Monthly Archives: July 2011

under the sea

Dear Word Sommelier: I was just watching The Little Mermaid and I was struck by the song “Under the Sea.” The sea is the water, right? All the creatures are in the water; only the sea bed is under it. So shouldn’t it be “in the sea”? Or is this one of those idiomatic things? If I wanted to write about the beauty of sea life, should I write about the colours in the sea or the colours under the sea?

Oh, prepositions are bedeviling. Which preposition goes with what is one of the least predictable things about any language. But I’m not going to wave this off with “It’s idiomatic” (which might be read as “It’s idiotic, Ma”). In this case you have two usable options, depending on your choice of schema for the sea: as container or voluminous body, or as surface with or without depth: without, like a boardwalk (“under the boardwalk, down by the sea”), or with, like a blanket of snow.

Under the sea uses the “surface” schema; it means below the surface of the sea, and – giving the sense that it’s a surface with depth – usually towards the bottom; the fact that it’s actually in the seawater doesn’t change the “under” relationship to the surface and to all the water on top of whatever is under the sea. Jules Verne’s book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is something that often hovers in the mind when one speaks of being under the sea, as does the Beatles’ “I’d like to be under the sea, in an octopus’s garden in the shade.” Another phrase that makes use of the same schema is beneath the sea – or, perhaps more commonly, as in “Octopus’s Garden,” beneath the waves (do remember that waves are more than just a pure surface phenomenon in reality). We must remember, too, the very common word and image underwater (and its counterpart underground).

In the sea, on the other hand, uses the “container” or “voluminous body” schema (that’s two different schemata, not two names for the same one). It presents an image of being in the water, surrounded by it or as part of it or using it as a medium. It can even involve being partly out of the sea (e.g., swimming, which you do not do “on the sea”).

There’s also the question of vantage point. If you’re looking at the colours in the sea, you’re most likely looking at them from outside, perhaps on a boat looking down into it. To see all the colours under the sea, you’d more likely have an undersea perspective yourself – if not in a submarine or scuba diving, then at least snorkeling or in a glass-bottom boat. Also, colours in the sea could imply or at least include the colours of the water itself, which colours under the sea would less likely do – though it might imply the colour of the light coming down through the water.

There’s also the phonaesthetic angle, which is a little fuzzier: under has that depth of sound, that hollow central vowel with the resonant nasal-stop /nd/ and the echo syllabic /r/, just like thunder (and also, of course, blunder, chunder, plunder, and wonder). Anyone who has had their head under water and heard hard things bonking together in the water (even if it’s just your shampoo bottle falling into the tub) will have some sense of that hollow sound. In, on the other hand, has a high front vowel into a simple nasal. It’s short, direct, less resonant, less capable of evocativeness. One might say it’s a jackknife dive to under’s cannonball, but it’s not really amenable to even that much flourish.

In a song like “Under the Sea,” of course, the rhythm is an important part of it. But for other uses, you may also want to consider the sound and the rhythm along with the image. Oh, and less-common usages tend to have a certain dearness compared to more-common ones… and under the sea is and (indications are) has always been somewhat less common than in the sea.

Just as a parting shot, ask yourself whether you would use under the ocean. I suspect most people would find it less idiomatic. Sea, an English word as long as there has been an English, has more native idioms and a greater literary accretion. Ocean is a loan from Greek (via Latin and French, arriving in English in the 13th century) and, like many such, is a little more technical and precise, and a little less flexible.

Thanks to Gael Spivak and several other editorial colleagues for input and inspiration.

Questions for the word sommelier are always welcome!


You may most likely hear this word in some expression of exasperation: “The whole economy there is lubricated by baksheesh! Everywhere you go around there, to get anything done, you have to slip them a buck behind the back! Sheesh! You’d think baksheesh was the sound of the printing press producing all those extra banknotes!”

Well, yes, there are some places where it’s a good tip to know that one is expected to give a good tip, as it were. But remember that, just as tip is not actually an acronym for “to improve performance” (no, it’s not; it’s not an acronym at all), baksheesh doesn’t come with performance guarantees, either… aside from a reasonable guarantee of lack of obstruction. You could think of it as the sound of a latch clicking (bak) and a sliding door opening (sheesh).

