Monthly Archives: December 2011


Architecture can be a rich trove of arch trivia. It has many fine and lengthy words for things you may never have noticed, words that bear a patrician stamp of virtue and distinction, as though clad in a chiton or a toga – or both. Words that have the elaboration and delicacy of an epistolary novel (“Dearest ——: Would that our names were for aye engraved in each of the myriad Architraves of the Eternal City!”). Words that have the swash and filigrees of an archduke’s épée stylings.

And the fineness of detail with which these things can be defined! It matches the geekery applied to heavy metal subgenres and ballroom dance. Consider: “The architrave is different in the different orders. In the Tuscan, it only consists of a plain face, crowned with a fillet, and is half a module in height. In the Doric and composite, it has two faces, or fasciae; and three in the Ionic and Corinthian, in which it is 10/12 of a module high, though but half a module in the rest.” (Thank you, Geekypedia, I mean Wikipedia.)

What are we talking about? Well, we know it must be something very important. After all, it has that arch in it, which brings us such arched eyebrows: belonging perhaps to an overlean sort with greying temples, rings under the eyes, a turtleneck, and a vintage Saab (must be an architect), or perhaps to a bearded bloke who sips sherry and prefers purple with a pointy headpiece (ah, the archbishop), or a mustachio-twirling or cat-stroking twitchy twerp with evil designs tattooed in his thought bubble (the archvillain!), or maybe a forty-foot-long slimy ocean-dweller with enormous head, enormous eyes, and incredible tentacles (Architeutethis dux, the giant squid). Arch (and in this case archi) comes from Greek ἀρχός arkhos “chief”. OK, but chief among what? Top dog of what?

And what of this trave – one may think of travertine, a rather fancy-sounding building material (a kind of Italian limestone), or rave, or brave, grave, crave: words with such fervour, such intensity. Or travesty, of course.

Travesty? You may wish to avert your eyes, turn your chair; this macaronic miscegenation of a word – half Greek but half Latin (for trave comes from Latin trabs “beam”) – signifies the lowest division of the entablature, a beam resting directly on the abacus of a column, a row of stone surmounted by the frieze (ah, the frieze! such artistry is seen thereon!) and the cornice (oh, the giddying heights!). The entablature is in a lofty position, true, atop the columns, though not so high as the pediment (which has a name that sounds suggestive of feet, for heaven’s sake), but the architrave has the lowliest job of the three and, perhaps in compensation, the most impressive name (like a janitor named Phineas Melchior Winthrop III) – in fact, it has two names: it is also called the epistyle. But though it be lowest, it is truly chiefest; rest assured that the frieze and cornice would not rest assured without it.

Say, which name do you prefer for it? The complex and deceptive architrave, with its ch making a “k” sound and its t making (thanks to the r) the “ch” sound, its progression from hard at the back of the mouth to half-soft at the tongue tip to fricative on the lips, and the first a mid-mouth but the second narrowing in the front? Or the pure Greek epistyle, with its delicate touch and smooth style, suited to épées and epistles? Shall the names duel, or shall we accept a dual name?


The terror of the blank page: a full landscape stretching incoherently, inchoately… awaiting the running river of your black ink. Will you make it full? Will you escape without playing the fool, the eccentric?

Does anyone even write on foolscap anymore?

Or is it just an archaism, as the word itself is an archaism, bahuvrihi – an exocentric compound – formed with terminal morphology internally?

I bet the first time you saw the word foolscap you thought maybe someone was pulling your leg. It’s fullscap, isn’t it? What kind of fool would spell it with fool? And what kind of scrap is scap, anyway? Oh, but before ever pen made river on this paper it was marked with water – a watermark in the shape of a fool’s cap, a jester hat. It was in evidence on large writing paper by the late 1600s, though who did it first is disputed.

So we’re not clowning around here. But the morphology of this word seems like more folly: when do we ever take a genitive – a possessive – and use it as the first part of a closed-up compound? If it were fool’s cap or even fool’s-cap, that would be normal. But this? It’s like writing monk’s hood as monkshood. …Which, actually, we also do: monkshood is a poisonous plant with pretty blue flowers, sort of like wolfsbane. (Oh, yes, wolfsbane.) But that’s not so normal anymore, because we’ve gotten into the habit of adding an apostrophe to possessives, and of not inflecting nouns when used as modifiers.

