Monthly Archives: July 2011

ongoing

I’m not an early adopter of technology and trends, but I’m not a late holdout either. In the ongoing development of the latest thing, I tend to notice its usefulness around the same time as a lot of other people do. I’m relatively conservative in my approach; I haven’t started on with Digg, or Tumblr, or Reddit; I am not a regular habitué of HuffPost or Boing Boing. But a couple of weeks ago I started up a Twitter account, @sesquiotic. And I have to say I have really gotten caught up in the goings-on, the ongoing march-past of facts, fascinations, fancies, and fritterings. I get a lot of good jokes and news clips from it, and updates on things that keep my mind spiralling a bit too late in the night.

One of the tweeters I follow is the Guardian style guide, @guardianstyle. Today @guardianstyle tweeted (among other things) “Can we agree to delete the word ‘ongoing’ whenever & wherever we see it? The writing will be improved & the world will be a happier place.” @guardianstyle’s reason for such an ongoing dislike of ongoing has to do with the typical excrescence of its use: it often adds little – if anything at all – in actual sense, certainly in news reports. (“It’s a meaningless jargon word.” Meaning it’s typically used meaninglessly, not that it is unable to convey meaning.) @guardianstyle is of that set who abhor excrescence and “unnecessary” words. Reasonable enough in the newspaper business.

I, qua word taster, on the other hand (if less so in my editorial day job), get to enjoy words even when they’re just extra icing (or frosting) on the cake; I have no duty of ignoring the aesthetic pleasures of words. While @guardianstyle recommends (and justly so) near to rather than in close proximity for journalistic and similar writing, I get to say “Near to is concise, but in close proximity does a luxurious tapdance on your palate if you have the time.” And ongoing? Any word that makes me think of boing boing (the onomotopoeia, not the site) can’t be all bad. I suppose this will be an ongoing point of difference between us.

It is a funny word, isn’t it? It almost looks like an imitation of chewing with the mouth open: “So he’s sitting there, chewing away with his mouth open and full of food, ‘ong oing ong oing,’ and I’m like, that’s so gross, shut it, OK?” The two g’s in the word remind me of two infinity signs ∞, but rotated 90 degrees and deformed. Hmmm… it’s like zero (o) through any real number (n) to a reckless infinity (g), and then the same but through any imaginary number (if we take in to be i, the original imaginary number – square root of –1 – times n). On the other hand, g also stands for gravity, and o can be the origin of a circle – or the circle itself, of course – but I’m not sure where I’m going with this… Maybe it’s a no go.

The word really divides before, not after, the first g, anyway. It has three morphemes, one per syllable: on+(go+ing). It’s sometimes written with a hyphen after the on. It’s good old Anglo-Saxon, about as English as a word can be. It could be taken for a valediction – something one says on going – but as we know it’s actually not going off, and not even just going on, but continuing forward: on as in onward. The circles and twists, and the springy sound, may suggest a spiral, but it is not a mortal coil – at least its end is not foreseen. This word, like the enjoyment of words, is – to use some common collocations – an ongoing process, an ongoing investigation, an ongoing debate, with ongoing research and ongoing efforts on an ongoing basis. Even if @guardianstyle is shaking the head and saying “Come off it.”

I’m taking a few days away; my ongoing word tasting notes will resume on Tuesday, barring unforeseen eventualities.

coitus

This word is enjoying something of a resurgence thanks to its common use in The Big Bang Theory as the geeky way to refer to sexual intercourse. It’s technical and yet uncommon enough that it may seem coy to us; it’s not quite as barefaced as some of the other terms available.

Of course, one may play with the shapes – the circular c and o, the linear t and i, coming together to make us. But the salient feature for me is the sound, which feels to me as though it spirals (screws?), like boing (from a spring coil) and oink (from a spiral-tailed pig). Indeed, for me, it has always had a sort of taste of coil – but also perhaps quoits (that game of throwing rings onto a stick), and for that matter Coit Tower, the name of San Francisco’s 64-metre-high hilltop lingam, and, come to think of it, Duns Scotus, a philosopher from whose name we get (unfortunately) dunce (and that conical cap). And maybe a Brooklyn version of the name Curtis – after all, there’s the noted bathroom scribble “A little coitus never hoit us.” But how do these things go together?

Hm, well, maybe like a horse and carriage. You know, that song “Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage”? Though actually I don’t think it’s exactly like how a horse and carriage go together. It might be something more like what a teenage boy is hoping for when he says to a teenage girl (or do they even still say this anymore?), “You wanna go together?” (And then there’s Monty Python: “Is your wife a goer, eh? Know whatahmean, know whatahmean, nudge nudge, know whatahmean, say no more?”)

