Monthly Archives: May 2012


This really is a word that could go two ways.

On the one hand, its form suggests something fun or exotic or, well, epic – it starts with epic, after all, and French speakers will know that épice means “spice” and piscine means “pool” (the latter two syllables of epicene in English sound like piscine in French). It has overtones of prehistoricity – the Pleistocene epoch, perhaps. It is close to epicentre. It even sounds a little like obscene (and the sounds of it can be rearranged – an anaphone, if you will – to say “a penis”). Those three e’s look eager and ready to my eyes, and the pi pokes down and up like something trying to fight out of a sack. The word stays right up at the front of the mouth – lips, tongue tip, front vowels – which could, if you want, be taken as being as though the word is at the point of jumping out.

But the source of the word is Greek ἐπί epi “on, at, around” and κοινός koinos “common”, which makes it pretty much about normal, and it refers to things that are neutral – specifically gender-neutral. They can go either way. It referred first to words in Greek that could denote either sex without changing grammatical gender – for instance παρθένος parthenos “virgin”, which can refer to a male or female virgin – just as can the equally epicene English word virgin. From that it has come to refer to similar words in other languages (a notable current use is epicene pronoun, referring to a gender-neutral pronoun – especially use of they for third-person singular), and it has also been used to refer to unisex things (e.g., clothing), as well as persons of things stripped of perceptible sex (masculinity or femininity).

But it has also come to be used on occasion to refer to androgyny of the sort that, rather than lacking male or female characteristics (like Pat – the name and the character from Saturday Night Live), has notable qualities of both (think Victor/Victoria). Even in its way of referring to something that can go two ways, there are two ways it can do it. The word may yet have some spice in it.

obelisk, obelus

I have, from time to time in these notes, mentioned my fondness in my youth (and still) for Asterix comics. The heroes of this series are a small, clever Gaul named Asterix and his enormous sidekick, Obelix.

Their names, like all the names in the series, are obvious plays on words. All the Gaulish male names end in ix by analogy with Vercingetorix, the great Gaulish chieftain defeated by Caesar. All the Roman male names end un us. Gaulish and Roman female names end in a. Other nationalities get similar treatment; Goths end in ic (after Aleric), for instance, and there is an Egyptian named (in English) Ptenisnet (represented in hieroglyphics as a tennis net). One of my favourites is the Gaulo-Roman chief and pugilist named Cassius Ceramix. (I’ll explain that one at the end if you don’t get it.)

So anyway, Asterix and Obelix. Asterisk and Obelisk. One is small, the other large, and they both end in isk, easily changed to ix for wordplay. It never occurred to me that asterisks and obelisks might have more of a connection than that, because I only ever thought of an obelisk as a large stone thing (similar to the menhirs that Obelisk was forever quarrying and toting around).

But do you know what obelisk comes from? It comes from Greek ὀβελίσκος obeliskos “small spit” (as in for roasting). That’s a diminutive of ὀβελός obelos.

It may seem interesting enough that this term for a not-too-large pointed metal thing came (by analogy of shape with one, or with a nail, also called obeliskos) to refer to a quite large standing pointed stone thing (and I do not find the word obelisk to seem all that pointy, except for the /sk/ at the end, perhaps, and maybe the fact that the word progresses backwards in the mouth as you say it, from a blunt start to a sharp end; obelisk is, however, suitable for a large obstructive object). But you may not know that asterisk and obelisk are actually two of a type.

Two of typography, to be exact. You see, there is another kind of thing called an obelisk, and there is a related thing called an obelus (the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, in fact). They are marks on a page, and they came from the same place as the asterisk. The blog Professor Carmichael’s Cabinet of Curiosities has a nice exposition on the origin of the obelisk, but I will give you the short version: the asterisk and the obelisk were invented by Homeric scholars in Ancient Greece and Alexandria. They used them to mark passages: the asterisk for a word (or words) that should have been there but wasn’t; the obelus for any text that was deemed suspicious, dodgy, probably spurious.

The asterisk, that little star, hasn’t really changed much over the ages. The obelus, however, started out as a simple line — and then gained a dot below, a dot above, or both: ÷ . This “should be gotten rid of” mark came in math to indicate subtraction; in the 1600s, the ÷ version came to be used to indicate division. But there was another version of the mark, or rather another mark: †, the one we also call the dagger. The classical name for this is in fact obelisk.

