Daily Archives: December 4, 2011


When you Google, you can find if not a googol then more than a gaggle of words that make you goggle and giggle. Your mind will boggle as, agog, you ogle the ugly but allegedly legible scribblings. It might as well be so much googoo and gaga – do they take you for gullible? Are you being guggled (deceived)?

Some people say the same about Ayurveda, mind you, in which guggul figures significantly. What is guggul? It’s a shrub that grows in Gujarat and Rajasthan; it produces a resin from which is extracted guggulipid (I kid you not), which is said to be beneficial for treating high cholesterol, inhibiting tumour growth, reducing osteoarthritis symptoms, and, in combination with other ingredients, healing hemorrhoids, urinary tract infections, and acne, and helping people lose weight. It’s had clinical trials for treatment of cholesterol, but the results were not so great, so its future as a treatment for that is questionable.

So is its future in general. As it happens, the plant is endangered due to overuse. It’s also used as incense (which smells like myrrh), especially for driving away evil spirits (“Go, ghoulies”) and removing the evil eye. (No news on its effect on nazguls.) Such magic for us muggles! This all gets to sound a bit like Gulliver’s Laputa, doesn’t it? Or, no, not Laputa – Glubbdubdrib. Which reminds me (especially its convocation of b’s and d’s like big-bellied men making conversation) of the name the incense had around the Mediterranean in ancient times: bdellium.

There seems to be one stop too many in bdellium, doesn’t there? Well, it does at least counterbalance these back-of-the-tongue /g/s with the tip and the lips. Not that guggul is entirely at the back of the mouth: the u’s keep it there with the g’s, but in the end it leaps up with the l, which just happens to be a frequent travelling companion of g, a kind of Laurel to its Hardy. The /gl/ onset is a well-established phonaestheme, often heard in words for things wet, bright, or both (gleaming, glistening, gluey, glop); this /g–l/ finish, which has the stop and liquid in separate syllables, has less of a clear pattern, but as you juggle and gurgle it in your mouth, you will find it seems often to show up in words for small, rapid motions (jiggle, wiggle, juggle), and to have a sense of swallowing. (Indeed, guggle the noun refers to the epiglottis or the windpipe, and guggle the verb more commonly refers to a sound like that of liquid pouring from a small-necked bottle.)

The tongue often follows common paths, and – in any given language especially – shuns others. But it can nonetheless put together unexpected bits. It makes me wonder: is language more like Boggle or Lego? Do you mainly follow the bits as you can connect them, or do you pick them from the bucket and stick them together willy-nilly? This issue comes up for phonemes (the set of available distinctive sounds for a language), morphemes (the meaning-bearing bits words are made of, e.g., make+ing=making), lexemes (words, basically), phrases, and of course the semantic components too: how constrained are we when we string them together?

Linguistics is not some kind of jiggery-pokery, though some people (who prefer not to be plagued with facts) might say it is. But there must be limits to what we can say about language with language; that follows from the incompleteness theorems set forth by Kurt Gödel. The nature of the system sets, you might say, a girdle on it.

I know not what this has to say about the science of medicine, and what western medicine can know versus what Ayurveda maintains. I make no claims about the health benefits of guggul, let alone about its apotropaic qualities. But while its set of letters , just slightly unexpected in English, might attract the eyes, its path in the mouth is well worn. I’m sure you said it many times as a baby.


Naughty things – those that bring pleasure but may have very undesirable consequences – tend to have a lot of words for them. A person adhering to the “Eskimos have 50 words for snow” idea* that people have more words for things that are more important and central to their lives might well conclude that drunkenness and sex are two of the most important things to Anglophones. Proceeding in the other direction, they might come to conclude that Eskimos (better to call them Inuit) see snow as a naughty pleasure.

There are far more English words for “drunk” than I could possibly mention in today’s note; I could actually do nothing but words and phrases for “drunk” for a whole year. They come with many different tastes and tones and implications. We all have our favourites, of course, and will use different ones for different contexts.

Recently, a colleague in the Editors’ Association of Canada was looking for one that had just the right elevation of tone – dignified but not snooty. Among the ones I thought might be appropriate were tipsy, three sheets to the wind, under the influence, flying, feeling no pain, blotto, pie-eyed, sozzled, squiffy, tanked, boiled as an owl, drunk as a lord, and, of course, in one’s cups. Interestingly, there are a lot of Anglo-Saxon words in that list and almost no Latin-derived ones. And one very plainly Latin-derived one is not on it: crapulous.

Crapulous comes originally from Greek κραιπάλη kraipalé, which referred to the symptoms of a hangover. Latin took that word and made it crapula, which is not the name of a low-quality vampire; it means “excessive drinking” or “inebriation, intoxication”. From it we get a set of English words, including crapulous, which commonly refers to drunkenness but is also usable to refer to the undesirable effects of drunkenness.

You can see why, in spite of its classical roots, crapulous does not carry a dignified tone. The overtones are obvious in English; a person may be forgiven for thinking that crapulous is like craptacular, and crapulence (the related noun) a crappy opulence like fugxury. I first saw crapulous (slightly altered) as a name of a drunken Roman in Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield – Titus Crapulus – but did not instantly make the connection between crapulous and drunkenness; I think I connected it first with rhinophyma (that bulbous red nose often, and not always accurately, associated with alcoholism).

This word seems to have various bits dissolved together: along with crap we have a mixed-up soul and an incomplete louse, a hidden cup and two cups u u (plus one seen from above o); anagrammed, it forms the response uttered by a pair of linguists caught pressed flat together, predicating directly: “Us, copular?” (Those linguistics parties. I’m told they do get up to some antics before they pay the sin tax.)

The form of this word seems to highlight a particular aspect – or vector – of the alcohol experience. We all know that being right ripped, home-style hammered, ploughshared, plastered, shellacked, et cetera, can make a person feel crappy thereafter. Craptacular, in fact. So it’s not so unreasonable that crapulous looks like a blend of fabulous and crap: it’s what you get after drinking a lot of fabulous crap – first you feel fabulous, and then you feel like crap. It’s easy when crapulous to think you’re fabulous but to look ridiculous and eventually end up in the crapper, destined to creep out of bed in the morning, joints crepitating and mind captious, wincing at the crackling of a wrapper, skin prickling at the touch of crepe paper. Alcohol may seem like a solution – well, alcoholic beverages are solutions, of ethanol and esters and whatnot in water – but in the end, you will see what it can precipitate.

*The idea that the Inuit have 50 words for snow is not really accurate, and anyway since Inuktitut is an agglutinating language – it sticks a lot of parts together to make very long words where English might use a whole sentence – counting words in it is a mug’s game. On top of that, we have a lot of words for snow and its various types in English. So there.

Thanks to Stan Backs for suggesting crapulous.