Monthly Archives: September 2011


The time is come around again: shoals of students appear in the hallowed, formerly hollow hallways of schools across the country. The youngest are wide-eyed oo; older ones stay cool as they scan their schedules. Some submit meekly, and some dive in enthusiastically, while others resist in ways passive or active. They are socialized in ways society finds expectable and acceptable, and may seek out opportunities for going against the grain. But for all it is an important part of their formation through information: they learn things that may not be self-evident, some of which may even be capriciously arbitrary, but they also learn to use their brains.

One of the things they learn is, of course, to spell – English spelling being so capricious as to be mocked in the reference to the elementary school trivium as the “three r’s” (reading, riting, and rithmetic). They may have heard this word school, but they couldn’t possibly predict its spelling from its pronunciation. In fact, they will certainly learn that sch as a rule is pronounced the same as sh, leading to mispronunciation of bruschetta and variant pronunciations of schism and schedule (thoroughly capricious words, neither of which having any actually good historical reason for having an h).

But they will learn that this word is pronounced /skul/; on the other hand, they are unlikely to learn that it comes from Greek σχολή scholé, and thence Latin schola, and has cognates in pretty much all Western European languages, most of which spell it without the h – as English also did until around 500 years ago, when the h was added back in, presumably because that’s how it is in Latin (idealized at the time and often since as the model language) and Dutch (native tongue of many of the early typesetters of English).

School is one of the earliest words kids will learn, so it will affect their perception of some other words, and it will have countless social accretions and collocations. Many of those will involve songs – old standards such as “School days, school days, good old golden rule days” or the one we sang on the bus home from the last day of school, “No more school, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks,” etc., or any of quite a lot of popular songs (songs by Supertramp and the Moody Blues spring to mind immediately for me; I wonder what today’s students associate musically with school).

There are also a few words that school may or may not make you think of but that might make you think of school: cool, skull (actually remarkably different for how similar it is), spool, stool, and snool (verb, “submit meekly” or “cause to submit meekly”; noun, “one who submits meekly”).

There are many words that show up commonly with school: before it, elementary, high, public, private, etc.; Sunday, business, medical, etc.; after it, year, bus, uniform, etc.; and of course verbs such as go to, finish, skip, and prepositions such as after, at, and in. The verbs and prepositions demonstrate a particular grammatical fact about school that native speakers have no trouble with but adult learners of English often find confusing: it can be a countable (at a school) or a mass object (at school). Sort of like fish.

Ah, yes, fish. As in a school of. Why are fish in schools? Lexical splitting and merging. On the one side we have this word descended from Greek and Latin and referring to a place of education; on the other side, and taking the form school just a couple of hundred years ago, we have a Germanic word with the same meaning and origin as shoalschool and shoal split apart at about the same time as school regained its h. That’s shoal as in “large group of marine life”; shoal as in “shallow area in the water” is of different origin, cognate with shallow. English words split and merge about as readily as high school romantic pairings.

Oh, yes. What do you remember from school, really? How much of the experience of the lessons? And how much of the social experience? We have school reunions to meet up with friends and to relive our fun times, not to review notes from our classes. But is not school work? It involves it, of a sort, but we ought to remember that school originally – and still, for some people in some places – is something one does instead of work. (In our society, grad school is certainly known as such.) You take your leisure time to learn something new and interesting – just as you are doing this very moment. After all, as you probably did not learn in school, Greek σχολή originally meant “leisure”.

nerd, geek

Dear word sommelier: When should I call someone a nerd, and when should I call someone a geek?

I ought to be a reasonable authority on this, since I’ve been something of a nerd and a geek for pretty much my whole life, although in recent years I’ve become socially adept enough, and learned to dress myself well enough, that my status has occasionally seemed questionable. But my wife still calls me a “sexy geek” and many of my readers call me a “word nerd,” so I guess I still meet the criteria.

But what are those criteria? They’ve shifted during the course of my life. When I was in high school in the early ’80s, geek was really a rather insulting term – I tended to think of some skinny person who couldn’t dress himself properly and had no social skills, or at least no non-repugnant ones.