Not such a bad name for it, really, this mark that is as baleful as a basilisk. After all, even still it marks obsolescence and obscurity and objection (and not oblation but ablation); before a person’s name, it indicates that they are dead (unnecessary in an obituary, of course), and before a word in a place such as the Oxford English Dictionary, it indicates that it is obsolete – no one uses it anymore, except perhaps in Scrabble and spelling bees and blogs. Contrast this with the shining little light of the star, *, which usually has something more positive to say – in etymology, it has been used to indicate reconstructed but unattested words (words that should have been there, you may say), though the related use of it to indicate words or phrases that are unattested because nobody ever says them (“this is ‘bad’,” the dialectological asterisk says) is, true, a bit more like an obelisk.

So: obelus, obelisk. There you have it, holus-bolus, in an Augenblick. You can look down on a page and see, sharing a name with an enormous hieroglyphic stone needle, a little dagger. And usually it plays second fiddle to an asterisk. You’re not so likely, after all, to be reading critical works on ancient texts. The sublime and erudite, in latter days, may be reduced to footmen, and the sometime-mighty asterisk and obelisk are now most often pressed into service for footnotes, asterisk first, then obelisk… then diesis. Diesis? Double dagger: ‡. Dieses irae indeed – dagger meets dagger. So it progresses: first the bright star, then the dark dagger, and then it really goes to hell. Well, you knew when you started down that road that it was your asterisk.

(Oh, by the way, to explain Cassius Ceramix: the boxer better known as Muhammad Ali was born and started his career as Cassius Clay.)


Christina Vasilevski finds this word really odd. It even makes her giggle. I wonder who else it has that effect on.

Not me. It pleases me. It has a nice tropical sort of flavour to it for me, partly from the echoes of such words as guacamole, Guam, Guadalcanal, and lava, but more importantly from where I first encountered it. When I was 13, my family went to Hawai‘i, and there, at breakfast, I encountered for the first time the word guava and the beverage guava juice. I loved it instantly, and had it every morning for the rest of the trip. And then it was quite some time before I had it again, because back in the early 1980s it was not widely available in Alberta.

My next salient recollection involving guava comes from the later 1990s, when I bought some guava paste at a Chinese grocery for use in cooking. It’s a passable thickener and a heckuva sweetener, but it doesn’t quite have the full flavour and tang I had come to know and love.

And now there is a third thing I think of right away when I think of guava: Sauvignon Blanc from Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand. Oh, we all know NZ Sauv Blanc, right? (Or anyway the wine geeks among us do.) Gooseberry and so on. But the stereotypical NZ Sauv Blanc is from Marlborough, on the north end of the South Island. Hawke’s Bay is in the middle of the east side of the North Island – different conditions. And I found, in tasting several from wineries such as Craggy Range, Trinity Hill, and Sileni, that the Sauvignon Blancs from around there have, riding along with what you would expect, a solid line of guava right up the middle. I encourage you to try some for yourself and see.

Does the word guava have a solid line of guava passing through it? Well, first, do you know what guava tastes like? If not, go find some guava juice and drink it. I’m not going to make a fool of myself trying to describe it for you. Do you think you could describe the taste of, say, a banana or an apricot to someone who had never had one? But assuming you know the taste of guava, well, it’s up to you to taste guava and decide for yourself; taste is individual.

For me, I think the word does fit reasonably well. The /gw/ onset is reminiscent of drinking, and guava juice is one of those things that are great when you’re thirsty (or when you’re not) but seem to make you want to drink even more. The rounded u and pointed v – two letters that (in general, not in this word) were originally the same letter, back in Latin and older English – are like the sweet and round but slightly tart and sharp flavour of the guava. And the a letters stand for a sound (or two sounds in most English pronunciation, since the latter one is reduced) that is associated with the open mouth, ready to receive, and also with the sound of satisfaction one makes having received something good. The repeated a’s – and if we still used one letter for both u and v, we would have a repeated pair, vava or uaua – are reminiscent of the repetition that is a common feature in Polynesian languages. And what’s more tropically blissful than the image most of us get (rightly or wrongly) when thinking of Polynesia?

Not that the guava is originally a Polynesian fruit. Nor is the word guava from a Polynesian language. Nope, it’s from Arawak, as best we can tell – a South American language. The guava is a fruit originally from the tropical Americas, though it’s grown all over the tropical and subtropical world now (because it’s so yummy – and, I suspect, so easily grown). The original Arawak word is guayabo, and it comes to us by way of the Spanish guayaba. Which, it occurs to me, sounds a bit like “go have a” – as in go have a glass of guava juice.

