Monthly Archives: June 2012


The ground on which my words were founded foundered. The descriptions and depictions had become unpredictable; I panicked; I portended aporia and predicted apocalypse: I espoused a doubt leading only to the conclusion that is the end, and by no means could I reach it.

One word of truth, firm, not relative! Or even an apophthegm, a didactic maxim. Can no one show me the way? Quick, apodeixis: an absolute proof. Where may I find it? Not in Metaxa or 80-proof Absolut. And not, for goodness’ sake, in apocope. No, say, in what disrobing room of the mind, what apodyterium of the brain’s bath-house, may what had been rooted and descending as a p turn and, abruptly apogeotropic, ascend as a d so that we may say “I see, I see”?

Do I decrypt the apocrypha, or pick up a dictionary? How is it that I may expect direction? I look away and find “away”, Greek apo, but it is already getting away from me: this “way” may mean “very”. Show me the way, then? It is the “way showing”: apodicticus, ἀποδεικτικός, established in incontrovertible evidence and thus truth of an adamantine nature: apodictic.

Yes, bedrock, a certainty particularly applicable to the purest of mathematics. Nothing moves, nothing is relative. But in bits linguistic, this is an impudent trick, a dupe; I appeal to apodioxis, the rejection of assertions as absurd. Language is polymorphous perverse, a social creation, and communication is a particular copulation of solipsistic consciousnesses. The frames of reference are never identical, the perspectives and experiences incommensurate. It is between these irreconcilables that the contact occurs, requiring respect and cooperation, at least enough to accept the phones or pixels as indexes of schemata and deixes to extending intentions. The apodictic must perforce by apomictic: an asexual reproduction, which is to say, a single source undilute, a parthenogenesis. In place of agape, apogamy. Incontrovertible because untouchable.

Purity is not the way of the word. One cannot create without loss and cross-contamination. In the tears excited by every apodacrytic exists a successful succubus. When you seek the way, you see not one, not strait, nor straight, but two roads, diverging because converging (diachronic misdirection?). And can you have genesis without disingenuousness? I will not speak here of apophasis.

As the smoke cleared and I caught a glimpse of my psychopomp, I knew that my search was not over but away. In language we stand not on rock; we are all pulling up each other’s bootstraps, and who knows where in time and space is the basis. So preempt the apodictic, and at its temple pronounce your apopemptic: a hymn of farewell, not to what never was but to the hope you kept. One is too lonely a number in any case.

I dropped the rock I had picked up; my doppelganger pocketed it. And that was where we stood. Our ground was what we held in common, or one after the other. I knew that he knew that I knew that he knew that I knew that the matter of facts was hypotactic, embedded, subordinate, turtles all the way down. In the beginning was the word, but you cannot find the beginning of words. We made our exit into the dappled crepuscule: it was evening out.


This seems an overly vivid word, a party of o’s and v’s and i’s, almost a parody. Seven syllables, fifteen letters, an even alternation of vowels and consonants, like a typographical topiary. It revs three times with the teeth on the lip and then it breaks free.

But how may we read it? It seems almost a numerical puzzle: are those Roman numerals, V for 5 and I for 1? I for one am not so sure; 0 (zero) is not a Roman numeral. Perhaps one or more of those v’s is actually a logical disjunction operator, “or”? As in “ovo or ivi”? (One looks like a bike, the other like a guy with ski poles.) Or “o or 0 or i or 1”? Are we trying to reach some kind of parity here?

Can you tear it apart, morphologically? This is the most perspicuous version of the word; it is also seen as ovovivipary and ovivipary. But I’m sure you all remember the famous telegram that cracked the tangle of the platypus: “Monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic.” Which is to say, playtpuses and echidnas lay eggs with big yolks. Telegrams were charged by word. The word with the charge in this case, for us, is oviparous – giving birth by egg. This contrasts with viviparous, giving live birth.