I do think the phonaesthetics of the word, including the articulatory gesture it involves (mouth spread wide as though you’re trying to swallow something unpleasant and slimy, and the tongue’s double-touch at the back of the mouth reinforces that), had some influence on my sense of it. It was also commonly bruited about that the term originally referred to someone who bit the heads off live chickens. (The correct term for that is actually Alice Cooper Ozzy Osbourne. Oh, sorry, that was a bat.) In fact, geek was used as a name for sideshow freaks of various sorts, especially those who ate nasty things; its origins seem to be a Low German word for “fool”, via Scots English. Somehow it came to be transferred to what Brits call swots and anoraks. But with the rise of computers as a major social tool and necessity, those kids you used to insult have turned out to be very valuable: the ones who are immoderately interested and expert in things that most people find flummoxing and perhaps a bit distasteful. It’s sort of revenge of the geeks.

Wait! The movie is Revenge of the Nerds! So why is it that we tend to use geek more than nerd for these kinds of people now? When I was in school, nerd was what you called the smart kids who weren’t smooth socially but were well-intentioned and knew all sorts of stuff that everyone else would never know. Nerds dressed for function, not looks – pocket protectors, tape on the glasses – and were fascinated with things that made other people’s eyes glaze over. And you know what? I still think of nerds that way. Nor am I the only one. I think of the YouTube videos by NurdRage (yes, a different spelling), in which various chemical and other physical stunts are shown – cool lab stuff. Cool, that is, if you like to see, for instance, how you can make flowers glow in the dark, or use a chemical reaction to cause gallium to beat like a (small and fast) heart.

Nerd is a 20th-century term, possibly coming from nert, a slangy variant on nut. It’s a softer word, with a nasal sound characteristic of many a nerd’s speech; it stays near the tip of the tongue but uses that syllabic /r/ for its peak, which may seem intense or ineffectual. It seems suitable for something ineffectual and without sharp edges. A possible prime vector for the word is Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo, in which a nerd is a kind of exotic critter. Which, come to think of it, nerds still are, sorta. (Nerds are also a kind of candy: tangy, crunchy sugar nubs sold under the Willy Wonka brand. Could you imagine a candy called Geeks? Me neither.)

Why, then, has geek taken over? It seems that nerd has retained the sense of “an intellectually inclined person without social skills” and geek has kept the sense of “someone who has an abnormal amount of knowledge and interest in a certain topic” – as points out, “There can be such a thing as a Fashion Geek, someone who knows a lot about fashion and is pretty obsessed with it. A Fashion Nerd, in contrast, would be completely unaware that stripes and plaids are unmix-y, and wouldn’t care, even if you told them why the two don’t mix.”

I would add that, while sexy nerd remains something of an oxymoron, the collocation sexy geek is reasonably current – Wired magazine has even had a “Sexiest Geek” contest, and you can see a buxom devochka discourse on geek and call herself a sexy geek at As she points out, intelligence has become very popular, and that has caused geek’s stock to rise somewhat.

But I find that the distinction is not altogether clear cut. In some cases the sound matters – for instance, where word geek might seem natural, rhyme helps word nerd to prevail. Often, though, personal proclivity comes into it. Of course, not everyone cares that much; if you have strong opinions on the difference very much, then, as the great nerd (or is it geek) comic strip xkcd diagrams, you are a nerd, a geek, or both:

But speaking of Venn diagrams (since you’re a geek, a nerd, or both, you know that intersecting-circle diagrams are Venn diagrams), there is one currently making the rounds that purports to set the matter straight on the difference between not just nerd and geek but also dork and dweeb: It’s not bad, but I don’t find that everyone sees it exactly that way. I polled editors and people on Twitter and got a mixture of responses, among which were the following distinctions:

– nerds are less intelligent than geeks
– nerds are much bigger losers
– on Big Bang Theory (wondering how long it would take for me to mention it?), Leonard is a geek but not a nerd, while Sheldon is both
– nerds are antisocial, while geeks are just not socially focused
– nerds have no friends, while geeks have people seeking their advice
– nerds use pocket protectors; geeks don’t
– geeks are cool
– nerds swim against the pop culture grain; geeks are more tech-focused
– nerd = geek squared
– a geek has a useful skill

I just asked my wife if I was a geek; she said “Of course.” I asked her if I was a nerd. She demurred. I asked what the difference was. She had to think. “Well… they’re both genius… geek seems to be more… suave?”