Which I would if I could, but I have none in the fridge. Dang it, now I’m all thirsty.


When I was a boy, I was a boy.

Not a girl. Which means I didn’t really know all the intricate insanities of women’s clothing. Adolescent boys know about bras and panties. That’s all. Oh, and wet T-shirts, and the usual outerwear. I was well into my adulthood before I knew, for instance, the difference between pumps and mules. And what the heck camisoles were.

I mean, really, what does the word camisole sound like? A canvas insole, some kind of camouflage, maybe something made of camel hair or, heck, for all I knew, some kind of sail a girl could unfurl so the wind could carry her away from the unwanted advances of a spotty-faced weakling… like me. What it did not sound like was any sort of soft, lacy thing that might be worn close to those chests I had spent so many cumulative hours inspecting sidelong.

I suppose, knowing what it refers to, you could hear the soft silk in the /s/, see and hear the mammaries in the m, get a whisper from the aspiration on the opening /k/ (and there are surely many aspirations that are mediated by camisoles), and end with that liquid /l/ that is like a touch of light fabric on skin. Sure, but that’s all post facto. It sounded more like military equipment to my young ears. Further evidence that girls are strange (if delightful and yet cruel) creatures deserving more of padded cells than padded undergarments.

But, then, the very idea was flummoxing. Why would anyone need another layer? Wot, there’s a bra, then a camisole, then a shirt, then a jacket, then… Well, now, of course, a married man, I know that some women may wear a half dozen layers at times (although my wife does not actually own any camisoles). “Warm” for dudes is the same as “freezing” for dudettes.

Still and all, if you have the idea that showing one’s underwear is rather outré, and a glimpse of a bit of lace is something you’re only supposed to get on the sly, the more recent trend towards having the tops of camisoles peeking out from behind outerwear tops can be a bit discomfiting. Is that proper lady in this formal situation really displaying her undergarment?

Well, is a camisole underwear or not?

Originally, the answer was easy: not. Originally, camisoles were actually jackets. Or, rather, originally camisole referred to a sleeved jacket or jersey worn by men – that was how it came to be in English in the earlier 1800s, from French, which took it from Provençal camisola, which in turn derived from Late Latin camisa “shirt” (from which, I am sure you have already guessed, we also get chemise).

Then it came to be “a loose jacket worn by women when dressed in negligée,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary. By the latter 1800s, the name had transferred to an underbodice – worn, as the Random House Dictionary puts it, “to conceal the underwear.”

Um, so it’s not underwear then? But it’s worn under…

And worn over, yes. And, honestly, some things now sold as camisoles look just like spaghetti-strap tops or even tank tops (do a Google image search on camisole to see the variety available, or if you just want some pretext to look at models in their underwear – or their not-underwear). I’ve seen some young women go by with three sets of thin straps over their shoulders, one for the spaghetti-strap top, one for the camisole, one for the bra. So, now, would they wear just the camisole with nothing on top of it? Or is this some special kind of garment where part of it isn’t underwear and part of it is?

Well, fine. I’m not going to try to delve deeply into the intricacies of women’s clothing. That way madness lies.

Which reminds me: there is another use of camisole. It also means – often but not always in the fuller phrase camisole de force – a straitjacket.


I first encountered this word when watching some spelling bee or other on TV. It struck me as a rather pretentious word, the sort of word that doesn’t really seem to make any sense or have any place in the modern world other than as a word you don’t know, and in particular one you don’t know how to spell. Even to one literate in Latin roots it is a closed boudoir door, the inaudible whisper in a lady’s ear of her companion standing behind her.

It has no obvious roots; its morphology is rather opaque. Indeed, etymological sources are reduced to weak speculation: perhaps it’s from bel cece “beautiful chickpea” (or the French chiche beau); perhaps it’s from onomatopoeia for whispering or chattering. In the end, it is just there, and what are you going to do about it?

And what, pray tell, is a cicisbeo? Someone you don’t see these days, to start with. He’s more a creature of the 18th century, in Italy and France, among the nobility. A synonym is cavalier servente. He was the recognized gallant of a married lady.

