Daily Archives: June 23, 2011


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 Macleans.ca) 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…