But it can also be a payment of alms – in India and Pakistan, the beggars cry “Baksheesh, baba!” – and a thanks or a veneration, for giving the opportunity to gain merit by giving alms or for the simple act of performing one’s little job (as a waiter, doorman, parking attendant, or what have you). It can be outright bribery of an official, too, of course, but it can also be subtler – a donation to a police charity, earning a bumper sticker that might make the boys in blue more favourably disposed, for instance. Generally it’s money, but I suppose other things given could count (perhaps baklava or hashish?).

Just as the act has various forms and valences, so too the word has a few different forms. The pronunciation is always the same – with that mechanical clack and slide like a machine that requires lubrication – but it has been spelled in English as baksheesh, bakhshish, bakshish, bakshis, buckshish, backsheesh (a spelling I saw just today in the cartoon Alex,, and even (a couple of centuries ago) buxees. And the word has other spellings in other languages – bakchich, Backschisch, and spellings in the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets. It doesn’t mean quite the same thing everywhere, either: in Balkan languages, it generally just means “tip” the same way we mean “tip” in Canada, and in Greek it can mean simply “gift”.

“Gift” is probably the best word for it anyway. Not just because you really can’t expect much in return (as opposed to the rather negative things you may expect in its absence in some contexts), but because it comes from Persian for “gift, present”, from a verb meaning “give”.

Just incidentally, there’s a Punjabi name Bakshi that comes from the Persian for “paymaster”. But that’s not the source of the family name of famed animation director Ralph Bakshi; his is a Krymchak (Turkic Crimean) Jewish name derived from the Turkish word for “garden”. Well, every garden needs a little seed money to keep it animated, too… but to be of the Bakshis or even just Bakshi-ish has nonetheless nothing to do with baksheesh.


This is, of course, what Kate loses at the end of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

No, no, no, look again! There is that a in there! You see that it makes the heart of the word like an incomplete raging. And in the pronunciation it not only adds an unstressed vowel (compared with virginity) but changes the quality of the first vowel, so that it is no longer a syllabic /r/ (or something near) but becomes an actual /I/ as in spirit.

Spirit, of course, is something Kate has in abundance in that play. She may be a virgin, but she is not blushing or modest. Virgin comes from Latin virgo, probably related to virga “branch”, but Kate’s not a tender shoot – nope, she’s a real switch, a stick to whip with. But take a little piece of wood and dip it in the right solution and you will get a match, which can really ignite something – and Kate meets her match, and the sparks do indeed fly.

Kate, you see, is a virago quite surely – virago meaning a bold woman: in its approbative sense, a warrior woman, but in its negative sense a termagant, a shrew. A woman who does not behave as was thought womanly at the time the word came about (and, honestly, ideas about what is appropriately feminine behaviour do persist today). And a word for the quality of being a virago – a rare word, to be sure, but it’s in Oxford – is viraginity. It’s a nice enough word in itself; the a adds balance, putting the g in the middle, and the v pairs with the y to counterpoise the verticals in the middle. And the whole thing stays at the tip of your tongue – while virago bounces to the back and so on down.

But whence virago? Has it to do with vinegar? No. With rage, with vigour? No. And don’t even ask about that popular drug that many men like to use (why would I want to snag on spam filters?). Nor is it the name of a Shakespearean character. It comes, in fact, from vir, “man”; it means a woman who is manlike. It was also used in early English translations of the Bible for the name Adam gave Eve: “And Adam seide… This schal be clepid virago, for she is takun of man.” No branch here; we’re talking about a rib.

Well, fair enough: Petruchio takes quite a bit of ribbing – and beating – from Kate in the course of the play. But the two are really just two sides of a coin, made for each other… she may seem to surrender, but watch if he does not come under her thumb in the long run. Does she really lose her viraginity, or does she put it in trust in order to gain interest – and leverage?


A colleague who is not a native English speaker was looking at Doris & Bertie’s “Does your writing pass the ‘mum’ test?” The poster and the “mum” (mother) in question are both British, it would appear, and one comment on a bit of consulting-biz buzzword babble was “all sounds like tosh.” My colleague was wondering what tosh meant, as to her (perhaps by no coincidence an erstwhile dreadlock wearer, though of Polish extraction) it was just the name of a reggae musician.

