Monthly Archives: June 2011


My friend Trish was telling me this evening about a particular well-known rich person’s house a friend had seen. It was loaded with all sorts of expensive stuff that was there simply because it was expensive, and the result was stylistically incoherent, rather vulgar in fact. Trish pulled out the perfect word to describe it, a word her husband, Jaba Adams, had confected: fugxury.

We actually had to discuss how it’s best spelled. But the word itself is so very well suited, because it is an ostentatious mishmash. It’s a blend of fugly and luxury, and fugly is in turn a blend of ugly and a vulgar intensifier you have probably already guessed (if you didn’t know the word fugly before). It couldn’t be fuxury because it would lose the g cluing to ugly (and many people say the x in luxury voiceless); it couldn’t be fuggury because that would lose the “zh” /ʒ/ sound that off-glides from the x.

So what we have is, on the one end, a pricey Latin-derived word, luxury, from luxus “abundance, sumptuousness”, and on the other hand two Germanic-derived words (neither of which originates from an acronym, by the way), both having meant more or less what they now mean for quite some time; ugly comes ultimately from Old Norse for “dreadful, fearsome”. Thus a blunt coupling forces its way indecently onto a pretty, glittery word, with a result of two oversized cups u and u, an uncomfortable pairing in the middle gx – sort of like being forced to kiss that terribly unappealing person you just happen to be squeezing past as you notice there’s mistletoe overhead – and the whole form proceeding from high to low, from the expensive Art Nouveau standing light f to the crotch on the oversized smutty painting y.

And so the decor is shrouded in a kind of frowsy fug that does injury to the eyes. Its very vulgarity bespeaks an excessively high money-to-taste ratio. You can imagine the faux-Roman architecture, the leather couches with massive space-age-looking home stereo system, a warehouse of assorted high-priced kitsch, mirrors and little lights on everything… The look, like the word, is the perfect match for a sweatxedo.


You raise this word to your eyes, scan it once. At any distance it has a certain length and density, lightened slightly by the openness of the two o’s. But at the first real glance, words leap out at you and you can’t stop them: a no plot here. Look again and the here becomes there, but then what is the rest – is there a partial nope, or an interrupted plosive plo, or an anonymous that is mostly anonymous? Are the ruins of Constantinople interrupted by something other?

Swirl it and more dances before your eyes. Did you glimpse hoplite? But not quite… You get dancing images of hope, loop, pretonal, pelt, replant, pleat, plate, eater, troop, panther

Oh, but that’s all neither here nor there. This is something other, something rich and strange. Put it on your tongue: “a naw pla theer”, with the “th” voiceless as in theriomorphic and threnody. It has quite a three-step stumble from stress to end, doesn’t it? The /pl/ is like your foot flicking downward as you step too far forward on a stair, that dental fricative /θ/ requires you to thrust your tongue forward right after pulling it back for that reduced central vowel, and then the tense “long” /i/ pitches forward, a bit too much for an unstressed final. But it’s all so soft, almost whispery, with the /l/ partially voiceless after that /p/, and of course the /θ/; at the same time, it has that run of liquid in the /l/ and /r/. It has a plethora of pleasures for the tongue and the ear; as it slips and threads and rustles whsipering, it’s like a Gauguin tiger stalking through the night foliage.

But though it burn bright, this is no tiger, nor even a panther. It lacks the teeth to be any more than a plant eater. I don’t mean the word – the teeth are in that – but the creature it names. Yes, an anoplothere was a quadruped – was not is, as it lived during the Eocene and Oligocene. It was a pachydermatous ungulate of no exceptional size. And, more to the point, it didn’t have claws, horns, or fangs. Thus, from Greek ἀν an “without” plus ὅπλον hoplon “weapon” (whence hoplite) plus θηρίον therion “beast” we get this collapsed concatenation, chewed together like so many leaves: “the weaponless animal”. It’s often referred to by the Latinate version of its name, anoplotherium.

But though we may conclude from its extinction that it had no hope later, it thrived for a time. One need not be red in tooth and claw to poll heather in one’s home plot. It tasted of the richness of its world, the delights of the eyes and tongue, just as we (also sans claws, horns, fangs) may do – though with our words we can also pin down things not only before but even after they have escaped.

