Daily Archives: May 2, 2012


I won’t bother teasing you on this word, as everyone who read yesterday’s tasting of vamp knows already that it’s the big toe – or, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “The innermost of the digits (normally five in number) of the hind foot of an air-breathing vertebrate; the great toe.”

Great toe? What’s so great about it, really? But, lowly though its object may be, this word does sound somehow darkly magical, perhaps a constellation on some mage’s tall hat – or a word from an incantation. It resounds with hollow echoes of hallows, horcrux, hex, Pollux, haruspex, helix, hallucinate, and fiat lux, but also a bit of halloumi and an Electrolux – and afflux, efflux, influx, reflux, flux, and Benelux.

The sound of the echoes collects and comes to collision much as the sound of the word itself does: first a breath, a simple sifflet of ruach, and then from it comes the voice of the vowel [æ]; it allows next the channel of a liquid, represented on the page with ll; but that pulls back to a central vowel and then it all collapses, front and back, a stop and a tight fricative: [ks].

That x also makes me think of a joint, just as the ll make me think of digits. And we must not forget that this is a word for that toad of the body, a toe: something you might stub on a lump of kjerulfine. Our word du jour is simply mystical because it’s classical; the mundane has been transmogrified.

Well, the Latin word for “big toe” was undoubtedly mundane to the ancient Romans too. Picture a Roman child wailing plaintively “Allex meus dolet!” (“My big toe hurts!”)

Oh, yeah: the Latin for “big toe” was actually allex. A variant was hallex, with an unpronounced h. But the English form is what Oxford calls “corrupted” – and I might call mutated. Transmogrified. A mystical change caused retroactively by the future incantation of its ex-chrysalid magical form. Or perhaps of that rhyme that I, like many, learned in my youngest years: in response to “So?” you recite “So, so, suck your toe all the way to Mexico.”

Hmmm… a luxury Mexican halluxigustation… a lexical hallucination of lickable halluces (that’s the plural of hallux), but perhaps an excellent elixir of relaxation… sounds great toe me.

New ebook, and send those guest tastings in

Just a little two-fer note:

1. Songs of Love and Grammar is now available as an ebook as well as in a print edition. (The print edition is prettier but the ebook is cheaper.)

2. If you’re writing a guest word tasting for me to post next week or the week after, send it in! I’d like to get them all ready before I leave.



I decided to revamp my footwear a little, so I bought a new pair of shoes. I wore them today, and they’re nice, but they do need some more wearing. The vamp keeps biting down on the metatarsophalangeal joints, especially of the hallux. Sucks a little.

Whoa! Did you feel like you just took a sudden turn into fantasy fiction? Perhaps I broke into a little free extemporization? Is it a vamplified text?

I should explain that your hallux is your big toe (boy, that’s a word I need to taste, and soon). The metatarsophalangeal joint is the joint where a toe joins the foot – or individuates from it, if you see it the other way. And the vamp? Female readers probably know this already; my wife sure does. (Guys may pay less attention to the construction of their footwear.) It’s the part of a shoe covering the top front of the foot up to the toe cap (if there is one).

But why vamp? I get an image of Dracula as a foot fetishist. Or perhaps of some husky-voiced Jessica Rabbit type, a real maneater (va-va-voom). This is a quick bite of vampire, which comes from the Hungarian vampir. My shoes may be black and grey, but vampires come with lots of black and red. The very v of the word brings to mind the widow’s peak of the vampire’s hairline – or the plunging neckline on the vamp’s dress.

But no: etymologically, something’s afoot. Something’s a forefoot, in fact: French avant-pied, which – way back in Old French – was avantpié, becoming in Norman French vampé, and in English vampe, ultimately vamp. The beginning and end got bitten off – after all, the word starts with the teeth biting the lip, and ends shortly thereafter with the lips pressed together; how could any of it on either side of those constrictions not fall away?

But never mind that. It could still get around. In fact, that word, which referred first to the part of a stocking that covered the ankle and foot, and then came to refer to the piece of a shoe covering the top front of the foot, has come also to refer to patching, repairing, renovating, furbishing, and from there to improvising – particularly musical extemporizing. And of course the verb revamp comes from the “renovate” sense.

Come to think of it, all those new vampire books and movies and TV shows are sort of revamping the whole vampire idea. But I’d just as soon give them the boot. Not with my new shoes, though.