Daily Archives: October 5, 2011


This word is an eye-catching, if rarely beheld, asterism of graphemes; it seems made for Scrabble, but your chances of getting away with it are variable at best (it’s not in the official dictionary). And yet, in an interesting twist, for all its visual éclat, it is a simple little workhorse word – in fact, one that merely speaks for others, a proxy. But it is not idle speech or just blowing hot air.

Well, you may blow a bit of air, hot or cool, when saying it, given the voiceless stop it opens with and the following aspiration that will whistle through your rounded lips. (Reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European roots suggest quite a lot of velar obstruent–rounded glide pairs, /kw/ and /gw/ and fricated and aspirated versions as well. It may or may not be coincidence that it’s something like the oral gesture infants perform when breast-feeding.)

It also has three amusing orthographical features: on one end, it has a letter that is as a rule only ever seen with the letter following it to indicate a coarticulated/off-glided stop, /kw/ spelled qu; on the other end, it has a letter that actually stands for two sounds in sequence, /ks/ spelled x; at its heart it has two instances of the same letter, but standing for two different sounds, neither of which the original vowel sound it stood for (the u after the q stands for a related glide, /w/, but the second u stands for /ʌ/ or /ə/, as most versions of English shifted it to that sound from /ʊ/ or /u/). In other words, it’s a little salad of orthographic oddities.

But what is quux? Is it an ancient word returned, atavistically? No, actually, just a modern confection on old models. It’s a metasyntactic variable, invented (in youth) by a luminary of American computer programming named Guy L. Steele. What is a metasyntactic variable? It’s like a math variable – a placeholder – but used for programming functions and similar. It can be used in conversation – instead of saying “The title of your blog entry will show in the URL as the final string,” you can say “If your blog entry is titled quux the URL will be http://www.somewebsite.com/blog/quux.” And instead of “If female person A submits an application,” you can say “If Ms. Quux submits an application.” Normal people do this with terms like “Joe Blow”; nerds, when putting variables in their syntax, prefer something nerdier – say, fake Latin, which this is (Steele came up with a whole declension for it, including the genitive plural quuxuum). It happens that Steele also wrote computer science geek poetry under the name The Great Quux, and that the phrase the quux of the matter is sometimes used in joking contrast to the crux of the matter to mean a non-essential point.

So, then, say you are searching for some word, and this word has a particular property, you could say, “I’m looking for a word quux such that quux is an English word with the letter sequence quu. What lexical values are there for quux?” Admittedly, you could perhaps more perspicuously phrase it (or, to be precise, a closely related question) the way Joe Kessler, @kessling, did today: “I can’t think of any #English words that contain /kwu/ or /kwə/. Is this just due to the strangeness of spelling ‘quu’?”

One answer to Joe’s question is, of course, quux, but only if you accept it as an English word. There are, as it happens, other values for that variable besides quux, but very few, and, in spite of their visual éclat, rarely seen. The one still in common use is really medical Latin: obliquus, a name for several muscles, such as the obliquus externus and obliquus internus, abdominal muscles involved in exhalation and abdominal torsion – blowing hot air and twisting.

Also in the Oxford English Dictionary are ventriloquus, meaning “ventriloquist” (which comes from Latin for “chest speaker”, by the way, though of course everyone uses the chest in speaking, if obliquely; a ventriloquist gets some other thing’s mouth to seem to speak for him or her) and inaniloquus, an obsolete word – in fact, probably a nonce word – meaning “idle or foolish speech”. And that’s all the quuxes in the OED such that quux contains quu (quux itself is not in the OED).

But we may want to allow the name of a constellation as well: Equuleus. This charming name, which I first saw on a bottle of wine (a Bordeaux-style blend made by the Niagara winery Château des Charmes), means “little horse” or “foal”, and it’s a small, faint constellation – the second-smallest of the 88 modern constellations.

And what’s the smallest modern constellation, by the way? One that’s much more visually salient – in fact, it features on a couple of national flags. Or, rather, its dominant asterism does, the Southern Cross. The constellation as a whole is called Crux.

But, of course, while the vagaries of “the stars” (fate) may be variable (even disastrous), and while Equuleus and Crux may seem to move through the skies, we know that, unlike, say, quux, they are not variable: they are firm in the firmament. And that’s the quux of the matter here.

Chez what?

A colleague who works on French and English texts was musing lately on French place names such as “Chez Pierre” and how in English we would deal with a place name starting with a preposition – her example was “At Pete’s Place.” Could we say “The party is at At Pete’s Place”?

Part of the issue, of course, is that in English we don’t normally use that kind of prepositional construction in place names. But a parallel could be found in a synopsis of Of Human Bondage or perhaps if you looked into Into the Woods or cast your eyes on On the Waterfront, and perhaps glanced at At Fault (by Kate Chopin)…

You can’t get away from the fact that At is part of the name. If you don’t like the at-at, then rewrite! But short of going out with a chainsaw and cutting the At off the sign (as one colleague suggested), you can’t change the name of the place – articles (a, the) may be dispensable, but articles are specifiers on noun phrase heads, whereas prepositions are heads of prepositional phrases, and you can’t cut off heads so glibly. (An argument may be made as to the role of the prepositional phrase as a case proxy for its complement noun phrase, but we can’t avoid the overt syntactic realization and its entailments.)

And anyway, heads though they be, prepositions are usually unstressed except at the beginning of a name, so it’s not quite so awkward, as we have seen above.