Monthly Archives: January 2012


Allowing purple cows to graze in your plum orchard may be purported to be a good proposition, but it can get out of hand: you will know you’ve been duped if the quantity of purple quadrupeds in your drupes has quadrupled.

Yes, I wrote that just to bounce quadruped around. But I hardly need to – the word has legs of its own, as it were. And I don’t just mean the four limbs projecting from it, qdpd; it gets around in your head, looking like an l-less quadrupled, having the appearance of rhyming with duped but actually having three syllables of three letters (and three phonemes) each – three squared, nothing about four in that, is there? Except that a square has four sides.

Different quadrupeds have different patterns of walking – different orders of foot placement. This word has four touch points (represented by the four stemmed letters, as it happens), and the order is back – tip – lips – tip. It almost seems intentional that q and p are opposite ends of the mouth, given their shapes, but it’s coincidence. But wait, there’s more: because the /k/ is followed by – almost coarticulated with – a /w/, the word starts with the lips puckering out, then they relax back a bit (but round a little with the /r/), then push together again /p/, then relax: almost more like a bipedal sequence, or anyway like a two-stroke sequence in a piston engine (which powers things that replace feet altogether).

Speaking of wheels, this is a word that almost asks to be rotated. Do so – spin it 180˚ – and you get pednɹpanb, which could almost be a word – actually could be a word in some other language if you use the International Phonetic Alphabet, in which ɹ stands for the retroflex version of /r/ we use in English. It’s a little messier than pədɪq, which is biped rotated (to the extent possible), but biped has three legs, so it’s ironic rather than apposite.

I’m assuming you know what quadruped means. It’s an uncommon word but not an unknown one. The roots are Latin and well known: quadru “four” and ped “foot”. (This “four foot” does not refer to the inner ring in a curling rink.) The ped is what you see in, for instance, pedal, but you will often see ped that is adventitious and unrelated – duped does not mean “two-foot” and hoped does not mean “skank-foot”. On the other hand, there is no morpheme pled; the ple in quadruple comes from plus – yes, that plus.

But does quadruped just mean “four-footed”? Is a table a quadruped? And, on the other hand, given that cats are quadrupeds, is a three-legged cat also a quadruped? (Does it matter whether it was born that way or lost a leg later?) As I spy the u and u in this word and think of an animal on its back, I also find I must ask: If you consider that quadruped means “animal of a kind that typically has four legs” and that animal includes the characteristic “animate”, is a dead cat still a quadruped? Oh, and are monkeys – which also use their arms for locomotion – bipeds? If not, they must be quadrupeds, yes? But monkeys have hands.

When you get into some antics of semantics of this sort, you may soon find that your possible referents have quadrupled – and your possible different definitions, too. You thought meanings of words were clear, easy, and fixed? Better ask for quarter – you’ve been duped.


“Well,” said Maury, “it was all a bit sketchy.”

“Seedy, you mean? Unpleasant?” I said. Maury was telling me about his blind date of the night before.

“No, it’s just that we hadn’t made very detailed plans. I suppose I was a touch skittish. So we had no clear picture of where to go.”

“Where did you meet up with her?”

“At a coffee shop in the west end. I wasn’t sure what to expect – the description of her was rather sketchy.”

“I’m going to assume you don’t mean disreputable.”

“Correct. Our mutual friend said she looked vaguely like Christina Ricci. But she had said she would have a Gucci bag and a crutch, so she was easy to spot.”

“A crutch?”

“She said she’s a soccer coach, and caught a kick in the shin. But this also meant we chose somewhere not too far to walk. Neither of us had been to the place, but it looked fetching, in a sketchy way.”

“I don’t usually eat at sketchy places…”

“No,” Maury said, “I meant the décor. It was a touch kitschy, but the walls were covered in sketches and etchings of bocce players.”

“Italian food, then?”

“That’s what the menu said. Well, the details were sketchy, but, then, so, as it turned out, was the food.”

“Your food was lacking in definition?”

“No, it was dodgy. Wretched, in fact. They called it chicken cacciatore, but what came out of their kitchen was scorched and botched and drenched with ketchup.”

“Oh, dear.”

“She found a good excuse for ditching the joint. She said her leg under the cast was getting itchy and she wanted to go home and do some tai chi to make it feel better. I was invited to join her, or anyway to sip a Scotch and watch.”