This first puts me in mind of Paul Varjak, the charming young man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, played so well by George Peppard in the movie. But he’s no cicisbeo: he’s the kept lover of a married woman, but he goes nowhere with her outside the apartment she has set up for him, and her husband doesn’t know about him. A cicisbeo went everywhere with his lady; he stood behind her chair and whispered in her ear; they would go to assorted entertainments together; they might also go behind closed doors in the boudoir together.

The intimate nature of the arrangement undoubtedly varied, as some cicisbei were not actually sexually attracted to women – but made excellent companions. Whatever the arrangement, it was socially acceptable; indeed, the husband would open himself to ridicule if he objected. The cicisbeo was there, and what could he do about it? But he was likely too busy with his mistress to object.

Given that sense, can you make the form of the word go together with it somehow? Is the /tʃitʃi/ like a sound of summoning, or whispering, or tongues clicking in interest, approbation, or condemnation? How about the buzz of the /zb/ – is that the buzz of a honey bee courting the flower? Can you see the act of saying /bɛo/ as like a kiss, a bacio (or baiser)? The word as a whole makes me think of a character from Happy Days: Chachi, played by Scott Baio.

And the lines, dots, and curls of the written word, sitting there like ruffled chest hair? You may see in the cici two ears and two i’s in service of the lady; perhaps you spot cis, which as a prefix would mean “to this side” (the converse of trans, “to the other side”), or in reverse sic (transit Gloria? how’s Monday for you?). Hopefully the beo doesn’t bring too much B.O. – better to call forth a wulf.

Stan Backs, who suggested this word, observes that “According to [Canadian finance minister] Jim Flaherty, there is no bad job.” Many guys would be inclined to say that cicisbeo sounds like nice work if you can get it. But we ought to remember that they could always be replaced, these cicisbei; cicisbeism may have been an institution, but the individual pretty boys could fall out of fashion, at which time – unless they found another lady to favour them – they would be spiantati: penniless cast-offs.


This word has a certain exotic, erotic flavour for me because of its sounds and echoes. It’s Italian, of course; even if you’d never seen it before you’d probably guess that on the spot. It makes me think of the various words of the same ending: grotto, blotto, biscotto, motto, Giotto (a painter whose name stays with me because I successfully BSed my way to half points on a high-school exam question on him in spite of having no idea who he was – I know now; I’ve been to Florence), fagotto (Italian for “bassoon”), lotto, stracotto, panzerotto, and a few other otto loans not so commonly seen in English – plus all those etto words (libretto, ristretto, vaporetto, et cetera) and assorted other tto words such as prosciutto.

And of course it brings to mind riso, Italian for “rice”, on which it is formed; also, adventitiously, sotto, for “below”, and ri, a prefix meaning “again” – under again? under where? – as well as sorriso, “smile”. It also brings to mind a couple of excellent meals in New Zealand, and a rather yummy one I just made and ate this evening.

The risotti in New Zealand were a smokey fungus tomato one at the restaurant at Elephant Hill winery on Hawke’s Bay and a nice blue cheese one at a brew pub in Wellington. As to this evening’s, I found myself needing to use some sweet peppers, which I don’t generally go gaga over, but have enjoyed roasted. So I decided to stuff them and roast them. Stuff them with what? After consulting a few recipes and my own perverse and pertinacious proclivities, I decided to make a risotto – specifically a bobotie risotto. Why not just make something up, I thought with a smile. So I assembled the onion, ground beef, ground pork, arborio rice, blatjang, coconut milk, salt, curry powder, and water; I found I did not have raisins and so had to do without.

Of course it’s an odd culinary catachresis, a bit of syncretic intercultural gastronomy, this marriage of Italian and South African cuisines, Canadian-style. But risotto is a word of such flavours and overtones; it can sustain it. It is true that it stays on the tip of the tongue, though it does end with a rounded back vowel. But the stories its many mild echoes may have – zero, raise, rosette, otter, rot, risen, utter, exotic, erotic; roll it on your tongue and find more – can keep your palate entertained for some time, while your eyes enjoy the joining of the curving and popping ris with the symmetrical otto, a set of noughts and crosses: 0++0… or perhaps two round grains of arborio rice, or two bowls of it, and two, hm, forks? Or pairs of chopsticks? Say, perhaps add something Chinese to it next time…


This is a simple-seeming word, but a deep, rich, sonorous one with numerous flavours and overtones, from the numinous to the ominous; it may seem as cold as a snowman or as hot and dry as the Sonoran desert, as gleaming as shiny cookware or a moon’s shimmering, broken-up reflection or as dark as some unearthly anonymous moans, as soft as its simple /s/ and two pillowy nasals and as round as grapes or as hard and angular as some broken up masonry. ¡O, no mas!