Anyway, whether poison pen or simply fooling around, your big piece of paper gets its name by a – now vanished – association. Just as the blank page is absent your words, so too the compound that names it does not include the noun for it; it is like lowbrow and highbrow and silver-tongued and polymath: exocentric. It could be metonymy – the paper is associated with the fool’s cap – or synecdoche – the watermark at least used to be part of the paper.

But in the end, it is you who are the fool, for this paper is not the court jester… It’s just a page.


There are a lot of classic songs sung at this time of the year. But the singers don’t always seem to pay all that much attention to what they’re singing – to mark their words, as it were. Or else they hear the words and try to make sense of them according to syntax they’re more used to. “God rest you merry, gentlemen” (using an archaic sense of rest meaning “keep” or “make”) is interpreted as “God rest you, merry gentlemen.” And more often you hear it with you altered to ye because it seems more old-style – but ye was always the nominative; you was originally just the accusative… so when ye was in use, it would not have been used here.

And, of course, “Hark! The herald angels sing” is often misunderstood as “Hark the herald, angels sing.” Not that those who read it that way can necessarily say exactly what hark the herald means. Is it some combination of, say, ring the bells and what the heck? Or is it that hark is taken as transitive, so that rather than saying hark to the herald or harken to the herald (or hearken to the herald), it is hark the herald (sort of like how some people will, with the awkwardness that comes from dysfluency in formal English, put assist you do something rather than assist you in doing something)?

What does hark mean, anyway? Well… listen. Pay attention. Give ear to. It has a nice, sharp, commanding sound to it – not the weaker liquid and hiss of listen, but the military force you get with march and charge and other orders barked out starkly. It’s not the mere inclination of the head but the sudden pricking up of the ears. When you hark, you hear and ken.

Which reminds me: hark but hearken? Certainly the words are related – harken is another spelling for hearken. But why is it not heark? Perhaps because it would look too much like it’s pronounced /hirk/? Yet we have no problem with heart and (sometimes) none with hearth. Is it just simpler to follow the the pattern of mark, bark, dark? (Hmm… Mark! Hark to the bark in the dark!)

Well, yes, it’s simpler to follow the pattern of bark and dark, which came up from Old English as beorc and deorc, then went into Middle English as berk and derk, and arrived in Modern English as bark and dark. Hark had just the same route: OE heorcian to ME herken to ModE harken and hark. So the real question is, Why hearken? Why not just harken?

And the answer seems to be along the same lines as why God rest ye rather than God rest you: we have these ideas about what is an older, more classic, more formal style – we prefer what linguists call the more marked form (that means the more exceptional one). Just as many people will try to emulate older English by adding eth randomly to verbs or tacking on e to nouns here and there, and will assume thou is more formal (in its time it was actually the familiar term, equivalent to French tu and German du), so they will also go for ye rather than you and will assume that anything with a silent e must be classier. Add to that the force of analogy – with heart and heartening and hearth and (in spelling) hear – and you have sufficient force to make the variant spelling seem more correct.

So why not heark? Perhaps without the en it lacked enough sense of formality; perhaps hark was better established in common usage. Or perhaps heark just didn’t make it into the dictionary… you won’t have trouble finding some examples of that spelling. See, for instance.

But, really, we can’t always expect archaic usages and modern singers to be reconciled. Especially when more current usages aren’t always heard correctly either. As in the fourth line of our song du jour, where “God and sinners reconciled” is sometimes heard as “God and sinners wrecked in style.” Well, if we’re going to wreck the songs, at least they’ll be wrecked in style… Like many a holiday reveller.


The rh and z in this word are good hints that it has Greek roots, as indeed it does. It came up from Proto-Indo-European *wrad- “branch, root”, appearing in Greek first as ῥίζα rhiza “root” and ῥιζοῦσθαι rhizousthai “to take root” and then ῥίζωμα rhizoma “stem, race, element”. The same PIE root also pushed up sprouts in Latin with radix and in the Germanic languages with words that became (among others) English root and wort. But it also jumped across from Greek to English via Latin, to give us our rhizome and rhizomatic (and rhizomatous).

