Monthly Archives: April 2012

leveret, levirate

A few of us were lounging around in Domus Logogustationis (the local headquarters of the Order of Logogustation), mostly reading, occasionally exchanging comments on various words.

Elisa Lively looked up from her book. “What’s a levirate?”

“A leveret?” said Maury, barely glancing up from his magazine. “A young hare.” He returned to his reading.

“Oh, thanks,” Elisa said. Pause while she looked back at her book. “Huh.” Another pause. “Huh.” She looked up again. “Because this book uses the term all the time but doesn’t define it. But that doesn’t really clear things up all that much. Young hair.”

“No?” Maury looked over the top of his magazine and peered over at Elisa’s book, but the title of it was not visible at his angle. “There are some other senses based on that, though they are not really in current use.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, a spiritless person. Or a mistress.”

“Oh. That must be what it is. Hm.” Another pause. “So a levirate is a mistress because of the link between hair and tresses?”

“Hair and…” Maury was fleetingly confused, and then realized the confusion, or at least part of it. “Hare as in like a rabbit. H-a-r-e.”

“But… so… OK. I thought maybe it was some kind of game or an instrument or something. But I can see some relation to keeping a mistress.”

“Well, rabbits are a kind of game. As are hares. You can hunt them.”

“But can you practise them?”

“Can you what?”

“I guess when they say practise the levirate they mean they’re in the practice of keeping mistresses. I mean, I don’t see where little animals really come into this.”

“What are you reading?” Maury was straining forward in his seat trying to see the book. “I take it it’s not lagomorphology.” Elisa opened her mouth to ask a question, which Maury anticipated. “The study of rabbits, hares, and pikas, and such like.”

“Oooh, I love pikas!” Elisa said. “But no, it’s anthropology. They’re talking about some cultures in New Guinea.”

“They have hares there?”

“Well, the thing is, I thought maybe they were more interested in heirs. Because they’ve been talking about marital customs and widows and…”

Maury, finally cluing in, cut her off. “Lee-virate! That,” he said, holding his finger in the air, “is what you want.”

“Leave her at that? What, as a widow? She gets a hare for an heir? Or they want to get her out of their hair? Or does she become someone’s mistress?”

“No, it’s a different word,” Maury said. “I thought you said leveret, l-e-v-e-r-e-t. Which is a small hare. It comes from Old French, and ultimately from Latin lepus, ‘hare’. But you mean levirate” – here he pronounced the first syllable as “lee” again – “which comes from Latin levir, ‘husband’s brother’.”

“So I was saying it wrong?”

“No,” Maury said, “the way you were saying is also acceptable. But ambiguous.”

“So neither word has to do with Levites or French lips,” Elisa said. (French for “lips” is lèvres.) “Or lovers. But I’m still confused. They practise the brother-in-law?”

“A widow marries her husband’s brother. This is actually in Mosaic law, in Deuteronomy: if a man dies before his wife has a child, she has to marry the man’s brother to have a child with him. But there is an escape clause: they can renounce the right to marry and the woman is free to marry someone else. Obviously the latter is the norm today, where that law is observed at all. It alleviates the lover-and-levirate problem.”

“It’s like the brother is the reliever,” Elisa said. “So these people in New Guinea are Jewish? Talk about lost tribes.”

“No. Other cultures also do it.”

Elisa sounded out the word silently. “It’s a nice word, anyway. Even if a bit pretentious to use it without defining it.”

“It’s a lovely word, I’m sure,” Maury said. “C’est la vérité. At least as long as it’s more about love than leverage.”

“I wonder what the ceremony would be…” Elisa said, canting her eyes up toward the ceiling in thought. “‘I hare-by take you, Elvira, as my in-law-fully wedded wife.’” She tittered.


“My dog,” Jim Taylor writes, “a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, says ‘woof’ or perhaps ‘wuff’ – I’m not completely sure of the central vowel. But I’m quite sure there is an opening diphthong ‘woo’ and a closing fricative ‘ff’.

“But physically, anatomically, I don’t understand how a dog can make those sounds. The fricative requires an upper lip against the lower teeth; a dog doesn’t have an upper lip. The ‘woo’ should require pursed lips; a dog doesn’t have lips it can purse.