So, uh, ovo+vivi+parous, or ovo+vivi+parity for the noun… egg-live-birthing… How does that work, exactly? Well, the embryo gestates in an egg inside the mother. It’s not like gestating in a placenta, with nourishment given directly from the mother; the nourishment comes from the yolk in the egg. But the egg is not laid and left to develop in a nest or elswhere; the nest is the mother herself. So you start with eggs o o and then they hatch into little ones i i…

And what kind of creature does this? Assorted fish, reptiles, and invertebrates, mainly. Some sharks do it. Sometimes it’s more complex than that, too. The little shark (v v v) eggs (o o) grow the little sharks (ovivipary … ovovivipary … ovoviviparity) until at last one (i) hatches… and, no longer having the yolk, needs food. So it eats what’s available: the other eggs, its would-be siblings. (This seems like viviovorapacity!) It brings down the overcapacity to a parity, bite by bite (v v v). You can see the melee of twists and bits tearing apart in parit until finally it is ready to swim free (y)… As with so many things, it wins by being primus inter pares.

Thanks to @megoc and @NemaVeze for suggesting this.


The times are mickle when fortune’s fickle,
and tricks and traps are ticklish,
and luck once quick’ll trim to trickle,
and cherry bowl turn picklish;

you’re chucked with junk on bottom bunk,
and jerks can peek and chuckle,
but are you sunk in deepest funk?
And will you bow and truckle?

Say, what’s that mean, that word I’ve seen,
that truckle just back there?
It’s treacle-sticky, crackle-tricky,
flickering in the air…

Oh, here: to wit, it means “submit,”
“lie on a truckle-bed,”
“be robbed of thunder,” “knuckle under,”
and “pully wheel,” I’ve read…

So here’s the feel: it’s from the wheel,
Greek trokhos (source of truck);
trokhileia fully means a pully,
but here’s the turn of luck:

if pully tugs across the rugs
a bed from ’neath a higher,
then truckle-bed is how it’s said,
and thence the sense entire:

the lower berth has lower worth
for folks of low position,
some child or maid or similar grade,
and so it means submission.

But while this place may seem quite base,
pride comes before a fall,
and though you grumble, a truckle tumble
will hardly hurt at all.

So here’s the clue on what to do
when luck has turned to go:
though you feel blue, you may get through
if you can just lie low.


“That’s gangrene,” I said.

“No, it’s not going green yet,” he said. “It’s brown now. Was red. White before that.”

“Yes, and soon it will be a greenish-black.”

“But not yet.”

“You need to have that debrided.”

“Well,” he said, “that was the cause of the problem right there. They were de-brided.”

“Who? What?”

“The Green gang,” he said. “I had a crush on the girl. She had a crush on me, though she was engaged to one of the Green boys. She broke it off.” He held up his ring finger. “They crushed it. Nearly broke it off.”

“And the lack of blood flow is causing the tissue to die,” I said. “It’s rotting on the spot. If you develop gas gangrene you’re in for a lot of trouble.”

“Not a gas gang,” he said. “A cigarette gang. But I’ve already found the trouble.”

His finger looked like it hurt pretty badly. But the nerve endings were already dead. “Clostridia bacteria,” I said. “They’re anaerobic. Deprive tissue of oxygen and they can move in, multiply, secrete poison. You can tell them because of the gas bubbles they produce.”

But he was lost in his own gas bubble. “A gangly guy, Green,” he said. “Green with envy. And angry. Angry cranky gangly Green’s gang, grinning as I groaned. Where’s my ring gone?” He turned the finger one way and the other.

I didn’t know what to say. “Gangrene doesn’t have any relation to green,” I mumbled. “It comes from Latin gangrena, from a very similar Greek word. It may or may not be related to canker and cancer.”

He looked up. He seemed to have regained his ingrained rigour. “She reneged and they were wronged. And I am grievously injured.”

“Are you going?” I said.

“To the hospital?” he said. “I agree. Green light. Let’s get going.”

We started to go. “And the girl?” I said.

He just looked at his finger. “Gone to green. Ain’t got no doggone ring.” He looked up at me for a moment. “Ugly word, gangrene.”


The written form of this word presents to the eyes an asymmetry, with ascenders and descenders clustered on the right side, though the dots on the i’s are more balanced. It starts with more rounded letters and ends with greater linearity and angularity.