“Um,” I said. “That almost sounds sketchy.”

“It was an acceptable proposition in a clutch. I was a bit surprised that she lived nearby.”


“Well, the neighbourhood is rather sketchy in my mind.”

“Huh. Usually you look things up and get to know the details…”

“No,” Maury said, “I mean that to my knowledge it’s a seedy area. At every corner there was a clutch of sketchy characters. But her place was nonetheless quite nice, not dicey at all.”

“So how did it go from there?”

“She marched me into her kitchen and poured me a Scotch, then dropped the crutch. As I reached for it, she made a switcheroo.”

“Your drink?”

“No – with a quick rip, she undid the stretchy velcro on the cast and fetched me a swift kick in the tush. Not brutish, just a little wicked. And shouted ‘Gotcha!’”


“It turns out she’s a bit of a joker – a kittenish character. And she uses the cast on blind dates to have some control over the situation. If it gets touchy, she can just back out. Or if she wants it to get touchy, she can do what in fact she did.”

“So how was the rest?”

“Sketchy, I’m afraid.”


“No, sorry, I just mean that I had too much Scotch and I can’t put together a complete picture. I believe I had fun. There was some opera involved. A CD of Gianni Schicchi, if my recollection is accurate. Rather catchy, as a matter of fact.” He sang a snatch of a well-known aria: “O mio babbino caro…” He coughed.

“You were singing along? Your voice sounds a little scratchy.”

“It has been scotched.”

“You are looking a little under the weather, actually. Just a bit, ah…”

Maury nodded and rubbed his head. “…Sketchy, yes.”

Dear Kitty, Hi, Kitty, Love, Kitty

In the matter of salutations and signatures in correspondence, many people are confused about comma placement. Here is how the standard rules go, and why.

In Dear Kitty, you are addressing a person (the technical term for this is vocative) and are declaring her to be dear; it is an adjective, and you don’t put a comma between an andjective and what it modifies. Saying Dear Kitty is like saying Sweet kitty as in Sweet kitty, won’t you come lie on my lap?

In Hi, Kitty, the Kitty is again in the vocative, but Hi does not modify it; Hi is an expression of saluation, a performative. Salutations are self-contained in much the same way as imperatives, and the vocative is effectively an interjection; if you want Kitty to listen, you say “Listen, Kitty,” rather than “Listen Kitty,” and likewise it’s Hi, Kitty, how’s your cat rather than Hi Kitty, how’s your cat (unless her name is Hi Kitty). It’s true that many people leave the comma out there; that’s not considered standard, however, as there is a structural disjunction.

In a closing signature, the name is yours, so you are not addressing anyone with it; the signature function is a particular performative, sort of like Amen. It closes the text and expresses that it is from you. (We don’t do it in direct personal speech because it would be silly – it’s obvious that you’re saying what you’re saying.) The Love is short for “with love,” which means “I am sending this to you with love,” so it’s also a performative – but a different one. If you leave out the comma, you are making a direct connection between Love and Kitty, making it read like an imperative: Love Kitty! (With Sincerely it would be less snicker-worthy but still mistaken to leave off the comma: Sincerely Kitty would mean “I sincerely am Kitty” rather than, as you want, “I say this sincerely, and sign it Kitty.”)


Dear Kitty,
Hi, Kitty,
Love, Kitty.

smite, smote, smitten

One of the great classic Far Side cartoons by Gary Larsen is captioned “God at His computer”; it shows the deity (looking like the same bloke from the Sistine Chapel) at a computer, on the screen of which we see some schlimazel walking down the street as a piano is hanging on a rope above his head, and God is about to press a button on His keyboard labelled SMITE.

Ah, smite. The word struck me most recently in a chorus I (and the Mendlessohn Choir) have been singing from Handel’s Israel in Egypt: “He smote all the first-born of Egypt…” Yes, the word reeks of Biblical death. Of course we know that in general it means “strike, hit” and that “kill” is an extended sense in the same way as “copulate with” is an extended sense of lie with (or, for that matter, know in, as they say, the Biblical sense). But it is now a deliberately archaic word – that is, it is actually still used more often than many words that are seen as perfectly current (e.g., slug, cuff), but it calls forth an antiquated tone; it has the honeyed, dusty smell of foxed old books. Try these variations (related words served up by

I will hit you.
I will beat you.
I will strike you.
I will punch you.
I will smack you.
I will thump you.
I will thrash you.
I will smite you.
I will slug you.
I will cuff you.