So, in the current linguistic climate – though this may well change – although the terms have a certain amount of overlap, and although you have to allow for factors such as rhyme, generally geek is applied more broadly and with a certain amount of approbation, rather like wonk, while nerd has a greater connotation of social ineptitude or some kind of cluelessness. Among the crowd watching planes take off and land, a geek would be more like an aviation photographer, a nerd more like a planespotter. Trainspotters and other anoraks are no longer geeks; they’re not cool enough. Oh, but what about gongoozlers? A class of their own, I think.


What is more important to you: a job that is secure, or a job where you feel sincere? Do you want to increase your experience and efforts, or just your bank account? Would a position with no work and good pay be the cynosure that drew you forward, or a curse, a sin, worthy of censure?

Back when the Church was the great pan-European power, it could be very desirable to have a position as a priest in some parish; depending on the location, you might get a quite healthy income from it. Not everyone who got these positions – called benefices, because you benefited from them in money – was highly qualified, to be sure; one particularly poor example was the source of the word mumpsimus. But sometimes one could have a benefice without having to perform any priestly duties, such as, you know, helping the ailing soul. Such a do-nothing position with an income was called sine cura, “without cure”, not because there ain’t no cure for laziness but because it was not a position that involved cure of souls – i.e., priestly duties. Sine cura became our English word sinecure, which is normally pronounced as three syllables (only the last e is “silent”), but the i can be pronounced “short” or “long” (“sin” or “sign”).

The church’s dominating role has been taken over by commerce now. Everything must be justified in terms of profit. Never mind a nice ecclesiastical position; one would rather have a nice job in some Bay Street tower. Even better is to be a board member, and get a handsome income without having to show up and deal with the actual work day in and day out, just attend meetings as necessary, or perhaps not even that much. You’re basically on cruise. (Better still, of course, is to take the money you have and invest it and let other people do the work while you reap great profits. But that’s not considered a job – lately it seems to be considered more worthy than working, given that shareholders get more consideration than employees much of the time.)

So jobs still exist that people call sinecures – political patronage positions, nepotism installments, rubber-stamp board memberships, and so on. The question is, what does and doesn’t qualify? The term includes more than just jobs with no work at all; a job with light work might also be called a sinecure. But how light is light? I find, for instance, this in a book excerpt: “Dodd wanted a sinecure, a job that was not too demanding yet that would provide stature and a living wage and, most important, leave him plenty of time to write.” And in a comment on a New York Times article there is this: “The good teachers, who believe that teaching jobs in New York are not a sinecure for the bottom third of the graduating classes of the public colleges, will back her.”

I think it rather odd that one could ever consider teaching a sinecure (especially in New York)! If you held a teaching position but never had to prepare a lesson or stand in front of the class and talk, that might be a sinecure. But to actually do the job, even in an indifferent fashion? Yet here’s another comment from another article: “Administrators view teaching as a sinecure without intrinsic value.”

We seem to have a certain drift happening here. Sinecure is now becoming a word for any job that might indeed seem to others a sin, and to the holder a cure for having to put in an honest day’s efforts: a nice, sure, easy job with a good paycheque. You may not be flatlining in the position, but you are holding a steady sine wave, just the normal ups and downs, not unlike the n and u in this word.

Should the meaning broaden that way? If you don’t want it to, then use it in the narrower way and don’t use it in the broader way, and define it overtly as you want it. It may or may not have effect.

I will say this, though: at least no one can describe writing word tasting notes as a sinecure, involving as it does real work (if only an hour a day on average) and no pay at all. (One silly person wrote a comment complaining that I was probably supported by his tax dollars. Um. No. But I guess there ain’t no cure for cranks and trolls…)


The Henry V concert was over, and I met up with Montgomery Starling-Byrd on the sidewalk outside Roy Thomson Hall.

“How was it?” I said.

“Crisp,” he said.

“As in Crispin or Crispinian?” These two were the martyred twin brothers honoured on St. Crispin’s Day, October 25, which is when Henry V won the battle of Agincourt. You may be interested to know that the brothers lived in Soissons, France, less than 300 km away from Agincourt (take the highway A26), but 1130 years before the battle.

“Yes,” he said. “Aside from the martyrdom bit.”