In saying it, you start soft with the two nasals, and then roll through two liquids before tapping on the crisper stop at the end – a stop that may be a clean break, or may be a mere flick of the tongue-tip, depending on who is saying it and when and where. The words starts on the lips and then remains on the tongue tip thereafter, and all the vowels are in the front half of the mouth.

Its overtones are of a few familiar words such as miner and inner and reality, and some less common words such as chirality and minatory. Its sources are all Latin, and have gone through shortening and concatenation through the usual process of refinement: minera meant “mineral” and alis was an adjectiving suffix; together they made mineralis, whence mineral, now also once again a noun. To that is added ity from Latin itas, a nominalizing suffix to add to the adjectival stem, for the meaning “mineral quality” or “extent to which something is like a mineral”.

There: all the aspects, in order of perception. Just like a wine tasting. Which is where you will most typically see this word. For the most part, in the rest of the world, something is or is not a mineral, and one seldom needs to speak of its minerality. But when you taste wines – in particular riesling, pinot gris, and unoaked chardonnay, but also sometimes some others – you want to speak of the relative intensity of a taste that is reminiscent of minerals.

By the way, do you wonder just how the heck we know what minerals taste like? Generally people who are not in the habit of licking rocks still understand what minerality means. Why? Well, many of us have drunk “hard” water from mountain streams and so forth and know what the presence of all those dissolved minerals does to the flavour. But also, most if not all of us were children at one time, and kids stick rocks into their mouths all the time. Oh, and one more thing: we know it from the smell of petrichor.

Now, tell me: does minerality strike you as an odd word, an uncommon word, a word that you have any trouble understanding, perhaps not a word at all? I’ve never thought so, but I read the following in a column by Beppi Crosariol, a wine expert (with a very distinctive northern Italian name) who writes for the Globe and Mail:

Chalky flavour is part of a spectrum that aficionados typically call “minerality.” I put that in quotation marks because it’s not a word recognized by most dictionaries. (Wine experts love to make stuff up.)

Most dictionaries don’t recognize it? Really? Actually, he’s right. And the Oxford English Dictionary marks it as “rare”. But it gives two citations, neither of which from a wine writer, and the first of which from 1891, with a citation of minéralité from French in 1874.

Which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t made up independently by a wine writer at some time too. It’s an obvious word. It’s made from a well-known noun and a productive suffix (meaning it’s still used in new formations). Its meaning is, I would expect, pretty obvious; ity belongs to the same family as itude and ness, and if you just start taking nouns and adjectives and adding those endings to them, you will find you are producing words the sense of which is quite transparent even if you have never seen them before. You may, for instance, talk of the iPhonity or iPhonitude or iPhoneness of some Android knockoff. (All three of those words are already in use in many places – Google them and see.) Does it matter whether those are in the dictionary? Of course not. I used them and you understood them. That’s all it takes.

By the way, Crosariol points out another useful fact: “the mineral content in wine is well below the threshold of human taste and smell.” Yes indeedy. You’re not smelling actual minerals. You’re smelling things that smell like minerals.

And? That’s the point of tasting notes, after all: to tell you what something tastes like, not just what it tastes of. It would be boring just to say “this wine tastes of fermented grapes” every time. Wines made with merlot do not as a rule contain blackberries; wines made with gewürztraminer are not normally made with actual lychees. So what. They still taste like those things. When you see a green that is actually made with blue and yellow inks, you are still seeing green. The point is what you are experiencing; the question of where it comes from is a separate point – also a very interesting point, but separate.

And so the inner reality of minerality is not simply some lapidary statement of its denotation and etymology; it is enhanced by mining it for all the aesthetic interfaces available between it and you. You need not be a Merlin to find in its entrail tastes and connections that are purely adventitious and yet present for those who look – just open the tiny mailer of its form and spill the contents out. If you want it, it can be there.


I recently finished reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a long set of disquisitions and descants on whales, whaling, and life and all that, with occasional interruptions of plot. You have surely heard of it. Most people haven’t read it, but they know it’s about a whale.