“So how does it make those sounds?”

Ah, acoustic phonetics. It’s a fascinating area, and one that can make many people nervous and confused pretty quickly (see my note on cepstrum for a wee taste). But the language we speak and hear is a complex fabric woven of many threads. And actually it’s amazing that we can understand what we hear, in fast speech and slow, casual and careful, spoken and sung, in different voices and different accents; a lot of it has to do with what we expect to hear, and what sounds are reasonable combinations in a given language and context.

But first: It’s obvious that a big dog says woof, right? You can hear them say it. People have been writing it down as woof since… well, at least since the mid-1800s. Hmm, and what did dogs of that sort say before then? Well, there are some slightly older whooghs attested. And, uh… hmm… well, some other things before that.

The thing is, in any given language, there are phonemes – sounds that are recognized as being distinct sounds. And these aren’t crisply defined things; they’re more like regions, buckets, circles, subdivisions of the possible sound from the articulatory space of the mouth. Any two languages will divide the articulatory space up at least slightly differently. Sounds that are heard as different in one language may be heard as the same in another, and vice versa.

One of the first things we do when we start to learn language in our infancy is to learn what the buckets are to sort sounds into. We come to understand that one pair of sounds are treated as different sounds, while another pair no less different are treated as the same sound. And we come to actually hear them as the same, especially if we’re not paying close attention; we also tend to expect certain sounds in certain places, as some words will be more likely than others in any given place. This is why speakers of some languages have so much trouble distinguishing between English pairs such as bit and beat.

And it’s why Shakespeare represented the Welsh name Llywelyn as Fluellen. And partly why when the voiceless velar fricative (that we hear in German ach) disappeared from English, in some words it was just dropped but in others it became a [f] sound (think of the words that end in gh). And why the voiceless bilabial fricative in Maori, which is spelled as wh, sounds like [f] to us. And why some Anglophones have so much trouble with the vowel in German Tür and French tu. And so on.

And, of course, why a sound that seems so clearly [f] to your ears and mine might sound like something else to someone else. We sort it into the buckets available, and if it doesn’t fit neatly into one or another there may be differences of opinion on what bucket it best fits into. So the spelling of animals’ sounds varies from time to time and from place to place.

And then there’s the question of how a dog, which can’t round its lips, can make a pretty clear [w] sound and a certainly distinguishable mid-high back rounded vowel [ʊ] sound.

But, really, what about a sound conveys roundness of lips? In the shape of the sound wave, what do you suppose it might be? When we think about it, we must acknowledge that speakers (as in the ones on your stereo) make all these sounds without lips to round, and you can make a saw sound like a human singing, and then there’s the wah-wah pedal you can use for an electric guitar…

The number one thing to understand about the sounds we make is that they are not simple even sound waves. A violin, a piano, and a voice all sound different because of the shapes of the sound waves and the different resonances they have. Those resonances involve structures of harmonics. If you hear an A at 880 Hertz, unless it’s produced by some electronic sound generator and heard in a non-resonant environment, you will also be hearing a structure of resonances at various multiples of 880 Hertz. Any resonating space that can fit one sound wave of a given length can fit two of half the length, three of a third the length, and so on.

The shape of the resonating space has an important effect on what resonances come through. Now, what affects the shape of the space in your mouth? The movement of your tongue and your lips. There are two main resonating areas, determined by where your tongue constricts your mouth: one is between the larynx (voice box) and the point of constriction, and the other is between the point of constriction and the lips.

If you take a speech sound and analyze it acoustically, you can get a thing called a spectrogram. It looks a bit like an unevenly made fabric, a rather blurry one; the x axis is time, and the y axis is frequency, and what you see is areas of certain frequencies that are very dark, meaning strong, and others that are very light, meaning weak. They look like bands of fuzzy threads going across at certain points. There will be two main ones you will see, and more above them. The lower one is called formant 1, or F1, and is mainly the resonance from behind the tongue. The higher the tongue is, the larger that space is and so the lower the F1 is. The one above it is of course formant 2 (F2), and is mainly the resonance in front of the tongue. The farther forward the point of constriction is, the smaller the space, and the higher the F2 is.