“No martyrdom for Crispus today,” I said. “I’m not wearing a tux.” I’ll explain that one: Crispin and Crispinian are derived from Latin crispus, which means “curly”; Crispus Attucks, a man of half-African and half-Wampanoag ancestry, is generally thought of as the first person killed in the American Revolution, at the Boston Massacre. And, yes, I was wearing white tie and tails, not black tie and tuxedo.

“Indeed, proper tails are a constant.” I suspect he was making a joke on Emperor Constantine I, who had a son named Crispus. Whom he had killed.

“Just as well,” I said, “my tux is going to hell in a handbasket.” That was a pun on Helena, the mother of Constantine, and also on Helena Bonham-Carter, cousin of Crispin Bonham-Carter, who is also an actor.

“Well, let us turn back to the future for a moment,” Montgomery said. I was surprised that he had seen Back to the Future, which starred Crispin Glover as McFly. “I ought to have gone once more into the breach in the concert hall; my intermission libations are catching up on me. Is there a pay toilet around here?”

“No pay toilets in Toronto,” I said. “We prefer to hold our manhoods cheap – or free, actually.” This was a reference to a line in King Henry’s speech before the battle. “We could go across King Street to Quotes – I’ll have a pint, and you’ll have a –”

“Yes,” Montgomery said, cutting me off, “that sounds good. A snack perhaps. All I’ve had is a packet of crisps. I wonder whether they have crêpes.” Yes, crêpe is cognate with crisp too. We started walking.

“More likely just French fries,” I said. “Calamari and Guinness are what I usually get. They might have curly fries, though.”

“Indeed, the original crisps,” Montgomery said. What he meant, of course, was that, as I’ve mentioned, crisp comes from Latin crispus – yes, “curly” – and came to mean “rippled, wrinkled” in the 1300s and “brittle” only in the 1500s. Lexicographers are unsure how it came to have the “brittle” meaning but speculate that the sound of the word had some influence. “But of course,” Montgomery added, “French fries are really chips, looking like wood chips. Whereas you colonials use chips to refer to crisps.”

“I do admit,” I said, “potato chips sound more like crisps. You can hear it when you eat them: ‘crisp, crisp, crisp.'” We walked on for a few seconds, pondering onomatopoeia. “So,” I said, returning to the original topic, “Crisp – I mean, Christopher Plummer was suitably plummy for you?”

“He has a voice one can curl up with,” Montgomery said. “And the orchestra and the two choirs could make one’s hair curl. And it was all, as I said, crisp and clear.”

“Marvellous,” I said. “I’m looking forward to doing it again on Saturday. But now,” I said, veering to the steps down to Quotes, “let it be in our flowing cups freshly rememb’red.”

This statement is false

Last weekend my brother and I were discussing the statement “This statement is false.” Today a colleague mentioned a similar statement, “The following statement is true. The previous statement is false.” Another colleague likened this kind of pure self-contradiction to the Cretan paradox, also known as the Epimenidean paradox: the statement “All Cretans are liars” said by a Cretan, which would seem to be a false if it’s true and true if it’s false.

But the difference between the Cretan paradox and pure self-contradiction is that the Cretan paradox has a real-world referent. It makes a statement about something external to the assertion. Pure self-contradiction has no real-world referent. It makes an assertion about nothing other than itself and thus has no truth value ascertainable.

As it happens, the source of the Cretan paradox is something Epimenides wrote in support of the immortality of Zeus:

They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

Epimenides was himself a Cretan. Thus we know through simple pragmatics that he must have been excluding himself without saying so. To treat it as a paradox is to be disingenuous. It’s fun sport, but in the end it just shows one of the things you can’t do in logical reasoning.

Statements such as the Cretan paradox are an illusion caused by conflation of one level of analysis with a higher level of analysis: an evaluation of the members of a set cannot itself be a member of the set evaluated; evaluation is a comparison of something against one or more criteria from an external perspective – what is being analysed is subsumed within its perspective. Once we acknowledge that the statement “All Cretans are liars” cannot be part of the set of statements evaluated (making it thus a simple problem in pragmatics rather than a trick of logic), we identify an unstated assumption that makes it function, without which we get a sort of Escher staircase illusion, something that can’t exist in the real world.