Some anoplotheres subsided into gypsum and their bones were found in 1804 – one of the earliest fossil mammals discovered. And yet this beastie is still little known. Oh, but it and its word are among those rare delights one discovers covered in a light layer of dust, well worth the taste. (Read more at “The Camel that Walked on Two Legs.”) We need no plot here, no gravestone, no epitaph, nor even a threnody; in the end is the word.


Rob Tilley mentioned this word this evening. My first reaction was, “Geezer Butler!” Naturally, Rob and our friend Franklin knew who that was.

What? He’s the bassist and main lyricist for Black Sabbath, of course. You didn’t know that?

Oh, get over it. The band named themselves after a Boris Karloff movie. Geezer Butler may have written a lot of dark lyrics, but the guy’s a vegan and a pacifist and doesn’t even use vulgar language.

You find that strange? Maybe that’s why he’s called Geezer. It’s not because he’s 61 years old (62 in July), anyway – he’s been called Geezer since he was young, and 61 isn’t all that old anymore. No, in some British dialects geezer can mean “strange guy” of whatever age or even just a somewhat derisive term for whatever male. So the ee may be not heavy-lidded eyes but merely shifty ones, and the z could be not just the one in wheezer and the euphemistic zoomer (meaning a baby boomer old enough to be looking for a word that pretends they’re youthful) but the one in zany and bizarre. After all, eccentricity and pertinacity may seem the province of the superannuated (males in particular), but they are in fact more widely distributed.

You may have encountered the broader use of geezer in the writing of this or that British novelist – Graham Greene, for instance, or P.G. Wodehouse, who in Right Ho, Jeeves has Bertie Wooster say to a woman, “You are a silly young geezer. And, what’s more, you know it.” In 1965, a writer in the New Statesman used this utterly British sentence: “I have my hands full with his china who is a big geezer of about 14 stone.” (China is Cockney slang, from china plate, rhymes with – and thus means – mate, as in “friend”; British measure weight in stone, with one stone being 14 pounds.)

Geezer comes from guiser, you see. As in mummer. Someone who dresses up in a mask and goes around from house to house looking for drinks. The word traces back through guise to French and Italian and from there back to a Germanic route, a bit of a strange reverse masquerade itself. But that, anyway, is why the g is /g/ as in guy, rather than the first syllable being like geez, also spelled jeez, as it would appear.

And to add to the mummery and flummery is a word for a flume of furious fluid, geyser, which also comes from a (different) Germanic root (related to gush) by way of the Icelandic toponym Geysir. You and I know that it’s pronounced like “guiser”, i.e., “guy zer”, but there are British people who may be heard saying it like “geezer”.

Well, anyway, those Brits are a bunch of odd geezers. Or, on the other hand, maybe we North Americans are, for using the word geezer only to refer to a decrepit buzzard of a senex, prone to cantankerous caning. Geez – I don’t know.


If you branch off the main trail to the beach, you will find a set of secret stairs going down… and then, if you peek carefully between the branches, you may be able to see something rather, uh, natural. But do be careful that you don’t get slugged for peeking.

Well, it’s not as though you’ll get slugged in the eye for what you see. It’s really more that you’ll eye a sea slug. Hate to disappoint, but that’s what a nudibranch is (though not all sea slugs are nudibranchs).

Yes, those little slimy things might (in some cases) look like something that would make a prude blush, but more likely they’ll just give the squeamish the willies. And by “willies” I mean fantods. Their name, on the other hand, is reasonably eye-catching. It’s long, it has that dib cluster in the middle with its symmetry and its resemblance to a variety of different things, and it appears to be made of parts (nudie branch) that would suggest, well, a euphemism for something that sea slug could also be a euphemism for, perhaps.

And indeed the nudi is the same as in nude or nudie – it’s from Latin nudus “naked”. But the branch is not the same as in English branch. It’s not related – our word branch comes from Latin branca “animal’s paw”, whereas this branch is from Latin branchia “gills”. Not only that, the ch here is pronounced /k/, meaning – what a visual prank – that this word rhymes with bank.