Well, indeed, to me, tosh also immediately calls to mind the noted reggae man and Rastafarian Peter Tosh (born Winston Hubert McIntosh). But I am aware at the same time that it refers to trash, bosh, rubbish, piffle, stuff and nonsense… basically some bit of dish-dosh that someone pulled out of their tush.

It’s such a nice, hand-flipping word – it seems like just the sort of thing some toff might say when having a bit of a tiff and wishing to brush it all off and dash back to his quaff (perhaps a Pimm’s): “What a load of tosh.” The milieu: likely early 20th century, the costume perhaps tennis whites or dinner tails, the author Wodehouse or Waugh or someone like that. Or even, perhaps, you will picture hearing it from a 1940s middle-class housewife in her row house in Wandsworth or Wapping…

Well, the 1920s through the 1940s in Britain were this word’s heyday. So now when you use it you can call on not only the attitude and the sound it presents but also on the taste of that milieu. The word in this sense first showed up in the 1890s, though, and there were other words also tosh that showed up earlier in the 1800s: “bath or footpan”, 1880s, and “valuable items (especially made of copper) retrieved from drains and sewers”, 1850s; there’s also an 18th- and 19th-century Scottish adjective tosh meaning “neat, tidy” or “agreeable, comfortable” (not necessarily plush or cushy, let alone posh, but at least with a nice touch of titivation).

The relation of these words to one another (if any or much of any) is not clear, nor is the origin of our trashy tosh. It may have some influence from bosh, a Turkish word with much the same meaning brought into English in the earlier 1800s. But of course bosh bursts with a blunt /b/, whereas tosh spits crisply off the tip of the tongue with /t/. Both are like a water balloon bursting, but the former more through overfilling and the latter through dashing on your door. And tosh also brings to mind tush, by which I mean here not the short form of tuches but the impatient interjection, rhyming with hush, that means “oh, rubbish” or “what a load of tosh”. This tush, around since the 1400s, may have influenced tosh, but we don’t know for sure.

At any rate, tosh is a nice, concise word with which to brush off prolix poppycock – the kind of twaddle turned out by those who believe that if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, you should baffle them with… well, tosh.


You know those symbols cartoonists use for swearwords – the squiggly lines, the punctuation marks, the stars and skulls and mushroom clouds and so on? Perhaps the sort of thing Hagar the Horrible would emit if he found crawlies in his gravlax? Or what Sarge growls at Beetle for being lax? Have you ever thought, “There has to be a name for these things”?

Well, Mort Walker did. And, not being aware of one per se, he made up one.

Well, OK, he made up several, according to type, along with names for various other marks one sees in cartoons (surrounding a character’s head to denote surprise or anxiety, for instance). The words were, by all evidences, made up off the top of his head because he liked the sound of them: blurgits, briffits, jarns, quimps, nittles… They didn’t fall instantly into the dustbin of history; their creator was, after all, Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois, and he published a book (The Lexicon of Comicana) detailing them. But the one that has really caught on is the one that, starting as a word for an incoherent squiggle, has come to refer to all kinds of marks indicating profanity: grawlix, plural grawlixes.

It does seem like an apposite word, doesn’t it? It has such suitable flavours: the gripping, growling /gr/ onset, and the overtones of growl, craw, curl, raw, rail, licks, garlic, warlocks, prolix, and scrawl, among others, plus the suitable shapes: the crossing-out of x, the open jaw or curling intestine of g (depending on how it’s written), the w that may be like an accordion from Hell or just may be two more x’s waiting to be formed, the l like a line of surprise on a cartoon character’s head, the i like an inverted exclamation mark.

Some people have imagined that words in general at first came about through just this kind of creation: give it a name because it sounds right. But, while we obviously have various words that have been created that way, we have to stop and ask, “What makes it sound right?”