But why would we need another word for it? Well, there are roots and then there are roots. When we think of roots, we think of a stem that branches and branches and branches underground (as it does aboveground). It’s an easy kind of fractal. It’s the model we use for a great many things. Look at biological history: the various kinds of life form branch apart and apart and apart; at some point, the primates split off, and at another the monkeys split from the apes, and later homo splits from other apes, and Neanderthals split off closer up. In language history, we trace English to West Germanic, which traces back to Proto-Germanic, and that traces back to Proto-Indo-European, as do, from their separate branches, languages such as Italian, Greek, and Russian (but not Finnish or Estonian or Hungarian, which are Finno-Ugric). And in syntax we can split up a sentence into components that draw a nice tree, with each phrase having a possible specifier, a head, and a possible complement, and the complement being another phrase, and so on.

But not all root systems are like that. Some plants have incredibly involved root systems – not even actually roots, botanically speaking, but actually underground stems – that spread horizontally underground and have multiple plants springing up from them (like the ascenders and dots poking up from the word form rhizomatic), all connected together underneath at nodes. If you cut away a part of this system, another plant can spring up from it – and it may even reconnect with the original system. This brings to mind another kind of fractal, one where you may follow a split from a lower level to connect at a higher level, one where everything is downstream and upstream from everything, an infinity of Klein bottles and Möbius strips all connected: the World Wide Web.

But botanics didn’t have the World Wide Web to refer to when different kinds of root (and underground stem) systems were being described, so English (and other languages) just borrowed from Greek, allowing the root to sprout with a different shade of meaning. And, for that matter, the World Wide Web wasn’t around in the 1970s when Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wanted to describe an approach to knowledge that was more interconnected than the standard branching model. So they, too, used rhizome and rhizomatic to describe their vision of multiplicity, with its principles:

* Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be.
* It is only when the multiple is effectively treated as a substantive, “multiplicity,” that it ceases to have any relation to the One as subject or object, natural or spiritual reality, image and world.
* A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines.
* A rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model. It is a map and not a tracing.

(Extracted from A Thousand Plateaus, translated by Brian Massumi.)

Indeed, even systems that we think of as being standard branching models have rhizomatic characteristics. It is thought that at least some modern humans have Neanderthal DNA from interbreeding. English has borrowed vocabulary massively, and has even borrowed some syntactic structures from other languages, nor is it the only language to do so. (And Finnish is loaded with borrowings from Germanic too.) And our nice, tidy syntax trees turn out to involve lots of movements and involutions and to present difficulty with diagramming neatly even some fairly casual and unexceptional sentences such as we might say on the phone.

In such things as language, the multiplicity of interconnectedness goes well beyond what you get with plants. A word like rhizomatic is almost like a rhizome connecting with a different kind of plant and sending up a hybrid sprout. Consider that rh is not a native English beginning for a word, nor is the sound it represents in the original (a voiceless or aspirated /r/); we keep the spelling (given it by Latin) but change the prununciation. The z is also a sign that a word does not originate in Anglo-Saxon, as in Old English /z/ was just a way s was pronounced in some places (as /v/ was a way f was pronounced in some places) – the letter was borrowed later when we needed it. As to the vowel in between, i, we say it /aɪ/ rather than /i/ (as in pita) because the way we say our “long” vowels changed over time, and when we borrow words we may (but don’t always) say them according to the way our English words have come to be said.

And then there’s the tone the word gets from the matic ending, which adds to its lexicalized meaning with associations and overtones from words such as automatic, with its technological edge, and pragmatic, with its philosophical note, and asthmatic, which may lead us to detect a bit of wheezing in the rh or z. We may get some rhythm from its double trochee. We may hear this root system rise to the attic. We may even rhyme it with try some haddock. A myriad of connections are available, variously strong, and it will sprout up a little differently in each different mind in each different instance.

Thanks to C. Fletcher for asking about rhizomatic.


Ah, the eternal season, as a turning of the year comes around: work pauses, and we enter a liminal week, where we cast off our quotidian fetters and eat, drink, give gifts, and be merry. True, it is for some a time of saturnine alienation, but for the most part we party like Australians. And it all climaxes… today.

