Monthly Archives: July 2012

lakh

Today Sesquiotica reached 100,000 page views since its inception a bit under 4 years ago. A hundred thousand? Ten myriads? That’s a lot, isn’t it? No… that’s a lakh.

Well, such is my lakh in life, allakhated perhaps by Lakhesis. Or perhaps chalk it up to good lakh, nothing inelakhtable. I find I have no lakh of readers – true, since many readers account for rather more than one page view each. But I would not call this a lakhluster performance. I would certainly rather have lakhs than bagels! Let’s lakh this in: if each page view were a cube of water 90 metres on a side, I would have enough water to fill Lakh Lomond. Had I a square kilometre for each view, I would have more land than there is in Ladakh. Surely this calls for a celebratory drop of lakher – no lakhtose tonight, but I won’t get shellakhed. The greater intoxication is from all these delakhtable words!

But do you know this word? Do you lakh it, with its lush lick to start with and its hard gravel landing at the back? Are you familiar with its common collakhations? It’s used often enough in Indian English – not just in its literal sense of “100,000” (giving it a base 10 lakharithm of 5) but in the plural in the same sort of general use as one might see for myriads and millions: “I have lakhs of rupees. I am a very rich man.” “I can give you lakhs of reasons to read this.” (You may feel justifiably relakhtant to embrace some of these assertions…)

The word lakh, which can be pronounced (in English) with the vowel of lock or that of lack, comes from Hindustani, which got it in turn from Sanskrit laksha “sign” (noun). Why have a single word for 100,000? It’s the South Asian numbering system: 100,000 is a lakh; 100,00,000 (yes, that’s right, 100,00,000) is a crore; 100,000,00,00,000 is a lakh crore (we’d call it a trillion – we being North Americans; some Europeans would call it a billion); and so it goes, stacking encores of crores and lakhs on crores, the zeroes in a 2,2,3 pattern all the way. (And never mind millionaires; in India, a rich person is a crorepati – someone who has a net worth of a crore or more of rupees.)

But I probably won’t reach a crore of page views. At my current rate, I may well reach a million before I turn 80. As long as I don’t get too lakhs about my writing.

wlat

Wlat? What? Or what with the hump of the h cut off? But that’s just wrong.

This word makes me think of the time I was working in a bookstore and had to take down a customer’s name. She was a middle-aged British woman; she said something that sounded to me like “(a) LOX” or “(th’) LOX!” This made for confusion in transcribing it, leading to her exclamation, in her Thatcherite accent, “You’ve got it wrong. All wrong.” Finally it became apparent that she was saying “(w’) LOX!!” – that is to say, Willox. I still recall her excessively high-contrast pronunciation with a certain amount of wlat.

So wlat means… well, think of the sound a person who is disgusted past the point of nausea makes. “Wlat,” perhaps? Ah, why not? I can’t say exactly where this word – meaning “loathing, disgust, nausea” – came from before it appeared in Old English as wlætta. It’s actually been out of use in English for quite a long while. As has its related verb, wlate (“feel wlat”). Even wlatsome (“provoking wlat”) is disused now. I mean, yes, we have loathsome, but while that makes the mouth pucker, wlatsome gives such a nice expression of appalled disgust to go with the wet smack…

Don’t you think its absence leaves the language a little flat? Sometimes extreme sentiments are better served by extreme words. Why not be flamboyant from time to time? If you wish to tickle the ivories of your teeth with electric lexis, make like Wladziu – Wladziu Valentin Liberace, I mean. Be a little outrageous when you’re more than a little outraged. Of course, Liberace was delightful, but, really, so is this word, in its high-dudgeon and phonologically confounding way. You can be like Wladziu when expressing wlat. Indeed, you can use ancient words as though the world were your fantasy or fairy-tale… if wlat makes you dizzy, be a Wlat Disney. Say not just “Blah!” but “Wlat!”

If you can make yourself say it, of course. The juxtaposition of the glide and the liquid is something one just doesn’t do… in English, anyway. I mean, it’s not physically impossible at all; if you hold a /w/ all you need to do is raise just your tongue tip to touch the roof of the mouth, then unround the lips, to move into /l/. We just happen to think of /w/ with an off-glide after, which would make /wl/ more like one of a score of sore swallows as one tries to drink a glass of water as slowly as possible. Or perhaps some repellent medicine.