Some are more specific than others, some more colloquial than others. But only smite carries the weight of divine justice, of a great Gothic fist, of a rusty broadsword, of some great hero or medieval ogre; if you are smitten, you don’t just fall, you are laid low.

Ah, though, smitten. That’s a different case, isn’t it? Yes, it’s the past participle of smite, but that’s not its main use. Go to and look the two up. With smite you get three branches: one, “inflict a heavy blow on,” leads to hit; one, “cause physical pain or suffering in,” leads to afflict; one, “affect suddenly with deep feeling,” leads to affect, strike, move, impress. With smitten you get two: one, “(used in combination) affected by something overwhelming,” leads to stricken and struck; the other, “marked by foolishness or unreasoning fondness,” leads to enamored, in love, infatuated, potty, soft on, taken with. All of a sudden it’s not the grave God with the long white beard ready to send a thunderbolt or press the smite button; it’s the cherubic little Cupid with his little arrows ready to pierce you through the heart with an unwonted fondness.

There are always a lot of reasons for shifts in sense: historical influences, chances of usage, little fads, great literary references. The King James Bible has done much to preserve and enhance smite; as it has passed out of common unmarked usage, some of the extended senses have fallen away – you would not now say, as you could 250 years ago, She smote him and mean “He was smitten with her” (by her, yes; with her, no), but it has kept and reinforced its majestic might. Smitten has through most of its history had a distribution largely the same as that of smite, and a fair bit of figurative use for affliction by any strong emotion (not just love), but perhaps its use by such lights as Pepys and Thackeray in the “infatuated” sense has added to its tilt in that direction as an adjective (as opposed to as a past participle proper – the latter takes “by” and the former more often “with”).

And just perhaps it has some cutesy air from echoes of kitten and mitten. It does also rhyme with bitten and written, true, but, then, you can be bitten by the love bug too, or so it is written. It is at any rate a lighter, cuter sound than that of smite; smitten has quick vowels and a bit of pitter-patter in middle stop, as though just bouncing off the surface. Smite has that diphthong swinging down, /aɪ/, and a sudden stop at the end, without bounce, and it echoes with might and spite. Yes, and more weakly with white, kite, write, slight, and so on.

And smote? Does the past tense lack the sharpness of the present? The vowel is mid back to high back rounded, not low central to high front unrounded, and that tends to give it a duller, hollower air. The echoes are more of smoke and mote (another very Biblical term now). I find it seems more natural to say it on a lower note than smite (try this: say “I will smite him” and then “I smote him” – is there a difference in pitch for you?). An old alternate form would have made it smate; either way, it’s a case of ablaut, vowel gradation, common enough in English “strong” verbs. It’s not that there’s something intrinsically past about the sound; indeed, when Dr. Zamenhof invented Esperanto, he made as the present tense verbal suffix (havas, “have”), is the past tense (havis, “had”), and os the future tense (havos, “will have”). But o is further back in the mouth, so if you match that to the ablaut pattern to take it as the past, it seems natural enough.

Now, naturally, a word as majestic as smite is readily amenable to being used jokingly, ironically, in a cutesy sense, as you might imagine. Indeed, deliberate archaisms used anew in the present always come with quotation marks, as it were, and so with a wink and a nudge. The word is just too solemn to use entirely ingenuously; it would bespeak an excessive pomposity. Thus smite, too, releases a little kitten while it conjures a massive medieval ogre wielding a mace. You expect it from geeks in role-playing games. Or in other playful contexts, as perhaps from some masochist: “She said ‘I’ll smite you,’ and she smote me; I was smitten by her, and I was smitten with her.” So mote it be.

Going forward, it’s an adverb

A colleague recently asked what part of speech going forward is when used in the annoyingly common way such as Going forward, we’ll do it this way. Here’s what I said:

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Does this word look threatening, even frightening? It does to my eyes; the rhabd in particular seems like something worse than rabid, worse than a raptor. It can’t simply be the rh; that shows up quite happily in rhetoric, rhapsody, rhyme, rhythm… I think it really is the grabbing of the /æbd/ after the quick growl of the /r/. The length of the word is also daunting, along with its two y’s like the extended claw feet of a raptor coming down to snatch you – or like drains to suck you down.