In the case of a word such as this one, there is very likely influence of other known words and sound patterns in English, plus attitudes towards such things as the letter x. But you can’t have any of that until you have a well-established language and culture. If you’re a proto-human looking for a word to name something that doesn’t have a word, what do you do? Make a word on the basis of other words you already have for resemblant things? What if you have none such? Make a word on the basis of sound resemblances (onomatopoeia)? What it it’s a big rock? Make it on the basis of sensed appropriateness for size and similar qualities (based on experience of high sounds going with smaller size, etc.)? Go with something that you somehow remember from your own formative experiences? Was there really any first person who just made up language, or did it just slowly grow over generations from something not quite language to something fully language?

Well, probably that last one, but, really, we have no #@%& idea. All we know is we’re here, now, and we have the linguistic and cultural accretions to produce and appreciate a word like grawlix.

Thanks to Adrienne Montgomerie for mentioning this word on Twitter today.

Follow me on Twitter if you want (or don’t if you don’t): @sesquiotic.


I’ve been enjoying watching a couple of bobcats lately. No, not via webcam, and I’m not watching old Hinterland Who’s Who episodes. I’m watching them out my window. They’re gradually ripping apart the building next door to my office, floor by floor.

Right, I mean the small front-end loader machines, popular on farms, construction sites, and so on. (Obviously I should have written Bobcat loaders, but that would have given away the game.) The building next door is – was – an office building, and the bobcats are lifted onto the floors by crane and used for knocking out walls and fixtures and dumping them out what used to be the window. I must admit, though, it’s a pleasing picture to imagine a couple of feisty felines doing the damage.

On the other hand, it would also be quite amusing to picture twin versions of Bobcat Goldthwait doing it. He might just run around screaming at things and they would crumble. (See his role in Police Academy for the reference.) Of course, in the world of real physics, he’d probably do pretty much bupkes.

The word bobcat is rather likeable. It has that one-two punch of a two-syllable two-morpheme compound, as though it’s a more specific, more emphasized version of cat. (Vulgarities sometimes gain a similar impact from the addition of horse, bull, goat, or such like before the focal four-letter word.) It has a nice balance, too, with the twin voiced stops bouncing off the lips first, and then two voiceless stops bringing in the tongue tail and tip. The vowels also balance, back vowel with front consonant and then front vowel with the farther-back consonants. And it’s sort of pretty, too – I do fancy the two b’s to be like the tufted ears of a bobcat, and the t perhaps to be a bit like the short tail.

And it’s that short tail that gives the cat its name – the bob is the same as in “a pageboy bob” for a short haircut for women, or bobtail as in “bet my money on the bobtail nag” and “bells on bobtail ring, making spirits bright” for a horse with a docked tail. It may be from a Gaelic root. This bob doesn’t have any known etymological connection with the name Robert, though Robert is the real first first name of Bobcat Goldthwait.

Whether the animal as a whole is short is a matter of perspective. It’s the smallest of the lynx family, and so much smaller than most wild cats, but it’s still around three feet long (66–104 cm, according to and up to 30 pounds (14 kg). You might think it a pretty kitty, but if you want cat scratch marks, it will surely deliver if it has to.

The odds of your getting so close – or even seeing one out your window – are not so high, though. They avoid people and are most active in the hours around dawn and dusk. And the odds of seeing two of them working together are even worse; they’re solitary animals. But, on the other hand, you might live closer to one than you think: they’re found throughout quite a large part of North America, and there are lots of them out there – probably more than a million.


To my taste, this word seems to oscillate. It opens with hug and kiss, or open and shut, or light and dark – ox – and then flutters with ala… but that may be just the beginning of a late addition…

It comes from Latin oxalis “sorrel” (from Greek ὀξύς oxus “sour”, which is also found in oxygen). Sorrel is a plant with pretty (often white) flowers. Wood sorrel has been eaten and used for medicines for millennia (though you may not ever have had any as such). Oxalate makes me think of Ocala (apparently meaning “big hammock”), the name of a city in Florida, and of Oglala (meaning “scatter their own”), a branch of the Sioux, and of Oksana, as in Oksana Baiul, Olympic and world figure skating champion from the 1990s.

But it especially makes me think of Oxala (pronounced, and sometimes spelled, Oshala), an alternate name of the Yoruba/Candomblé deity Obatala. Oxala is the deity said to have created human bodies, the deity of clarity and clarification, of purity and whiteness – all white, always white, everything associated with Oxala is white. And the view given by Oxala of the world is all blacks and whites, lights and darks – no grey.