No, I don’t mean Festivus, something that was designed to replace Christmas. I mean something Christmas was designed to replace – or, really, co-opt: Saturnalia. That annual Roman period of social inversion, gluttony, drunkenness, debauchery, et cetera, a sort of turn for the satyric, which was at first a single day on December 17 and then extended over a week, to end on December 23. The slogan in the air was not “Merry Christmas” but “Io Saturnalia” (I’m sure you’d say “io!” if you had a satyr nail ya). It was truly a liminal time, an inversion; all people, masters and slaves and freed slaves, were treated as equals… Well, everyone knew who was really who, but it created a freedom that was a pressure release valve for a grossly unequal society.

Saturnalia was so popular, Christianity (which has in many times and places historically been nearly as much of an amoeba as the English language, assimilating existing practices barely altered) simply planted its flag on it: “We will celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25.”

I won’t say planted its tree… Christmas trees, like Easter eggs, are also pagan borrowings. Actually, in terms of core Christian teaching, Christmas is at best peripheral. But that doesn’t keep it from being overridingly popular – the biggest Christian celebration by far – and held up as a great emblem of the faith. I’m put in mind of how white wedding dresses are seen as a great timeless tradition, though they were an innovation under Queen Victoria, and for that matter how a variety of comparatively recent innovations are held up by some people as essential points of English grammar. In general, “inviolable timeless tradition” means “I remember it from my childhood.”

But don’t take this as a criticism of our modern Saturnalia, which I enjoy as much as many others do. It has some lovely music, and some lovely traditions, and much quite charming paraphernalia, and for many people really does have a genuine spiritual focus (and after all, Christianity didn’t keep everything from the older festival, and it did add some details of its own), even if it is also an appalling time of hyperconsumerism for which businesses are so desperate that they start pushing it up to two months in advance, just so people can max their credit cards and spend much of the next year poor from paying it off, plunging the stores into the same desperation again. Aside from all that, revelry is loverly. It would seemsoddly mixed-up to be as a rule anti-Saturnaliae.

But what, exactly, is Saturnalia, aside from an anagram of Australian and (with the pluralizing e) of as a rule anti? Its tastes of sat and turn and alien and alias and its rhymes with paraphernalia, genitalia, and perhaps Alitalia don’t really point you in the right direction. Nor does saturnine – obviously a related word, but it refers to a gloomy, quiet, sluggish temperament. That’s rather opposite to the seasonal revelries.

Well, there’s more than one Saturn. There’s Saturn the planet, which was once thought to be the most distant, and coldest, planet, and people born under its influence were considered to have cold, distant dispositions, hence saturnine. It’s actually a glorious planet – with its archetypal rings and moons, planetary paraphernalia one almost wants to call Saturnalia – and it’s huge, bigger than Christmas or Santa’s belly, even; see

And then there’s Saturn the god, who presided over agriculture and the harvest; he’s typically seen holding a sickle and wheat. He was actually a sort of Greek refugee – he started as Kronos, son of Uranus, and one of the Titans; he was also the father of Zeus, and was overthrown by Zeus. So he decamped to Rome and was mainly a good-times guy after that. OK, that’s a gross simplification, but the mythology is so rhizomatic, anfractuous, and inconsistent, I’d much rather just have another eggnog and move on. And, wandering back to the planet, the nomenclature of the solar system has resulted in Saturn’s father Uranus becoming the next planet beyond Saturn (and not nearly as big as Saturn) and Titan being the name of Saturn’s biggest moon. (Also among its moons: Europa and Io – Io Saturnalia! But it’s not Io how a rose e’er blooming; it’s Io’s volcanos e’er erupting.)

And then there’s Saturn the cars, and Saturn the moon rockets, and so on. And of course there’s Saturn’s day, Saturday, which is a kind of weekly mini-Saturnalia for many of us. The very sound of /sæ tr/ may provoke a sense of relaxation and fun – and shopping. And then the week turns again, or in the year the Yuletide turns again, inter alia. But before Chronos there comes Kronos (don’t confuse the two); before you pay again, you play the pagan. So happy Saturnalia, mutatis mutandis.


“Oh, look, there, where the building was. That large claw thingy is piling the rebar like straw into a truck.”

“Indeed. First entropy was encouraged and now they’re putting things in some sort of order again.”