So, in brief, low F1 and F2 means the sound is like [u]. High F1 and F2 means the sound is like [æ]. High F2 and low F1? That’s [i]. And so on. Yup, we follow the thread of speech sounds by following the dark threads woven across the tapestry of harmonics.

Oh, and the effect of rounding the lips? Well, that constricts the sound wave at the opening, where it would normally be fullest, and so it lowers all of the formants, including the ones above F1 and F2. The higher formants are much fainter, but F3 does have something of a role to play too – otherwise lip rounding would be entirely equivalent to shifting the tongue up and back.

The point being, anything that produces that harmonic profile will seem to have that sound. How does a wah-wah pedal work? Basically by varying between emphasizing lower harmonics and higher ones. It’s really just an adjustment of the equalization (you know, like fiddling with the sliders on a higher-end stereo or sound board). It’s really the contrast between the sounds (as it slides in a “wah”) that leads you to hear it as a contrastive vowel sound.

And how does the dog’s mouth produce the “woof”? Well, I can’t say exactly what, in the shape of a dog’s mouth, would produce that sound. Alexander Graham Bell probably knew. He used to demonstrate speech sound articulation and production by manipulating a dog’s mouth with his hands.

Woof isn’t just the sound a big dog makes, by the way. Nor may we limit ourselves to adding the sound a saw makes (when sawing wood, not when singing), or the noise a pile of gas-soaked rags makes when ignited, or the sound of a strong gust of wind through a window. We may move quite away from onomatopoeia, to weaving.

On a loom, you see, there are two sets of threads. The ones that are perpendicular to the weaver, attached to the frame, are the warp, a word that used to mean “throw” (the word that throw comes from originally meant “twist”, so the two words have pretty much changed places semantically – how they did so is a tale for a whole other note). The ones that run cross-wise, like the formants on a spectrogram, are called the woof, a word coming from the same old Germanic root as weave.

And the weaving is done with the aid of a shuttle, which is thrown back and forth between the threads. You might or might not see something in common between it and the gesture your mouth makes when saying “woof”. Say it a few times and you’ll see how it starts with the tongue tense and the lips forward, and then the lips pull back and spread and the tongue at the same time lowers. As you repeat the word, the whole assembly of your mouth moves back and forth like a shuttle or a saw.

Whatever a dog’s mouth is doing, though, I guarantee it isn’t that. But it doesn’t really need to be, either.


In certain circles and particular topics, there can come times when you want to read a document, and you find a radical detraction: someone has given direction to make a reduction by red pen action, deleting or obliterating words and passages that might have been used for indoctrination or perhaps action by reds – or just classified or obscene content. This anti-educational deduction – which gets to be a bit of an addiction for parties of certain political bents – is delicately called redaction, and the ablated parts said to be redacted, presumably because people get incensed by the word censored.

But I have to say, the first time I saw redaction used for that, I thought it was almost immoderately euphemistic, coy, even doublespeaky: a deliberate redirection of sense. This word, you see, with its square-timbered sound that makes me think of hammers and nails and construction, is a word more of building, of taking what was inchoate or incoherent and finding a form for it, putting it into focus, tightening and strengthening it. It is like what good photographers do: find, frame, focus, expose, crop, adjust, so that pieces of the stream of ordinary life can manifest their latent glory.

Redaction is, yes, in the main a crisp-suited word for “editing”. And just as many people think editing is just a process of cutting and correcting, so too do people often see redaction as action with a red axe. But really editing is like gardening: it is nurturing and forming, and even every bit of pruning is done to improve the overall vigour of the plant.

The source of redaction is the past participle of Latin redigere “send back, return, bring back, restore”, from re plus agere “drive” (cognate with act). This word is indeed related to reaction, but while the censorious kind of redaction is certainly a reaction, opposite and unequal, the first sense of redaction in English was “bringing into a definite form” – as in making suitably ready for publication. (I will not take this opportunity to plug my just-published Songs of Love and Grammar, available from Lulu.)

