Monthly Archives: May 2011


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.


Could this, by any chance, be a myriad-mirrored thing that hangs from the ceiling and scatters light in the darkness at dance clubs? Mmm, no. Not even if the thing in question were shaped like a plate (or some kind of bolus) rather than a ball.

It is the same disc, mind you: from Greek diskos, “disc”. In a disco the discs that are being tossed around have music on them. In discobolus, there’s no need to discuss much or dance around the topic: the disc is a discus, a heavy plate-like thing that was originally hurled for the purpose of hurting the enemy but now, in the hands of students everywhere, is at least as good for hurting oneself (or even, if the grip slips at the wrong time, for auto-discombobulation).

But discobolus does not refer to the discus itself; it’s what you call the dude who is tossing the discus. The bolus is a Latinization of bolos, “thrower”, which is related to ballistics and other words with the ball (βαλλ) root that refers to throwing.

The oral gesture of this word has a sort of match to the act of throwing a discus: it starts at the tip of tongue, like the backswing, then bounces back to the /k/ and releases, and sails across the mouth to impact at /b/ and bounce and flip a bit at /l/, finally lying flat at /s/.

I find the sound of this word to have a bit of a wobbliness about it, not unlike the average discus in mid-flight. That’s thanks to the obol in the middle, which rhymes with wobble because in Latin and English renditions of Greek words we tend automatically to put the stress on the antepenult (third-last syllable). This in spite of the fact that in the Greek δισκοβόλος the stress is on the second-last syllable, making it sound even more like disco ball.

Discobolus also has some letter-form iconicity: the d like the arm with the discus in hand, the co like a cartoon drawing of a disk in motion, the b like it first hitting into ground, edge-on, and then it bounces out at o. Or you could come up with other narratives, but in the main it’s gonna be man meets disc, man picks up disc, man hurls disc, disc obeys the laws of physics.

The place you’re most likely to see discobolus is not at the Olympic games or other track-and-field events; they use more standard English terminology. No, you’ll see it in a museum, on the placard for a statue of some buff nude dude all wound up in a twist with a disc ready for hurling. Come to think of it, he probably wouldn’t look out of place in some discothèques…

I wrote this note without remembering I had already done this word once. Well, I don’t have time to write a whole new one now!


What would you say if you saw, dancing a slow dance in your telescope, a new world – or at least a world new to you?

You might say “Cool!” or “Wow!” I’m tempted to say I would have said “Phwooar!” but that’s really a British male expression of appreciation for a woman’s curves. But cool and wow and phwooar are similar to what Chad Trujillo and Mike Brown said:


OK, that’s probably not the first thing they said, but that’s the name they gave it.

The “it” in question isn’t really a planet, not quite (in fact it’s not much more than a third the diameter of Earth’s moon), so it’s not really a world qua world, but it’s way bigger than an asteroid – it’s about 1250 kilometres in diameter. It’s a KBO: a Kuiper Belt object. The Kuiper Belt is a bunch of big bits orbiting beyond Neptune. The biggest KBO is the former planet known as Pluto, which has about twice the diameter (and thus eight times the volume) of Quaoar. Quaoar has an orbit a bit farther out than Pluto’s (it takes 288 years to circle the sun), but it’s a nice, circular, non-eccentric orbit, unlike Pluto’s. Trujillo and Brown first spotted it in 2002.

OK, but why did they call this ball of (probably) rock and ice out in the cold, dark periphery of the solar system Quaoar?

I mean, really, it looks like the name of some creature from H.P. Lovecraft, say, or a representation of the growling roar of a nasty large quarrelsome bloodthirsty beast. The lips, in saying it, make a “wow-a”, but the tongue launches the whole thing from the back and ends tense in the middle of the mouth, like the creature ready to hurl itself forth.

The big Q is like a planet with a motion line, but it also carries, in English, a certain resonance of exoticness and uncertainty. The word may recall Latin for you, or it may make you think of a quark. The string of vowels in the middle befuddles the eyes. Try typing it without hesitating. You may find it requires practice. It just seems unnatural. Strange. And threatening, perhaps.

And yet in fact the original Quaoar is quite likeable. Quaoar is a deity of the Tongva people, whose ancestral lands are around Caltech (the California Institute of Technology, setting, incidentally, for the TV show The Big Bang Theory), where Trujillo and Brown worked (Brown is still there; Trujillo is now in Hawai’i). But Quaoar is not just any deity. Quaoar is the Tongva creation deity.

Quaoar, you see, came along into the primordial chaos and was sad to see a whole lot of nothing. So he/she/it danced Weywot (the Sky Father) and Chehooit (the Earth Mother) into existence, and then the three of them danced more gods into existence, and each new god joined the dance and danced more into existence…

It makes me think of a church song, “Lord of the Dance” (not Michael Flatley’s touring show), which starts,

I danced in the morning when the world was begun
I danced in the moon, the stars and the sun…

If you’d like to know more about this distant world and its quaoardinates, I mean coordinates, see and


What’s the connection between the following lists?

Diamond of Virgo
Summer Triangle
Great Square of Pegasus
Winter Hexagon
Kemble’s Cascade
Cassius Ceramix
Dubius Status

Answer: list A is names of asterisms. List B is names from Asterix comics.