“So it goes. The building was built up – arriba, arriba – a concrete construction with rebar…”

“A visual barrier.”

“Well, yes, you may have found it rebarbative, but there it was. They smashed rocks and then rebuilt them; they were reborn as concrete, with reinforcing bar in the bargain.”

“To keep the concrete from crumbling?”

“Concrete is strong when you push it but weak when you pull it. Steel is strong when you pull it. And it expands and contracts with temperature changes about the same as concrete does.”

“So better rebar than rubber.”

“Rather. But now they’ve taken the air out of the building and broken its bones, and pulled the reinforcing bars out…”

“That Liebherr looks like a ballerina at a barre.”

“I think it’s a reaper. More grimy than grim, though.”

“It only took three machines to pull the building down. Now they have five picking through the rubble. They called for reinforcements.”

“It looks like Rome after the barbarians.”

“It’s been razed as by a barber. First it was raised, and now it’s rubble.”

“Crumbled. Rudera from a ruder era.”

“I think it was a cute building. Now it’s grave.”

“Now its grave is being robbed.”

“They’re steeling and baling, stealing and bailing.”

“Looks like branches from a wind-ravaged arbour.”

“Weetabix, baby.”

“Wonder why save it?”

“Probably a rebate.”

“Welp, looks like they’re packing it in.”

“Packing it into the truck and then booting off to the bar. Bye-bye.”

“And when this building has been buried? Will they bridge it to rebirth via the architectural Bardo Thodol?”

“Barring resistance, they’ll probably rebuild.”


If you want to get an idea of what adolescents think a word sounds like it should mean, go to You may get real definitions there, but you will certainly also get various instances where some juvenile has seen the word and decided to make his mark on it like a dog pees on a fire hydrant. The Urban Dictionary definitions for scumble are quite unsurprising:

1. “To unintentionally trip or fall headlong into something disgusting (stumble + scum).” (9 thumbs up)

2. “The words fumble and scramble together … Only happens in football (or Pro Evo) when somebody ‘fumbles’ the ball in the box and when there is a ‘scramble’ for the ball so a scumble is formed” (11 thumbs down)

3. “Scum + crumble. Scumbles are gross (unknown) crumbs of goo. Unlike a cookie crumb, which isn’t disgusting.” (2 up, 14 down)

Now, of course, among adults, one might, on seeing a new word, consider the context and perhaps even look it up. But even then it is true that with a word such as this one, the form of it may remain as a sort of surface layer that is only half-scraped away to reveal the lexicalized sense. The form is, after all, fairly obtrusive.

There are several parts that give the phonaesthetic impression with this word. There’s the sc (/sk/) onset, which may connect to surfaces that can be scraped, or the scraper or the result – skin, skim, scalp, scrape, scale, scalpel, scallop, sculpt – and the tumbling, crumbling, rumbling, rambling /mbl/ ending, with the dullness of the mid-central vowel in the middle. Beyond that, it has the echoes of scum and stumble, as the kids say, plus fumble, scramble, crumble, and assorted others that it somewhat kinda resembles. For me, the scum echo is not as strong as those of humble and stumble and crumble. But your results may vary.

As it happens, scum appears to be the source, along with the frequentative le suffix. Scum (verb) means to skim the scum (noun) off the surface of something. (Scum (noun) has always meant what it means.) But what scumble refers to is a painterly technique whereby a layer of opaque or semi-opaque paint (usually lighter in colour) is scraped or dry-brushed thin over the layer below to create a softening blending effect. (See a demonstration at

You’ll often see this word in inflected forms: scumbled or scumbling. You’ll usually see it in literal use. But it has a certain mouthfeel to it, a certain texture of sound, that invites broader, more figurative use in literary fiction as well. A Nabokov might use it, with his feel for the lusciousness of the language: “The summer tan … would scumble, I knew, the liver spots on my temples.” (Look at the Harlequins) Or perhaps Philip Pullman (The Amber Spyglass): “The moon was brilliant, the path a track of scumbled footprints in the snow, the air cutting and cold.” Or, or, or. If you write fiction, the odds are now pretty good you’ll use it sometime, too. It’s a word as delicious as shortbread, and yet with that tangy pong of paint: a gallery opening right there on your page, giving a glow with your story shining shyly through.