The thing is, coitus is from the Latin word coitus, “going together”, from co “with” plus ire “go”. It’s nothing more specific or literal or prurient than that! And yet, somewhat as the pronunciation has merged the co and it into one syllable, like some pretty co-ed and her thuggy boyfriend (“It” to her parents) might merge likewise, so the euphemism has come to merge with the more technical and literal sense.

And what word is most often seen next to coitus? Why, interruptus, of course. (And then there’s the dorm-room door sign, “Coitus – don’t interruptus.”) Amusingly, the interruption prevents not the going but the – oh, well, I’m sure you get the idea.

It occurs to me that were go together to become the accepted English term, one might say in hostility, “Go go together with yourself.” Which is of course a logical impossibility – the sound of one hand clapping, as it were. At best it would be an invitation to solipsism or narcissism; at worst, well, some other ism.

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cursive

My wife, Aina, said to me this morning, “You look skinnier.”

I said, “But I don’t weigh any less.”

“That’s the curse of running,” she replied.

Of course I heard her correctly, and knew she meant that I was gaining muscle while losing fat. But I can’t ever resist also hearing incorrectly, just for fun: in this case, “That’s the cursive running.” So I said, “Interestingly, cursive comes from a Latin root meaning ‘running’.”

She laughed. “See?”

Indeed, running is fluid and all joined together, just like writing that is all joined together: a sequence of curves and lines. But one may stop or stumble in running, and rather more so may one stop and stumble in writing. I sometimes lose my place – because my m’s and n’s tend to have points rather than humps, a word like community makes me stop and count how many points I’ve written. And if I had to write unununium often it would certainly have me cursing! Even civility can give me trouble (the word, I mean, not the practice) – if my aim were to join all the letters together, I would surely curse iv. But at least I can write cursively, which seems to be a dying art: it’s just not the type of communication preferred by those native to keyboards – a pity; they lose some style with their digits.

But what has running to do with cursing anyway? Aside from what you might say when you are cut off by a car, or nearly run down by a cyclist, or obstructed by oblivious walkers, or almost tripped by a dog on a long lead, I mean. What in the fluid lines of a runner and the fluid lines of handwriting has anything to do with malediction?

Nothing at all but the sound and shape of the word, it would seem. The Latin source of cursive is cursivus, “running”, from currere, “run” (as in current, for instance), while the English word curse (the antonym of blessing) is a lexical orphan: like dog (but unlike cur), it has no known cognates in other languages. Well, of course, we can only trace what we have in print – the curse of relying on the written word.

scandalize

As you scan the lines of a gossip rag for whatever your enquiring mind wants to know, and some scandal crosses your eyes, some shame or infamy, are you actually seeking to be scandalized? Do you take Schadenfreude in Schande, do you want to be offended?

Certainly some people do like to take offense, and to find it where it can be found. I remember an intermittent character on the sitcom Barney Miller who was ever looking for the shady side – his name was Scanlon, and I have always thought they picked that name because of the echoes of scam and scandal.

Is there any sort of negative phonaesthetic kick to that /skæ/ onset? Aside from scandal and its derivatives and scam, we see it in in scab, scad, skag, scamp, scan, scant, skank, and scat. Most of those have some negative tinge, though scad does not and scamp often does not. And scan? Generally not, though it does put me in mind of Hamlet’s

that would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge!

When I first read it, I thought he was using scann’d to mean something negative (rather like rotten or vicious), but actually he’s running through the scansion of the situation – and finding that it doesn’t meter out: the “to heaven” hangs over onto another line. What, a line in Shakespeare that doesn’t make the meter? Scandalous!

One need not seek in such obscure places for scandal in plays, of course; it makes some very good theatre generally. Indeed, a famous play of a sesquicentury or so after Shakespeare is The School for Scandal by Sheridan, and in the times in between – especially during the Restoration – there were many plays that trafficked the stage almost exclusively with the comings and goings of scandalous behaviour. Nor has the appetite let up; from Desperate Housewives to the nightly news, we like to be scandalized.

And how would you define scandalize? Does it mean “offend”? Certainly you can find that equivalency in the Bible, for instance, as Bill Whitla pointed out to me (and others) today: in Matthew 13:57, where one usually reads that Jesus’s townsfolk were offended by what he was teaching, the Greek source uses a conjugation of the verb σκανδαλίζειν skandalizein, which might suggest that they were really scandalized – that’s much juicier than just being offended, isn’t it? Can you be scandalized without whispering amongst yourselves, for instance?