But this is not to say that Oxala is all “goodness” all the time, in spite of having qualities parallelling Jesus (such as a resurrection story). The Yoruba deities have their own individual characters; Oxala had a falling out with his brother at one point, and at another he got drunk on palm wine and made some mistakes in his acts of creation.

One of those mistakes may or may not be oxalate. It is present in your body, but mostly from the food you eat – quite a lot of foods have it, including black pepper, dark chocolate, and black tea (and many things that are not especially black or white; I’m not sure whether it’s in Oxo bouillon or oxtail soup, but probably).

Or, rather, they have oxalic acid, C2O4H2. In your body, it loses its hydrogens and becomes an ion (oxalate) that combines quite readily with various minerals. And some of those combinations are not light but heavy; they do not stay dissolved – they have a falling out. After all, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.

This precipitate may simply pass out of the body with the rest of the waste. Then again, it may not. Calcium oxalate is a primary component of kidney stones. Thus the question of whether oxalate is a bad thing.

But perhaps it oscillates. It has its good. It has proven useful in some drug formulations involving metals. Oxalic acid is also quite useful for cleaning surfaces, purifying them and giving them a shine – and for bleaching.


A few of us were at Domus Logogustationis, malingering after the annual general meeting. Edgar Frick held high the remains of a bottle of quite passable Chianti and gestured towards Maury. “Let’s drink a toast to our new vice president!”

Glasses were empty all around. I thrust mine forth; Maury edged his ahead of mine; Marilyn Frack, already tipsy, leaned forward precariously with hers, nearly spilling out of her chair and perhaps her leather blouse.

“I’m the president of vice,” declared Edgar, “so I make the call and decide in favour of Maury.” He filled Maury’s glass with the last of the bottle. “Oh! Well, there’s another one here.” He reached down and produced a new bottle. “Different producer, but…” He started looking around for something.

Fungi vice,” I said. (That’s “fun-jye vie-see.” It refers to a suitable equivalent substitute.)

“Never mind the fungi,” said Maury, “this is the vice I see, and it is a nice vice.”

“It’s an apposite one, too,” I said, “given that vice as in ‘clamp’ comes from Latin vitis, referring here to a screw but actually meaning a grape vine – since their vines grew in spirals.”

“That’s suitable,” purred Marilyn, “since drinking can lead to screwing, and vice-a versa.”

Edgar looked up. “That’s vice-versa, my delicious, not visa-versa.”

“I know that! And you know I know that. I was just making a pun. Since I am not averse to a vice.”

“Well, speaking of screws, have you got one, comma, cork?”

“Oh, give me that bottle,” said Marilyn. “I have a way of extracting the cork without one.”

“Perhaps not here, darling…”

“No, not that!” Marilyn giggled. “I just need a shoe…”

“There’s another bottle over there,” Maury said, pointing offstage right, “with a screwcap. I wouldn’t want to damage the immovables.” (He knew what Marilyn was about to do: Don’t worry, it’s not naughty.)

Edgar trotted off after the other bottle. Marilyn contemplated the unopened one she held. “Well, of all the vices to be in the grip of, this is one of the better ones… Say, isn’t that the origin of our use of vice for something like this? It puts the screws to you?”

“In fact not,” Maury said. “It’s a different Latin root: vitium, ‘fault, defect’. So that rather vitiates that link, appealing as it may be.”

“Well, how vicious,” Marilyn said, pouting slightly.

“And then,” I said, “rather not fungi vice, there’s the third vice, as in president, versa, and fungi. It’s from vicis, ‘place, stead, turn’.”

“Turn!” Marilyn said. “You see, we’re back to spinning around… or is that the room…”

“Perhaps too many vice verses have given you vertigo,” Maury said.

“Those are all from the same root,” I pointed out: “versa, verse, vertigo, all from vertere, verb, ‘turn’.”

Marilyn began to sing, a rare thing for her. “Turn, turn, turn… You spin me right round, baby, right round…” She looked around. “I want either Edgar or a shoe. Or a screw. Comma, cork.”

