Monthly Archives: May 2011

daft & daffy

Dear word sommelier, if my friend suggests something like, say, matching cabernet sauvignon with canned tuna, do I call him daft or daffy?

You’re so polite. I probably wouldn’t think of either of those words first, but if I had to choose one, it would be daft. To my palate, daft has fewer positive overtones; it bespeaks an insufficient grip on reality, and gives a sort of sense of a draft blowing from one ear to the other. It also has a strong British flavour. North Americans would be more likely to say crazy or insane; crazy has too much of a positive tone, however – no one says a wild and daft guy, for instance – and even insane can have a sort of admiring tone, whereas daft is more likely to be dismissive and, at the very least, not edgy or admirable. (For much more on crazy versus insane, see

Daffy, for its part, is just too, well, silly. Daffy Duck names a cartoon character prone to fits of “woo-woo”; daffy is also the name of a ski jump move (a sort of flying front-and-back split). And it sounds like taffy. You may also get an image of someone cavorting in daffodils. It’s possibly loveable and at the very least deliberately amusing. None of which seems appropriate for cabernet sauvignon with canned tuna. Eiswein with pancakes, perhaps, but there’s a difference between, well, cute and disgusting.

It’s ironic, actually, that daffy is the word with more of a silly flavour. Silly actually has more in common with daft in their histories. Both have undergone considerable pejoration. Silly started off as a word meaning “blessed” (compare German selig) and shifted through “innocent” to “inane”. Daft started off as a word meaning “meek” and “mild” and passed through “innocent” to “irrational” and thence to the present sense. It may have had a nudge from the apparently etymologically unrelated word daff, which means “simpleton” or “fool”. Daff, for its part, took on a lighter tone with the addition of the y suffix to make daffy – in other words, it underwent amelioration, the opposite of the pejoration of daft.

I can’t say with any certainty that the softer sound of daffy helped it to a softer sense, though the y, as I hinted, likely helped in that direction with its diminutive effect. The stop at the end of daft sharpens it a bit, makes it a bit more deft on the tongue, and I suspect that the single f in the spelling gives it less of a sense of a featherweight puff.

Again, though, faced with someone proffering a glass of cabernet sauvignon with canned tuna, I’d probably say something other than “You’re daft” (let alone “You’re daffy”). If I were really trying to be nice, I might say “No tuna for me, thanks,” or, more frankly, “Um. I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” but otherwise I would probably use something rather spicier and more full-bodied. I mean the word, not the wine. (For the wine, I suppose I’d lean towards a chardonnay or a riesling, depending on presentation. Or perhaps a grüner veltliner.)


You have to figure this is something you stick in your mouth. But what? If you don’t know, there are a few possible guesses.

You’ll most likely proceed first on the basis of sub + gum. Is it something you put under your gums? How would you do that – would it be like that nasty Skoal tobacco that you (or someone you’d rather not stand too close to) stick between cheek and gum, provoking excessive expectoration? Or is it something that simply seems to support your gums? Perhaps something toothsome? Or is it like a gum but less so? Or a substrate for a gum? Or is it a gangster chew (as in submachine gum)?

But, then, what if it’s not sub + gum? Perhaps it’s like gumbo. Or perhaps it’s like sorghum. Maybe it’s a kind of backwards humbug. Where is this word from, anyway? It could be from Latin, if it’s sub + gum, but perhaps it’s from Hindi – it has that sort of sound. Or is it from an African language? The /bg/ could be a coarticulation… This word, so simple-looking, really does seem to have a whole mix of possibles in its soft, quick two-syllable double bump.

The clue that will help solve it for you is that it is typically followed by one of the following pairs of words: chow mein, lo mein, or chop suey.

Yes, if you’ve seen this word, it’s probably been on a Chinese restaurant menu, in particular an Americanized one. It comes from Cantonese sap gam “numerous and varied” or “mixture” – one might say “bits ’n’ bites”, “allsorts”, “this ’n’ that”… The dish it names has a mixture of various vegetables. There’s often also some kind of formerly animate stuff (that’s the word that comes before subgum: chicken subgum, pork subgum, seafood subgum, etc.). And you may expect some noodles if, for instance, it’s chicken subgum chow mein.

But, now, just tell me the truth: doesn’t it seem a bit like it’s somehow substandard or insufficiently something or other? When I see sub somewhere, that’s the default expectation in the absence of some root that makes it something else (substance, submit, submarine, etc.). It’s either that or it’s under something. And the gum gives it that soft feeling. You almost feel like it should be some suspicious glutinous mass. And instead you get crispy mixed vegetables (and nary a slice of gumbo in sight). Ah, dumb-dumb, it’s yum-yum! So num-num!