But with mutually evaluative statements such as the pure self-contradictions, each must be on an evaluative level above the other – each must subsume the other within its perspective. And at the same time each has no further reference; it has no claim to truth or falsehood as the set of all other statements by Cretans does (and as that set’s members individually do).

Analyzing an utterance or set of utterances is like weighing an object. In order to weigh an object, you have to lift it (or anyway support it) and you have to be resting on something that is not part of what you are weighing. In the Cretan paradox, we see that the statement that pretends to be part of the set of Cretan statements is actually weighing them and so cannot be part of them; it is evaluating them against their real-world references – that’s what it’s resting on. In the mutual contradiction case we’re looking at, each is weighing the other, and neither rests on anything else, because neither is being evaluated against anything external to itself. It’s like two dudes trying to lift each other simultaneously. In empty space.

Meaning in human communication, ultimately, is not a question first of all of logic; it is a question first of all of pragmatics. All communication is behaviour; when you utter something, you are doing something with the aim of producing a certain effect. The person hearing you will be conjecturing what effect you are trying to produce and responding accordingly. Logic helps serve this function, but pragmatics is the true basis. And the pragmatic value of things such as paradoxes is sport – mental play, fun. And a demonstration of the invalidity of certain kinds of reasoning.


Montgomery Starling-Byrd, international president of the Order of Logogustation, happened to be passing through town and was pleased to have the chance to catch the Toronto Symphony Orchestra perform, among other things, William Walton’s Henry V featuring Christopher Plummer, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and the Toronto Children’s Chorus. Today was the day before the first performance, and he was at Domus Logogustationis for conviviality with local word tasters. We had laid on some cheese and crackers and wine and so forth.

“I’ll have to be off to the dress rehearsal soon,” I said to Montgomery and to Maury, looking at my watch.

“Oh, yes,” said Montgomery, “you sing with the choir. Well, sing carefully.”

Elisa Lively was passing by. “You’re singing in something?”

“Walton’s Henry the Fifth,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, “can I see the score?”

“English two, French zero,” Maury said. I reached down to my bag, pulled out my copy of the score, and handed it to her.

She flipped through it. “There’s quite a lot of tacet here.”

“Orchestra and narrator,” I said.

She kept flipping. “Oh, the Agincourt carol, nice.” Flip, flip. At the last page, she read a line at the bottom and remarked, “The layout was done in Caerphilly.” She pronounced the place name “care-filly.”

“Say that carefully,” Montgomery said. “The stress is on the second syllable.”

“Ker-filly,” she said.

“Now, when I hear that,” Maury said, “I think of cheese.”

“I’m certain the performance will not be cheesy,” Montgomery said.

“Because of Philly cream cheese?” Elisa asked.

“No,” Maury said, “Caerphilly is a kind of hard, crumbly white cheese. Named after the town it was first made in.”

“And the town’s name,” Montgomery said, “means ‘Ffili’s fort’.”

“Where is that, anyway?” Elisa asked.

“It’s a suburb of Cardiff,” Montgomery said, “down in south Wales. It is known for Caerphilly Castle, an excellent, almost archetypal example of the medieval castle. Thirteenth century, built for military purposes.” (The interested reader can see good pictures and description at

“I daresay the English would have had a harder time attacking that than they did attacking Harfleur,” I remarked, referring to the first battle in Shakespeare’s Henry V, on which Walton’s piece is based. “They’d look at it and go once more into their breeches.”

Montgomery raised one eyebrow slightly at my off-colour pun on a Shakespearean quote. Then he said, “They would certainly have to do it carefully. But in fact, although it was built by English to intimidate the Welsh – at which it succeeded – the English did attack it too. Well, one set of English did it against another: the castle’s last real battle was when Queen Isabella besieged it in the early 1300s as an attack on her husband, Edward the Second, and his favourite, Hugh le Despenser.”

“It would have been either ironic or fitting,” Maury said, “for Henry to attack it, for though he was an English king, he was, as he declares in Shakespeare’s play, a Welshman.”

“Well,” I said, looking at my watch again, “today is St. Crispin‘s Day.” (That’s the day of the battle of Agincourt.)

“Tomorrow, rather,” Montgomery said.

“October 25, in reality,” Maury said.

