Monthly Archives: August 2011


I was watching my lovely wife eat a Greek salad – something I try to do at least once a week – and as I looked at the olives, I had a thought about the word Kalamata. “Why,” I thought, “it must come from kala ‘fine, beautiful’ and mata ‘eyes.'” But then I thought that couldn’t be quite right.

What’s the matter? The mata is the matter. “Eyes” in Greek is μάτια matia, not mata. (And that’s modern Greek; Classical Greek has ophthalmos for “eye”.) It’s in Malay that mata means “eye” or “eyes”. You might recognize it in the name Mata Hari, which means, figuratively, “sun”, or, more literally, “day’s eye”. Think of it – a woman famed, rightly or wrongly, as a seductress and spy had a name that could be rendered in English as Daisy (yes, daisy comes from day’s eye). Anyway, Mata Hari’s real name was Margaretha, or Grietje for short (just think of how she, as an exotic dancer, might greet ya).

But it turns out that the mata in Kalamata most likely does come from matia. So the olive is like a beautiful eye? Well, it may or may not be, but it’s named after a large city on the south shore of the Peloponnesus, and it’s the city that is – or may be – named after beautiful eyes. It may be a reference to a lovely icon of the Virgin Mary in a local church. Or maybe not.

Well, what can you do but call ’em as you see ’em. And in Kalamata I see a few interesting things. I may see four eyes in it, a a a a – the eyes of a Klimt painting, perhaps – or four olives, without which the word might be farklempt. To hear Kalamata, it’s rather reminiscent of the “good day” Greeks say to greet you, καλη μερα kalé mera (/kali mera/ – some vowels have merged upwards in modern Greek). Perhaps that’s what you’d say to a kathakali master if you met him in a Greek restaurant in Kalamazoo… although, given that kathakali is a south Indian dance-drama form, he might speak only Malayalam. And Kalamazoo comes from a Potawatomi (or perhaps Ojibway) word meaning… um, well, there’s a lot of argument about what it means. The differing views are collimated… by which I mean that they are going in the same direction (like light rays made parallel by a lens) but, as is ever the case with parallel lines, they will never meet. Might as well take olive them.

Well, we may eye these etymological conundra in a daze, but in the end what most people get from Kalamata – aside from a nice black olive – is a sense of exoticism. Kalamata olives must be much more special than ordinary olives. The K gives it a bit of a kick, of course (Calamata looks more like a college in suburban L.A., doesn’t it?), and that set of four canonic syllables, mixing mellifluous and mechanical, with four identical vowels (well, not the way we say it in English, but originally), calls automatically to a sense of the foreign, the exotic, as it dances on your tongue.

Not that it is dancing like the Hindu goddess Kali. Her name may mean “the black one” but it’s not black as in the olive; it also means “death”, “time”, “change” – she is the consort of Shiva. She’s rather more calamity than Kalamata. You might think that to have her on your tongue would be the pits, though of course it’s not all as simple as that. She’s important in tantra, for instance. And change can be good – change in general, but also exact change, when paying for your geek word salad. I mean Greek.


Some of you who read yesterday’s note on irenic may have followed the link to the video of Nana Mouskouri’s song “Eirene” (“Irene”). That version is sung entirely in the original Greek, though there is an English version also sometimes sung (see for transliterated Greek lyrics and for a questionable transcription of the English version). Listening to it, you may have heard her sing “Irenie-poo, Irenie-poo.”

Well, that seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it? We know -poo as a cutesy diminutive suffix used with children and beloveds – and (perhaps more often nowadays) on certain words that already have the diminutive -ie, as in drinkie-poo (as in “Would you like a little drinkie-poo, Dino?”). Why not with Mouskouri’s heroine? Ah, pity, though, she’s really singing που pou, which is Greek for “where”. But that does lead us to the question of just where that -poo we use comes from.

The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t a world of help on it. “Origin uncertain; probably an arbitrary formation” it says. And its earliest citation is from 1932. But it seems quite reasonable that the name Nanki-poo, one of the characters in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado, is using the same -poo. And The Mikado was first performed in 1885.

So is The Mikado the source of this suffix? Are subsequent users citing W.S. Gilbert? Well, there was probably something of an influence there, but Gilbert’s use of it actually could be evidence that it was already in use. After all, look at the names of some of the other characters: Pish-Tush (two time-honoured words expressing contempt or impatience), Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo (which looks like a reversal of Bo-Peep as in the one who lost her sheep, but is in fact also an old name for peek-a-boo), and Pitti-Sing (baby talk for pretty thing). Very nursery-school, but also using established bits.

