whatever; among the 12,000 species of moss out there are many of the sphagnum sort (ah, sphagnum – there’s another word worth a taste, a word of deep mists or perhaps sounding like a depth charge), which are associated with some rather good things. Sphagnum moss is what peat is made of, and peat makes a decent fuel for fire – especially if the fire is smoking the malt for Scotch. It’s also what keeps those various prehistoric bog men preserved so we can see them in museums. Sphagnum moss, you see, is absorbent and has antibacterial properties, which means it’s also usable as a dressing for wounds. And, incidentally, as a substitute for diapers.

No, seriously. Various North American aboriginal peoples have carried infants in moss bags – the bag is made of leather, and the moss inside it does quite nicely for absorbing baby’s mess, and it’s easily changed (as long as you have more moss available). I don’t know how common this still is, but I know about this because for many years my parents worked for and lived among the Nakoda (Stoney) Indians, and they (my parents) carried their infant second son – me – in a moss bag. It’s not that I remember now what it was like in that bag, but I’m sure I’ve liked moss longer than I’ve liked almost anything.