This word is metal from the rich romantic ore of myth. It names a magical beastie indeed, but not like a unicorn, though the words share a phonological core. No, there are no dreamy books and smeary posters of this critter marketed at the not-quite-post-fluffy-bunny set of girls – though, given the current popularity of vampires, perhaps we should wait for it.

It’s a courtly enough word, after all (even if looking a bit like a British version of a name of a city in India), starting with a mannered pair of nasals, then hardening to a pair of stops, and in all this moving from the front of the mouth to the back; it then finishes with a round vowel and a liquid consonant, and the flourish of an orthographic e. It may not have the plunging neckline of vampire, but it has such a savour to it, of a romantic man, cordial but with a mysterious core.

Well, young girls do swoon over amazingly inappropriate targets betimes, so why not this one? A manticore is a creature that comes to us from Persian legend (as does its name, changed by way of Greek and Latin). It has the body of a lion (or similar animal), the head of a man (but with a mouth with extra rows of sharp teeth), and a barbed tail that can shoot poisonous arrows. Sounds like something from Dungeons and Dragons, really.

Manticore may make you think of mantis, but this beast doesn’t pray, it just preys. It doesn’t eat manicotti, either; rather, it eats any man it’s caught, and it doesn’t waste time with riddles, either – it just kills them (through a-sphynx-iation?) and eats them entirely, leaving no trace. I’m inclined to cue Hall and Oates – “Who-oa, here she comes, she’s a man-eater” – but it seems that (unlike the sphynx) this one is a man to the core. Or anyway it’s male.

Because it ate even the clothes, disappearances of persons were taken as evidence of its existence (making it like a Windigo, for instance). The very absence of evidence is the evidence of presence. Clever beastie, able to swallow not just people but logical reasoning whole (and leave a kind of logical reasoning that is more than a little hard to swallow). Who could ask for more antics!

At least in some ancient accounts, it is thought that the manticore was really a tiger with embellishments in the telling. In the modern world, perhaps by coincidence, the manticora (note the last letter) is a kind of tiger beetle – a big black bug with massive mandibles, known in African legend as an evil doombringer. But Canadians are most likely to see manticore in a more novel form: the second novel in Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy, The Manticore. The book follows a Jungian psychoanalysis wherein elements of the subconscious are manifested in mythical form – the obvious eponymous.

Manticore was also the name of the tiger that attacked Roy of Siegfried and Roy. One must be on one’s guard with real beasties; they can be prone to myth-behaviour.

I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. I will try to write a few word tasting notes, but they will be sporadic.


The wind has blown; the stones lie fallen –
Oh, what rudera, oh, what detritus
Shall in its broken death invite us
And seed our fantasies like pollen?

Though we can read no truth at all in
Ruins, histories excite us:
Oh, what rude era, oh, what detritus
The wind has blown! (The stones lie, fallen.)

But dust in wind will put its call in,
And gasp of death outshout vagitus:
These are the stones of Heraclitus,
Entropy’s rudders, nolens volen’.

The wind has blown the stones. Lie, fallen!
Oh, what air, Rudra! Oh, what detritus.

What, then, is rudera? Well, are rudera, I should say. Ruins. Broken stones, perhaps with vines crawling over them. Rubble. Rudera is the plural of the Latin rudus, meaning “broken stone” or “lump of stone”. The word is probably related to rude, which in origins meant “crude, unwrought, unripe, etc.” long before it meant “socially offensive”.

It’s actually a comparatively fluid word, isn’t it, for something so solid? Well, but are broken stones really so solid? They are evidence of the flow of time – as Heraclitus (of Ephesus, where there are some stirring ruins) said, you can’t step into the same river twice. But, as he also said, the path up and the path down are the same.

What else flows? Wind, of course, as in “Dust in the Wind” (the classic Buddhist-inspired song by Kansas, a band named after a place famous for dust in the wind, but not for rudera, just for a rude era, the dirty thirties). And if you want wind, look to a storm – or to the Vedic (Hindu) god of storms and the forces of nature, Rudra.

Rudera, incidentally, is also the name of a winery in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa, so named for the broken stones in the soil on which their vines grow.

The last line of the third stanza of the rondel is, I admit, cheated; nolens volens is the proper term, meaning “whether willing or not.” I had thought of using tholen, past participle of thole, but decided against it.

Oh, and vagitus means a cry, particularly that of a newborn. Which reminds me that I didn’t fit in a reference to ruach, “breath” and “spirit” – the wind of the body, connectind to the oxygen we need to live but that slowly erodes our cells. We are not made of stone, of course, not exactly: dust, rather. And such stuff as dreams are made on.


