Monthly Archives: October 2011


In today’s Pardon My Planet comic, we see some pre-teen in a bedsheet dunning a dumpy pumpkin-possessing adult for a dump of candy; his line, in response to the adult’s pre-emptive guessing: “Why does everyone keep saying that! For the umpteenth time, I’m a mattress!”

OK, what’s wrong with this picture? To my eyes, it’s a pre-teen using umpteenth. It’s not that no one at all uses it anymore, but such a barely presumptuous exaggeration seems small potatoes indeed for today’s youth, used to living in a world of something like 7 billion people, where national budgetary gambits are measured in the trillions of dollars. We know we are in a universe with about 70 sextillion stars in observable range, and even the little easily loseable chip in my camera can hold more than 8 billion bytes of information – each byte being 8 bits, at that. Geez, when the word umpteen was coined, 8 bits was a dollar, and 8 billion dollars was an unbelievable amount of money, rather than about a ninth of the wealth of just one very rich person.

It’s not that large numbers were not used in prior times; 2500 years ago the classical Greeks often referred to the myriad and the Chinese to wan, both ten thousand; the Indians have long had a lakh, which is a hundred thousand, a crore, which is ten million, and even larger numbers. But consider that in The Maltese Falcon (1941) Joel Cairo offers Sam Spade $5000, and Spade says (sincerely) “Five thousand dollars is a lot of money.” In living memory a dime could get you a cup of coffee.

In England a century ago, which is when and where umpteen came into use, you could get into a fair bit of money before you needed to speak of a dozen of anything – after 11 pence was a shilling; although there were 20 shillings to a pound, you had crowns and assorted other intermediate amounts that kept you from often referring to more than a dozen shillings; as to a dozen pounds, that was a fair bit of cash – the equivalent of around a thousand dollars in today’s Canadian or American purchasing power.

Not to belabour the comparison, but to add illumination, consider that in the early 20th century Morse code was still being used commonly for communications – the original binary system, dot-dash, or, as those who used it sometimes called it, iddy-umpty (imitative of the dot and dash in signalling). Now we have phones and other media (including this one) that work by binary communication, but it’s ones and zeros, and they go several million times faster per one or zero. Even my sports watch manages a 2.4 gigahertz signal. That’s not umpteen iddies and umpties per second, that’s a zillion. A gazillion. A squillion. Not a googol, though, not yet.

But umpteen does seem kinda dumpy and dumb next to gigahertz, doesn’t it? It’s just lame. It lacks a certain umph. Heck, it’s a Morse code number. In fact, the ump in umpteen is from umpty – it’s a fill-in-the-blank-teen: if you don’t know exactly how many teen, so you want an umbrella teen term, and you don’t want to be silly and say eleventeen, you can present it as —teen, which is umpty-teen, or just umpteen.

Those of you who still use umpteen may take umbrage at this characterization, to be sure. No need to call an umpire to see if I’m making an ass with my umption: I use it sometimes too. But a pre-teen, still quasi-umbilical? Um, probably not.


What is it that makes a word like swizzle stick in your mind – and in the vocabulary? What ingredients make it such a tropical cocktail of tastes and associations? Is there an umbrella term for such words? Is English stir-crazy, that it likes to stir crazy words of this kind into the liquor of our tongue?

It’s an electric word to look at, with all those angles: wizzl all lines and sharp points, and the only curves at the ends s e – and the s a softened view of a z, or the z’s a hardened and distorted view of the s, as though reflected in ice cubes. Out of it all one letter projects, l, like that little stick in your cocktail… the swizzle stick, of course (I add the explanation for the non-drinkers).

This word mixes the juice of a swi onset – as in swish, swing, swirl, swivel, words with a certain sway or swoop, that fluid motion – with the spirit of an izzle ending that can suggest busy activity: drizzle, fizzle, frizzle, sizzle, twizzle; there are also the tones of dazzle, puzzle, frazzle, nozzle, and especially guzzle and sozzle. Some come via a Latin-derived iller ending in French; some with the frequentative le suffix in English; some through onomatopoeia; and some evidently by imitation of other words. “What shall I toss in here? Oh, yeah, let’s try a shot of that!” This word is of that last sort and has been with us for a tidy two centuries.