But undoubtedly it’s also because of what it signifies. After all, rhabdomancy manages not to be quite so nasty, though it is a bit of a hairy word for what is more calmly called dowsing. You know, when you use rods to tell you where the water (or sometimes other liquids) are. Now, you may well know that mancy is the part that refers to divination (as in cartomancy, necromancy, etc.). It thus follows that rhabdo means “rod”. Which it does. It’s from ῥάβδος rhabdos “rod” (you see that the ‘ over the rho means it gets “rough voicing,” which is represented in our spelling as the h after the r – and is resolutely ignored by us in pronunciation).

We can thus set aside any relation to abdomen – well, any etymological relation, anyway. But what about the myolysis? Some of you may recognize myo from words such as myocardial and myoelectric. It’s from μῦς mus “mouse, mussel, muscle” (yes, all three) and, in English words, refers to muscles. And lysis? It shows up in words such as electrolysis and is also present, mutatis mutandis, in words such as catalytic; it comes from λύσις lusis “loosening, parting” and refers to breakdown, decomposition, disintegration, dissolution.

So: rod, muscle, breakdown. No, it does not mean breaking down muscles by beating them with rods; although it may look like a name fit for a torture technique, we may spare those rods. Oh, being beaten with rods may lead to rhabdomyolysis. But the rods in this word are the muscle fibres. The word is not rhabdo+myolysis but rhabdomyo+lysis: breakdown of striped muscle.

It’s actually even worse than it sounds. If muscle is damaged enough to start breaking down – and this can happen through quite a lot of different causes, not just injury or overexertion but metabolic imbalances, infections, poisons, and even drug side effects – the products of the breakdown go into your bloodstream and can cause electrolyte imbalance (leading to confusion, nausea, coma, etc.) and kidney damage (possibly leading to death, etc.).

News reports on the cholesterol drug Baycol, which was taken off the market after it was associated with risk of rhabdomyolysis, sometimes described it as “muscle liquefaction” or words to that effect. That’s not exactly it, but the broken-down muscle passes into the bodily fluids (a notable sign is very dark urine), so “dissolution,” anyway, is not altogether inaccurate.

And how, by the way, do you say it? It’s tempting to give it a nice three-beat trochaic rhythm, like confutatis maledictis without the dictis. But actually it follows the grand old tradition of accenting Greek-derived words on the antepenult (the third-last syllable), making it a pair of dactyls. Pterodactyls? Eeks – that’s even worse than raptors.


This word, at first sight, seems to be a paradoxical mix: geo says “earth” to us, and duck says “waterfowl”. Put them together and you have something that is, as the saying goes, neither fish nor fowl.

But, oh, that’s not even the half of it. This word and what it denotes have nothing to do with ducks, and only arguably something to do with earth. Not only that, it’s not pronounced like it’s spelled. OK, well, it often is pronounced like it’s spelled, but that’s not the original pronunciation and is still not the preferred pronunciation for those in the know. But let’s get to that anon. There’s lots of other weirdness to get through first.

Let’s establish that it’s a critter of some sort. Given that, what kind of critter would have about as little as you can think to do with ducks or with earth? Hmm, how about some kind of a marine critter. Let’s say it’s one that basically sits where it is and sucks in and spits out water its whole life, which can last well over 100 years. And let’s give it a shell. OK, yeah, let’s make it a clam. Unducklike and un-earthy enough for you?

But tell me about clams, now: what are they? Well, things that have their body inside a shell – they can close the shell and hide in it. And they’re usually pretty small. Well, now, let’s make this one up to 5 kilograms, and let’s make it so its shell can’t actually close over its body. In fact, let’s also give it a tail – OK, a siphon – that can get up to 70 centimetres long. This is a clam that is around the size of a turkey. And it looks rather phallic, too, thanks to that long siphon. (The Chinese name, 象拔蚌 xiàngbábàng, means “elephant-trunk clam”.)