“Well, today is ‘have some crispies day,'” Elisa said, and handed Montgomery a crispy cracker with a large dollop of cream cheese on it. “Be careful – that’s Philly.”

“You seem to have it in ample quantities,” Montgomery said.

“Oh, yes,” Elisa said. “We have a huge dispenser.” She snort-guffawed at her pun.

I made a small salute as I sidled towards the door. “Hold down the fort,” I said.

“And hold up the forte,” Montgomery said. “I’ll see you on the morrow.” And with that I left.


I saw the following sentence today in a little health calculator tool on the web, one of several options in a question about back pain: “I have no pain whilst travelling.”

I looked a second time to confirm that travelling had been spelled with two l’s. Of course it had. That’s the British spelling. And whilst is generally a flag for a British dialect.

It’s not that no one in Britain uses while. If I search the Telegraph‘s website, I see 2,970 hits for while in the most recent articles – compared to 6,710 for whilst. The Guardian, on the other hand, gives me 11,132 hits for whilst, and 446,935 for while. But of course while also has more uses (e.g., I haven’t seen you in a while). Cross the pond and you see that the New York Times has in the past 7 days used while more than 10,000 times – and whilst only 6 (not 6,000, just 6). The Globe and Mail gives me 343,369 results for while in all its contents, and 388 results for whilst. In the British parliament’s records (, while gets 158,169 hits and whilst gets 47,595; on, the Canadian parliament site, while as a simple search gets 55,296 hits and whilst gets 275.

In short, on the basis of these counts, use of whilst in relation to while appears to be an order or two of magnitude more frequent in Britain than in North America. And that matches what I think we all expect.

But what do we think of whilst? It’s cleaner, crisper, more definite; by comparison with it, while seems to wander. Of course, while has the effect of its other senses – noun (all the while; it’s been a while) and verb (while away the time), the latter of which in particular lends a laziness to it. But whilst also has the sound of a broom that doesn’t simply let time blow by, it sweeps it past. It has a taste of whisht (meaning “shut up” or “hush”) and whistle and wist (as in wistful) and, for that matter, whist (a card game, as you may know). You may also get a note of hissed and perhaps hilt.

I have no evidence for this – it would take me more time than I have right now to gather it – but I think it has a greater air of formality or correctness. At least in North America it is likely to, since it’s associated with British usage, and in particular more formal British usage.

It’s one of a family of words that also counts as members amongst, amidst, and even against: all have versions without the st as well (though again – or agin, as some people spell it – is not current in standard English to mean “against”). Now try each in alternation:

I have no pain while travelling.
I have no pain whilst travelling.

His money was scattered among the flowers.
His money was scattered amongst the flowers.

He remained placid amid a swarm of hooligans.
He remained placid amidst a swarm of hooligans.

You may also detect slight differences in shadings of meaning; amongst may seem more distributive, for instance. But what difference of tone do you taste?

Would you be inclined to think that the st versions are less formal or less correct? That they are errors, perhaps? Probably not. But you may be interested to know that they are newer.

Oh, they’re still old. Whilst, amidst, and amongst all showed up first around 1400. (Their shorter counterparts have been around as long as there’s been an English.) But originally they were whiles, amids, and amongs; the s was the genitive that was commonly used at the time for forming adverbial uses (you can see it also on anyways, besides, and similar words). But about a century later the t showed up.

And why did that t appear? Did something happen whilst they were speaking? Well, yes, the same thing that leads some speakers even today to add one to the word once (causing novelists the nuisance of having to decide whether to write oncet or wunst, neither of which looks right or reads smoothly). It may be by analogy with the superlative st ending (e.g, biggest, meanest), or it may just be a little phonological epenthesis like the /t/ or /d/ some people sometimes say after a word-final /n/: a post-stopping.

So, yeah, if today’s language pedants had been around in the 1500s, they would have been railing about these horrible new idiocies with the woefully uneducated st endings. But these words are instead entrenched in the language, time-honoured, whilom party crashers now wearing white tie and hobnobbing with the guests of honour. Language ever changes, and these are the sorts of things that go on whilst it does.