Edgar obligingly reappeared. “Put a cork in it, darling.”

“Screw off,” Marilyn said.

Edgar obliged: with the customary cracking sound, he broke the seal on the screwcap and unscrewed it. “Veni, vidi, vici… vice!”

I thrust my glass forth again. “And now, please…” I sang out a line from Verdi’s “Anvil chorus” from Il Trovatore: “Versami un tratto!” (“Pour me a drink!”)


Is it mere rumour that our murmured memories seem more real when immured in the armor of a marmoreal memorial? Are words engraved on a stone, or forms resembled in marble, the Ozymandian azimuth of immortality, or are they just marmalade or Marmite on the toast of eternity?

And do big questions call for big words? Or for hard words? Marmoreal is a fairly large word, but a soft one, two lip-pillows of nasals and three smooth liquids, like the water of the stream of time that wears down even the rocks. A smaller and harder word that means the same (when an adjective) is marble. It has a nasal and two liquids, but you can hear the stop of the /b/ in between the liquids, and it converts them from the murmur of winds and waters to the rumble of boulders and smaller rocks as they tumble from crumbling temples.

How do we come to have these two words? We can blame the French. The original Latin word for “marble” is marmor, from Greek μάρμαρος marmaros. Our word marmoreal is formed directly from the Latin, as we often do it. But marmor became marbre in French, the nasal gaining audibility by hardening to a stop, and in English we made our lives a bit easier again by holding down the tongue tip to an /l/ to stop the rolling /r/.

So we have a word reminiscent of Montreal, which in English has a stop in the middle but in French is much like most of marmoreal. And Mount Royal, with its monuments and its cemeteries and oratory with all their marble, the timeless handcrafts that aim to frame humanity in eternity… is not more eternal than any remote mountain range with its arboreal roamers and its marmots ambling.

Our efforts last, but they did not come first and they will not stay last. Even our immortal words are changed – by nature, because we are part of nature. And so are the stones we move around to mark our moments. We may take it for granite, but even our marmoreal monuments are not more real than memories, for it is only memory that gives them meaning.

tragic, tragedy

I have a challenge for you: listen to your local TV news and see if you can get through it once – even just once – without hearing tragic, tragedy, or both.

I just heard it again myself: “It appears to have been a tragic accident.” If you know how newsreaders say these things, when I tell you it was a concluding statement you probably have the intonation contour in your head already: roughly A AD D D DC [pause] A CC BAA (“it aPPEARS TO HAVE BEEn [pause] a tragic accident”).

What is tragic? What is tragedy? Well, the words have a certain feel that’s worth a look. They have the paired tongue-tip affricates of, for instance, judge, but with that rolling-in /r/ you get in /gr/ and /kr/ words such as great, grief, crap, Christ, grip, and gross. It has a bit of a different feel with the /t/ or /d/ (which become like “j” and “ch” before the /r/) – think of the feel of traffic tragedy on the train tracks – perhaps lacking the sense of base or depth you get from the back of the tongue, but there’s that straining-forward constriction: say tragedy emphatically and see how your lips thrust forward like an African mask. So the word has a good feel and shape for the effect.

But is the effect appropriate? Are these words well used? Ah, there’s something of a debate about that. This is where the newer usage of these words really gets some people’s goats. James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus weighed in on it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

—Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.

—Repeat, said Lynch.

Stephen repeated the definitions slowly.

—A girl got into a hansom a few days ago, he went on, in London. She was on her way to meet her mother whom she had not seen for many years. At the corner of a street the shaft of a lorry shivered the window of the hansom in the shape of a star. A long fine needle of the shivered glass pierced her heart. She died on the instant. The reporter called it a tragic death. It is not. It is remote from terror and pity according to the terms of my definitions.

More often the dissent is on the basis of the Aristotelian idea, in which a hero capable of great acts falls to disaster (catastrophe) in a sudden reversal (peripeteia) through a flaw of character (hamartia), an overreaching (hubris). The audience (and perhaps one or more characters) experiences emotional cleansing (catharsis) through this.