You won’t necessarily find a nudibranch in a bank, though, not even a sandbank – more likely a tidal pool or anywhere in the intertidal zone (the part of the ocean’s edge that is sometimes submerged and sometimes not). And of course in a National Geographic article on the intertidal zone, such as the one in the June 2011 issue.

You will see, too, when you peek (try and for some good galleries), that these sea slugs are not actually all slimy and disgusting. Some of them are quite pretty. They’re all hermaphroditic, too (who peeked!) and come in sizes from less than an inch to two feet long.

Yes… a two-foot-long sea slug. That’s rather longer than the word nudibranch, which barely even qualifies as sesquipedalian. And, like the word, they can have a look that is simultaneously familiar and exotic – and a bit deceptive and possibly even blush-inducing.


When you see this word, what image comes to mind? A bearded bomb-thrower from the early 20th century? A political assassin? A punk rocker? A teen spraying a big red A in a circle? A “protester” wearing a bandanna mask smashing shop windows and torching police cars?

These seem to be the general images associated with anarchist. Certainly anarchy tends to be used as equivalent to chaos or the sort of wanton violence that characterizes a failed state. The anarchist is viewed as a sort of antichrist.

I’m sure, in fact, that the taste of antichrist in anarchist has had an effect on the word’s reception. It wasn’t lost on the punk group the Sex Pistols, whose hit song “Anarchy in the U.K.” opens with the following lyrics:

I am an antichrist
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want
But I know how to get it
I wanna destroy passerby
‘Cause I wanna be anarchy

It has the extra charming touch of pronouncing anarchist to rhyme with antichrist. (It’s linguistic anarchy, I tell ya!)

Anarchist has a well-established history of negative, deprecatory tone in common usage, so much so that when I stop to think what word it is, reeking of chaos and dripping with acid, that this word makes me think of, I realize that it’s actually anarchist itself that I’m thinking of.

Its first usage in English was in application to those who wanted to overthrow the King, in the 17th century. (Such a difference in tone from such a small change in form between monarchist and anarchist!) My first encounter with the word was actually in a Tintin book (King Ottokar’s Sceptre) in which Tintin shouts warnings of a plot to a king but is dragged away and not heard, and the king’s aide describes him as an anarchist. I wasn’t sure exactly what an anarchist was, but I knew it was someone who wanted to act against kings and government.

Which is pretty much accurate. An anarchist is someone who is opposed to top-down government of whatever sort. It comes from Greek ἀν an “without” and ἀρχή arkhé “sovereignty”. The basic attitude often manifests as the sort of puerile anti-authority rebellion that leads clove-cigarette-smoking undergraduates to decorate their notebooks (and campus walls) with A’s in circles. But there’s much more to it – and other – than that.

Anarchists, you see, have had a variety of leanings and philosophies and even gone under a variety of names. After all, if you are against having a state with a ruling apparatus, how do you propose that people make things work? Many anarchists have believed in collectivism – leaderless communism, as it were. Anarchism (particularly anarcho-syndicalism) was a driving force in the origins of the labour union movement. Another name for one set of people who believe in doing without sovereignty or top-down government and prefer reliance on the individual is libertarians – which has a more positive tone, but libertarianism is, among other things, anarchist.

Much group organizing and massed protest and disruption was done by people who called themselves anarchists a century ago. But now the people who call themselves anarchists are often mild-mannered graduate-student types. They see humans as born free but everywhere in chains, and believe that we should build communities without hierarchical or bureaucratic structures. They have, in short, a stronger belief in the possible goodness of human nature than most of us do, because such communities require a level of cooperation and civic thought that clearly is not universally manifest in the world we live in now.