But then also look at another name from The Mikado: Pooh-Bah. That name really did get its start there, but pooh and bah are, similar to pish and tush, two very old (pre-Shakespearean) interjections of disappointment, impatience, or contempt (and, yes, that pooh may be related to the excremental one – oh icky-poo – and surely is related to the famous bear of little brain). The poo in Nanki-poo could just be drawing on that pooh along with the cutesy boo that we see in, among other places, peek-a-boo (remember peep-bo?) – which dates from before 1600 – and tickety-boo, a 20th-century formation. (I use it in Licky-boo, a pet name for the LCBO, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which runs the alcoholic beverage stores in these parts.) I must say that Nanki-poo really looks like a child’s nickname for someone named Nancy (but note that Nanki-poo is the male romantic lead in the play). Mind you, it also has a ring of Yankee, skanky, Nanking, and maybe nasty…

Well, pooh. I haven’t been able to sort out for sure which comes first, the -poo or the Nanki. And now I think I need a drinkie-poo. But at least I know where to find Nankipoo.

No, that’s not a typo. Nanki-poo may be a character in The Mikado, but Nankipoo is a very small town in Tennessee, about 60 miles from Memphis (it’s a turn west off route 51 between Ripley and Dyersburg). And if you want a little reminder about folk etymology, no need to sit in solemn silence – there’s a nice little website for Nankipoo ( that will deliver a short, sharp shock:

The name Nankipoo came from the name of an Indian chief that was reportable to have been located in this area. In my flower garden I still can dig up on occasion an arrow head or two. I don’t know any other details of this tribe, if someone does please let me know. Or at least that’s the story I was always told when I was a kid.

Another story of the origin of the name is, a unknown person was working in a local post office and they needed to think of a name for the area. This person had just seen a play and one of the characters was named Nankipoo or maybe Nan-ki-poo.

Well, Larry L. Miller’s Tennessee Place Names confirms the latter suspicion, you will be relieved to know. The guy who set up the general store, Thomas Bomer, applied for a post office, and the first name he requested was rejected because it was already in use. So either Bomer or someone at the post office suggested Nankipoo. Yes, this was in the 1880s, and The Mikado was very popular at the time.

(But let’s not be too hard on those who thought it might be an Indian name. After all, we get Kickapoo Joy Juice from the comic strip Li’l Abner and the Poohawk Indians from the strip Tumbleweeds. And Calgarians over 40 will remember that Canada Olympic Park used to be called Paskapoo.)


This word may make you think of Irene, which is fitting, as it’s an adjectival form of the name. But Irene will surely make you think of a hurricane, and that’s ironic. And I don’t mean ironic in the senses in Alanis Morissette’s song, none of which are actually ironic – although a hurricane is indeed “like ra-i-ain… on your wedding day.” No, I mean that Irene, also rendered in English as Eirene, from Greek Εἰρήνη Eiréné, was the goddess of peace, and irenic means “peaceful”. Its main sense is not in reference to weather, true – it’s rather political or interpersonal: “tending towards conciliation and lack of conflict” would be a longer way of putting it. Irene’s opposite number was Polemos, “War”, from which we get polemic, so you get the idea. But still…

And yet within peace is the memory and possibility of conflict. I say this not just because irenic starts with ire, and not because of the words “to secure peace is to prepare for war” from Metallica’s “Don’t Tread on Me,” nor even because of how close Eirene is to Erinye. But in Erinye – which is a rather better name for a hurricane – we see a demonstration of the principle: the Erinyes were the Furies, the goddesses of vengeance, born out of the spilled blood of a Titan (how about I don’t say what part of Uranus was cut off that led to the spilling of the blood). They pursued Orestes and, after losing a court case against him, were pacified by Athena by being made the Eumenides, “the kindly ones.” It’s kind of like that bit in Fantasia where, after Night on Bald Mountain, everything is peaceful. The tempest has passed. (There are a fair few other bits of classical music with that theme too.)

True, Irene (Eirene) has no such questionable origins, aside from being a daughter of Zeus (that thunderbolt-hurling lecher) and Themis (the Titaness who represented divine law). There is another Eirene in Greek mythology, a daughter of Poseidon, god of the sea, and you could draw a thematic connection between her and hurricanes, I suppose, but she just shares a name with the goddess behind irenic, nothing more.