But Aristotle’s idea was just Aristotle’s analysis. He didn’t write any plays himself – he described them a century after the heyday of Athenian drama – and the plays of the classical Greek theatre did not universally follow the pattern he described.

So what was a tragedy, originally? A goat song, it seems, if the usual etymology of  τράγος tragos “goat” and ᾠδή oidé “song” is to be believed. But no one’s entirely sure exactly how that came to be the name of the serious drama of Greece. Perhaps it was related to the satyr play that originally formed the fourth piece after a trilogy of serious works.

What we do know is that Greek tragedies involved a small number of actors and a fair-sized all-singing, all-dancing chorus; that they focused on mythical subjects; that the actors wore masks; that the writing was poetic; and that they didn’t always end, um, tragically. Sometimes the ending was happy. Even when it was sad, the hero didn’t necessarily die – Oedipus, for instance, just blinded himself and went into exile.

Obviously the sense of the word has shifted somewhat in non-theatrical usage. In the world of the people who write and read the news you get, a tragedy is not something that happens over a period of time with a playing out of any sort of plot at all. It is not schematized with duration. If someone on TV or in the paper says that, for instance, some ongoing bit of mismanagement is a tragedy, you know you’re listening to commentary. When it’s news qua news, a tragedy is “an instance of a bad (usually deadly) thing happening”.

If, say, a good kid makes a number of stupid mistakes and has a terrible accident in which at least one person dies (whether or not it’s the kid who made the mistakes), it is the accident itself that is referred to as the tragedy. To refer to the whole story as a tragedy would be evaluative in a way that is reserved for commentary.

And it’s all in little hits. The news is full of not three-act or even one-act plays but rather something that is to a drama what a shooter is to a glass of wine, or what a one-bite snack is to a restaurant meal. Tragedy has lost its masks, its chorus, its traffic of the stage; there is no peripeteia, no hamartia, no hubris. Just the anti-orgasm of fatal catastrophe.

And tragic? Ah, tragic, now, that’s even better. It’s like unfortunately. It doesn’t add any more information about what happened. Rather, it adds information about the attitude and character of the person speaking it – the person wants you to know that they know that it is a bad thing, and they want you to feel that it is a bad thing too.

To say of an incident in which someone at a party in a park died “It appears to have been an accident” might seem somehow to dismiss or diminish it. There are accidents all the time, after all. No, no, this is not some simple traffic accident. We must make it clear we are at not ff but full-on g. In order to show that you appreciate how bad it was, and to give that emotional clench that newscasters tend to love, it is necessary to state the obvious just so that no one thinks “Isn’t it obvious to you?” – and so the viewers can feel the punch a little more.

And what’s the effect of that punch, by the way? The viewers probably don’t know or have any connection to the person. Consider: If a friend of yours dies and another friend tells you about it, do they say “It appears to have been a tragic accident”? Likely not. You’d think “Do you think I don’t know it was bad? Do you think I don’t know you know?” Among friends it would be just “It appears to have been an accident” – or “They think it was an accident.” No, the tragic is part of the aesthetic experience of the news.

Yes, indeedy. You may or may not hold to the theory of catharsis, or to the theory of rasadhvani, or to any other particular theory of aesthetic perception, but we know that our response to fiction – movies – has a metacognitive value. We are getting experience, in a way, because we are receiving stimuli highly resemblant to real-life stimuli, and so we have similar reactions. But the lack of immediate consequences for us allows us to experience these things in an at least slightly different way. We can swirl them in the glass, sniff them, roll them on the tongue.

And that’s what much of the news is for most viewers and readers. It has no direct effect on us. It may have happened in reality, but we are not experiencing actual consequences from a stranger’s death or house fire or whatnot, or from some star’s divorce. I know, no one is an island when all is said and Donne, but unless the “tragedy” involves something we have a direct connection to, it’s more like entertainment. We see it, we are shocked, we can process the shock aesthetically; we feel bad, and we feel good about ourselves for feeling bad.

And so you know, when you hear tragic – when you are listening to the goat-song bleatings of some drudge who has dredged up a bleeder to lead with – that you are being invited not just to know, not just to experience, but to know the knowing and experience the experiencing. To feel the terror and the pity, and come away ennobled in your humanity. And all in one act.