The word could be a mantra (an “om,” son). It carries flavours, flavours of the American far west and its Spanish and Native history, flavours of fine wine, flavours of expensive cookware. But what are the secrets of its onomastics? It seems to come from the language of the Miwok people who lived in the Sonoma valley; it is said to mean “valley of the moon”, though it could mean “many moons” (as in the paired o’s). I’d like to say it means “a moon’s valley” if only for the anagram.

Is this the moon that the cow jumped over? It is more likely the moon that oversees somnolence and snoring, which may follow on consumption of too much wine (perhaps followed by an evening in a spa – there are natural spa waters there, and Aina and I partook of them on our recent sojourn). And there is much wine to be had in Sonoma now – the county has followed on the heels of its neighbour, Napa, in the California wine sweepstakes, from the lovely sparklers of Gloria Ferrer south of the town of Sonoma to the exquisitely crafted Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays of Marimar Torres an hour’s drive further to the northwest, with many wineries in between covering an amazing range of styles, some even remarkably European in approach. Wine lovers can truly be over the moon there (and even perhaps have a brief second – or third, or twelfth – honeymoon).

Meanwhile, seleniosaltorial cows notwithstanding, the dish probably has run away with the spoon – to your local high-end mall. A guy named Chuck Williams opened a store in the cute, charming centre of the City of Sonoma (ten thousand souls and a small-town feel) selling high-end cookware, and now if you feel that fifty dollars is not enough to pay for a corkscrew, for another twenty Williams-Sonoma can help you get into your bottle of Anaba Chardonnay (the winery is named for anabatic winds, which are the reverse of katabatic winds).

That cute, charming town centre, with the largest town plaza in California, was also the site of the first revolt against Mexican rule; Sonoma was briefly the capital of the Republic of California, until it was all assimilated to the USA (sort of). I would not now say that Sonoma is revolting – although there are things about driving a car in Sonoma that I need like a carcinoma: the tendency for a numbered route to make a hard right turn off a main road, or suddenly exit onto or off of a freeway, for instance. Apparently they are still a little wary of invading troops. Or maybe it’s just a way of getting people to conclude that they’ve had enough wine tasting for one day and should go eat somewhere, such as The Girl and The Fig.

But as you do, savour the word further, and ask yourself: are you tasting the history through the modernity, or vice-versa?


For more of New Zealand, see


This is a word of layers, as you shall see.

It’s an easy pun to say I like the sound of this word, since Milford Sound is the most beautiful place I can recall seeing (and that’s saying a lot, as I like to visit beautiful places). But it also has a nice sound in the saying, the soft nasal shifting into a vowel that glides through a relaxed liquid (your tongue tip likely doesn’t touch when you say the /l/) into the powder-puff of the /f/ (even appearing in letter form to relax, as an f is like an l bent over and leaning on a bar), then on through a syllabic /r/ until at last touching a firm landing point at /d/.

The echoes are various, of course; I will leave aside the milf bit, other than to point out that that term’s referent is old and desirable, like Milford Sound. Milk comes up, though it stops hard at the back. The ford is not said like the independent word ford; rather, it ends the same as Harvard and Clifford. I am put in mind of Medford, just because that’s where Tufts University is (I got my PhD there) and where “Jingle Bells” was written. People from Britain may think of Milford Haven, in Wales (which may remind Canadians of Millhaven, a federal penitentiary, but never mind).

Surely it’s the same Milford, this sound and that haven? Yes, in fact. I should say first, though, that Milford Sound is actually a fjord – a sound is a kind of ocean inlet or passage between land bodies (for instance Øresund, between Sweden and Zealand), but Milford Sound is actually a narrow valley carved by glaciation and then filled in by sea, and fjord is the more technically appropriate term. Contrast this with a ria, which is a river valley which was flooded by rising sea levels (one tour guide told us this was the definition of a sound, but that seems not to be the standard accepted definition).