Wow, holy what-is-that! This word looks like it’s slamming on the brakes in order not to hit a wall – or maybe just screaming in pain as it wrenches around a corner. In fact, there are so many vertical lines in the back half of this word, it looks like it’s already slammed up against the wall.

But of course that could also be hair standing on end. Or just an effort to straighten up a bent back – unsuccessful, it seems, as it reverts to s at the end. Whatever it is, it’s not natural to English eyes, because it’s not a natural English combination of i’s. Oh, we have other words with four i’s in sequence, but usually they have consonants between them. Double i’s are the real oddity. Think of English words with other vowels doubled: baa, bee, boo, and, uh, vacuum. But find me one with two i’s in the same syllable!

Well, when you do, it won’t be this one. These i’s may have you crying, but there’s no real love between them, either; between them, they have all three of the common pronunciations of i: [I] as in hit, [i] as in machine, and [aI] as in hi (and then it’s back to [I] again). The act of saying this word is like a funky workout for the tongue, sort of like one of those workout programs you see advertised on American infomercials – the ones that will probably do your joints in.

Joints! This word has two of them in it, holding together three morphemes of two syllables each: sacro, having to do with the sacrum, the bone at the bottom of the spine (and this is from the same Latin root that gives us sacred); ili, having to do with the ilium, the lowest part of the abdomen, and the top bony flanks of the hip; and itis, a Latinate suffix (originally from Greek) that means “swelling”. So you have the ili in the middle like your backbone, and these two wider bits joined to its sides. And when there’s swelling in those joints – the sacroiliac joints (that’s five syllables, by the way, sac-ro-i-li-ac) – it’s sacroiliitis.

Does that sound like a kind of arthritis? Yeah, it’s a symptom of several kinds of arthritic conditions, notably various spondylarthropathies, such as ankylosing spondylitis. It can also be caused by other things, such as a car accident. But I’m kinda wondering if it’s so sore just from carrying all these heavy words around.


I think I might have a little note for this one in my quiver.

On the other hand, there are two quavers in this little note – quaver meaning “eighth note” and crotchet meaning “quarter note”. But fancy that, eh? How does a word for such a common snip of music gain such a scratchy, cranky, ratchety, crusty-sounding word?

Well, one might have an image of a crotchety musician, able to play a good hook but hard to work with – perhaps one of those who like to crochet between numbers, then ditch the work in their crotch while making the minimum brief quavering effort with the minims (half notes), semibreves (whole notes), quavers, and crotchets, or perhaps tossing the tune around like a game of lacrosse, but anyway getting through it by hook or by crook.

Well, actually, it’s a hook and a crook that are at the root of all this. Croche, to be specific: an old Northern French word for a hook or a bishop’s crosier (shaped like a shepherd’s crook). Its cognate crosse is the root of lacrosse. Croche itself has forked into a few branches.

There is, first, the one that leads to crotch (yes, yes, always the crotch shots early and often, like a movie). Our English crotch probably borrows as much from crutch as from croche, but one way or the other it appeared meaning a stake or pole with a forked top, used for supporting things. From that it came to refer to the place where a tree or branch divides in two, and from that the analogous location on the human body (so “the crotch of the tree” was not originally an anthropomorphic metaphor – rather the opposite – though of course that’s how it’s read now).

Then there is the diminutive, crochet, a little hook. That should be obvious enough, yes?

But from that came crotchet, which also meant first a small hook or hooked instrument (I’m not inclined to say a crooked instrument, not just because hooked does not mean crooked in the figurative sense, but because Bob Cratchit was as honest as the day is long, and crotchet makes me think of him). From this, it came to have the figurative meaning of a pet conceit, perverse pertinacity, whimsical fancy, or similar insistent digression – typically on a small point – from popular opinion. And it came to refer to a quarter note. Some suggest that the “whimsical conceit” sense had some base in the musical sense; others see in the old shape of a quarter note (more like a lozenge or diamond on a stem rather than the circle or oval you see now) something sufficiently close to a hook (though I do think eighth notes look more hooklike).

It is from the “perverse pertinacity” sense of crotchet, anyway, that we get crotchety. It is not now used to mean “tending to follow flights of fancy” or “waywardly whimsical”; rather, and I’m inclined to think thanks in some measure to the sound of it, we use it to mean “cranky” – the pertinacity is specifically that of negativity, whether the crotchety person be a witch, bitch, curmudgeon, or other frictionable person with an alveopalatal affricate (“ch”, “j”) – the sort of person who makes you say, “Tch!” But it must be duly noted that they won’t give you quarter.