Now, admittedly, it does have something to do with earth – the earth that is under water. It’s a burrowing clam. It digs in, then sits and sucks and blows water. Aaaaaaaand that’s about it. You think your life is boring. Well, meet zen master clam. I am sure that it is as happy as a clam. A very big clam. The biggest burrowing clam in the world, and one of the longest-lived critters on the planet, too.

They get to live to such a ripe old age in part because they have few natural predators. Not none, mind you. The most dangerous one is willing to pay more than $150 a pound for these things (imagine dropping $1600 on a turkey). So they’re a protected species. But they can be eaten, and in fact Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food tells us that geoduck meat is delicious. The siphon meat is best used in chowder (diced, I presume), and the body (the mantle) can be sliced into escalopes and prepared a variety of ways. You won’t be suckin’ ’em back like raw oysters, though.

And is the word geoduck delicious? Well, first you have to know how it tastes. It may look like the name of some environmentalist avian comic superhero (“Step away from those protected clams!” “Gaaahhh! It’s Geoduck!”), but it’s actually kind of gooey. “Gooey duck,” to be precise: that’s how you would do better to say it. That makes it less crisp, more round and dull and perhaps muddy. Um, yeah, so what’s with the spelling?

Well, as far as can be determined, the word comes from a west-coast first nations word, perhaps the Salish word gʷídəq, “dig deep”. It is also seen spelled as gweduc in English. But back in the 1800s the spelling goeduck gained some currency… but then got miscopied as geoduck: goe looks odd to English eyes, while geo is well known. The respelling has also led to people who don’t know better pronouncing it as the spelling would suggest; indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary gives only that pronunciation for it. (But they don’t have geoducks in England, and the OED entry is rather brief.) And so we have a word that looks like it means one kind of thing and is said one way, when actually it means something quite different and is pronounced in a rather unexpected way. Weird enough for you? Welcome to the English language.

What would be a capper for all that? Well, a couple possibles come to mind. One would be a fake etymology. And indeed there is one noted by Davidson, which he found in a 1917 edition of the Tacoma Daily Ledger, involving some dude named John F. Gowey who was out hunting for ducks and shot at the jets of water emitted by the clams (yes, those long spouts do squirt) and bagged several, leading to their being called “Gowey’s ducks.” (Anyone who has studied much etymology would snort with instant disbelief at a story like that; they abound, and are almost never true.)

Another would be a collegiate athletic team named after them. Never mind Spartans and Trojans. Make way for the Evergreen State College Geoducks! Yes, Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (yes, Olympia, the original of which is in Greece), have named their basketball, volleyball, soccer, track and field, and cross-country teams the Geoducks. Well, why not name an athletic team after something that just sits and sucks and spits water? If a Chevy truck ad can feature a song that has the line “like a rock, charging from the gate,” why not geoducks, which are at least theoretically motile? (At least they won’t run into the problem of the Corner Canyon school in Draper, Utah, whose school board ruled they couldn’t call their team the Cougars because it might be offensive to middle-aged women. No, I’m not making that up.)

I feel that this odd and paradoxical word and its sui generis referent are best capped off with the fight song for the Evergreen State College Geoducks, in case it all hasn’t been fun enough (I also encourage you to see their mascot on their website):

The Geoduck Fight Song
words and music by Malcolm Stilson, 1971
hear it on YouTube

Go, Geoducks go,
Through the mud and the sand, let’s go.
Siphon high, squirt it out,
swivel all about,
let it all hang out.

Go, Geoducks go,
Stretch your necks when the tide is low
Siphon high, squirt it out,
swivel all about,
let it all hang out.


This seems like a nice, frilly word. It strikes me as somehow redolent of the a Southern Belle, standing under the espalier at the cotillion ready to dance a quadrille in her best gown and high-heeled shoes. Or perhaps she is gazing at some dashing Spaniard doing fencing drills con capa y espada (with cape and sword). But at any rate the word does not taste lean, laconic, or spartan; it has ruffles and frills in its appearance, the p and d and ll and that extra curlicue e at the end.

Do you happen to know what an espadrille is? If not, please take a moment to hazard your own guess. If you do, think about what you would think it meant if you didn’t know what it meant. I’ll grab a sherry and be right back.