So what is swizzle? Is a swizzle stick a stick you swizzle with? No, it’s a stick you stick in your swizzle. Swizzle is that with which you wet your whistle – it’s booze, especially a mixed drink. If you’d stick a swizzle stick in it, it qualifies, though it may have been a bit more specific at first: (based on the Random House Dictionary, as opposed to a random dictionary in my house) says “a tall drink, originating in Barbados, composed of full-flavored West Indian rum, lime juice, crushed ice, and sugar: typically served with a swizzle stick.”

In other words, like a caipirinha but with dark rum. The sort of muddled tipple you’d like to guzzle when it’s sweltering out and you’re sweating and sizzling. Skip the little umbrella, and who cares about the frizzle frazzle on the swizzle stick: just sit in your swivel chair and tip this booze into your muzzle until you’re sozzled and dozing and all will be swell.


With a word such as this one, we seem to be at the outer limits of English orthography. It is indeed a rare bird. What is the y here? Consonant or vowel?

The answer, of course, as always, is neither: y is not a consonant or a vowel, it is a letter. Letters are not sounds; letters represent sounds, but – especially in English – they don’t always do so consistently. In some languages, y always represents a consonant; in others, it always represents a vowel; in English, it may represent either, and there are several vowels it can represent. It’s a real gold mine of phonemes… or if not gold, then something, anyway.

But we still tend to see it as a possible consonant, especially in unfamiliar words, and doubly so at the beginning of a word, where it nearly always represents a consonant. To see it followed by not just a t but a tt – ! It makes you want to trim some off. Hmmm… instead of ytterbium, how about terbium? or maybe erbium?

Aw, but where’s the fun in that? The word’s utter strangeness catches the eye. And as snarled and snagged as it may see, there’s something inside it that says I’m buttery. You want to read it backwards; you want to mix it up; you want to find rum, Betty, mutter, tribe, and even an incomplete muliebrity.

And what does it name? The ium ending should make it elementary… or anyway elemental. It’s an element, number 70 on the periodic table. It’s one of the rare earth elements, useful in combination with others to do quite a lot of tidy things. It’s also found mixed in with other rare earth elements, as rare earth elements tend to be. You will find it with, among others, terbium, erbium, and yttrium. Do these seem suspiciously similar? They were all originally identified in a mine in Ytterby, along with a few others (holmium, thulium, and gadolinium, named after Stockholm, Thule – a mythical name for Sweden – and Johan Gadolin, the person who originally identified them).

Ytterby! Where the heck is that? Look at those oarlocks, the Y and y – is this someplace you take a boat to get to? It had better be someplace nice, with a name like that! Well, but of course if you’re Swedish the name doesn’t seem so odd. In Swedish, by means “village” and ytter means “outer” (and is, yes, also cognate with utter), making its English equivalent something like Outerton. And those y’s in Swedish represent a high front rounded vowel, like in German fünf and French lune. And, by the way, in Swedish they say both /t/s – so not like in utter but like in coattail. But since that is quite outside the limits of English phonotactics, we say it with the beginning like “it” and the vowel after the b like the vowel in be.

Anyway, Ytterby is on an island (Resarö) near Stockholm, Sweden. It has – or had – a quarry, which existed for mining feldspar for use in porcelain. But a part-time chemist noticed an odd black rock in the quarry and sent it to full-time chemists for analysis. And it turned out that it contained a bunch of elements not previously identified – elements that actually took the best part of a century for various people to finally isolate and identify. Because sometimes something that looks kind of odd turns out to have a variety of interesting things in it.

One thing I like in particular, incidentally, is that yttrium (not ytterbium, but yttrium) is commonly found in the earth called yttria, which contains sesquioxide of yttrium: Y2O3.

Math… amazing

Every so often someone will forward me one of these “amazing!” math tricks, and I will of course feel compelled to explain just how outrageously simple the math in them actually is. The latest one going around is even simpler and more obvious than most, and yet people still seem impressed by it:

Take the last two digits of the year you were born, add your age this year, and it will add up to 111. Amazing!

I have to say, I’m kind of amazed that it’s not gobsmackingly obvious to absolutely everyone who can add and subtract two digits. But so many people will do anything to avoid arithmetic, so it seems to have that “magic wand” quality pretty readily.