Although irenic doesn’t specifically refer to calm weather, it may still bring to mind the peaceful pastures of Arcadia, with shepherds playing their Pan pipes: scenic, lyrical. It will certainly always bring to mind music for me, because of the various musical Irenes I can think of. The first Irene I ever met or heard of was the wife of a teacher (Don Pinay) who was a colleague of my mother. Don Pinay had a band, and, if I recall correctly, Irene would at least sometimes sing with it.

But many more people will first think of Dexys Midnight Runners and their song “Come On, Irene.” Except, as many people are rushing to point out (with their knuckle-rapping rulers ready!), the song is actually “Come On Eileen.” Well, never mind. Even CNN is in on the act – it’s the theme song for the hurricane (yes, hurricanes have theme songs now). I’m partial to the version of the refrain that Lauren Ackerman (@VerbingNouns) tweeted: “Come on, Irene! Oh, I swear you’re so mean: at this moment you scare everything. With your arrival now, my thoughts I avow, verge on terror. Ah, come on Irene!”

There’s also the Nana Mouskouri song about a girl who keeps chasing after boys. (You can see her perform it at if you don’t know it.) But the song that many on the east coast of North America will be glad to sing is the American folksong “Goodnight, Irene” – though not because of its tale of despondence over a marital breakup, and especially not because of its line “Sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown,” but they might appreciate the line “I’m gonna take a little stroll downtown,” which New Yorkers will be eager to do again. (Actually, some of them were out jogging in Battery Park while the water was still a foot or two deep.)

Probably they won’t be thinking of Alanis Morissette, though. But there’s one more ironic thing about irenic to do with this hurricane. Hurricanes are an Atlantic thing – in the Pacific they’re called typhoons, and in the Indian Ocean cyclones. (Cyclone is also the name of a roller coaster at Coney Island, closed during Irene of course.) But a rough synonym for irenic is pacific.


So in this dream, Kato Kaelin is a Shaolin master who mixes it up with Nikola Mirotic and Nikola Vucevic, but the hoops they’re playing are on a clay court on a high hill, and Kaelin is hurling teacups and toothpaste and glossy paper. And he has pica, so he’s eating the court, and when he expectorates it’s Kaopectate. He’s advanced in years, but he totally KO’s them!

Oh my, musta eaten too much kaolin before bedtime. Wait – eat kaolin? The stuff is clay, right? Indeed: a silicate (and alkaline? sometimes, it seems). But geophagy is more common than you might think, and not just among people with pica. But never mind that – you’ve probably had some in your mouth sometime; they use it in toothpaste, for one thing. If in your childhood you ever chewed on a bit of glossy paper (to make a spitball, say), that would be another occasion. Of course, you (probably) don’t swallow your porcelain, but you may put it in your mouth, and that’s mainly kaolin too. And if you’ve ever taken Kaopectate… well, actually, they don’t make that with kaolin and pectin anymore. In the US it’s bismuth subsalicylate now, though in Canada they still use attapulgite, another kind of clay.

Kaolin, pronounced “KAY-a-lin” as it is in our English spelling pronunciation, seems like a very American word to me just because of associations with K-Tel, Kato Kaelin, Kmart, and such like. But my eyes look at it and think “Chinese” too. Now, admittedly, I’m the sort of guy who sees “STOP PEDESTRIAN XING” and thinks it looks like a title of a Mao-era play about an evil capitalist who walks everywhere. But kaolin really does come from Chinese, and even (unlike many Chinese borrowings) from Mandarin.

So if you pull out your Chinese-English dictionary (you do have one, right? I have something like five and I keep wanting another), you may see kao meaning “give or take a test”, “bake, roast”, “flog, beat, torture”, “handcuffs”, “lean against”, “knock”, and “reward with food and drink”, and lin “carry”, “choose”, “phosphorus”, “woods”, “drench”, and “face, overlook”. Clear as mud, eh? The trick is that kaolin comes to us through French, and Mandarin now uses Pinyin transliteration. What you should be looking for in the dictionary is actually gao “tall, high” and ling “hill”, the name of a hill outside Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, where kaolin was first found. The gao is pronounced like a cross between cow and gow (closer to gow). Incidentally, this gaoling is homophonous (down to the tones) with a term meaning “advanced in years”. But Kato Kaelin is actually only 52 now.