Well, actually, it’s about a whaling ship and all its seamen and its captain who is obsessed with killing a particularly aggressive albino sperm whale, which has gotten the name Moby Dick (most whales don’t get names, of course, but a few achieve a certain fame). It’s very important that it’s a sperm whale. Most other whales – baleen whales – can’t do the kind of damage an aggressive bull sperm whale can do if it has a mind to. It’s not that the other whales aren’t big; it’s not that they can’t fight back at all; it’s that they don’t have teeth per se, and so can’t bite, and they don’t have foreheads that can be used for ramming aggressively. Sperm whales have both.

So why chase after sperm whales when other, less obstreperous whales are out there? It’s all in the head. That forehead, specifically. Which has no bones in it – it’s not really what corresponds to our forehead anatomically; it’s more of a huge lump on top of the jaw. And it’s filled with spermaceti.

That’s not what you may think it is. It’s not what the earliest people to encounter it thought it was, either – finding it washed up from dead sperm whales, they believed it was the sperm of a whale. Thus the name: sperma, sperm (“seed”), and ceti, “of a whale” – Latin, of course, though the ceti comes originally from Greek. But actually spermaceti is a kind of wax, a wax that is typically in a fluid state in the whale’s head but crystallizes easily. It makes excellent candles and also has some value in cosmetics, leatherworking, lubricants, that sort of thing. Sperm whales also have blubber, to be sure, from which oil can be extracted – much needed before the age of electricity. But spermaceti was what made it worthwhile chasing after these big brutes.

So, anyway, once it was figured out which whales this “sperm” came from, they came to have the name spermaceti whales, or sperm whales for short. So now you know. But let’s work our fingers through this word spermaceti a little more.

Actually, the word has historically been worked through a fair amount and kneaded into various forms; a notable now-disused mutation is parmacety, which has also been spelled parmacete, parmacitie, parmasitie, parmacetie, parmacety, parmacity, permaceti, permacetty, parmasity, parmaceti, parmacetty, parmacitty, parmasitty, and pahmacity (thanks, OED), all of which make me think of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham, or for that matter Parma city itself. Or perhaps pharmaceutic, permanence, tenacity, and acidity – or, indeed, aceite, which is Spanish for “oil”.

Spermaceti of course has those latter echoes too; one may be tempted to think it is sperm+aceti. But of course it is not; you may as well think of it as like Superman ceti, a Superman of a whale, a real supreme cetacean. You may also think of spermatozoa, naturally, but also of per, perm, mac, mace, and things etic and emic that you may cite.

The word works your tongue and lips with a back-and-forth interplay; it also works your hand as you write it (perhaps you should use a quill pen), with numerous turns and reversals, like an ampersand but so much longer.

How much longer? Perhaps an apostrophe. No, not the punctuation mark; a digression, an aside, of which Moby-Dick has quite a few, both from the author to the reader and from characters to, well, supposedly themselves but really the reader, of course. And while the whale may be white, the prose is often purple. Salty sea-dogs discourse with their demons in page-long paragraphs of pseudo-Shakespearean omphaloskeptic peregrinations. It gets quite thick and oily, and sometimes starts to crystallize unless you knead it well.

Just like spermaceti, to be sure. Or, as Melville often calls it in the common terminology of his chronotope, simply sperm. Allow me to close with a lengthy passage from the book that will give this word more flavour – without mentioning the whole word until the very last – than any dry disquisition. It will also snag this word tasting note in many a filter, with its talk of the seamen squeezing sperm all day. But remember: he’s talking about a kind of wax that comes in tens of gallons from the whale’s head. (Oh dear. That sentence will probably snag on some filters too.) This is from chapter XCIV:

While some were occupied with this latter duty, others were employed in dragging away the larger tubs, so soon as filled with the sperm; and when the proper time arrived, this same sperm was carefully manipulated ere going to the try-works, of which anon.

It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty! no wonder that in old times this sperm was such a favorite cosmetic. Such a clearer! such a sweetener! such a softener! such a delicious mollifier! After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralize.

As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma, – literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger: while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulence, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.

fortune, chance

Dear word sommelier: At a recent graduation ceremony I attended, a speaker referred to “fortune and chance.” Aren’t they the same thing?