It still means readying for publication, and also revision – of a work already published, or of a work to make it ready for publication. Of course, making a new version is not the same as reversion, nor is it necessarily reversing the process of creation, Swiss-cheesing the text as if with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. We know why that is done: to keep those who read from taking action. The redaction I prefer and practice daily gives text – and people – direction. All communication is behaviour designed to cause behaviour in response – the agent reading is a reagent; good redaction does not neutralize, it catalyzes.


Some words make me salivate, they’re so saucy and delicious. This is one such. It doesn’t hurt that it has a naughty tone that I deeply appreciate, but even less lubricious words of its sonic ilk – featuring voiceless tongue-tip fricatives and perhaps a liquid – are a pleasure on the tongue: salsify, loquacious, sausages, lissome, saucy, luxurious, Alsatian, shillelagh, relishes, English usage, Carol Fisher Saller…

Who is Carol Fisher Saller? She’s an editor, the author of The Subversive Copy Editor. I am put in mind of her not just because of the sound of her name (though that comes into it) and not just because I have a durable case of lust for words, but because when I think of salacious I think of words. Specifically, I think of a book of salacious poetry about English usage: Songs of Love and Grammar.

No, I’m not making that up. I’ve already made it up – it’s written and lain out and is at last available on It’s my new book. I’ve already used one poem from it here, “My veil of tears.” Herewith I would like to present another. In case you were uncertain whether it was possible to be indelicate about a split infinitive, I’ll let you judge for yourself:

To sweetly split the infinitive

by James Harbeck

A fetching young virginitive
sought out a buff grammarian
both lusty and contrarian
to split her sweet infinitive.

She said, “Please do it neatly –
I’m sure ’tis not a sin
to slip an adverb in
to split an infinitive sweetly.”

He asked, “Where would I fit it?
It seems an imposition
’twixt verb and preposition.”
But she asked him sweetly to split it

before her mood had passed,
“for all the best writers do it.”
So together they went to it
to sweetly split it at last!

Ah, there it is. And I assure you some of the poems are more salacious than that (others merely deal with romantic and grammatical highs and lows, and a few just play with words).

But let us return for just a moment longer to salacious. What kinds of things are usually called salacious? The Corpus of Contemporary American English tells me that we most often read of salacious details, salacious material, salacious allegations (lovely sound, that one), salacious stories, and salacious gossip, among a few others.

And what other words may be seen to have similar senses? By Visual Thesaurus, one branch touches obscene, lewd, raunchy; the other ramifies to lustful, lubricious, prurient – I like that better: those are pricier words, even if their common nexus is the sense “characterized by lust.” Oh, but lust is my favourite deadly sin. Gluttony leaves you full and fat, sloth leaves you sleepy and fat, greed and envy eat at you, pride comes before a fall, and wrath is just plain old unpleasant. But a dirty mind is a constant source of entertainment… as long as you don’t go trotting after it wherever it leads.

Where does salacious come from? From Latin, of course, the tongue of Catullus and Martial, two noted Romans of lubricious loquacity. Its source is not so salty; it is rather a salto, a sally, a flying leap – salire, “leap” (verb). Yes, prone to leaping. If you know what I mean. Well, the Latins did: it was they who went from salire “leap” (also “jump, spurt”) to salax and salacius “lustful”, the immediate etymon. It is suggested that it is related to the sexual advances of male mammals.

But that’s all so beastly and brutish in its literal sense. I much prefer the literary sense. There are many tricks a well-trained tongue may get up to…

Now go buy my book at


This word was mentioned to me today at work by Christina Vasilevski, who was in the kitchen dining. It has a couple of interesting aspects: first, even if you don’t recall ever seeing it before, you can probably guess how to pronounce it – in spite of its pronunciation not being exactly what people would call phonetic. Second, the odds are very high that if you see it you see it before one word in particular: punishment.

Let’s just look at the spelling of this word for a moment. The con is no problem. If you take it to condi, it still seems to be no problem – it just looks like the nickname of Condoleezza Rice – but the pronunciation has already gone off the rails. If you look at the back half, dign, how you see it depends on context. If I tell you it’s a root, not a word, how do you want to pronounce it? As in dignity, indignant, and so forth? But if it’s at the end of a word, we can’t do that: you just can’t end a syllable with /gn/ – actually, you can’t have them together in the same syllable at all in English. So the i becomes “long” and the g is elided. Go figure – typical English.