Now, Milford Fjord would sound a bit odd, wouldn’t it? A strange repetition of sound (through lack of Sound). It sticks with the name as revised in the mid-19th century by Captain John Lort Stokes. The name originally given was Milford Haven. Yes, directly in honour of the place in Wales, home of John Grono, a sealer captain who sailed into it in about 1812 and aimed to further immortalize (and perhaps recapture) his place of birth.

But Milford Sound doesn’t actually look like Milford Haven; the latter is rather flattish. And in fact it’s a ria, not a fjord. Which is kind of funny, because, as you may have guessed, the ford in Milford is related to fjord. In fact, Milford means “sandy fjord”. So while Milford Sound is not altogether accurate, Milford Fjord would be redundant. But there’s really nothing sandy about Milford Sound, so if we’re going to get etymological, we’ll go off the rails anyway.

So you can see there are layers, and then there is this diverted attempt at immortality…

Now, if Grono had named it by the Welsh name of his home, he would have called it Aberdaugleddau, which could have been problematic for what I presume are obvious reasons, but it would have been a little less inaccurate inasmuch as it means “mouth of the Cleddau rivers” and the river that flows into Milford Sound was named the Cleddau by Grono.

But Grono was not the first person to navigate the waters of Milford Sound, nor the first person to give it a name. Hello! The Maori had already been in New Zealand (or Aotearoa, as they called it) for a few centuries. And they called Milford Sound Piopiotahi, which is also an official name for it now.

OK, so… Piopiotahi? Six syllables, with that vowel-heaviness and reduplication characteristic of Polynesian languages. It’s pretty, maybe, but the sound characteristics are crisp and play more to the spectacular sights and heights of the place than to any sense of calmness of fluidity. But what does it mean?

Well, the piopio was a kind of thrush indigenous to Aotearoa. It is now extinct. But in Maori legend, a piopio was the travelling companion of the demi-god Maui, who set out to achieve immortality for humans by entering the womb of the goddess of death and coming out through her mouth. When he died in the attempt, the piopio flew to Milford Sound in mourning. Tahi means “single, one”; piopiotahi means “a single piopio”.

And now there is not a single piopio left either; they too were mortal. But Piopiotahi is immortal, timeless, and though you may cruise through it with a multitude of tourists on your bark of fantasy, in the grandness of the sound you make barely a sound. You are entering a passage closer to where time was born, where all is always changing (waterfalls that come and go within hours; plants that cling to cliffs, sometimes slide off, then grow again), but it is the very liquid nature of the place that, in the face of its high rocks, gives it immortality – it and, for an illusory hour, you.


I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Margaret Gibbs.

My daughter opened the door of my condo, took two steps in, gasped, backed up two steps, and stood beating her head gently against the door. “Why did I ever agree to this? I will never understand how the pair of you can be such slovens!”

My granddaughter and I, temporarily roomies so she could have a shorter commute to her summer job, looked around us in some puzzlement. Granted, it would be hard to put down a piece of paper since there were no clear surfaces on which to put anything, but we knew what was in which pile and where. And only one of the cats had come out to greet Carrie, but we knew the other one was prowling among the stacks of cartons covering the living room floor because we could hear him scrabbling and meowing somewhere. He didn’t sound panicky. Yet.

“Mum, for years and years you were a consultant cataloguer! Bringing order out of chaos was your specialty,” Carrie wailed. “And you!” She rounded on her firstborn. “An engineering student who’s always chanting, ‘Nobody wants to cross a bridge designed by a careless engineer’. So why at home,” she repeated, covering her eyes and shuddering, “are you both such SLOVENS!”

Bethany laughed, then hastily turned it into a cough as her mother fixed her with a gimlet eye. Neither of us wanted to spoil the summer’s living arrangement, which suited us both happily. “Sorry, Mum, but if ever a word sounded like what it meant, ‘sloven’ is it. It’s such a messy word, isn’t it, Grandma? No two letters repeated, and it starts out hissing like a tire going flat and then kind of falls back down your throat somewhere.”

I took my cue and seized the distraction. “Yes, think of all the sloppy words that start with sl— . Slump, slouch, slur, slide and the past tense they were so fond of in ‘Pogo’, ‘he slud in jes’ in time’.”

“What language does it come from?” Beth asked brightly. Carrie, not fooled, glared at her.

“I’ll take a stab and say Dutch, but the Germanic languages are not my specialty. Let’s look it up.” We moved to the computer (Beth, firing up her laptop) and the bookcase (me, after shoving aside several large boxes of indeterminate contents). She got several hits quickly as I thumbed through the first dictionary to hand.