A person could be forgiven for thinking the two words are merely synonyms. After all, if we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of fortune includes the word chance and vice-versa. But there are greater nuances. As I’ve often said, words are known by the company they keep. So let us have a look in another Oxford book, Oxford Collocations

Fortune has made an interesting trail from its transparent origin, the Latin word fortuna – which is related to fors “chance” and ferre “bear” (verb). Do you recognize the Latin phrase “O Fortuna”? It’s the opening words of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and the song descants on fortune, which is visualized as a wheel, carrying people up high and casting them down. This is where we get Wheel of Fortune from.

And this image helped construct fortune as something that was not simply chance but fate. You can go to a fortune teller to see if you will be fortunate in life; you can go out to try your fortune or seek your fortune or make your fortune. Your fortune, originally, is your lot as represented by your standing in life; of course, from that it’s a small step to the sense “money, wealth” – because that’s generally how one makes one’s fortune.

So make your fortune and, even moreso, make a fortune now refer to riches. You can amass a fortune or build up a fortune, or you can inherit a fortune if someone leaves you a fortune. And Fortune is a magazine about money, which means about business; if you are on the Fortune 500 you have it made. It? Your fortune. Just as long as you do not encounter some unfortunate misfortune and suffer a reversal of fortunes as your company’s fortunes rise and fall and otherwise fluctuate, causing you to lose your fortune. You want fame and fortune; you do not want to be, as Shakespeare’s Romeo was, fortune’s fool.

Chance, on the other hand, has as a word been changed more by time and tide; it came by way of French from Latin cadentia “falling” (noun), from cadere “fall” – hmm, bear vs. fall. It is how things fall out, how the chips fall, how it all falls into place. But no one will tell your chance in the same way as they tell your fortune.

No, chance is typically purely stochastic, aleatory; we have games of chance. There may be a slight chance, perhaps a million-to-one chance, of winning, but you’ll chance it (note the verb form; fortune does not exist as a verb). You may succeed through sheer chance, but you’ll do what it takes to boost your chances, and you certainly don’t want to spoil your chance. But take your chance – you don’t want to lose your chance. Chance is opportunity. But not fully controllable; there is always an element of chance.

At the same time, chance can be subject to the decision of a person: Is there a chance you could – ? You can give someone a fighting chance or a sporting chance; there’s a fair chance you might even give them a second chance. After all, they deserve a chance; given a chance, they’ll jump at the chance if you’ll just take a chance on them.

If you look at the trees on Visual Thesaurus, you will see that chance has rather more connections – it is used more, generally – but while both words connect to a sense of “an unknown or unpredictable phenomenon that causes an event to result one way rather than another”, fortune also connects to a similar node but with positive outcome specified (as does luck), and to one for “your overall circumstances or condition in life”, and to one for wealth or prosperity. Chance, on the other hand, connects with possibilities, opportunities, threats, and measures of likelihood – plus the several senses of the verb: taking risks, happening upon something, occurring randomly.

Of these two words, then, fortune seems to be the banker in the bowtie, and chance the ragamuffin in the po’ boy cap. You get some of the feel of that, too, in the shapes of the words on the page and perhaps in their sound and feel. Fortune starts with that soft, lofty f; it moves to a smooth liquid /r/ and then breaks into a second syllable that has more of a bite and sound of coins to it. But that bite and sound of coins – the voiceless alveopalatal affricate, /tʃ/ “ch”, followed by a softer ring of a nasal /n/ – is what you get front and centre with chance, without the softening extra syllable to start with, but with a full-value vowel and an extra fricative /s/ at the end to leave off with a hiss, more strident than the soft opening /f/ in fortune.

Test all this out, sense, sound, feel. Swap the words in a few phrases. Obviously you do not amass a chance or look for fame and chance, but do you say your chances rise and fall or that you’ve had a reversal of chance? And you don’t take your fortune on games of fortune (though cards can be used for chance or fortune); you don’t talk about an element of fortune; obviously you don’t give someone a second fortune. And it would be odd indeed to say “Ya pays yer money, ya takes yer fortunes.” Or, on the other hand, to try to win on Wheel of Chance. ABBA may have made a fortune with “Take a Chance on Me,” but they wouldn’t have made a chance with “Take a Fortune on Me.”