Except that, like so much of our spelling weirdness, we got it from French. Which also does not permit such combinations. So the /g/ was weakened to the point of being a mere palatal push-up of the tongue before the /n/, and this resulted in a lengthening of the /i/. Which was then taken into English when the word was borrowed in the 1400s. And then English shifted that /i/ sound to what it has become today, a diphthong.

You need not condone it, but you cannot consign it to the indignity of the rubbish-heap. It works the way English spelling-pronunciation relationships work: by the common law of resemblance and pattern. It is aligned with other signs, whether by design malign or benign; resign yourself to assigning it that pronunciation. You may wish to campaign to arraign it, though I would not deign to feign to do so. But, notwithstanding the occasional ensign from a foreign sovereign, the pattern is set.

Well, it’s no more or less than we deserve, as you can discover in greater depth in “What’s up with English spelling?” Our perverse orthography is condign punishment for our lexical pilfering and various prescriptive perversities.

And what, thus, is condign encoding? Well, it’s from con “together” and dignus “worthy”; originally it meant “equal in worth or dignity”, or “deserving”, and thence “fitting, appropriate”. It just happens that since the late 1600s its pattern of use has tightly followed that set by Tudor Acts of Parliament, which use it in reference to punishment. You may rarely see it with related words such as justice and vengeance. It could be suited to a variety of other high-toned uses, condign with its Latinate formation and silent g and rarity of use; as Thomas De Quincey noted, it would be nice to speak of condign honours, condign reward, condign treatment. It seems, in some contexts, more fitting than fitting.

But, ah, you can try, and perhaps you will get somewhere, but these tides of usage can be so inexorable as to seem divignly ordeigned…


This word has a low, flat, thick look to it; every letter in it is rounded in at least one place, and none of the letters ascend or descend. It is rounder at the front than at the back, but it gets a bit of symmetry from the two e’s: each one a letter in from the end, poised flanking the middle like a pair of ears. And each of those e’s stands for an unstressed vowel; the main vowel is that long /u/ in the middle, making the heart of this word a “room”.

There is something about this homely word that makes me want to wax fantastic – to enter into the realms of fantasy created by such as Tolkien and Rowling, realms presided over by great long-bearded white-haired old wizards, almost superhuman (should I say surhuman?). It makes me think of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, mainly because of the sound of his name of course. It also makes me think of Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books, at least in part because of a scene in which, after talking with Harry, he eats one of Harry’s Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans and, on tasting it and discovering the flavour, says, “Alas, earwax.”

Yes, alas, earwax. You see, another thing all those old wizards have in common is hairy ears, and that makes me think of, alas, earwax. (Which in turn makes me think of Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax, who is also old and magical but has a few noteworthy differences from the Dumbledore-Saruman-Gandalf type.) And earwax is the more Anglo-Saxon word for cerumen. Or should we say that cerumen is the Latin-derived word (from cera, “wax”) for earwax. Voilà: we have moved from exalted wizards to Shrek.

It’s interesting that both words, cerumen and earwax, have round and soft sounds but with a sharper hiss at one end; earwax is more contrasty because it has the truly round rolling /rw/ and the crisp /ks/, while cerumen has just the soft hiss of /s/ and rolls on through a liquid and a round vowel to nasals. Also, earwax has that x, which always catches the eyes. And for ears it has a and a, not the e and e of cerumen.

I suppose it’s indelicate to use the word taste around words relating to bodily excretions, but, then, J.K. Rowling had that jelly bean, so I will continue: I find that cerumen has little tastes of serum and sermon and perhaps cumin, with a set of letters that may add to b t to scramble and make recumbent; the swapping of an i for an e would allow an anagram of numeric.

None of which really has much of any relation to earwax. But just as well. Earwax should be left alone; any otorhinolaryngologist will tell you that (the usual line they give is “Don’t stick anything smaller than your elbow into your ear”). It’s there as your ear’s natural crap-trapping and cleaning mechanism, and it gradually works its way out thanks to the movements made by the motion of mastication. You can think of it as like a glacier of your head – although glaciers are not as a rule so sticky (or, for some people, especially of some East Asian gene pools, crumbly).


