Monthly Archives: July 2011


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.


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.

Now at CafePress, you can buy this charming design on T-shirts, iPod cases, mouse pads, bugs, and so on:


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.


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!)


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.


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

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.


Maury and I and Maury’s friend Gwen (Jennifer) were besporting ourselves at the pool at Maury’s uncle Red’s country place. More specifically, Gwen was swimming laps (in spite of being two martinis to the better), I was swimming a bit and standing a bit, and Maury was sitting in a deck chair, fully clad, on his third martini.

“You should come in!” Gwen shouted at Maury. “It’s fun! Exercise does a body good!”

“I am of the conviction,” Maury said, “that one’s heart has only so many beats in a lifetime. Raising one’s heart rate therefore shorten’s one’s life.”

“I think I’ve pointed out the error in that reasoning before,” I said. “For instance, because I exercise, my resting heart rate is about 20 beats per minute slower than it used to be when I didn’t exercise. While I’m exercising, it averages about 80 beats per minute faster than my resting heart rate used to be, or 100 beats faster than my resting rate. But I only exercise six hours a week. So one twenty-eighth of my time is spent exercising each week. That means my average heart rate is… let’s see, a difference of 100 averaged out over 28, just about three and a half… my average heart rate is about sixteen and a half beats per minute slower than it would be if I didn’t exercise. Sixteen and a half times how many minutes are there in a lifetime?”

“Alright, I get the point,” Maury said. “I nonetheless find this option more refreshing. And I’m less likely to drown.”

“Except your sorrows.”

“May they be few.”

Just then, Maury’s uncle Red strode out. “Lady and gentlemen, I would like to point out that the sky is darkening and there will soon be lightning.”

I pulled myself up out of the pool. Gwen protested: “But that’s why I’m in the pool! I’m lightening myself up!” Funny how the skinny ones always complain about their weight.

“You could end up blackened,” Red said, “like catfish. C’mon in, food’s a-fixing.”

We retreated obligingly. I headed to my room to change. As I opened the door I heard a sudden scuffling noise, and I noticed the corner of the carpet turned up. But a first scan of the room showed no animate forms.


I knelt down and looked lower. I found what I sought beneath the bedside table: a critter that looked like a gopher, but click-dragged to rather larger size. A groundhog. It was cowering and looking at me nervously.

I shouted into the hall. “Red! There’s a groundhog in my room!”

Red came around the corner. “Oh fer… gracious mercy… He was in here yesterday. It’s like Groundhog Day.” Maury and Gwen appeared behind him.

“Well, we aren’t all that far from Wiarton,” I observed.

Gwen peeked down. “And he does look a bit like Bill Murray. I wonder what he’s after in here.”

“Some marmot-lade, perhaps?” Maury said. (Groundhogs are a kind of marmot.)

“Maybe it’s looking for some wood to chuck,” I said. (Woodchuck is another name for a groundhog.)

“Well,” Red said, “he can chuck all the wood that a woodchuck chucks… outside. And hog the ground there too. Hand me that broom. And open that door.” He gestured to the door to the outside that my room – actually a converted covered porch – featured. I went over and opened it. Maury handed Red the broom, and then grabbed a golf putter that was leaning against the wall.

Red looked at Maury. “What are you doing with that? We’re trying to chase the poor thing out, not beat it to putty. I have all the ground hog I need in the kitchen. Oh, no vegans here, right? Because I’m making something I saw on Epic Meal Time.”

“I’m just trying to help encourage it to go to ground,” Maury said.

“Well, let’s line up and make a path to the door for it. Coooome on, little guy… get the hell outa here.” A little encouragement and some sweeping under the bed eventually resulted in our little friend making a break for it through the open door, which we swiftly closed.

“I wonder where it will go,” Gwen said.

“Oh, it has plenty of room out there,” Red said. “This used to be a farm. I’ve sold off most of the turf, but I still hogged enough of the ground for myself. Just as long as it stays away from my car.”

“Have you seen Red’s car?” Maury said. “It’s in the barn. It’s a brilliant red Barchetta.”

“Bugatti,” Red corrected him. “It’s a real rush to drive.”

“You don’t need to worry about him stealing your car,” Gwen said. “He’s not Mr. Toad.”

I, meanwhile, was standing there sounding out the various names of the beastie. “Grrroundhoooggg… round and rumbling… Wood! chuck! short and sharp… Marrrmota monax… murmuring up to a crack, like lightning in reverse…”

The heavens obliged at that moment with a crack of a lightning bolt not so far away and the following rolling rumble.

“Poor thing,” Gwen said, looking out towards the groundhog’s path of retreat. “What if the lightning zaps him?”

“It’s OK,” Maury said. “He’s a natural ground.”

Jennifer, juniper

Maury’s uncle Red has a country place, and Maury wangled an invitation for a set of his friends to come up and spend the weekend. He intimated to me that he was bringing a new interest named Jennifer.

It was rather hot out when I arrived, so I quickly dropped my bags and changed into swim gear. I passed through the kitchen to grab a bevvy, but Maury said that he had some he was just fixing up that he would bring out shortly. So I made a beeline to the pool.