Thanks to Jim Taylor for mentioning this one.


This word strikes me as a bit of an ugly doo-dad, a knot of voiced stops. I’m not a synesthete, but I see a kind of sick yellow colour with it (your results may vary). I get that from a coagulation of different factors: the gd, which always seem to be glued together or tied with gut strings; the two o’s, which can look kooky or pretty or clean and cold but which always stand for back vowels, more often than not rounded, and so have a sort of dullness to them; the oa, which in some cases can be quite lovely but which seem stunted by the d at the end.

Aside from that, the word makes me think first of the name Ogden, which has a few associations for me: an industrial district of Calgary; Ogden Nash, an amusing poet; David Ogden Stiers, who played Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H. And it makes me think of dog (and dead dog), dad, good ad, d00d

Of course, all of that might just make you say, “Huh.” On the other hand, the word ogdoad itself might make you say Huh… and Hauhet, Naunet, Nu, Amaunet, Amun, Kauket, and Kuk: the ogdoad of ancient Egypt. They were male-female pairs (the males had the shorter names) of gods representing the concepts of primordial waters; air or invisibility; darkness; and eternity or infinite space. Of course there were four; that’s the number of completeness, and they were gods of creation. Double that and you get the most excellent number eight (also thought lucky in Chinese, but for paronomastic reasons).

And the Gnostics liked this double quaternity, too, speaking of the four emanations by which creation occurred: masculine abyss and feminine silence, grace, thought; from these, masculine mind and feminine truth; from these, masculine word and feminine life; and from these, masculine man and feminine church.

At any rate, it’s eight. You likely know the root for “eight” as octo. Well, for the ordinal, there was a phonological transformation in Ancient Greek, making those stops voiced, and from that came the word for a set of eight – just as myriad is a set of ten thousand. Interestingly, this is not some recent borrowing into English that really ought to be set in italics or quotes; it’s been around since medieval times – in fact, there’s even a sighting of it in Old English.

The ancient Angles were talking about Gnostics and hieroglyphics? Some were, yes, but others made broader use: “The Ogdoad, they said, was the first Cube, and the onely number evenly even under ten” (T. Stanley, 1660). An ogdoad, after all, can be any eight things, as long as you don’t mind that your readers will likely take it as a reference to the Egyptians or the Gnostics. Or, more likely, they will just say, “Huh?”


There are some words where you can make a pun that seems obvious to you and people will say, “I never thought of that.” I really don’t think this is one of those words.

You see (in case you didn’t know), sackbut (also seen as sackbutt) is not a word for baggy pants or a sagging bottom (even though sagbutt is an old alternate spelling). No, it names a musical instrument, and by that I don’t mean the kind of wind instrument whereby hangs a tail (as a clown in Othello put it). I don’t even mean a bagpipe. Nope, this is a wind instrument, but it’s an old version of one that is better known today by another name that appears to contain a word akin to butt but doesn’t really.

A few of you may be thinking, “Wind instrument? But in the book of Daniel in the Bible, sackbut refers to a stringed instrument!” Yes, that’s because the Arabic sabb’ka, rendered as σαμβύκη sambuké in the Greek, was mistranslated.

This word does not actually come from Arabic. No, it comes into English from Norman French. It comes from saqueboute, which also was the name of a lance with a hook used for pulling men off horses (think of that next time you’re watching football and a quarterback is peeling down the field when someone sacks his butt – much harder when it’s off your high horse). The saque comes from saquer, “pull”; the boute probably comes from bouter “push”.

So is this instrument named after a big gaff? Not necessarily, even though the English version of its name looks like a big gaffe. There is a sort of reminiscence of that shape in the instrument, but the instrument also has the feature that it is pushed and pulled – the tube is slid in and out. This means that it can play any frequency within its range, not just certain stops, and it can make smooth glissandos.

You probably have figured out what the modern version of this instrument is called: a name that is somewhat smoother sounding due to nasals and a voiced stop – trombone (Italian for “big trumpet”). Now, for a bloke like me, bone and butt go together (this is why my desk chair is so soft). But bones are hard, unlike the sound of a trombone. Well, the sound of the word sackbut is certainly hard, too. It sounds more like something you play on the drums and cymbals, or like a skeleton sitting down on a wooden chair. Nor is the shape of the word any cue to the shape of the instrument, which really recalls a paper clip (paper clips are called trombones in French, after all).

So why not just call the instrument a trombone? A couple of reasons. First, the mediaeval version is a bit different and produces a mellower sound, so if you’re playing on the period version of the instrument, you might as well call it the period name. Second, it’s attention-getting. It may seem like a ridiculous word, but it can really stick in the mind, and it has that quaintness and slight strangeness that can set the tone for archaisms in English, and it’s characteristic of the dry intellectual wit you expect from early-music geeks. And this is why there is a respected ensemble called His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts.