Look at this long word, with its six syllables and assorted bits and pieces of letters, a pair of p’s, a pair of r’s, a quartet of a’s, and five other miscellaneous ones, sticking out in various directions. It sounds a bit like a puff of wind blowing through a window and flapping the curtains and causing the papers to flutter. It makes me think of the multitude of little bits and pieces sometimes seen hanging off of and out of the bag of my remarkable wife, such an asteroid belt of small flapping and dragging things that some fellow figure skaters once compared her to Grizabella from Cats.

But paraphernalia refers to more than just random stuff, and the length of the word – and its evident Greek origin – give it a more technical air too: it sounds like a word you would see on a police report.

Probably in the phrase drug paraphernalia, in fact, which is one of the top places you’ll see this word. Also marijuana paraphernalia and cocaine paraphernalia and injection paraphernalia. But also medical, fishing, camera, and quite often ritual. And very often other paraphernalia.

Because it’s too unkind to say junk and too brutishly vague to say stuff and too vulgar to say shit. You could say things, but that’s not a very spread-about-and-scattered word. You could say appurtenances, but that mainly has a sense of “belongings”, as opposed to paraphernalia, which seems to imply assorted things all in orbit around a central function. As Visual Thesaurus puts it, paraphernalia is “equipment consisting of miscellaneous articles needed for a particular operation or sport etc.”

So here’s a question, raised by my colleague Rosemary Tanner: what about if you have just one? Paraphernalia are miscellaneous associated articles; what if you have just one of those associated articles? You have a paraphernalium?

I like that. But actually it’s not quite what you have. The singular is in fact paraphernalis. (Sounds sort of like three women’s names, doesn’t it?) It’s Latin, yes, but it’s borrowed from Greek: παράϕερνα parapherna, from παρα para “along with, beside” and ϕέρειν pherein “carry, bear, bring”. So it’s bring-alongs, yes? And a paraphernalis would just be a thing you happen to have with you?

If you’re a new bride, perhaps. The original use of paraphernalia (and of the now-disused word parapherna), you see – in English as well as elsewhere – was specifically those things a woman brought with her into the marriage other than her dowry. It used to have a legal sense: though the paraphernalia became the husband’s property, the wife was entitled to their use and enjoyment, and on the husband’s death, she would retain them. They did not include furniture. (Remember that Shakespeare had to will his wife a bed.)

That legal situation changed more than a century ago, of course: women have more rights now. The various socks and laces and scarves and pins and so on hanging out of my wife’s massive shoulder bag are her paraphernalia, sure, but they haven’t become my property. (I have enough crap of my own anyway.) And since the word isn’t needed officially for that, it is no longer part of the legal lexical paraphernalia of a marriage contract, and it is free to attach to whatever else.

So it has largely moved from one addictive, mind-altering thing to another: from marriage to drugs. But I will admonish you that if you speak of a paraphernalis, it may be you who are thought to be on drugs. And if you write it, it will be taken for a typo. (Anyway, the thing about paraphernalia is that there’s never just one piece of it.)


I was back at the house of Marcus Brattle, my adolescent ex-Brit mentee, tutoring him in the finer (and sometimes coarser) points of grammar.

“One thing I’ve always wondered,” he said. “In a sentence like It’s raining, what’s the it? The sky, the weather, what?”

“None of the above,” I said. “It’s just there because in English we need an explicit subject. It’s just a filler. An expletive.”

“A wot?”

“Expletive.” I wrote it down so he could see the spelling.

“Oh,” he said, “ex-plee-tive. As in deleted.”

“In North America,” I said, “it is pronounced ex-pla-tive. In spite of the fact that the ex is a prefix. It’s from ex ‘out’ and plere ‘fill’.”

“Right enough,” Marcus said. “I’ve said a few expletives when I’ve had to fill some things out. But, to return to the first question, I didn’t say ‘It’s bloody raining,’ I just said ‘It’s raining.’”

“Yes, the it is an expletive.”

“You’re missing a ‘sh.’”

Pause. I sighed. “Not ‘Shit’s raining.’”

“For which let us be thankful,” Marcus said. “That would be excretive.” Some days I wondered whether I had succeeded in teaching him anything other than my own worst habits. “And perhaps explosive,” he added.