But we can safely say that if the word had made it to the present day in continuing usage, the /w/ – and perhaps the written w – would be gone. So isn’t it nice that the musty old treasure chest of old literature and the foxing pages of the OED have retained it with its ancient form so that we may blow off the dust, wipe away the cobwebs, but perhaps keep the patina, and use it with relish in asperity like a battle-axe long kept in the family – hacking off the hump of the h and hearing if fall with a wet splat? Displaying defiance doubly through unintelligibility and sheer phonemic inappropriateness?

“I make you feel what?” “You make me feel wlat.” “What?” “Wlat.”

scrat

This word might look like a typo – perhaps my dactylography is not up to scratch? But this is not scratch with the ending scratched off – this word, and cratch, appear to have been merged to become scratch, which shows up later. But while cratch meant pretty much what scratch does, scrat refers in its primary sense more specifically to attacking with the nails. If you’re in a spat with some rat who you wish would scat, you make like a cat and scrat. “I’ll scrat your eyes out!”

With scratch, you can hear the scraping /s/ and the beginning to catch /k/, and the gripping with the /kr/; the aggressive heart /æ/; and then a catch and scrape away again at the end /tʃ/. With scrat, there is no scrape away – it catches. The nails scrape on the skin and then dig in. This is not for getting rid of an itch, it’s for getting even with a bitch. Compare: smack, slap, scrat – all with the /s/ in at the start, the /æ/ in the heart, and a flat voiceless stop at the end. There are several more words with those same characteristics – I leave it as an exercise for you to think of them all and see just how much they have in common.

And, on the other hand, look at scrape: similar in sense, similar in form – almost identical to scrap – but with a different vowel in the middle, /eɪ/. And just like that you move towards crate and crepe and on to grape for all we know… and grate, for that matter.

Ah, yes, grate. Which comes from French grater, cognate with Italian grattare, and tracing back to a borrowing from the Germanic root that gives us modern German kratzen, which may be the source of scrat – there’s just the question of how that s got there. I mean, aside from its quite evident suitability phonaesthetically and by analogy with the pattern of other words.

diacritic

There’s a website called “There, I Fixed It” that specializes in photos of assorted appalling improvisations for mechanical situations – quick fixes done with whatever things might happen to be lying around: elastic bands holding multiple remotes together; mailboxes made of ski poles and reusable bags; roofs held up with blocks, sticks, and binder twine; car doors made from vinyl siding or carbdoard boxes; insulation made with towels and glue; wrong-sized parts everywhere; and of course ductape, ductape, ductape, and no doubt a fair amount of WD-40 too. A veritable MacGyver festival, only keeping the crazy but losing the brilliance.

Well, that’s the infinite ingenuity of humanity. People improvise when they don’t have the parts necessary and, for some reason or other, can’t or won’t get them. Now, imagine you had a language with that kind of problem: you wanted to write it down, but the letters you had available weren’t exactly matched to the sounds the language made. What would you do?

Ha. Welcome to most languages in the world. Including ours. We’re using an alphabet that was made for the Latin language. We have sounds that Latin didn’t. What do we do?

Well, OK, English is a special case. We’ve given up even trying to fix it, exactly. It’s all just git-r-done. But many other languages determined that the letters available would work fairly well with their sounds if they just had some extra marks to put on them. What, you object? Listen, live a critic, die a critic.

Diacritic. Indeed. That’s what they put on selected letters: diacritics. Also known as diacritical marks. The word comes from Greek δια dia “between” and κρίνειν krinein “separate” (verb). They separate between different sounds represented by what is otherwise the same letter.

Oh, we mean accents? Actually, accents are just part of it. Acute and grave accents, é è, are certainly diacritics; so are circumflexes î, tildes ñ, cedillas ç, diaereses (also called umlauts for the phonological process they often indicate) ü, and a small host of others such as dots, hooks, and rings. These are the ductape and WD-40 of orthography.

Except that ductape and WD-40 fixes are decidedly downmarket. Redneck. At the opposite end of the scale from, say, a French restaurant. Diacritics, since they are not normal in English but are associated with certain European languages that we valorize for their exoticness, often increase the dollar value of a word. What has more class: a resume, a resumé, or a résumé? Will you pay more for cream, creme, or crème? And which publication is higher-brow, the one that talks about getting the naive to cooperate or the one that talks about getting the naïve to coöperate?

