Daily Archives: April 24, 2012


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 Lulu.com. 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 http://www.lulu.com/shop/james-harbeck/songs-of-love-and-grammar/paperback/product-20080621.html.


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…