I was just setting down my towel when a fetching lady emerged through some ornamental heather near the pool’s edge. “Hello,” I said. “I’m James.”

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Gwen. In fact, I’m gwen into the pool.”

I paused. “Oh, you must be Maury’s friend. I thought your name was Jennifer. …Oh, wait.”

“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “Gwen as in short for Jennifer.”

“Because Jennifer is really a Cornish version of the name Guinevere,” I said. “Yes, I’ve seen Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma.”

“Yup,” she said. She quoted from the play: “‘My name is Jennifer.’ ‘A strange name.’ ‘Not in Cornwall. I am Cornish. It’s only what you call Guinevere.’ Well, thanks in part to Shaw, it’s not so strange anymore. Jennifer is now about as plane as Jane, so I went with the English version and then shortened it to Welsh roots.” This was true: Guienevere is from Welsh gwen “white, fair, blessed, holy” and hwyfar “smooth, soft”.

“You could have gone with Gaynor,” I said. Gaynor is a variant of Guinevere.

“Ew. Didn’t want to. ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor would be playing through my life. Anyway, it’s getting common in England, and over here sounds a bit too much like Gaylord.”

At this juncture Maury arrived with a pitcher of martinis and some glasses. “Ah,” said Gwen, “you’ve brought my namesake.”

Juniper and Jennifer aren’t really related,” Maury said.

“Oh, jenever know,” Gwen said, playing on Dutch for “gin”. “Yes, yes, I know it’s from Latin.”

“And from juniper,” I volunteered, “come genever and genièvre and ultimately gin.”

“Maury mentioned that,” Gwen said. “But I do like the similarity of sounds. Jennifer and juniper differ only in one vowel and one consonant, and those consonants are closely related.”

“For all that,” I said, “Jennifer has a bit more of a rustle as of heather, and juniper has a little more of a nip to it.”

“Meanwhile, Guinevere starts with a g and all those variants on juniper begin with the letter g,” Gwen said. “But Maury, dahling, can you give me mine with a twist? Since I’m by the pool.”

Maury obliged and handed Gwen a decent-sized martini with a twist of lemon peel. She held it up in toast: “Gin gin!” Then she downed the whole glass and danced a quick little twist. But her foot caught on my towel and she spun into the pool with a bit of a flip and a bit more of a splash.

“Well,” Maury observed as she resurfaced spluttering, “that was a double Gaynor.”

“She did say she was Gwen in,” I remarked.

“Ha,” said she. “I will survive.” She held up the martini glass that she was somehow still holding. “Arrr. Pirate Jenny wants a refill.”

I looked at Maury as if to say, “You’ve found a winner.” He just lifted an eyebrow and the jug and refilled her glass.


Lynne Murphy, @lynneguist,, mentioned today on Twitter a word that I (like her) have come to see as particularly British in flavour: bung.

It’s not that I encountered it first in a British context; actually, I knew it first as the name of the alcoholic court jester in The Wizard of Id, the cartoon strip by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart (see It was some time after that that I learned that it was another word for a cork.

But cork is a tight, stopped-up-sounding word, starting and ending with /k/. It’s what you stick in a bottle – you can hear the sound as you push it back into a bottle that (like you) is half drunk (“cork, cork, cork”), or later as you pull it back out (“corrrrk”). Bung is resonant. It’s something you would stick in a barrel, whacking it in with a rubber mallet so the entire vessel makes a “bung!” sound.

Not that that’s where cork comes from, nor – in the case of the stopper – bung. That kind of bung seems to be related to Middle Dutch bonge, meaning the same thing, which may have come ultimately from Latin puncta “hole” (though there are some holes in the etymological trail too). There is also a sense of bung as “dead” (or “bankrupt”) that comes from an Australian Aboriginal language. But some uses of bung do seem to originate in sound symbolism – specifically the senses meaning “throw violently, put forcibly” and “right in the middle of things” – and it’s quite reasonable, I’d say, to think that there is real influence of the sound on all senses (certainly in English usage), just as the “stopper” sense surely has some effect on the non-stopper uses.

At any rate, in Britain the word gets around; they will often say (as Lynne Murphy points out) “My nose is all bunged up” rather than “My nose is all stuffed up,” and they may say, as the Macmillan Dictionary says, “Bung the ball to me, Jack” or “Bring me another beer and just bung it on the bill” – in those senses it’s not merely a real or metaphorical projectile motion that is signified, but specifically a fairly careless one (as may go with the bluntness and dullness of sound of the word – not as focal as bang, let alone bing, nor even as bright as bong). They also use it to refer to bribery and other under-the-table financial payments, as for example secret financial incentives to facilitate a deal in British football  (thanks to Lynne for the examples as well).

One may imagine that if you throw a cork (metaphorically) into the middle of a shady transaction in a small house, thereby stopping the action and basically killing it, you could say that you bung a bung bung into the middle of a bung in a bungalow, bunging it up so it’s bung. But that sounds like a bungled jungle of bungs…

I do hope that Lynne Murphy does not find this effort merely echoic of hers. But I thought it a good way to direct you all to her blog and Twitter feed, which are worthy of notice. And it’s a good excuse to move farther afield than just my usual Torontonian perspective.