It is ironic that anarchists, who are likely to see official celebrations of massive spectacles such as team sports as a narcotic for the masses, are being blamed for hockey riots in Vancouver. I’m not saying that there were no punks who call themselves anarchists involved in those riots (there certainly were some in the G20 riots in Toronto, but anyone who smashes shop windows and loots is engaging in exactly the sort of behaviour that vitiates the collectivism or at least mutual respect that functioning anarchy would rely on), but the evidence is that in general most of the damage was done by youthful addicts of consumer goods who were bombed on cheap beer. Meanwhile, at home, reading their books, were self-identified anarchists such as you may encounter in this article:


This word seems to have a certain crystalline charisma, to the extent that it may even dazzle the eyes and misrepresent itself to you. Are you sure you have read it correctly? You may have read the last four letters as lite. But they are tile. This word has more than one thing in common with chrysalid, but among those is not the order of liquid and stop in the ending.

And this word is not a lady’s name, not like Charys or Crystal. Nor is it a cool beverage – that’s Crystal Lite. The chrys in it is not from chrism or related words; this word is not “anointed”. It is, rather, the chrys in chrysanthemum or, as I have said, chrysalis: from Greek χρῡσός chrusos “gold”. And the tile? From Greek τίλος tilos “shred, fibre”.

Is this a word for spun gold, or a gold spinner? Not exactly, but in a way. Just as one may spin straw into gold, one may spin a simple mineral into something worth gold. Chrysotile is the name of a mineral of which Canada happens to have a fair bit. And that mineral, which is about has hard as your fingernail, can be processed into its fibres, which can be spun into thread and woven into cloth. They have remarkable insulating properties. You might see this rock as a sort of chrysalis for the butterfly that is this marvellous fibre.

But you might look again at the butterfly and wonder whether it is not, rather, a serpent. And I say this not just because chrysotile is a variety of the mineral called serpentine. I say it because the marvellous fibre that has spun so much gold for so many is the one we call asbestos.

A terrible beauty indeed. Our anointed one has apostatized. Those fibres, so resilient, can lodge themselves in your lungs and cause cancer and other diseases. Chrysotile is not the only mineral from which asbestos is made, however, and this fact has left a small opening for those who still see gold in it. Does chrysotile asbestos in specific cause asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer? The statistics often do not separate out the different sorts of asbestos. Is it possible that chrysotile is a butterfly among moths?

According to the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, no: all forms of asbestos are dangerous carcinogens. A recent article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (quoted in “Can asbestos be used ‘safely’?” by Julia Belluz at declared, “Numerous epidemiologic studies, case reports, controlled animal experiments, and toxicological studies refute the assertion that chrysotile is safe.… These studies demonstrate that the so-called controlled use of asbestos is a fallacy.”

And yet the glitter of chrysotile still dazzles some eyes. Last week, the golden tongue of Dimitri Soudas, communications director for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, spun the following yarn: “All scientific reviews clearly confirm that chrysotile fibres can be used safely under controlled conditions.” I suppose if by “controlled conditions” he means that all who will come anywhere near the stuff are in hazmat suits with suitable breathing apparatus, there is a case to be made (though not one for his moral fibre). But that statement seems to me to have that kind of lapidary quality, that attractive crystallinity, that dazzles the eyes, and leads you to expect a beautiful butterfly when in fact you are holding not a chrysalis but a serpent’s egg.

Grammar Matters book review

Grammar Matters: The social significance of how we use language
Jila Ghomeshi
Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2010

A more incendiary writer – or a more sensationalist publisher – might have titled this book Grammar Gurus Are Bigots. But Jila Ghomeshi is not an attack dog; she is a moderate-toned professor of linguistics.

Nonetheless, her main theme is clear: abhorrence of non-standard grammar is a form of prejudice with no basis in reason, experience, or fact – no more intelligent than racial bigotry, but somehow presented as a sign of superior intelligence rather than as the expression of tribalism, intolerance, privilege, and hierarchy that it is.

Ghomeshi lays out some straightforward facts about what things in language matter to people, why they matter, and how they really work. Then she gets into the really good part. There are three fallacies, she explains, that prescriptivists use in touting the superiority of “proper” English: logic, precision, and authority. With clear examples and reasoning, she shows that “proper” English is not more logical than various “non-standard” varieties – in fact, it’s not especially logical or consistent at all; that English can be stunningly imprecise and even contradictory in its variations, idioms, and economies; and that we managed to get along quite well with language for about 100 times as long as we have had prescriptive grammars, which anyway were written by self-appointed “authorities” who were really inexpert dilettantes serving social climbers.