So OK. Say someone were to send you an email that said “The year you were born plus your age this year equals 2011 – but only this year! Amazing, huh?” Wouldn’t you find that obvious? Now, 2000–1900=100, and you were born in the 1900s (we assume no one under 12 years old got the email), and it’s 2011 now…

Put it another way: if you subtract 1900 from everything, as though 1900 were the year 0, this year would be the year 111; and if you start with the last two digits of your birth year, you’re subtracting 1900, so…

There are some really cool number tricks out there. But you don’t too often see them being passed around in emails, because different people have different definitions of “cool”.

At the very least, they could try tricks that use more than just disguised simple addition and subtraction. For instance, there are fun facts such as that your age (or any two-digit number) plus the reverse of your age (e.g., 49+94) will always be divisible by 11 (in fact, it will be 11 times the sum of the digits in your age); your age minus the reverse of your age, or the reverse of your age minus your age (e.g., 94–49) will always be divisible by 9; your age minus the sum of its digits (e.g., 49–13) will also always be divisible by 9… And the digits of any number divisible by 9 will always add up to a number divisible by 9, which means if you have any two-digit number divisible by 9 and add its digits, you will get 9 or (in the case of 99) a number the digits of which add to 9.

All of this is explainable with simple algebra on the basis that a two-digit number cen be represented as ten times a one-digit number plus another one-digit number, e.g., 49=(4×10)+9.

So for any number 10x+y (e.g., 40+9, where x=4 and y=9), the reverse will be 10y+x (e.g., 90+4), meaning if you add 10x+y (the original number) to it you get 11x+11y (e.g., 40+9+90+4=44+99), and if you subtract the reverse you get 9x–9y (e.g., (40+9)–(90+4)=40+9–90–4), and if you subtract the sum of the digits (x+y, e.g., 4+9) you get 9x (because 10x+y–(x+y)=9x, e.g., 40+9–(4+9)=36). And of course 10x+y+10y+x=11x+11y=(x+y)×11.

So assuming a person of a normal adult age, you can say

1. Take your age (e.g., 49).
2. Add the digits together (e.g., 4+9=13).
3. Subtract that from your age (e.g., 49–13=36).
4. Add the numbers of the resulting number together (e.g., 3+6).
5. The answer is 9.

Of course, you want to gussy this up with something fancy. Add in some other calculations to distract. Instead of step 5, maybe say

5. Multiply by the last two digits of the year.
6. The answer is 99. This always works!! But it will only work this year!!! And not again for a hundred years!!!! OMG it’s amazing tell all your friends!!!!11

or, if you think they can handle the math (!), say

5. Now add your age to the reverse of your age (e.g., 49+94).
6. Divide the result by the sum of the numbers in your age (the number in step 2).
7. Multiply this by the number from step 4.
8. The result is the answer to the question “Who’s the greatest hockey player of all time?”!!! OMG Gretzky rules!!! Number 99 forever!!!!

Even this is pretty straightforward for people who like to think about numbers. But there aren’t that many of us. Anyone who graduated from high school is officially able to figure this sort of thing out easily. But as long as people think math is hard and mystifying…

I suppose you could argue that the general “Numbers! Oh noooooes!” attitude people tend to have in our culture allows them actually to have fun with simple things like this, but it deprives them of the much greater fun they can have with more complex number problems, and it makes them easy marks for misleading advertising, misleading politicians, and so on. And generally vulnerable to making dumb mistakes. There’s a classic Dilbert cartoon (two of them, in fact) illustrating this – see


If you’ve read my note on aglet, you know already that this is a word for something that needs a name but doesn’t have it, but actually does. It’s something you see every day and might just occasionally wonder what to call. Don’t you just love those? Ha. As in they get up your nose.

Looking at this word, you can see classical origins – or perhaps pseudo-classical, in the mode of the Victorian/Edwardian era fads for inventions and fancies such as phlogiston and names such as Phineas. That ph bespeaks a Greek origin, probably brought down to us by way of Latin. And, come to think of it, that whole phil looks phamiliar – excuse me, familiar. Perhaps related to the Greek philos “love”, as in philosophy “love of wisdom”, Philadelphia “place of brotherly love”, and Philip “person with a lip shaped like the letter phi (φ)” – sorry, no, it’s from Philippos “horse lover”.

