Daily Archives: October 25, 2011


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.