So? It is not a curly salad green (escarole) or a snail that might crawl on it (escargot). It is not a trellis, not a ball, not a dance, not a dress, not a high-heeled… Oh, wait, they do make high-heeled espadrilles too. But mostly they are flat-soled. Yes, they are shoes: those shoes with rope soles. They are fairly un-fancy, with their canvas uppers like tennis shoes (without laces); the intricate bit is just the jute braiding that makes up the sole. They’re worn all over the world, but they’re originally from the Pyrenees.

And originally, I should say, the soles were made with rope not of jute but of esparto (sometimes they still are). Esparto is a tall grass that grows in northwest Africa and southern Spain. The word esparto is the source of espadrille; you can see that the /t/ and /r/ underwent metathesis (reversal of order) and the /t/ became a /d/. The immediate source of espadrille is Provençal espardillo.

But what does esparto come from? From Latin spartum, from Greek σπάρτον sparton “a rope made with σπάρτος spartos”; spartos was the Greek name for the plant or for another similar one.

Does that make you wonder if Sparta has the same origin? Indeed, it seems that it does, though it is not known exactly what the association was between the plant or its rope and the famous Greek city (that was known for its disciplined and laconic warriors, who played a major part in the defeat of Troy – Helen was, after all, queen of Sparta before being taken by Paris to Troy). Where, by the way, is that city? In Laconia – whence the word laconic.

Which, as we can see, I am not. Nor spartan. But I also own no espadrilles. Unless you ask someone from Quebec, that is; in Québecois French, espadrilles is a normal word for runners or sneakers.

Troy, Trojan

On Friday night, we went to the opening night of the Alumnae Theatre’s production of Gwendolyn MacEwan’s beautiful, lyrical, memorable version of The Trojan Women, the original of which was written by Euripides. It is set at the crumbled wall of Troy, where the women of Troy are gathered in the pre-dawn dark. Over the course of the play, the sun rises, but it brings not hope or beauty but the inescapable aftermath.

The Greeks came, with their horse; now Troy is destroyed and the women are soon to be de-Troyed, deployed on Greek ships as trophies. Their husbands? Dead, of course. “In their tattered black robes,” MacEwan tells us in the stage directions, “the women resemble crows.” Hecuba, Priam’s queen, is an old crone in rags (though, as Poseidon says at the play’s beginning, “negotiable (like old gold). . . . both worthless and highly valuable (if you know what I mean)”). Her son, Hector, is also dead, and Hector’s wife Andromache is about to face the loss of her young son, too: the death even of the future. Hecuba’s daughter, the nubile prophetess Cassandra, is to be Agamemnon’s trophy… to find out how that turns out, read Agamemnon by Aeschylus. (Hint: very badly indeed.) And Menelaus comes to reclaim Helen, the woman who started the whole thing: a vain pathological liar, to whom MacEwan has given the great line “I am not a slut, I am not a silly bitch! I am Helen, I am beautiful!”

At the end of the play, the city burns behind, and the women are led off to the Greek ships. Talthybius, the Greek messenger, looks back and sums it up, echoing lines already heard in the play:

As the moon bends the oceans
So this darkness bends the mind.
Even the planets are weary.
Everything awaits a series
of wretched and unreal tomorrows.

Goodbye, you splendid towers,
You once magnificent citadel,
You horrible heap of stones…

Sing for the great city that cries out
like a soul,
That falls like a shadow
On the threshold of Nowhere…
This place, this place was Troy.

MacEwan’s play holds a special place in my memories; I’ve seen three different productions of it now, and the first was when I was a drama student at the University of Calgary. I have never had the chance to perform in it, but have many times savoured the lines I could have said – and the many lines I could not have, as most of the parts are female, and none of the productions cast men in female roles.

But of course for most people Troy and its adjective Trojan carry no such flavours. It is true that (to quote Led Zeppelin) “the pain of war cannot exceed the woe of aftermath,” but we don’t so often pause to think of the aftermath of the historical battles, in spite of the many poems and songs and plays of aftermath (I am quickly put in mind of Robert Burns’s “The Battle of Sherramuir” and the little-known Tolkien work “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son,” and, for that matter, songs such as “Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye” and the very affecting “My Youngest Son Came Home Today”).