On the other hand, it also makes me think of plectrum, which is a fancy word for pick as in guitar pick – that triangular thing you use to provoke strings to vibrate. If music be the food, of love, pick on! And if it’s really groovy, take your pick.

Take your pick and do what? Or take your pick of what? How about taking your pick of people with upper lips with grooves in them? Well, that’s kind of everybody, isn’t it… though some people’s grooves are more pronounced than others. I tend to think of Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears (see for a version of the “Head Over Heels” video with lyrics describing the action – a digression but really funny), though his isn’t really abnormally pronounced; I did know a few other guitar pickers around that time who looked as though they had vertical equal signs under their noses. It always seemed kind of self-important to me, which is in some sense the opposite of groovy.

Anyway, yes, where I’m going with this is that the groove in your upper lip – anyone’s upper lip (except some with fetal alcohol syndrome) – coming down from the nose is called the philtrum. Some legends say it’s where an angel touches a baby’s lip before birth. But others relate it to Aphrodite (you will see the ph balance going up here, and that’s not baseless). Philtrum is a Latin word meaning not only “groove in the upper lip” but also “love potion” – taken from the Greek philtron, which has the same two meanings. The “love potion” meaning is now normally spelled philtre – although, frankly, love potions are more likely to bear the legend unfiltered these days. And then you can nose them, wafting the scent up past your philtrum. And feel groovy (see for that musical reference – though neither Simon nor Garfunkel has a pronounced philtrum).


This is a name for one of those things that need names but don’t have them – except that they do, but the average user is agnostic of them. Our daily life is certainly laced with such things; some people will call them thingies, others will make up cute nonce words (often called sniglets, a term and concept created by Rich Hall of Not Necessarily the News), while agelasts will simply describe them or say “Ag, let it go.” The capper, of course, is when we find out that there was a word for them all along.

I first saw today’s word in The Book of Lists, by Wallechinsky, Wallace, and Wallace, in a list called “16 names of things you never knew had names.” As I look again at the list now, after a couple of decades, I find that I might as well be seeing some of the words for the first time, while others are like old friends now. (I’m also surprised to see that the list does not include philtrum. Now, where did I first see that one?) And the top of the list is, yes, aglet: “The plain or ornamental covering on the end of a shoelace.” (Am I sorry for stringing you on for so long? No.)

It’s a strange little animal, this word, no? It tastes of piglet and eaglet (but not in the way an eaglet would taste a piglet). You know it’s something little thanks to the let ending, but what thing is it a little version of? It is in some ways a stringy word, its brevity nothwithstanding; it has a hint of ligate tied into a knot; the g has a look of a bow, and the l of a straight string. It’s a short word for a typically not-too-long thing, but, then, how long is a piece of string?

As long as it has to be, is the usual answer. And this word, too, has settled to a useful length – well, not quite settled: it’s also spelled aiglet. But it’s had half a millennium of erosion since we stole it into English. It used to be much longer, back when it was a French word, but why leave the speaker tongue-tied? You may find it (and its taste) ugly or elegant, but at least it’s efficient at less than half the original length. OK, I’m not stringing you along, just giving you a little needling – or rather a little needle: this word is knotted up from aiguillette, “little needle”, tracing back to Latin acus “needle” and cognate with acute. As in “That’s acute pair of shoes you have.”


Ah, just home from an evening at the spa. After being rubbed like an old lamp, I emerged into a cloud of steam like a genie and splashed around in the water like a naiad, and now I feel sprightly. My spirits are raised – not as in a séance, but as in bienséance, bienêtre. Well-being.

That’s the word in spas, displayed proudly in the logo of this one: well-being. I see it a lot, not just in spas but anywhere good health is being marketed or enjoined. I see it as an open compound (well being), a closed-up one (wellbeing), and a hyphenated one (well-being). Well, being a transparent compound of basic Anglo-Saxon parts as it is, its variety of forms is unsurprising. It’s almost as though it’s being re-coined every time.