I waved that one away with both hands. “Well, let me be explicative. Expletive refers to all sorts of verbal padding and empty filler.”

“Things that may be well deleted.”

“If they’re emphatic vulgarities, they may be trimmed without grammatical damage. Note that not all vulgarities are really expletives; some are main verbs and nouns.”

“No shit. You’re shitting me.”

“Two good examples.”

“Thank you. I will accept the bonus points.” Marcus smiled.

“Anyway,” I continued, “syntactic expletives such as the subjects of It’s raining and There’s a duck on the table are there precisely because they can’t be deleted. In a complete English sentence, you need a subject to receive the nominative case from the verb.” I stopped, realizing that case theory was probably a bit beyond the curriculum. “They’re spear-carriers,” I said.

“Well, you can’t shake a spear at that, but it sounds a bit exploitative.”

I nodded. “Theirs is an empty existence. Look, I’m sure you will like the take on it on The Nasty Guide to Nice Writing. It’s by that dirty old man, Dirk E. Oldman.” I wrote down the URL,

“I like the sound of it, though… expletive.” He said with with drawn-out relish. “It sounds excellent and complicated. Crisp and clicky and mechanical, rather like the sound of some of the naughty words it refers to, with their ‘sh’ and ‘f’ and ‘t’ and ‘k’ and so on. Actually,” he said, getting up, “I think I know what it sounds like.” He trotted into the kitchen. “How’s this?” I heard a sound that was evidently a cultery or utensil drawer being rattled.

“Sort of like that,” I said.

“No, no, wait for it…” he shouted. There was a sound as of pots and pans being banged around. “I think it sounds like an egg being cracked into a frying pan.”

Oh brother. Adolescent boy. Another excuse for a snack. I got up and headed into the kitchen. Where I promptly collided with Marcus, on his way between fridge and stove. “Bollocks!” he said, stepping back.

“Now that,” I said, “was an exclamative expletive.”

“Actually,” he said, indicating the yellow-and-clear goo and shell bits now running down the front of my shirt, “that was an egg-splat-ive.”


Let’s start with a little combinatorics problem.

Say there are four friends gathered for lunch. Let’s call them Alana, Alex, James, and Trish. They are sitting in a restaurant booth, two on one side, two on the other. Now let’s say that the two men – Alex and James – are right-handed and the two women are left-handed. As they are about to start eating, it is observed that they have managed the most unfortunate arrangement of conflicting chirality: on each side, a left-hander and a right-hander are seated so that their active elbows are towards each other and thus will be in conflict throughout the meal. Now: assuming that all possible seating arrangements of two and two are equally probable, what are the odds of this state of affairs?

This is the question with which we challenged ourselves while waiting for our pancakes, eggs, bacon, et cetera on Sunday. I invite you to ponder it. I will give an answer at the end.

I will say that we decided not to rearrange ourselves, and we managed suitably well anyway. But, ah, the bedevilment of chirality.

We know chirality is bedevilling. How many times have you used, or heard, “The other left” when a direction to look or act left was responded to with a look or act to the right? Or vice-versa? We may know which hand we write with (except on certain mornings), but we still manage to confuse the sides from time to time.

Mirrors, those semiotic prostheses, highlight the issue. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary definition of chiral (from which we get chirality) is “not superimposable on its mirror image”. It is often thought that a mirror reverses the image. It does not; it just happens that when someone turns to face you they rotate on a vertical axis and so they reverse on that axis. You might as well think mirrors reverse front and back: if someone has their right on your right and their left on your left, their face is away from you, not towards you as the mirror would suggest. Indeed, if we turned by flipping so that our heads were down and our feet up, some people would say that mirrors reversed head and foot, not left and right.

But, although these thoughts are automatically prompted by today’s word, I am risking drifting away from the word at hand. And chirality is a word at hand, quite literally. Its more plain-spoken English equivalent is handedness. It comes from Greek χείρ cheir “hand”, which shows up in various other words, probably the best-known of which is chiropractor (they use their hands to work their medicine). You will also see chiropodist, which is not someone who uses their hands on your feet but someone who treats both hands and feet (compare otorhinolaryngologist, an ear-nose-and-throat doctor).

