Daily Archives: April 19, 2012


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, nastyguide.wordpress.com.

“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.”