“You were close, Grandma,” she announced. “It says here sloven is from the Middle Flemish sloovin, a scold, related to sloeuf, untidy or shabby, from Proto-Germanic slup plus a suffix.” Beth looked puzzled. “I don’t see the connection between being untidy and being a scold.”

“I do,” said Carrie grimly. “Leave your room looking like the aftermath of a tornado and your mother turns into a scold.”

Beth read further. “It says here that sloven is related to slob, slow, sloth, slush, slurp, sloof – what? oh, that’s Dutch for an apron? huh? – a male slattern? and ‘slut’!! Excuuuuse me?!”

“Do you want to break that news to Tyler?” I muttered to Carrie, who laughed in spite of herself. Tyler is Beth’s boyfriend of long standing. I looked at the screen over her shoulder. “Ah, I see the problem. What made you go to that website first? Such slovenly scholarship.”

“It was the first hit,” she said, a bit defensively.

“Well, try that one.” I pointed to another hit further down the screen. “The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. I’ve got the book version here, but it’s probably an older edition. See if the entry is still the same.”

She peered at the new site rather more suspiciously. “Oh. I see. This one says sloven meant a knave or rascal in the fifteenth century, an idle fellow by the sixteenth century, and later just ‘a careless or negligent person’. And it says it’s perhaps based on Flemish sloef meaning dirty or squalid, or Dutch slof, negligent.”

“Pretty much what it says here,” I said, closing my book. “They haven’t changed their minds.”

“So why was the first site I looked at so different? And it was all over the place, like somebody wrote the entry in a big hurry and didn’t even edit it?”

“Just what I said,” I replied. “Slovenly scholarship. Now you and I, Beth, may be untidy – all right, Carrie, extremely messy – physically, but mentally we’re both logical and organized.”

“And,” added Beth primly, “we are definitely not a pair of sluts!”

Carrie looked around the room again. What she could see of it under the detritus of clutter. “You couldn’t possibly be,” she commented dryly. “There’s no clear space big enough to lie down.”

hurricane, forehead, often, scone

I am taking a couple of weeks off and am happy to present tastings by some of the avid word tasters who regularly read my word tasting notes. Today’s tasting is by Tom Priestly.

What an odd salad of words to taste in one sitting! Each shares something savoury with the others (two begin with syllables ending in r, two have syllables starting with h, two contain f, three end with the sound n) but the taste combination does not have anything special to recommend it. This would be the first recipe to be rejected from “Top Word Chef”. Maybe there is another point to this mixture?

There is a point, but it is one that only a puristic old linguist with British roots (an ELP: Elderly Limey Pedant) and long acquainted with North Americans would associate as a single group. What, if any, is the thread that binds these words together? Three nouns, one adverb. Hmm. One with three syllables, two with two and one with one. Hmm again. Give up? I thought so.

The thread is one of pronunciation. Each of these words is pronounced in two ways, and ELP’s will probably have four very different pronunciations from most of the readers of this word-tasting note. As your representative ELP, I admit to a pedantic attachment to these “other” versions.

“In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire,” sang Eliza Doolittle, “hurricanes hardly happen.” But they do happen in warm Atlantic waters, Caribbean ones especially, and it is in this area that the word originated. There is etymological disagreement: did it come from a Spanish attempt to say the Carib word hurakn, the God of Evil; or to say hun raqan, the Mayan word for the God of the Wind? Whichever it was, the first Spanish version seems to have been furacan or huracan. The latter is clearly the origin of European words for this deadly phenomenon, e.g., French ouragan, German orkan. In England in the 16th C they were called furacanos (the Brits thought that all Spanish words should end in –o!) and then herricanos. Within a century the singular was being spelled hurican, hero-cane, Harry-Cain. In England it is still usually pronounced “hurry-c’n” but –cane became the orthographic norm by the 18th C and encouraged the pronunciation “hurry-cane” that is quite normal — even for a hockey team! — west of the Atlantic. In other words, the mis-spelling resulted in a new pronunciation — or, as an ELP will say, a mis-pronunciation. What is interesting is that neither way of pronouncing the word does justice to the meteorological phenomenon it denotes. Both begin with a breath of air which is surely far less than 28 knots (32 mph, 52 kmh), hence not even typical of a tropical storm; and one of them dissipates into a mild “c’n” while the other ends with a word which is either sweet (sugar cane) or hurtful (six strokes of the cane for you, Bunter!) but in no way devastating. Pity!