Anyway, spirits come in a variety of forms. Spirits? Mmhmm. I can’t see this word without thinking of a sprite, a naiad, one of those wet spirits that dwell in wells. No, I don’t mean well drinks, i.e., the cheap wet spirits they pour at the bar. For the well-being you don’t leave your coins in a pool of stale gin; you toss them in the water and make a wish. If you’re lucky, you may get a message; if you’re at a spa, you may get a massage.

But, of course, since my vocation is equivocation, you may take it as given that all that is well is not “well”, and vice versa. We all want to be the well that is whole, but we mostly don’t want to be the well that is hole. Wellness is the wellspring of being, and water is the stuff of life, but we want to be true to ourselves, not trous to ourselves. And yet we can’t help being our own wells: not just the source of water but the hole we fall into. To quote a poem I wrote years ago:

Well it is like
water one moment your
head is above one
below sometimes you fly
high above the surface
sometimes you sink below
into the depths where
air and light are
barely more than memory
but always you return
when you stop flapping
you fall when you
stop swimming you float
(where did I get
this stone I’m holding)
Well I am in
the water and the
water is in me
I will not drown
or fall but sometimes
oh often I struggle

But remember that the only way we have water in the well is because it came down from above before. It’s always a cycle. You are your own well-being, and the water is in you as you are in it, but it all comes from somewhere else. To quote another poem:

I am in love with
the possibility, I can only
become by not being, I
choose to lose, I am
my own hole in which
all is lost so I
may find it, it may
spring forth like water I
have never tasted. But always
I must forget so that
I may see fresh, I
must believe I am not
well, I am not hole,
I am only the seeker
longing to find the way
to the spring, wandering through
the desert with the map
forgotten in my back pocket.

You can’t always get what you want, but if you get it it’s only because you didn’t have it – or thought you didn’t have it – before. Is that well-being? It may not seem to be the spirit of the spa, but I throw money into the spa and, after rubbing and steam and splashing, the genie emerges – and it’s me again.

Note: trous is French for “holes”.

How come it can’t be used?

I’m reading a text on minimalist syntax right now, borrowed from the library. One of the previous readers has been of the self-appointed editor type – a sort of person generally looked on by real editors about the same as vigilantes are looked on by real law enforcement officers. For instance, everywhere the author has put combined together or merging together, this person has struck out the together with black pen. (Strictly speaking, things A and B could each be combined with other things and not together, although it’s true that combined when used of two things normally implied “together” unless stated otherwise.)

On page 65, there’s an extra bit of ink: the phrase how come it can’t be used to answer A’s question has had cross-outs, writing in and an arrow to change it to why can’t it be used to answer A’s question.

Sigh. Yes, the how come phrasing is more words. Yes, it’s less formal. But it’s not incorrect. And clearly the author wanted that less formal phrasing – more casual and also less pointed. Does it suit the tone of the book? Indeed it does, as it happens. Strange as it may seem to some, adding words can (depending on the words) have the effect of relaxing prose and making it more friendly.

But the vigilante seems to be someone who just has a couple of bees in his (or her) bonnet. Obviously he/she/it is not especially thoughtful or careful. After all, the next sentence gets by unaltered: The answer which we shall give to this question here is that… A person dedicated to concision could cross out most of that to make The answer is that… but that would be less precise even as it’s more concise. It could be The answer in this instance is that… but that would change the tone. Either would be consistent with the other changes the vigilante has made, but neither relates to a specific prescriptivist hobby-horse, so it gets a pass.

It may be that trimming the sentence would be an improvement. That’s a judgement call. But it’s not the sort of judgement evinced by our vigilante, who is simply making sporadic attacks of black ink to swat bees in the bonnet.


If the day has been odd, you need an evening out. Indeed, the evening evens out not just your moods and the odds the day has stacked against you; it evens out the light – gradually to nil – and the colours, too: as Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues wrote,

Cold-hearted orb that rules the night
Removes the colours from our sight
Red is grey and yellow, white
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion

You decompress and the colours desaturate. But the light levels are not so even – if you are near light sources, the light is reliable and directional, but highly contrasty. This is why I like photography in the evening: as Robert Browning wrote,

Was never evening yet
But seemed far beautifuller than its day.