So is Ghomeshi waging war against standards? Does she think everything is relative, and we can just chuck standards out the window? Of course not. She has her brain fully in gear. She recognizes the value of having a standard version of a language: it maintains a common reference version of the language to facilitate communication. The point, as she says, is that “it is good to have a standard, but the standard is not ‘good’” – that is, it is not inherently superior. “Non-standard” varieties have their value, and “recognizing and celebrating a non-standard dialect is of no threat to the existence of a standard if speakers know and use both appropriately.”

For Ghomeshi, then, standards don’t go out the window, bigotry about them does – so that we can enjoy “a far greater range of expression than the narrow channel we think of as ‘correct.’” And of course I agree.


I really do like the shape of this word. It has that nice rotational symmetry in the p and d, and as a bonus it has the cici like advance echoes of the d. As well, there’s the framework set by the three i’s – candles? Pikes? Ribs? And the c and c might look like gills or fins – or perhaps like sickles or scythes. Perhaps the sickles are reaping the i’s. And the sci does make one think of scythe, though it’s not pronounced that way.

Hmm. Scythe. Reaping. The Grim Reaper. Do I seem like I’m fishing? Well, there has to be a hook here. But is it justifiable? That depends on who you ask. The OED quotes a J.C. Kimball as writing, in 1913, “I knew as a Darwinian that the fish is my elder brother, and that piscicide is no more justifiable as sport than homicide.”

Yes, of course, you recognize the cide that’s in homicide and pesticide, and piscicide has parallels to both: like homicide, an act of killing, and like pesticide, a thing used for killing. Killing what? Why, fish, of course – the pisc root you see in pisces, for instance. You can even see the sea-change that transmuted /p/ to /f/ and /sk/ to /ʃ/. Not that we say the sc as /sk/ any more… well, it depends on the word, and in the case of this word, it depends on who is saying it. The word, you see, can be said like “pisk aside” or “piss aside” – the former probably popular just as a means of not saying the latter, which might lead to carping.

I’m tempted to make a reference to piscicide as “Pisco Control,” a joke on a popular brand of the South American liquor (rather like grappa) called pisco. But pisco gets its name from a port city in Peru, which in turn is named from a Quechua (Inca) word meaning “little bird”.

Well, I suppose birds are also agents of piscicide – ask anyone who owns an ornamental pond stocked with display fish, especially if there are herons in the area. The results tend to provoke thoughts of avicide – but that’s a whole other word again. Anyway, avicide is an inevitable thing for anyone who eats chicken.

Just as piscicide is inevitable for anyone who eats, say, sushi. Say… piscicide looks a bit like one of those yummy sushi rolls, with salmon and tuna and avocado…

ataraxy, ataractic

The world is a noisy place – machines, traffic, barking dogs, crazy neighbours, and other rackets. But nothing is as disturbing to one’s peace as the noise in one’s own head: the worries, attachments, anxiety attacks, concern for the future, concern about the past, the mental screeching and yelping that arise from the collision of karma and dogma.

What a racket indeed! But what are the tactics one may use to calm it? How does one achieve the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind in the asphyxiating galaxy of scattering asterisms, how does one leave the noisy tropics of mental cancer and encounter the desert antarctic?

Well, psychotropics have been tried, but they don’t always leave the psychos in the tropics. Modern medicine recommends ataractics. But are tactics like that an appropriate orthodoxy for practical, acceptable ataraxy? Ought we not to move from xy to z – be it Zen or ZZZZ?

Perhaps I should back up slightly. Ataraxy and ataractic are noisy words for calm things. They tick and clack, the one with its cross brackets and the other with its paired magnets, and the eyes almost lose place by the third a, but they own their existence to the Greek word ἀταραξία ataraxia, which means “undisturbedness” or “impassiveness”. The Epicureans and Pyrrhonians of ancient Greece espoused their versions of ataraxy. The Epicureans said, “Stop worrying about gods and an afterlife and just focus on virtue and friends.” The Pyrrhonians said, “Stop trying to decide about dogmas; you can’t know the truth. Just keep inquiring.” In both cases the aim was a calmness of mind, a freedom from worry or preoccupation – the unattached state that is the aim of Buddhist meditation too.