Yep, they may be ductape for other languages, but they’re bowties for English. Except the umlaut (diaeresis). Oh, it’s special, as we’ve just seen, and can raise the tone. But it can also just add a certain Teutonic otherness, as more than a few heavy metal groups have noticed with distinct disregard for phonological functionality (Mötley Crüe are a particularly notable offender, but I suppose Blue Öyster Cult get a lot of blame for starting it). Those two dots are like the eyes of Kilroy looking over the wall, but sometimes Kilroy is a copyeditor for the New Yorker and sometimes he’s a headbanger in studded leather.

And all that from a really fairly dry, light, even prissy-sounding little word. Diacritic. The air of intellectual circumspection from dia is, I think, a factor: diametric, diatonic, dialysis, perhaps dialogue; it may seem feminine from the flavour of Diane. But the crisp click-rebound of critic cannot but be detached and askance (and, yes, it’s actually the same critic as critic, at root). Put them together and you have a clear, shiny taste of acrylic and perhaps a bitter taste of acrid. And of course dialectic and dialect.

Which brings us back to the infinite variety of language. And the limited toolkit of letters we have for transcribing it. Wayyyyy too much trouble to get a new letter widely used, usually. We’ll just take what we have and fix it till it works.

fulgurant

In the gargantuan canyons of the urban troglodytes, the lightning pops like a paparazzo’s flashbulb, making famous for a millisecond every late-night window watcher. And then the thunder, mere tardy herald of the fulgency, gives a name: fulgurant. Filling the ungrateful gulfs, it echoes like a waterfall of the Sambatyon, and then is digested by the great glass and granite until it is mere borborygmus and grunt and echoing eructation.

Fulgurant: this is the adjective that is thrown to it. The air and the eye are full with the coruscating crack, the intense scintillation, the crooked white river on which rides for an instantaneous eternity the angel of death. (Imagine a flash of this order every time a soul shucked its shell: an instant’s intense glow over there, then over there, then over there, and sooner or later where you were standing.) It purifies the vulgar; its white heat foments a corybantic ecstasis among the atmospheric molecules and, like Bacchae, they issue forth in destructive trance and dance, no guarantee on the outcome, but their collisions impel and expel and this ague causes crashes that argue and rant and at last dissipate and even out.

For there can be no flash without bang. What, a mere dropped white hanky in the sky, a flash in the pantheon, with no report? Cheated. An idea without expression. This word fulgurant names what we see: flashing like lightning. Lightning, Latin fulgur. The /g/ may seem too soft and guttural for the atmospheric Lucifer, but a name – any name – is what binds it to the earth. The lightning does not exist because of the thunder, but without the word would the thing be real? Would we know it? Has it in fact come just to send forth the thunder? What is priority? Why, indeed, would we think that time is for lightning as it is for us?

Why has the sky given us this word, this bright idea and its rumbling name? But while lightning may flash across the sky or between sky and ground, it is never a simple giving. There can be no fulgurance without potential. When the earth is increasingly positive, there is a moment of mutual recognition of potential between ground and cloud. Both sides are ready. The word does not simply descend from heaven; the connection happens only because our need to take matches its need to give. And in that bright instant exists the illumination, which shocks the air into reporting: yes, fulgurant. The unity is divided, the soul is released, the exaltation of the flash makes all famous for fifteen microseconds; the fractal branches and breaks. Blissful ignorance is incinerated in blitz, in einem Augenblick – in the blink of an eye. Your wish has been granted in full.

And then, as the echo passes, it all evanesces. Not to be frugal – the sky is prodigal with its prodigies. But the world works its wonders with myriad myriads of words, a lexical googolplex. Every scintilla of insight is an instant of scintillation; when you figure it all out you are engulfed in fulguration, and each light is a light of a word that will soon enough be heard.

ekker

Ekker.

Yes, a bit of ekker would be lekker.

I’m a bit of a trekker, but best on a good brekker. I don’t play soccer. Can’t afford a chukker – but you might as well ride an ekka! I’ll take shank’s mare. Kick up the Sauconys. Excellent for eking one’s existence. And you can explore the local ekistics.

So kick, kick, bend the knees k k. It’s e’s e once you get into it. Break free of your restraints.

What am I talking about? Some kind of gymkhana? Could be, or anything gymnastic, take your pick. Just exercise your options, as long as your option is exercise. No trickery, no cookery. Keep correct; there’s no double-checker.