And now it’s time for me to hit the sack, but… well, no buts.


There’s a very amusing novel by Matt Beaumont called e. It’s not about ecstasy – well, perhaps the ecstasy and agony of communication. It’s set at a British advertising agency, and it’s told entirely through the emails of the various characters (“e me” means “email me”). And of course the accelerated communication leads to events compounding exponentially.

I’d say the letter e strikes the right note for that book, and for all the e things we have now growing exponentially (e-commerce and e-learning in particular), interest in which is compounding and the mass of which is accumulating at light speed, making it hard to maintain the energy to keep it all squared up.

To begin with, e is a letter of being and increase: è in Italian and é in Portuguese mean “is”, and e in Italian means “and” (in Mandarin, it means “hungry”, which can lead to increase, but never mind). Of course “is” is a statement of the existence of one (and in symbolic logic, ∃ x means “there exists an x”). Add “and” and you have “one-and”: that’s a beat and a half in music. The musical note E (in solfège, E = mi… e me, baby) is one and a half times the frequency of A, the basic note – they make an open fifth between them, and an open fifth can be quite powerful and intoxicating. You might be left with an ecstatic, open-mouthed grin like the bottom half of a lower-case e. On the other hand, if you say [e] – the International Phonetic Alphabet character – it sounds like what you would say if you named the note A (in English). How about that, eh? How do we have this apparent equivalence between two different things?

Well, if we want equivalence, there is of course the E that equals mc²: energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. You know that when you look to the light of the rising sun, it’s coming from the east – E on your compass. And you know if you have a container with an on it, it’s a foodstuff from the European Union (the means the volume is acceptably close to the stated volume by EU standards) – making it a source of food energy. Meanwhile, e is also the symbol for an electron, that energetic little particle that zips around the nucleus – it has properties of both a particle and a wave, and the more you know about its velocity, the less you know about its position… at best you just get close enough.

And e is the mathematical constant that is the base of natural logarithms, the number with the most elegant derivative equation (d/dx ln x = 1/x). Its value can be expressed as a sum of factorial fractions: 1 + 1/1! + 1/2! + 1/3! + (etc.). It is not just irrational but transcendental. And it is of considerable value in calculating exponential growth, such as compound interest.

Well. As a Yorkshireman would say, “E, by gum!” (Well, actually, “Ee, by gum!”) American money (speaking of compound interest) may say E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one,” but it’s e’s e (easy) to see that with e it’s really “out of one, many.” And then some!


This word has a sort of soft, shaggy feel to it, like a shag carpet (you can even see the pile of the carpet at the end, with the w and m). It has resonances of names such as Shawn, Shawna, and Shaw, not to mention Shams-e Tabrizi, the man who so inspired the great Sufi poet Rumi, who wrote, among other things,

Listen to the song of the reed,
How it wails with the pain of separation:


The sound of the reed comes from fire, not wind—
What use is one’s life without this fire?

It is the fire of love that brings music to the reed.
It is the ferment of love that gives taste to the wine.

(translation by Jonathan Star)

Ah, the reed. It has such a trenchant sound, so unlike the soft marsh of a word like shawm. Latin for “reed” is calamus. The diminutive form calamellus became Old French chalemie as a name for a particular reed instrument, one rather different from the one Rumi had in mind – Rumi’s reed instrument was the ney, an end-blown flute made of a whole reed. The chalemie, ancestor of the modern oboe, had its origins in the same part of the world – well, Iraq, whereas Rumi was from Iran (Persia) – but it made its sound with a split reed (the pain of separation indeed!) embedded in a wood instrument with a flared bell at the end.

The chalemie became known in English as the shalemuse (among other variations on the name), which over time shortened down to shalm and ultimately shawm.

I’m not shamming you! This chamois shawl of a word names a rather trenchant, even stentorian reed instrument. I’m listening to it being played right now – it’s one of the instruments played by the ensemble Corvus Corax, which I have on the CD player. (If you want a short and distinct sense of the sound of the shawm, try or; for more pictures and information, see and In this light, the w looks more like two bells or reeds of shawms, and the m like the fingers playing it.

True, not everyone likes this kind of sound – there will be naysayers. But I favour the fire of love, such as I find in women, wine, and shawm! And I have all three: my reed-thin, charming and beautiful wife, my sounds of the shawm on CD, and, in the refrigerator, a bottle of Calamus Gewürztraminer 2008 from the Niagara peninsula.