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.)