Latin arcere meant “restrain, shut up”. The prefix ex means many things: “out of” for one; “forth” for another. Put them together and we got exercere. Put that into English and we got exercise. Put that into the mouths of Oxonian toffs and we got ekker – a jaunty cutting down to size (and excising of cise) that breaks phonologically (between syllables, /k/ from /s/) and not morphologically (after the x).

Such er words were popular enough: brekker for breakfast, soccer for association football (yes, that one is a bit of torture in the derivation). It works here: at the echo of the starter’s pistol, you’re off and running. The word is just quicker. And the er ending, like the s ending (and a fortiori the ers ending, as in champers for champagne), has a certain moneyed air to it, unlike the infra dig a and o endings popular with the tabloid press (Macca, Gazza, Jacko).

It matters little or not at all that it sounds, in that British accent, about like ekka, which is a small one-horsed vehicle (in India), though it may gain some flavour from chukker, also chukka, a period in a game of polo. Other eks – such as Hindi “one” and Afrikaans “I” – don’t come into play. Nor, except for those who know Afrikaans or Dutch, does lekker – “good” or “enjoyable” in Afrikaans and “good-tasting” in Dutch – though a good bit of ekker certainly is lekker. And ekistics – a name for the science of human settlements – is something I’d like to work in more, but you may or may not be aware of it when you work out.

But of course now you know all that, and when you go for a bit of ekker it will all rise from the soil of your mind like petrichor after a rain shower. Which, by the way, is pleasing to get a bit of ekker in.

vex

Her brows were spiked angrily v. Her eyes were cut to half-open e. Her mouth was puckered tight x. His face looked afflicted.

“I am vexed,” she said, her mouth puckering bitterly and her nose wrinkling as she said the word. “Vexed. We’re in a fine fix thanks to your vacillation.”

He faced his vehicle. “It’s not my fault!” he said, his arms as on a crucifix. “The road is excessively convex! It was quite inadvertent!” The truck teetered on an apex, its axle transfixed. He gave the vehicle a couple of swift kicks, to no effect. He circled around to the back and pulled out a flag, which he affixed to the antenna.

“Well, this is just the sort of wreck that one expects,” she growled, crushing gravel beneath her Blahniks. “Wicked with words, but sucks with trucks and such mechanicals.”

He swept his hand to direct her look to their context. “We are in word country.” Syntax trees branched on all sides. Close by was heard the chuckle of an onomatopoeic brook.

“And what word is this?” She indicated the vexing convexity.

“I – um…” he bent close to look, genuflected, peeked. “I think it’s a root. It looks green…”

“A root?” One eyebrow arched. “What’s the root of convex?” Her tone was not expectant or respecting.

“Well… one wants to say vex…”

She gave a triumphant look, threw her arms up and started to walk away.

“But it’s not that vex!” he said. “The vex in convex – and vexillum –” he indicated the banner affixed to the aerial – “comes from vehere, ‘carry’, same as in vehicle.”

She paused and looked back towards him. “No wonder,” she said, “your vehicle” – her voice dripping with pique – “is such” – she spun and started to walk again – “a vexation!”

“But vexation – vex – vexed” – he started to walk after her – “is a different root! From vexare, ‘shake, agitate, disturb’!”

“Go shake, agitate, disturb yourself,” she growled, unstopping, shaking.

He exhaled, exasperated. “Well, you’re doing dick to help fix this!” He turned back. “Vixen.” She kept walking.

He muttered to himself as he approached the truck once more. “Why is there a root in the middle of the route?” He paused, transfixed. “Root. Route. Vex Route. Vex Rte. Vertex.” He ducked back down to look again. “Yes, there’s our mix-up! Vertex – the peak, the angle, the point on a curve or surface where the axis meets it.” The truck’s axle met the root in one spot. “But what’s the root?”

He turned again, looked at her back as she walked away. Then he turned back. “Vert. It only looks green! Vert, from vertere, ‘turn’. Inadvertently hit vert… What can turn this around?”

He vaulted into the cab of the truck and turned the steering wheel hard right, then, all four wheels engaged in reverse, pressed the accelerator. The front right wheel caught a grip and pushed the axle loose. He continued in a backward circle until he was turned completely, and free. “Vert-uoso!” he said, exultant.

He put the truck in forward and accelerated, leaving the convex vertex reflected in his mirror. And behind it, breaking her Blahniks in a sudden sprint, was vexation.

Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting vexed.