An article in the September 1, 2011, issue of Nature presents a ray of hope for the once and (perhaps) future toilers off the Atlantic coast. The fish that had once been thick in the depths of the ocean, notably cod and haddock, had been thinned out by overfishing, and a moratorium on their fishing had been imposed, but in the intervening two decades the balance had not been restored – the marine life forms that had flourished had been those that foraged higher in the water. The situation has seemed tragic, a plague, figuratively as well as literally abysmal, producing much unhappiness for many people; the losers have been those that feed at the bottom of the sea as well as those who feed on those that feed there. But surveys of the life forms under the sea (in particular on the Scotian Shelf) have shown indications of a return to the earlier balance: a decrease and stabilization of pelagic forage fish numbers, a normalization of plankton biomass, and the beginnings of an increase in large-bodied benthic predators – i.e., cod and haddock. In short, a period of misery and disappointment may yet turn out to have been the key to the best result for all concerned.

Pelagic? Benthic? These are two general levels of aquatic life. Pelagic (from Greek πέλαγος pelagos, “sea”) refers to the water of the open sea (or ocean, or a body of freshwater) that doesn’t touch any land – not even the bottom. The zone at and near the bottom of the sea (lake, river, etc.) is the benthic zone, and its inhabitants are called the benthos (from Greek βένθος benthos, “depth of the sea”). The bottom of the sea, of course, extends right up to where the water stops, at which point it becomes beach (or shore, anyway); as you might expect, the things that live on the floor near the shore are not those that live in the deepest depths. A broad division may be made between the littoral benthos, near the shore, and the abyssal benthos, down in the depths.

Benthic starts with a blunt /b/, belligerent or beautiful but at any rate bursting forth with voice in the breath; after a mid-low front vowel, it then softens into a nasal and further into a voiceless fricative, soft, whispering, but capable of subtle power; finally it pushes through a quick mid-high front vowel into a hard backstopping /k/. The echoes are many and varied: been thick, bent, nth (as in nth degree), benzene (which may have a familiar ring), bench (which the Scotian Shelf is rather like), bathyscaphe (something you can use to go see the beauties of the abyssal benthic zone), and perhaps even terebinth (an oak-like tree – and a good cure for mal de mer: if you’re feeling sea-sick, go sit under one).

Benthic also brings to mind Bentham, as in Jeremy Bentham, an English jurist and ethical philosopher of two centuries ago who held that the highest morality is the pursuit of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. And it makes me think of Benjamin, which is the name of the youngest of the sons of Israel – the one who would not betray Joseph – but also the name of many more recent people, such as Benjamin Lee Whorf, who suggested that the words we use for things can influence how we think about those things, and Walter Benjamin, a cultural critic who wrote many trenchant things, including this from The Image of Proust: “After all, nothing makes more sense to the model pupils of life than that a great achievement is the fruit of toil, misery, and disappointment. The idea that happiness could have a share in beauty would be too much of a good thing…”

Must beauty therefore be immoral? Such a question may cast its nets too far from the waters of today’s word. But we do know that many a benthic fish has been kissed in St. John’s. And soon, perhaps, there will be more of them to kiss, and more reason to kiss them.


This word really seems like a name for an Asterix character with a particularly mordant turn of phrase. Well, that would be Sardonix with an i, but you can see what I mean, anyway: it has an obvious taste of sardonic. And yet those people who use the word seem never to acknowledge that. Rather, it’s more likely to show up in some lapidary prose or verse where the author is talking a purple streak, and you just want to claw your way out of it. Something like this:

Within the car
Sat Pharaoh, whose bare head was girt around
By a crown of iron; and his sable hair,
Like strakey as a mane, fell where it would,
And somewhat hid his glossy sun-brent neck
And carcanet of precious sardonyx.

I didn’t make that up – it’s from “Joseph and His Brethren” by Charles Jeremiah Wells. Yes, he really wrote “And somewhat hid his glossy sun-brent neck And carcanet of precious sardonyx.” It’s OK, you can snicker: “Yeah, that’s good poetry. Somewhat good. Not.” It does inspire sardonics, doesn’t it?

I mean, really, that’s about as oily and dense as sardines. Which would be fitting, actually, since sardine may be related to Sardinia (the name of a Mediterranean island), which is also related to sardonic (there was a certain plant said to be from Sardinia that, if you ate it, would give you facial convulsions resembling derisive laughter and you would perhaps somewhat die; from that it came to be a reference to the actual kind of laughter that would produce those convulsions).

