Daily Archives: June 8, 2011


As I was walking down the street, I encountered Marcus Brattle, my adolescent mentee. “Brilliant!” he exclaimed (that’s British for “Great!”). He pulled out a camera. “You came along at just the right time.”

I looked at him warily. “You have plans?” His plans typically translated into disasters or messes, often involving humiliation, sometimes mine.

“I’m the plan king!” He said. “In fact, I’m planking!”

Oh. The faddishness of youth. “Planking?” I said, disingenuously. “Is that short for public wanking?”

“Get over it,” he said. He pointed to one of Toronto’s newly installed racks of Bixi bikes, nearby on the sidewalk. “I’m going to extend myself like a plank across two of those bikes there, and you’re going to photograph it so I can post it.”

“Haven’t people gotten board of that fad yet?”

“It’s planks for the memories,” Marcus said. “People have planked on some remarkable things and in some remarkable places.”

“And fallen to some remarkable deaths,” I said. “It’s all just plankton for the whale of media fads.”

“It’s the exploratory spirit.”

“Sort of like a negative of spelunking,” I observed. “Going up and over instead of down and under. We get a spree of planking followed by spill and plunking. One might come to imagine that plunk is the past tense of plank.”

“Where does that leave plonk, then?”

Plonk is cheap wine,” I said. “Possibly a play on vin blanc, though people do hear in it the sound of a cork being pulled or a bottle being, well, plonked on a table.”

“Onomatopoeia followed by I’m-a-gotta-pee-a,” Marcus said. It occurred to me that he had learned much from me, but probably not the right things. “And you can plink the glasses.”

“I don’t think anyone actually uses plink that way – for that it’s clink, but tiddly-winks and musical instruments do plink.”

“And where’s plenk?”

“There is no plenk. It’s plink, plank, plonk, plunk.”

“All based on sounds,” Marcus said. “After all, when you drop a plank on the floor, that’s the sound it makes: plank!

It does, I thought. However… “Actually, the word comes to us by way of various French versions – modern French has planche – originally from Latin, probably related to plana, flat.”

“Well,” Marcus declared, “I’m the planna here, and I plan to be flat. On… those two bikes right there.” He indicated two bikes with about five feet of space between them. “You stand over there and take the photo when I’m ready.” He pointed to the other side of the sidewalk.

I took the camera and walked to where there was a good angle. Marcus grabbed one bike with both hands and swung one leg up onto the other. Then the other leg. “Alright,” Marcus grunted, “have you got it?”

“You’re sagging,” I said.

Just then a woman walked up and asked, “What’s he doing?”

I turned to her. “Planking.”


“No, planking. Like salmon.”

“Sounds fishy to me. Anyway, I want to use one of those bikes.”

Just then I heard another grunt and turned to see Marcus collapsing onto the ground.

“Was that a plunk?” I said. The woman walked over to one of the bikes to take it away.

Marcus started dusting himself off and standing up. “Ow. Did you get a picture while I was holding it rigid?”

“Uh…” I looked at the camera. “Is blank close enough for you?”


Coffee joints, aside from – or because of – being good meeting places, are also good places for people-watching, which of course also means linguistic observation. I was seated in the Metaphor Café awaiting the arrival of a few of my friends; at a table close by, a relationship was having a public rough patch. A young man who had clearly committed an indiscretion that he was sorry for having been caught in (but perhaps not for having done) was being as appropriately hang-dog as he could muster with his girlfriend. He seemed to have prepared a statement that he was reciting to her.

“It was a stupid thing to do,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m apologetic for doing it.”

What a weasel, I thought. He couldn’t even commit to the actual speech act: I apologize. Saying that is in itself making an apology; it’s an act that is done by saying it’s done, like I promise or I declare or I pronounce you man and wife (something this pair seemed unlikely to hear in the near future). Saying I am promissory does not constitute a promise.

“You wiener!” the girl said.

Well, she got that pretty much right on, I thought. The guy’s probably cribbed his speech from Representative Anthony D. Weiner, who, on being caught out sending suggestive and flirtatious pictures to various women and lying about it, said (among other things) “I don’t know what I was thinking. This was a destructive thing to do. I’m apologetic for doing it.”

The girl continued. “I am sooooo angry with you!”

Ah, I thought. Now there’s a statement of emotional state. I’m angry and I’m happy and I’m sad have adjectival predicates that describe a person’s feelings. I’m apologetic is also phrased like an emotional state. But it’s not. It’s not I’m feeling bad. It’s just a state of being inclined to make apologies. It pretends that an apology has already been made. There is, however, one statement of emotional state that is, in the right context, also (and more actually) in itself a speech act of apology: I’m sorry.

“You can’t just talk it away, you know!” the girl said.

Ironic, I thought, since apology is from Greek ἀπό apo “away, off” and λογία logia “speaking”. It first referred to speech meant to explain and defend; now its common meaning is more in the line of what wolves do when they bare their throats – it’s a payment in the social economy of status and obligation exchanges; it acknowledges lower status and indebtedness. But apologetics also refers to an argumentative defence of a doctrine (the usual context is Christian).

The girl continued fuming. “It’s appalling behaviour!”

Appalling? I thought. Maybe Apollonian! Not just because apologetic sounds sort of like a blend of Apollo and exegetic but because in the schema proposed by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, the Apollonian is the mental, rational, organized contrast to the lusty, emotional, chaotic Dionysian. And this guy has clearly engaged in the Dionysian and is now trying to be as cold and Apollonian about it as he can. But, as Cassandra says in Agamemnon, “Ototoi popoi da! Apollo!” Which means something like “Augh WTF oh nooooes! Apollo!” Sometimes you just talk yourself into more trouble. And sometimes, as with Cassandra, nobody will listen to you anyway. (And don’t forget that olo in the middle of apology, which looks a bit like a rude gesture.)

“Appall— aw, gee!” the guy stammered, about as close to a real apology as he was likely to get. “It was just a text!”

“It was a tweet,” the girl said icily. “You twit.”

Apparently the young man, like Anthony Weiner, hadn’t realized the whole world was about to get a glimpse of whatever it was he was sending. Tweets are not private, not even when you tweet your privates.

The guy tried a new tack. He held out a beverage loaded with whipped cream. “I bought you a fancy triple-whip cap-frap-cinnamellatte. Cuz you’re my special sweetheart.” He tried a little smile and cocked his head.

Just then Jess arrived. She observed me observing. “Missing something good, am I?” she said, sotto voce.

At about the same moment, the girl, having taken the beverage, lashed its contents full-force into the guy’s face. I reflexively flinched back and, in so doing, knocked over what was left of my first cup onto the table and partly onto Jess. The girl stormed out, the guy stood there dripping, and Jess was simultaneously trying not to laugh her head off and looking down at the coffee stain on her pants.

“Oh,” I said to Jess, trying to keep a straight face and seizing the spirit of the moment, “I am apologetic.”

Jess raised an eyebrow and smirked a little. “Weiner.”