Daily Archives: May 11, 2011


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 www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wW1YRHtU60 or www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xsy_jX-jvDQ; for more pictures and information, see www.music.iastate.edu/antiqua/renshawm.htm and www.music.iastate.edu/antiqua/mshawm.htm.) 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.