But is sardonyx also related to Sardinia? No, it’s related to Lydia and fingernails. I don’t mean Lydia the tattooed lady, though. Rather, the sard part is the name of a red kind of chalcedony, taken from the capital of ancient Lydia, called Σάρδεις in Greek and Sardis in Latin. The onyx part is from Greek for “fingernail” (as in onychogryphosis and onychophagia); as you likely know, it’s also a gem stone, a kind of chalcedony too – a streaky one. Usually it has streaks of black and white. But when the streaks are red instead, it’s sardonyx.

The word does have a sort of timeless or ancient quality to it, true. It makes me think of Sargon, the name of a king of ancient Akkadia and also of a character in a Star Trek episode. But it also makes me think of Sark, one of the Channel Islands and also a Scots word for a chemise (as in cutty sark). (That may in turn make one think of Nicholas Sarkozy.) And it brings to mind sarcastic and sarcophagus, Sargasso Sea and sardine and sergeant…

But it is the onyx, compact like a lynx, and sharp like its claws, that catches the eyes. Any word ending in yx is likely to, be it Styx or apteryx; this one has the added catch of being two pairs of letters each in reversed order (no and xy), and just incidentally it’s also the beginning of xynomavro backwards (but where sardonyx names a stone, orvamonyx would just get you stoned).

This word, then, takes the rounded sard, a word that may seem white like lard but that has sharp edges, and presses it in against onyx, red in tooth and especially claw, to name a stone made of red sard and white onyx in layers, pressed together, stratified like a Jell-O dessert, strawberry and blancmange, a little gem from a near-forgotten ancient world that you may set in the breastplate of your verse:

I behold
Dim glimmerings of lost jewels, far within
The sleeping waters, diamond, sardonyx,
Ruby and topaz, pearl and chrysolite,
Once glittering at the banquet on fair brows
That long ago were dust; and all around
Strewn on the surface of that silent sea
Are withering bridal wreaths, and glossy locks
Shorn from dear brows by loving hands, and scrolls
O’erwritten, haply with fond words of love
And vows of friendship, and fair pages flung
Fresh from the printer’s engine. There they lie
A moment, and then sink away from sight.

(From “The Flood of Years,” by William Cullen Bryant.)


What if someone were to spread slander about your good name – perhaps some chain mail questioning your mettle? How would you burke it? What defence would you don if someone called you shifty?

Today’s word, hauberk, is similar to my last name – Harbeck – especially when both are said by someone with an r-dropping accent. There’s even an easy orthographical transformation from one to the other: turn the u 90 degrees and swap it with the r. But aside from that little shift, I have no connection with a hauberk, which is a tunic – or shift – made of chain mail. (Not that I’m likely to get shirty about being linked to it.)

A hauberk is not the sort of thing you’re too likely to see in real life today. I’m sure I did see some when I was a kid – but not on the neighbours; in the Glenbow Museum. You may, of course, read about it, if you like your tales set in the middle ages (no, I don’t mean novels about people over 40 – some Teutonic romances, perhaps). Or if you read fantasy novels, for instance Tolkien.

A chain mail tunic made of mithril silver does save Frodo Baggins’s life at one point in that epic. But just now I am reminded of one of Tolkien’s pet interpolations, a long song, which I quoted yesterday in my post on chalcedony. He doesn’t mention a hauberk by name in that; rather, he names a haubergeon. What’s that? It may sound like a burgeoning hauberk, but actually it’s a smaller one – or just another word for one.

At any rate, a hauberk is something you’ll want if someone is after your neck. Neck? Well, that was actually the start of it: the word is from hals “neck” and bergan “cover”. It comes from Germanic roots but has been passed through Romance languages. Fair enough; all sorts people used to need them for fighting their multifarious feuds – with nothing to hold back a halbard, your family name might be cut short. Not that the fighters mostly had them: you can imagine that a chain-mail shirt would be expensive now (I mean a real one, not the kind you get as a giveaway in some game like The Lord of the Rings Online), and you may feel sure it would have been even farther out of reach for the ordinary person in feudal times.

A hauberk for a hobbit, of course, would be a shorter order. But a hauberk for a Harbeck? It may have a familiar ring, but it doesn’t quite suit me.