“There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good she was very, very good; but when she was bad, she was horrid.” Was she “hore-head” (or perhaps even “whore-head”?) By no means. She was horrid, and the curl was on her “forrid.” The poet who penned this gem was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The word forehead was pronounced “forrid”, then, sometime before 1882 (when Henry W. died), and, we must presume, in Maine, whence he hailed. (By the way, he got away with being christened with “ordinary” given names. His mother’s was Zilpah and grandfather’s, Peleg. Would a Peleg Wadsworth Longfellow have attained such fame?) In any case, here we have another word which developed a new pronunciation because of its spelling (also because of its association with the part of the anatomy where it is located, of course). So, although I normally only hear “forrid” from British lips, this pronunciation was not confined to those islands.

My intent is now clear: to illustrate what are known as “spelling pronunciations.” One of the best examples is hemorrhoids: these were originally known as emerauds or emeralds because of their appearance; some pretentious 16th C eejuts decided to change the first syllable to “haemo-“ or “hemo-“ to show the connection to blood (and they changed the last syllable so that it, too, has a Greek look to it) and now we all pronounce it as it was re-spelled. Not even ELP’s will ask their doctors about treatments for emeralds.

And so to often, which English-speakers everywhere hear being pronounced in both variants, “oft’n” and “off’n”. The two are both so common that nobody thinks of me as an ELP when I say “off’n”. If you took the foregoing examples as a guide, you will have caught my simple rule: the most common pronunciation which is closer to the spelling has ousted the one that is not so close. Following this rule, what must once have been “oft’n” first seems to have changed to “off’n” and then, under the influence of the spelling, was by many people pronounced “oft’n” again. The OED tells us that oft was more common than often (which may have added the second syllable to make it more like its antonym, selden / seldom) until the 16th C, when some scholars were already reporting pronunciations without the “t”. The change “oft’n” to “off’n” follows a regular pattern: soften is pronounced without the “t”, hasten, chasten, listen (with another voiceless fricative before “-t’n”) similarly; look at the simple roots, which keep the “t”: soft, haste, chaste, list (as the verb “to hearken”). Also, the “t” is dropped in another similar combination in whistle, castle. So we should be surprised neither at “off’n”, nor at the orthographically-affected “oft’n”. And maybe we should be listening (“liss-tuh-ning”?) for people to start reverting to “soft’n” and “cast’l” because they are spelled that way.

So what about scone? Its two pronunciations are not equally common: most people, even in Britain, rhyme this word with bone, cone, lone, phone, stone, tone; and only a relative few, ELP’s and others, rhyme it with gone. (Luckily, nobody seems to make it rhyme with one, none, done.) Our true friend the OED defines this as “A large round cake made of wheat or barley-meal baked on a griddle; …more generally, a soft cake of barley- or oatmeal, or wheat-flour, baked in single portions on a griddle or in an oven.” Many people use the word biscuit for the same delectation, but we’ll not open up the question of different words for the same culinary item. The origin of scone was a Scots word scon (the eight historically first examples in the OED are all from Scotland), so my proposed “general rule” holds good: “scoan” is definitely a spelling pronunciation. As it happens, the first recorded new spelling with a final “-e” is from 1744. Our cousins Down Under use scone as a slang word for “head”, and the phrase he’s doing his scone for he’s losing his temper (like the British slang equivalent, he’s doing his nut, with nut also meaning “head”) – but the OED does not tell us whether angry Aussies and choleric Kiwis do their “scoans” or their “scons”.

At least two further questions come up. First, why are some words affected and not others? Why do so many people say “oft’n” while nobody says “”soft’n”? Why do we hear “scoan” for scone but not “goan” for gone? Is it just a question of frequency, or is there more to it than this? — And second, will any more spelling pronunciations ever be heard? Will somepeople begin to rhyme plaque with opaque? Will the “h” be restored to the pronunciations of heir, hour, honour, honest since it is pronounced in initial position in hundreds of other words?

When I ask for something to eat with my coffee, local baristas are (after decades!) slowly getting used to my saying “scoan”. I suspect their hidden amusement at my ELP-ish habit of asking for “one biscotto”, but that is another story.