Rather, we think of warriors. We think of fights. We think of heroes. The popular movie Troy was certainly not an elegy for the widows. What sort of a boy is named Troy? Stereotypically the football hero, the square-jawed popular guy, maybe a fraternity brother… Try to picture it as the name of someone nerdy, quiet, thin, pale. Difficult, no? That tr is so truculent, so strong, perhaps trustworthy; it has traction, like a tractor-trailer truck. Oh, Troy is the golden boy – they may even weigh him in troy, that standard of weight that is used for gold (and is named after Troyes, France, which is not connected etymologically to the Troy of Greek legend). He is shiny, he is solid, he is a fighter. Ironically, he is lighter – a pound troy is lighter than a pound avoirdupois, which is what we use to weigh people and poultry and pillows and so on. (Incidentally, this means that a pound of gold is lighter than a pound of feathers.)

There was a real Troy, by the way, and it really did fall as a result of a battle – and, it seems, a few other times in history, too, once by natural disaster. We don’t know what the reality was of the personalities and motivations involved. But the ruins are on the Turkish coast (or near it – the coast has moved in the intervening 3200 or 3300 years), on a hill in Anatolia now called Hisarlık. It was named after its founder, Troas; one of his sons was Ilon, from whom Troy got its alternate name, Ilion (in Latin Ilium), whence the name of Homer’s epic, the Iliad.

Troy, in Latin, is Troia, and that i became written as y in modern English, but in Troian the i took on its alternate longer form, which in modern English has come to be a separate letter standing for a sound that Latin and Old English didn’t have: j. That jaw-jutting tongue-tip affricate adds even more solidity to the word. And the places you are most likely to see Trojan include the condom racks of drugstores and the gymnasia and stadia of high schools (how many high-school sports teams are called the Trojans? To follow legend, one would expect all the teams called Spartans to beat the teams called the Trojans, but I wonder how many of those students even know much of anything about Homer’s epics… I’m sure most of them know the word from drugstores, whether they’ve ever bought any prophylactics or not).

Well, well. Mindless violence and the prevention of future generations. And so we’re back at the play. And all those golden boys are weighed in the balance, and their pounds of flesh are still outweighed – and outlasted – by the black feathers of the “old crows,” the widows they would leave behind.


It’s a typical pattern: in the characteristic tatterdemalion paraphernalia of liminal natterings that rattle on between email aliases in the category of business chatter, a simple task may disintegrate into a flurry of a million fluttering missives, frittering away details in trails to failure in alienating malaise, until, muttering scatalogically, you send the kit and caboodle skittering and scuttle the lot. We’ve all had such projects, I’m sure: not a big bulk of business brought forth in a ball; rather, little details passed back and forth one at a time until you lose track entirely of who said what when in response to what and what comes before what and obviates what and… At such times you would love to bare your sword and plunge it into the belly of one big fire-breathing dragon of a task, rather than darting your stiletto at ten tons of little lizards swarming you from all directions.

After a day of just this sort of thing, my colleague Heather Ebbs gave it a name (so much easier to pronounce a malediction on something when you can name it): scattermalia. She defines it thus: “odds and ends of queries or information scattered through several emails instead of being nicely cleaned up into one clear listing.” The sort of thing, I might amplify, that leaves you at last to say, “OK, so what has been decided? Where are we with this?”

It really is a 21st-century problem; emails can allow you to have multiple conversation threads at the same time with the same person. It’s as though the two of you are singing one of those opera quartets all by yourselves, with each line sung antiphonally. The cyber-world may allow people to accomplish things more quickly, but among the things that can be accomplished are making a mess and getting confused. We are the authors of our own befuddlement; Pygmalion may have made a statue and then fallen in love with it, but what we have animated can come to be more of a cross between a siren and a hydra, and we are chasing it in an echo chamber covered in mirrors.

But it’s a lovely fun little word, isn’t it, scattermalia? Scatter skitters and rattles on the tongue, while malia is the soft nasal and liquid other half. The rhythm is smooth and charging. In spelling, the i before the l has been dropped as unnecessary and by analogy with, for instance, animalia. The word has tastes of various other words, several of which decorated my first paragraph, above. It also has a strong taste of Saturnalia, which sets a solid, familiar pattern for the sound – but, oh, how much less fun scattermalia is than Saturnalia, though they both involve misrule.