But the ancient Greeks didn’t go for such meditation. Nor, for that matter, do the modern masters of medicine, carriers of the caduceus in the tradition of Hippocrates; they tend to prefer medication, and ataractic – an adjective derived from ataraxy – is, as a noun, a synonym for tranquillizer. Or, perhaps, given the taste of Antarctic, we should say a chill pill.

Still, I can’t help but think that there are better ways to bring calm clarity to the cataracts of the cortex than simply to drown out – or just drown – one’s troubles. Actually, I prefer a little run-off – lace up the shoes and go, whether at a race or something less climactic. And an added benefit is that after you’ve gone from x to y, you do indeed get better ZZZZ’s. I find that quite attractive!


And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor; And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

Thus read verses 13 through 16 of the first chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew in the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible (New Testament, i.e., the part only Christians have any truck with). I’m sparing you the first 12 verses, in which there are 29 more begats, and a lot of names that, out of context, would look to most modern readers more like names from science fiction or fantasy.

The point of the opening recitation of Matthew is to show the lineage of Jesus from Abraham through David and Solomon and on down – trotting out his bloodline bona fides, as it were (the messiah had to be a descendant of David), even though it traces it through Joseph, who, according to the same book (two verses later, in fact), had nothing at all to do with the actual procreation of Jesus.

But that’s all immaterial to the great majority of modern readers. The greater general significance of this recitation in the here and now is that any use of the word begat is effectively a reference to it – and therefore pulls in a tone of archaic religiosity and, just incidentally (or not), stultifying recitations.

But what is begat, now? Aside from a Cockney pronunciation of “big hat,” that is. We can see, of course, that it is an abrupt little word, two balancing voiced stops b g and a crisp t at the end, and in the act of saying it the tongue thrusts forward, compresses in the front and touches in the back, and then pulls back, expanding the cavity as it pulls and then touches at the tip. It’s a bit like a two-stroke engine.

But it has nothing to do with bug or Bugatti, nor with bigot. Rather, as you likely know, it’s an archaic past tense form of beget, which means “procreate” but has long been used in a more metaphorical sense, as, for instance, in Hamlet: “Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

The modern past tense of beget (inasmuch as there is a modern one – we still use the word, but it invariably has the dusty honeyed smell of old books about it) is begot, and the past participle is begotten – which is also seen in misbegotten, as in Eugene O’Neill’s play A Moon for the Misbegotten (the quasi-sequel to the superlative Long Day’s Journey into Night). But in the old days, the pattern was beget – begat – begotten.

Yes, indeed, it’s ablaut time again. Ablaut is also called “vowel gradation,” and it’s the movement of vowels back in the mouth (the opposite of umlaut) to express a change in tense. We no longer have many full sets of three: drink – drank – drunk(en), swim – swam – swum, begin – began – begun, not much else, and generally the participles don’t have the additional en ending. The verb get used to have the complete set: get – gat – gotten. However, centuries ago gat got to be got, and in the past couple of centuries gotten has fallen out of use in England (except in some northern dialects). It’s still in use in North American English, however, giving crusty Brits another reason to look down on American English: “It’s have got, not have gotten – how illiterate you people are.” (If Britain had retained gotten and America lost it, the Brits would nonetheless look down on the Yanks, but in that case for losing a glorious old differentiation.)

Mind you, there are actually people who have the misbegotten idea that any use of get or got or gotten – and not just have got in place of have – is poor English (I know of an editor who had a government client insist this very thing, risibly false though it is). Snobbishness begets ignorance, and ignorance begets snobbishness.

But if you really want to sound stuffy – or mock-stuffy – you can still use begat. Whether or not you have a big attitude, you will be (as it were) pulling out and blowing the dust off your old, foxed family Bible when you display your begat-itude, though there is no beatitude in it.

Thanks to Sue Innes for, if not suggesting, at least begetting this note.