What word would you most likely expect to hear after travesty? How about of? OK, of what?

I’m reckoning you thought of the same word as I did, and it’s the top result in the Corpus of Contemporary American English: justice. Yup, the world may be full of travesties, but the phrase that it goes around most often in now is travesty of justice.

Not that that’s the only way it’s seen. Indeed, more often than that you’ll see it without further description: “This is a travesty.” “What a travesty.” “Those jeans are a travesty.”

Actually, this word came up a couple of days ago when I was talking with my wife about people’s clothing. I said that people who buy jeans should get to see themselves from behind in them before buying them, because there are a lot of jeans that look fine from the front but are utter travesties from the back.

Is that a reasonable use, though? Was I being unduly influenced by transvestite (not what I had in mind) or tragedy (I wasn’t saying that they were sad, just risible) or travertine (light limestone? really, no) or some phonaesthetic influence from the /tr/ (which has a gripping sound and also heads up words such as treachery and traitor) and the aggressiveness (viciousness perhaps?) of /v/? Had I simply heard it recently and so it was fresh in my mind (not that I recall)?

More likely I had it in mind that they did an injustice to the figure and made something of a mockery of it. After all, a travesty is a satire, a parody, a mockery of something: a literary satire that debases the original, for instance. It’s sometimes used for ludicrous female (or male) impersonators (there’s that transvestite again). In any event, there’s typically a theatrical association in the literal usage, which makes me want to see travest like a curtain suspended from a trave, parting in the middle at v to be pulled aside so some ranting actor may rave (and what about the y? either a codpiece or the drain the whole thing is going down).

But, then, there’s also that old adjectival sense, “dressed so as to be made ridiculous” (to quote Oxford). Not that we use it that way now… or maybe we do. The French source, travestie, however, originally meant just “disguise”; it came from a verb se travestir, “disguise oneself as someone else”. That came to French by way of Italian, from the Latin trans “across” and vestire “clothe” – literally “cross-dressing”, and of course the source of transvestite.

Really, though, I’m not saying that bad jeans make your butt look like a transvestite’s. Most transvestites I’ve ever seen are very sharp dressers and would never let their butts look like these jeans make them look. It simply wouldn’t do them justice.


In standard usage, the antonym of win is lose, just as the antonym of fail is pass or succeed. But in the version of the English language that commonly sees win preceded by epic, its antonym is fail. This comes from a gamer’s mindset; every endeavour is a contest, but often against a machine, not another person. So if you succeed, it’s a win, but if you don’t, it’s not a loss – you haven’t necessarily been defeated by another person, and you haven’t necessarily lost any money or assets – let alone a lose, a word which has not to my knowledge been nouned yet; it’s a fail because it’s all about you and your worth as a person.

Of these three words, epic, fail, and win, you likely have the impression of seeing win the most often in normal contexts (as opposed to the hyperventilations of adolescents and those who are, at least momentarily, reliving their adolescence). On, fail is in 2,895th place, epic in 10,098th place, and win in 962nd place; in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, there are about twice as many instances of fail as of epic, and more than three times as many instances of win as of the other two combined.

Historically in books, however, if Google ngrams are to be believed, fail has shown up the most, though it has been declining and win increasing steadily to near-convergence. Epic has been fairly steady in third place. But if I search on for books with the keyword epic, I get 24,893 results, many of which focus on history or sports and/or are fiction (and I note with interest that one of the top results is co-authored by someone I know, Arlene Prunkl). If I search fail, I get a mere 4,142 results, tending towards sociology, economics, and epic fails (the top result is from If I search for win, I get 24,341 results, leaning strongly towards business and personal improvement.

And what words do they tend to show up with, respectively? The Corpus of Contemporary American English gives me proportions, poem, battle, story, struggle, tale, and journey to go with… guess? Epic, of course. Fail is most often seen after often, and also after without, and is frequently followed by to recognize, to understand, and to meet (standards, a challenge, obligations, et cetera). And win? Win over is very common, and going to win quite common too – of course won and winning are evaluated separately. What do you win? A war, a game, an election, a championship… you know, the usual stuff.

But win is the most versatile of the three. It is well established as both a noun and a verb (both for as long as there has been an English language). It comes from a word meaning “work, labour, strive, obtain”. It shows up in assorted terms and phrases, from winsome to you win some, you lose some. The particular perversity of English phonology and orthography have led to its having a stronger flavour of when than of wind (/wɪnd/, “moving atmosphere”), and no real taste anymore of wind (/waɪnd/, “increase torsion by turning”). There are a few names that smack of it, including Winston, Winnifred, Ashwin, and especially the family name Wynn – which, among other things, is the name of a casino hotel in Las Vegas.

