Daily Archives: December 18, 2011


The Oxford English Dictionary gives this charming quote from Catholick Christian Instructed by Richard Challoner (1691–1781): “Q. What are the ends for which matrimony is instituted? A. For a remedy against concupiscence.” My immediate thought was, “If you’re married to an exceptionally attractive person (as I am), it doesn’t decrease carnal desire (= concupiscence); it just increases its fulfillment.” (Francis Bacon, in his New Atlantis, had already accounted for this: “marriage is ordained a remedy for unlawful concupiscence; and natural concupiscence seemeth as a spur to marriage.”)

But concupiscence doesn’t always mean plain old sexual lust. It is sometimes used to refer to not only the lust but its fulfillment; but it is also at times used to refer to other strong material desires. But what nearly all of its uses have in common is that they are high-toned condemnation; they speak against it, it is a trap, a fetter, a distraction. They wish to toss a porcupine into the lustful bed, to conk the hot one as cold as a cucumber or a fish, to knock him into sense and out of sensation. To decompose concupiscence to conk + porcupine + cucumber + fish + sense.

I did say “nearly all” – Arlene Prunkl tells me I epitomize lexical concupiscence, and I have to assume that she didn’t mean that in condemnation. Nor would she and I be the only people who fancy that a lust for words is a perfectly delightful thing; Mark Peters, a euphemism collector for Visual Thesaurus and a blogger for Oxford University Press, tweets as @wordlust and blogs at wordlust.blogspot.com. I don’t see anyone self-presenting as verbal concupiscence, but I’m sticking to Sesquiotic anyway.

Did you notice that I used word lust but verbal concpusicence? If you still don’t have enough evidence that English (like many languages) is not really a unitary invariant code but rather a language system with many variations and levels of play (English is the Dungeons and Dragons of languages, but there is no dungeonmaster), here’s another bit. Concupiscence is a high-toned word; it is suited for texts that partake of an air of erudition, clarity, precision, dryness, or some parody thereof. (I have used it in my notes on iniquity and avarice, greed, cupidity; I leave it to you to determine why I chose it.) And so it automatically goes with the more high-toned modifier – not a monosyllabic Germanic attributive noun (word) but a proper Latinate adjective (verbal). This is a word that exists expressly to move people away from Anglo-Saxon monosyllables.

So, thanks to the different register, we easily overlook the “conk” and “piss” we hear in it. We do, of course, hear the percussive voiceless stops, /k/ /k/ /p/, followed by hisses /s/ and /s/ – as though the lust were some overinflated thing that is being hit until it pops and lets out its excess air (the nasal before the second /k/ giving a sense of weakening, and the nasal before the second /s/ giving a sense of more complete deflation). We see this monster of a word as a unit, a big cold fish in your bed. And not just any cold fish: a coelecanth, a prehistoric beastie with its fins c c c c and p (and maybe i as well).

What it’s not is cute like Cupid. But it has the same root: cupere “desire” (verb). The con here does not literally mean “with” (concupiscence can be, and often is, a solo experience); it’s just an intensifier. So it’s Latin for “really wanting something”.

And if you really want long words (excellent words!), well, your concupiscence is fulfilled with this one. But is it sated? Or whetted?

365 words for drunk

I mentioned in my word tasting note for crapulous that I could do blog entries on words and phrases for “drunk” for a whole year. I don’t intend to do that, but I have decided to rise to the challenge and accumulate 365 words (and phrases) for “drunk”. I’m up to 263 351 362 so far (with the aid of several from other languages), and would like the assistance of my readers and their bibulous compatriots in making up the gap. Have a look at the list so far, and use the comments to add any I’ve missed.

And now you can have words for drunk on your shirt or mug! Buy the “drunk words” merchandise at Café Press – your handy reference for 302 ways of saying “drunk” in English!

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Index, icon, symbol: a tale of abduction

Published in The Indexer 29:4 (December 2011)

In the semiotic theories of Charles Sanders Peirce, an index is a type of sign that signifies by having a direct connection to what it signifies – smoke is an index of fire, and a pointing finger is an index of what it indicates. The index is one of a trichotomy of sign types, the other two being the icon (which signifies by resemblance) and the symbol (which signifies by conventional association). Most semiotic constructions have elements of all three, and book indexes are no exception. The way signs are interpreted involves another trichotomy, of types of inference: abduction, deduction and induction. What readers take away from your index will depend on how you manage it – and your process of creating it – to optimize its indexicality, iconicity and symbolicity for optimal abduction. Continue reading


The quote of the once-faddish computer-game dysfluent English “All your base are belong to us” that I used in yesterday’s note on merry led me to think about allure. Not because I was wondering what the allure is of such games but just because of the sonic resemblance of all your to allure.

Part of the allure of English, for people who like to play with language, is of course its inconsistencies. And allure figures among them. It makes me think of adult, not because allure is an adult thing – though it’s probably more often seen in reference to “adult” things – but because, just as adult is a word that may make you stop and think how you want to say it (“ADult? aDULT?”), so is allure.

The opening a is fairly unproblematic. Generally it’s said as a schwa, that mid-central reduced vowel we often use in English in unstressed positions; if we don’t want to reduce it, it will probably be said as /æ/ as in hat. But it’s the second syllable that brings in the variations. Mostly it depends on your dialect, but there are still options. And I think many a Canadian has used – or even puzzled over – several or all of them at one time or another. It’s all about the end of the word (after the /l/). Is it like “you” plus /r/, or like a clearly said “you’re”, or like “oo” in fool plus /r/, or like “u” in full plus /r/, or does the vowel fold into the following liquid so the second syllable is /lr/? And will it depend on the context and the price of the item in question? Will you say it differently between “I don’t understand the allure of Justin Bieber” and “Not needing a car is part of the allure of living downtown” and “Succumb to the timeless allure of this beautiful art”?

The pronunciation is indeed liquid – it is not quite fixed, but it always has those two liquid consonants, /l/ and /r/. And it has certain allure to its look. Those paired l’s add a tall, lean something, like pinstripes or the legs of a willowy miss or a champagne flute or… Well, parallels are available.

We have a few particular ways we like to use this word. We will use it when analyzing some thing: its allure, its central allure, its timeless allure, its exotic allure… Often we will talk about an aspect of something that is part of its allure. We will talk about something that has lost its allure; we will talk about trying to understand the allure of something. And a thing may often be said to hold a unique (or special, or considerable, or…) allure. When we account for the allure, we say it lies in something. As in The allure of English lies in its flexibility and inconsistency.

Which is to say that’s what draws us. We hunger for it (we being not everyone but the sort of person who reads this sort of thing). We return to it like the falcon to the falconer. After all, when you train a falcon, you feed it from an apparatus of thong and feathers called a lure (from Old French leurre, from a Germanic word for “bait”), and it learns to come to the lure; add a meaning “to” to lure and you get (with a doubling of the joining consonant) allure.

Which is fair enough. If you succumb to the allure of something – be it lovely scenery, a unique voice, a fashion magazine (called Allure, for instance), a cruise ship vacation (on the Allure of the Seas), or even just a pair of lovely eyes – you take the bait. And then all your base are belong to them.