Daily Archives: March 14, 2012


Daryl emerged from the kitchen of Domus Logogustationis holding two fresh, steaming pies (and I don’t mean cow pies). He plunked them down on a table and said, “There!”

“Well, aren’t you sweet as pie!” Elisa Lively exclaimed. “What’s the occasion?”

“Pie Day!” he said, or so it sounded.

“Proto-Indo-European Day?” Maury said, referring to the reconstructed proto-language commonly abbreviated as PIE. “Are these made with roots?” I, meanwhile, had started to sing “Pie day, pie day” in emulation of Rebecca Black. “Please stop,” Maury said in my general direction.

“It’s March fourteenth,” Daryl said. “Three fourteen. Pi is three point one four.”

“Which would mean,” I said, “that pi second was at 1:59:26 – point 5.” I had always known that memorizing pi in my childhood would come in handy sometime.

“I think I don’t follow,” Elisa said.

“Pi,” I said. “3.1415926535897932384626…” Daryl joined in after a few digits and we recited in unison until Elisa started waving her hands and said, “What are you doing? Stop.”

“Pi in your face!” Daryl said.

“All I know is pi r squared,” Elisa said.

“These pie are round,” Maury observed. “You can tell by the circumference: these two pie are.”

“If no one else is going to,” I said, “I’m going into the kitchen to get plates and forks and serving implements.”

“No need,” said Jess, emerging from the kitchen with the requisites. “Easy as pie.”

“Well, hi, cutie pie,” Elisa said.

“There’s another mathematical formula,” I said. “Visual appeal as the product of quality, time, and the amount of pie you eat: qtπ. Proof that dessert is good for your looks.”

“Keep it on the q.t.,” Jess said. “Looks good to me,” Elisa said at the same time.

“Well, dig in,” Daryl said. “There’s ample pie.”

“I’ll have a sample of pie, then,” Maury said, reaching for a knife.

“Apple pie?” Elisa said.

“And bumbleberry pie,” Daryl said.

“Better bumble than humble,” I said, taking a plate from the stack Jess had set down. “I’ll be trying both pies. I like to have a finger in every pie.”

“Don’t put your finger in these ones,” Daryl said. I launched into a snippet from Pink Floyd’s “Money”: “Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie.” And I took a slice of each pie.

“Perhaps we can have some pies in quiet,” Jess said, and added – at me – “Chatter-pie.”

“Nice shirt,” I said to Jess. “How would you describe the colour… badger-pie?” Jess stuck her tongue out at me.

Maury looked at my two-pie-piece plate. “You would have taken one of each even had there been four, wouldn’t you?”

“At least one, yes,” I said, and took a bite. “Mmm. Yummy.”

He nodded. “You really are a magpie.”

“Pies for the pie,” I said. More for the benefit of Elisa and perhaps Daryl – Maury and Jess probably knew this – I added, “Magpies were originally called pies, from Latin pica. The mag was added perhaps in the same way as adding Jack to daw it seems to be from Maggie.”

“So did someone bake four-and-twenty of them in a pie some time?” Elisa asked between bites.

I almost started singing “Pie-pie blackbird,” but thought better of it. “No one’s entirely sure where pie for the dish came from,” I said, eyeing the pies, “but it dates from after pie for the bird, and the first ones were made of a variety of savoury things and meats, so it might have been a magpie-style collection. But that’s speculation. Perhaps with further research…”

“You’ll get pie in the sky when you die,” Jess said, echoing the cynical line that originated the phrase pie in the sky.

“As long as I could have it with a nice glass of port,” I said.

“And get thoroughly pie-eyed?” Maury said.

“Why not,” I said. “Make the pie higher!”

Thanks to Christina Vasilevski, who brought pie to work today and inspired this.


A sea of shifting sand dunes stretches before you, mile upon mile of massive mounds made of minuscule particles of silica. It is hot. You are thirsty. You are baking, you are boiling; the sand is shifting and blowing. You must walk up this dune, down this dune, up this dune, down this dune, and on and on, and the sand is soft beneath your feet… Every smallest expense of effort exhausts you; with each motion all you can say is “Erg… erg.”

And indeed there are two words erg, unrelated. One is from Greek ἔργον ergon, “work”, and is a unit of measurement in the metric system for a small amount of physical work done: a force of one dyne exerted over one centimetre – in other words, one gram centimetre-squared per second-squared, or 100 nanojoules. The other is from Arabic arq or irq or Berber irj, depending on the source you consult. It refers to one of those great seas of dunes – an area of at least 125 square kilometres where sand covers at least 20% of the surface and shifts about in the wind to make dunes. Think Lawrence of Arabia. (They have them on other planets, too, and they are an important feature on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.) In other words, one meaning is even smaller than this three-letter, two-phoneme word, and the other is much, much larger.

It is the latter sense of this word that brought it to mind today. Verlyn Klinkenborg used it in one of his lyrical pieces for National Geographic. In the February 2012 issue, he writes of the sand on the Paria Plateau in Arizona the following:

That sand (ancient enough, grain by grain) is derived from prehistoric sand – the Navajo sandstone that forms the plateau and cliffs. This sandstone, in turn, is the remains of a vast erg, a windblown sea of dunes that for millions of years covered most of what is now the Colorado Plateau.

(A side note: Verlyn Klinkenborg is one of the great lyrical writers of nature and culture in the English language today. He also writes pieces for The New York Times and I’m not sure where else. I first encountered his work 20 years ago with his book on mid-century Buffalo, The Last Fine Time. I confess he has been a bit of an influence for me, but I do not claim to reproduce or even emulate his style.)

The shifting sands, then, may be the triturated remnants of rock of old, but it in turn can become rock. Where does the cycle begin and end? What is the chicken, what the erg? (I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist the urg. Urge, I mean.)

There is one other thing that erg makes a linguist think of: ergative. This word is derived from the Greek root mentioned above. It can refer to the sort of language wherein the subject of an intransitive is case-marked the same as the object of a transitive, but it can also refer to a particular kind of verb of which we have a goodly number in English: a verb that can be transitive or intransitive, but the subject of the intransitive is the object of the transitive. Some examples:

The sun bakes you. You bake.
The heat boils you. You boil.
The wind shifts the sand. The sand shifts.
The wind blows the sand. The sand blows.

The classic example is break, as in I break the window; the window breaks. But of course break has other senses: I break for a glass of wine. I break off.

And indeed I will break off my efforts now. I have a date with the sandman.