But we should bear in mind that that Greek origin is a word for a snare or a trap, used metaphorically to refer to a stumbling block or offense. Scandal appeared in English first in reference to irreligious behaviour bringing discredit. Now it refers to shocking people by some violation of propriety or morality. But propriety has broadened in its scope. And the liking some people have for breaches of propriety is rather indecent – it’s scandalous how much they seek to be scandalized! (Ooo!)

verdant

I love this word not for its shape or its sound but for what it signifies. I grew up, you see, in a place that was overall rather dry and most of the time was shades of brown and grey; only in the summer would it become green, and I certainly enjoyed the view from a hill of the river valley filled with trees, as though someone had poured a pitcher of pesto into it, but even then it was nothing like the intense green that one sees in more humid climates. And this word carries intensity with it: although its dictionary definition is simply “green” or “green with vegetation”, one cannot miss out on the intensity of the green – depth of colour, or pervasiveness, or both.

This is in part because something that’s covered with vegetation probably does have an intense and pervasive green. But consider the sound of verdant – what does it sound like that will be flavouring it? What other words have a similar sound? Verve, fervent, fervid, vermin, fever, fertile, vertical, perverted, verdigris, verge, vervet, ferment, nervy, perhaps for heaven’s sake… I find that in general a labiodental fricative followed by syllabic /r/ has a vibration against restraint, an insistent yearning, though of course it’s more present in some words than in others.

And what words does verdant travel with or near? Very often, it shows up in the phrase verdant green, which manifests either a mistrust of the hearer’s understanding of verdant or a belief that verdant refers to the vegetal nature rather than the colour per se (in fact, it comes via French from a Latin root for “green”), or perhaps a tendency (as in ruby red too) to form colour adjectives as specifiers on a primary colour name. Or simply a taste for redundancy.

But there are various things that are described as verdant, and not always as verdant green: hills, forest(s), fields, trees, landscape, valley, lawns, foliage… Keats wrote of a verdant hill, Robert Burns of verdant woods, Milton of verdant grass, verdant leaf, a verdant wall, verdant isles, and even verdant gold, Wordsworth of verdant herb and a verdant lawn and a verdant path and verdant hills – they really get their word’s worth out of it.

I especially like Edward Smyth Jones’s “A Song of Thanks,” in which he gives thanks “For the verdant robe of the gray old earth” (among dozens of other lovely things). I must say that whenever I see verdancy – the verdant sea of trees in the Don Valley, perhaps, or the emerald crescent of Toronto Island – I too am truly thankful: that it is there and that I am too.

And thanks to my mom, not just for putting me here to see verdancy but for asking me to taste verdant.

roundabout

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout,
A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray,
And though she feels as if she’s in a play,
She is anyway.

Well, you know that song, anyway: “Penny Lane,” by the Beatles, about a junction in the Mossley Hill area of Liverpool, a sort of circus – not just because there was so much going on there (many bus lines met there), but because the roads that met there met in a ring.

And then there’s this:

Onc’t they was a little boy would n’t say his pray’rs –
An’ when he went to bed at night, away up stairs,
His mammy heerd him holler, an’ his daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he was n’t there at all!
An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby-hole, an’ press,
An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found was thist his pants an’ roundabout!
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you
Don’t
Watch
Out!

That’s from “Little Orphant Annie” by James Whitcomb Riley – it’s the poem that inspired the comic (about that little redhead girl with the empty rings for eyes) that inspired the musical from which was made the movie.

But in the end, need one meet all the busy-making and frights of the world head-on? William Cowper presented a differing view in “The Jackdaw”:

He sees that this great roundabout
The world, with all its motley rout,
Church, army, physic, law,
Its customs and its businesses,
Is no concern at all of his,
And says – what says he? – Caw.

That jackdaw (who has probably collected a bit of each of those parts of the world) cuts to the heart of the matter, but the matter is circling around him, and so the heart of it goes around it by going straight when it goes around.

Should I get to the point? Well, every circle has its origin, but it doesn’t touch that origin, while yet it doesn’t depart from it. The point may remain unspoken (and without spokes), and yet it is perfectly circumscribed. And sometimes in life that is what will make things go more smoothly – sometimes the express route is via the unexpressed.

Take a touchy topic: touchy of course means don’t touch it, so you have to play a ring-around-the-rosie. Or take several roads and bring them together: if you have them intersecting at a common point, it will be a vertex of vexation, with stopping and starting and collisions, but if you have everyone go around, the traffic can go smoothly.

Not that it necessarily will. There’s a very funny scene in National Lampoon’s European Vacation where Chevy Chase et al. are stuck going around one and can’t exit. In Edmonton (Alberta), there used to be a lot of them, and they gradually got rid of nearly all of them – people just couldn’t drive them safely. Same deal on the highway near Banff. And yet they’re very popular in England.