Now, it seems to me that asterism would be a perfectly suitable word for a name on the model of the names of Asterix characters – punning variants on forms in -ix for Gauls, -us for Romans, -a for females, -ax for Britons, -ic for Goths, and a few more (Ptenisnet is Egyptian). But the word asterism is already taken, so if you use it for these it’s your ass to risk.

Asterisk is, of course, the word on which Asterix is a pun. Its original meaning is “little star”; its root is the same Greek ast(e)r root that shows up in many words relating to stars. Asterism means “a grouping of stars that is not an officially recognized constellation” (constellation uses the Latin root relating to stars, stella, and in this case it seems the Latins own the private club). Each thing in list A is a grouping of stars into some discernible shape that, however, is not an offical constellation. (For some more on asterisms, including some others to look for, see Observing Asterisms.)

I don’t find anything especially starlike about the word asterism (whereas the k on asterisk looks like half an asterisk). But it nonetheless seems a word of some prettiness and quality, perhaps because it makes me think of asters in the lobby of a Waldorf-Astoria as viewed through a prism. When you say it, you stay to the front half of your mouth; after the initial open [æ], you can say it with your lips almost closed – and then, finally, fully closed. Perhaps as though you were eating Smarties.

But there is a closer link between asterisk and asterism (closer than the distance between k and m, even): there is a not-often-used character, a constellation of asterisks, three in a triangle, also called an asterism: ⁂. If you’ve ever seen one in a book, you may have wondered, “What’s it there for”? Well, it’s not “therefore”, for one thing – that’s three dots in an otherwise identical triangle, ∴. An asterism marks a subsection of a chapter, or calls attention to a particular passage.

Another asterisk shape that’s quite naturally attention-getting is the one you see in certain gems, for instance the Star of Bombay sapphire (I don’t mean the stars you see if you have too much Bombay Sapphire Gin). And that, too, is called an asterism.

I have also found a blog that is called Asterism – a blog on Iraq politics. Its slogan, explained at, is “After communism and capitalism, there is asterism.” While this is a joke for Unicode geeks (since ⁂ can be found in the Unicode character set), it occurs to me that asterism could mean government by stars (Reagan and Schwarzenegger, anyone?). Or, on the other hand, it could mean government by politicasters – inferior versions of politicians. You see, aster is also a Latin suffix (unrelated) designating an inferior version or imitation: poetaster from poet, criticaster from critic, etc. Either way, in that kind of asterism, there would seem to be a mix-up about who is master.

But what if the star is me? Well, when I was a kid I certainly fancied myself being a hero on the model of Asterix. My friend Christa Bedwin has recently suggested, as a fun diversion, that everyone come up with their own Asterix names. So, perhaps, even if I don’t earn my place in the firmament, I can still be an asterism. Mine, obviously, would be Sesquiotix.


Barbara Kay, writing in the National Post, commented, “Ignatieff has zero emotional appeal to Quebecers and anyway, you could hear the rumble of the tumbrils for the Liberal Party a mile away.”

Ah, the rumble of the tumbrils – also spelled tumbrels (the spelling I’m more used to and will go with here). Some people may not be familiar with the reference. The context suggests that she was saying their days were numbered, the writing was on the wall (and yes, that’s what she was saying, and more, but I’ll get to that in a moment). But let me head that off: how like you this word, without a thought for the moment of what it refers to?

It goes nicely with rumble, yes, and also number, and obviously tumbler (as in a lock or a drink) and probably temblor, and perhaps tendril and prehaps trouble, and lumber too. And just maybe umbrella. And the word fairly rumbles. The /t/ gives it a crisp start, but then it has that dull central vowel, prenasalized by the following /m/. And then that /mbr/ rolling into the final /l/: first resonant and building /m/, then with a bend or bounce or break at the /b/, then releasing and rolling with the forward liquid /r/, and, after a swallowed vowel, the hollow /l/ like the echo of a landslide. Yes, that’s what this word sounds like to me: an avalanche, albeit a small one perhaps.

Well, it’s not that. But it is something that rolls and rumbles. And it may roll and rumble quite innocently to an innocent purpose. But that’s not what it’s known for. Guilt by association prevails. Just as words are known by the company they keep, so, too, are their objects. And what company does – or did – a tumbrel keep? Well, eat some cake and have a sit; it may put you on edge – or put an edge on you.

Some clarity may come from this quote from my colleague Paul Cipywnyk, from a discussion on truth versus the mob in ephemeral digital data: “Is that a social-media tumbrel carrying my bits to the guillotine?”

Do you have a mental picture of a tumbrel now? It’s a two-wheeled, flat-bottomed wooden cart that is made to be tipped to the back so its load may be easily dumped. It just happens to be what was used during the French Revolution to carry the condemned to the guillotine.

And is tumbrel related to tumble? In fact, it is, and both are related to French tomber “fall” (which came to French from a Germanic root, not a Latin one).

I am tempted at this juncture to compose a sentence about a person in trouble riding a lumbering, rumbling tumbrel while holding an umbrella (to keep the head dry), knowing his or her number is up, but taking no umbrage when a temblor interrupts the drumbeat… but I think I’ll cut it short and let things fall where they may.

Thanks to Barb Adamski for making me aware of the National Post quotation. Paul Cipywnyk’s bon mot was the impetus for this tasting.