But what really makes win special for an English language geek like me is that wynn is also the name of a letter that English used to have – a runic letter (ƿ) used in Old English to represent the first sound in win. It’s no great surprise that wynn went out of use when w became available; it looked too much like p and y and thorn (þ, another runic borrowing we used to represent a sound we now spell th; Icelandic still uses it). Ha – orthography fail. Well, the chances of winning have improved with the change: they used to look thin, but now the word declares, “double you in”! Win FTW! (FTW = “for the win”.)


This is a common word – quite common lately, indeed. We are all used to it from school, the bugbear of all students: whether a course is pass/fail or graded, there is always a chance to fail, and if you are flailing and grasping at straws you will be standing a strong chance of slipping into that pail. Fail means losing (amusingly, the Irish word fáil means “getting”).

In the adult world, fail often appears with an infinitive following: I fail to see your point; If you fail to appear, you will face a fine. We have fewer tests, and fail without an infinitive complement is something one does on a test, mainly (although banks, structures, and engines can do it too). If you take part in a track meet, say, you might win or place, and you might lose, but no one would say you failed. Likewise in a hockey game you could chalk up a win, but the opposite is a loss. If you go for a job interview, or an audition, you might say you didn’t get it, but in spite of their being tests of a sort, you probably won’t talk about failing.

But in a variety of non-test circumstances, you may now, in colloquial parlance, be said to fail if you acquit yourself poorly. Or, more to the point, the act of making an idiot of yourself – of convincingly demonstrating your fallibility – is called not failing or failure but a fail. (If you do so spectacularly, it is an epic fail. Of course, adolescents, wanting everything to be the coolest and most important and awesomest and most memorable ever, and generally believing their own press releases, are likely to label an amazing variety of minor mishaps epic fails. But, then, they will also sometimes call things fails just because they don’t understand them. Adolescents will be adolescents…)

Oh, but now the crusty curmudgeons emerge without fail. “The noun,” they point out with asperity, “is failure.” And indeed they can call a dictionary to back them up – after all, according to Oxford it’s been some three centuries since fail was regularly used to mean “failure”, though it was common enough for several centuries and was used readily by Chaucer and Shakespeare. Oh, there is a modern exception: the phrase without fail. But that’s fixed enough in usage it might as well be a single word. You can feel sure that fail as a free-associating noun has not over the past few centuries persisted in standard usage; if it had, it would not have the popularity it now has.

Of course! The entire point of its popularity is that it is a new usage: a quick trimming, perhaps a quotational noun (similar to “That’s a go” or “I got the OK”: a noun formed in reference to an instance of effective utterance of the word – “Go!” or “OK” or, on a report card, “Fail”). It is fun precisely because it is like cheating; it seems ungrammatical yet comprehensible and so has a sort of novelty. And it is a shibboleth, a password into that (rather large) in-group of people who share in the cultural meme, who have this in-joke going.

After all, as I point out in “An appreciation of English: A language in motion,” there are two main reasons people change their language, or participate in language changes:

One: To make their lives easier.

Two: To make themselves feel better.

Fail succeeds on both points. It takes less effort to say – it’s a nice, tidy conversion, just like a meet (as in track meet), a win, a test, and the verbs face, chalk, interview, and audition, among many, many others. And, as it has a sense of novelty (fun) and participates in a cultural in-group reference (arising most likely in computer game circles originally, but now carrying images epitomized by the treasure trove on, it certainly makes the users feel better. The fact that it (without fail!) irritates the old and inflexible puts the sprinkles on top of it all.

And how does it feel, this fail, which has fallen into our palaver from Latin via French? Aside from fun, that is. Well, one thing to note is that in the faddish use, it is very often rendered in all caps, FAIL, like a rubber stamp or old-style computer typing. Aside from that, it has a feel of flail and fall (common occurrences in fails), and of fill (less so), and you may get effects from ail and all the other rhymes (ale, sail, pail, hail, and so on). It starts with that softest of fricatives, /f/, and ends with a licking liquid /l/; there seems to be nothing about its sound to lead one inevitably to a sense of catastrophe and humiliation. And yet it does not fail to do so.