The long /i/ that opens evening gives ease, but the /v/ vibrates still… and then it soothes as it fades back in the mouth from the /I/ to a final nasal, the tongue rolling out like a wave relaxing away from the shore (perhaps on Echo Beach). An evening may have verve; it may even bring a frisson (think of a sepulchral tone greeting you with “Good evening”). It is when you go to the theatre or the club. But it is not the bright yang of the day; all finally subsides into the yin, the valley spirit (v), the dark half. The bright masculine angel of the day falls (as in William Rimmer’s famous painting “Evening: Fall of Day,” well known in a modified form from the labels of Led Zeppelin records – see, Apollo recedes, to be replaced by the evening star – Venus. And Adam gives way to Eve.

The eyes grow heavy-lidded e and e, the only salience is the candle i, and at the end it descends further g to night… The evening stretches from dinner to bed, when mother night overtakes us and we are level.

Laurie Miller, in suggesting this word to me, wrote, “The ‘evening’ has a lovely sound. Does it reproduce the effect on a landscape of the daylight’s dying? Colours do even out, and differences in texture and elevation go away. Is that awareness, of diminishing differences as night comes, common in other languages?” Well… the first question is whether that is even where it comes from.

Of course, the homonymy with even as in “level, flat” has an undeniable effect in English. But it is in fact a coincidence. Evening comes from a word even that we still see in uses such as eventide as well as in shortened eve form; it comes from Old English æfen, cognate with Dutch avond and German Abend. Even as in “divisible by two” and “level, flat” (and “equally”, even) comes from efen, cognate with Dutch even and German eben.

In other languages, the form may be quite different from one for “level” or “flat”  (and some do not distinguish evening from night at all). French has soir, and Italian sera, but Spanish and Portuguese have tarde, focusing on lateness; Mandarin has wan (or more fully wanshang), which is also used in reference to lateness; Latin has vesper; Hebrew has erev (which makes me think of the song “Erev shel shoshanim,” “Evening of Roses”); Irish has tráthnóna (said sort of like “tra no na”), while Breton has abardaez; Slavic languages tend to have a “v-ch-r” pattern, as in Polish wieczór and Russian вечер vecher (which makes me think of the song “Podmoskovnie vechera,” commonly but not quite accurately called “Moscow Nights” in English); Finnish has ilta and Indonesian has malam… These generally have nothing in particular in common with evenness, but all have flavour sets of their own in their own languages.

But in English the two have come to have parallel forms, and so we may multiply the meanings. Think of two lines = and in them find equality, levelness, divisibility by two (and indeed the Chinese numeral for “two”), but also the horizon and clouds at sunset, and the table of food, and the body or bodies in bed. Two is the only even prime number; all others are odd. We may think of odd numbers and prime numbers as like the day – oppositional, singular, yang – and even numbers as like the night – receptive, cooperative, soft, yin, recessive in addition but dominant in multiplication – and we may see that there is one place that the two meet, the romancing of the numbers at the conjunction of the prime and the even: evening. The phrase at even and at prime means “at all times of the day,” but we know that evening is when it all comes together.

What would you need in order to know if this is right?

A colleague asked about a sentence such as “What additional information would you need in order to determine if XYZ will actually happen?” Should the will also be would?

The answer is that it depends. Is the possibility of XYZ happening also contingent or hypothetical? If it’s something that may or may not happen regardless of whether you make a determination in advance, then “will” is preferable:

If you were a weatherman, what information would you need in order to determine whether it will be cloudy tomorrow?

On the other hand, if XYZ’s occurrence is hypothetical, then “would” is correct:

If you were obsessed with a star, what information would you need to determine if he/she would accept your proposal of marriage?

It’s possible to have a hypothetical with bearing on a real event, so we can’t insist on concord between the conditionals without looking at the sense.

Incidentally, some people will insist that you should always shorten in order to to plain to. In fact, while there are places where the shortening can be accomplished to good effect, there are others where bare to would be ambiguous:

These are the dishes I need in order to cook. [Without these casseroles and plates, I can’t cook.]

These are the dishes I need to cook. [I need to cook these dishes.]

And how about if versus whether?  While whether is more formal and has no possible ambiguity, if is very well established in such usage, and has been used by far better authors than the ones who will tut-tut you for using it. Again, consider tone and clarity.