There are few other cute words that use this root. Among them are chiromancy, palm-reading; chirognomy, the form of the hand and the study of one’s character from that form; chirosophy, a synonym for either of the previous two; chirography, handwriting; chiromachy, hand-to-hand combat; and my favourite, chirapsy, touching or rubbing with the hand. (Ah, good hands are a rhapsody, and a good touch of a good hand can lead to rapture.)

In every case, the ch is pronounced /k/ in English; the original Greek has it as a velar (or postalveolar) fricative, but it came through Latin, which made a /k/ sound of it, and English has long since lost its velar fricatives anyway. So chirality starts with a hard stop at the back, and then moves to the tongue tip: a liquid, a liquid, a stop. The vowels gradually and with a slight hesitation proceed from low-central to high front. But it exhibits no right-left chirality.

Could a speech sound exhibit chirality in its articulation? Actually, yes. Ask a speaker of Xhosa or another language containing a lateral click which side they click on. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, it’s the sound many Anglophones use to summon a horse. I do it on the right, but can do it on the left if I want. Other than that one, you will see little chirality in speech articulation. And even with that one it doesn’t have a meaningful effect on the sound.

But chirality can have a meaningful effect in other areas. And I don’t just mean the stats that show that left-handers don’t live as long as right-handers. There are many things in nature that have chirality, from seashells right down to certain molecules – DNA, for instance. A mirror image of a molecule (an enantiomer of it) is a different molecule. Sugars twist to the right; the mirror-image version of them tastes the same but isn’t digested. There would be sweeteners made of left-handed sugars, except no one has found a way to make them economically. (Naturally, such apparent tampering with nature would be seen by some as sinister. Fittingly, since sinister is Latin for “left-hand”.)

Similar issues of chirality appear in electromagnetism, particle physics, and mathematics – including geometry and anything else that has spatial implications. Such as some combinatoric problems.

Oh, yes. To return to our opening problem: one in six (22/4!). There are 24 ways to sit (4×3×2) and 4 ways to sit in the chirally pessimal arrangment (2×2). The optimal seating arrangement, from an elbow perspective, would have males on one side, females on the other, with elbows away from the wall. The odds of that are also one in six. That’s assuming that the four of us won’t by habit have a male and a female on each side, always a possible inclination for us dioecious humans.

coccygeal, coccyx

Oh, look at that chick! The backs of her shirt and pants have parted ways a bit! See? Oh, see? See?


There’s a tattoo there! She has a coccygeal tattoo!

A what?


No, no, no, I mean what do you mean by coccygeal? Are you going cuckoo?

Ha! Thereby hangs a tail!

A tale? I have a bone to pick with you.

I’d say you’re picking a tailbone. Specifically a beak-shaped one.

A beak? But a beak pecks. That’s why in England they call your nose your pecker. Which I am aware means something else in North America. Here, though, you’re talking about a tail. No, not that kind of tail.

I’m talking about the coccyx.

The cock six? What? This is really going downhill.

No, no, no, coccyx. That means “tailbone”. It just sounds like “cock six.” It comes by way of Latin from Greek κόκκυξ kokkux “cuckoo”. Apparently your tailbone is shaped like a cuckoo’s beak.

At least cuckoos’ beaks are still useful. A tailbone is just there for jarring on things. And what was that other word you used to refer to the sigil she has intagliated on her vestigial entailment?

Not really intagliated, just inked. The word is coccygeal. The adjective relating to the coccyx.

“Cock sidgy all.” It occurs to me that it sounds a bit congealed, concealed, or occluded.

Well, not that one. I won’t say you can see the tip of her tailbone, but…

Yes, you can see her butt, a bit. Perhaps a bit to excess.

But don’t look now.

Did you just say “coccyx” again?

No, that was the sound of her boyfriend cracking his knuckles. I said don’t look… he might cold-cock you one and clean your clock…

Say, what is that tattoo?

It’s some kind of cyclic form… an ouroboros?

Ah, yes, the snake eating its tail. You know who dreamed of those and unlocked the molecular structure of the benzene ring?

Yeah… Kekulé.