What are very popular? Oh, for heaven’s sake, what I’ve been talking about. Even the name for them has a certain iconicity of verbal gesture: beginning with a rolling /r/, the tongue loops open and the mouth widens and then closes round in front and high in back, then the tongue touches at the tip and then it bounces to the lips, and then – why, then it goes back, Jack, and does it again: that big round vowel gesture again and back to the tip of the tongue, going around about the mouth. And each circular gesture is written with the aid of a ring as well, o and o.

It’s that word made of two Germanic words that in England often names a meeting of the ways without their actually meeting (Canadians call them traffic circles), and in other senses is everywhere often followed with way.

Sometimes the only way through is not to go through at all – go about, go around. Sometimes it would tease to cross; sometimes you don’t dot the eyes. The usefulness of round things is, after all, often in what is not there. And sometimes the point is not what is in the middle at all, but what you find behind it.

Thanks to Saro Nova for mentioning this topic.

avarice, greed, cupidity

Dear word sommelier: I’m unsure whether what I want to describe is best called avarice, greed, or cupidity. Which should I use for what where and when?

Oh, heck, why have just one if you can have all three?

If you’re wondering about the semantic difference between the three, you’re not the only one. This question was discussed today on the Editors’ Association of Canada email list, and there were differing opinions about whether one or another was more or less money-specific. And while a dictionary might tell you some little difference like that – or actually more likely won’t be so obliging – what really matters is how the people who actually read or hear it, who are unlikely to be running every word through a dictionary, will perceive it. And we know that there are different views on that. In other words, never mind the label or the guidebook, let’s taste it and talk about food matching.

Words, after all, are known by the company they keep. And they also gain flavour by other words and sound patterns that they bring to mind. So let’s swirl and sniff and sip and spit (or swallow) each one of these.

Greed is now the most common of the three by a fair measure, though if Google ngrams are to be believed it was not always thus (remember, though, that the Google ngrams search books, not popular usage in general). Its popularity gives it a certain commonness but also gives it more accretions. There are the pop culture references – “Greed is good,” as Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street, and Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged also glorified greed; meanwhile, Han Solo blasted a slimeball named Greedo in a cantina on Tattooine – and it tends to show up with words such as corporate, human, personal, pure, sheer, and simple.

It has a taste of green, as in envy, and creed, as in a fixed statement of belief. And it has that growling, gripping /gr/ onset. Generally it is the most purely negatively toned of the three, Gekko and Rand notwithstanding. Interestingly, while greed tends to focus on financial and material acquisition, greedy, its related adjective, can also be used comfortably to refer to such things as eating. Just by the way, greed actually comes from greedy, not the other way around; greedy is itself a derivative form of a Germanic root for “hunger” or “greed”, however.

Avarice is less popular than it used to be – the word, I mean, not the thing, which is quite durable. It is found in more elevated texts – it is more erudite in tone, and seems a more expensive word. It’s like greed as practiced by “the right sort” of people – greed with a bowtie. It’s also one of the seven deadly sins. It comes from Latin avaritia, from avarus “greedy”, and it’s been used in English at least since Chaucer.

The feel of it may vary a bit from person to person – it makes me think of avaler, French for “swallow”; also avalanche, avenue, rara avis, avid, average, maybe aviatrix, and perhaps advice… Its adjective, avaricious, on the other hand, carries an air of vicious. Avarice seems comparatively open and airy in sound; certainly the mouth is much more open than for greed.

Cupidity, in the here and now, is one of those words that people probably feel a little twinge of pride in knowing, because it’s sufficiently uncommon. It’s a bit like avarice with a PhD. It keeps pricier company – words such as pudor and rapacity may be seen in the same sentence. Or maybe I’m only thinking of education because someone pointed out to me once, as we were walking by it, the cupid that is on top of the spire of The Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, and I said it was a monument to cupidity (Harvard’s endowment is $26 billion. Yes, $26 billion). And, yes, that chubby little cherub shares a root with this word: Latin cupidus, “eagerly desirous”. It’s a little newer to our tongue, having arrived in the 1500s.

The taste of cupidity is conditioned by various odd echoes: stupidity, cube, cubic zirconium, cubit… It is a word with a cup that runneth over (and still wants to be refilled). And it may well have a tinge of sexual desire, not just from Cupid but from concupiscence (which might be practiced in combination with a cupidous concubine). But it is the crispest of the three words, chunky, blocky, or at least tapping; its four syllables have four stops, each with a vowel, while avarice has three syllables with fricatives and a liquid (and vowels before consonants), and greed has two stops, a liquid, and only one vowel.

So which to use? Consider the rhythm and the sounds of the sentence around; consider also the tone – how lofty or plain? How harsh or mitigated?

But certainly keep all three in your bank to use. Look, you can never have too many words at your disposal. And spending them is actually your best investment.