Monthly Archives: July 2012


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? 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.”


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.

sofa, couch

Dear word sommelier: I notice that in your note on chesterfield you used sofa and couch interchangeably. Isn’t there a difference?

Of course there’s a difference. Sofa has two syllables and four letters and is soft, with just two voiceless fricatives at the front of the mouth and a round vowel (“ohhhh” like a sound you might make sinking into a plush sofa), and it has overtones of sol-fa and soda and perhaps Sufi and suffer and so far and shofar and maybe even loofahCouch, on the other hand, has one less syllable and one more letter, but just three phonemes – of which two are compound: a diphthong and an affricate. It is a harder word, to be sure, with its voiceless stop onset and its voiceless affricate ending. But somehow that doesn’t seem to bother the people who sit on couches – not even the echo of ouch or the taste of crunch and catch and cow and crutch…

Words are, as I have said many times, known by the company they keep. But these two words actually have very similar collocations – here’s what gives for them: sofa: adj asleep, comfortable, sectional, plush, living-room, Victorian, sagging, convertible; noun chair, room, table, living, cushion, leather, bed, back, arm, pillow; verb sit, lie, sleep, watch, lay, fall, lean, settle, seat, face; couch: adj asleep, comfortable, living-room, comfy, overstuffed, lumpy, sagging, upholstered; noun room, potato, chair, living, leather, back, arm, cushion, TV, bed; verb sit, sleep, lie, lay, fall, settle, lean, seat, face, sprawl.

Mind you, they do keep some different company socially. You can’t draw a nice isogloss for them – a line on a map that shows roughly where people stop using one word and start using the other, like with soda and pop (and, in the southern US, generic coke). The divider, inasmuch as there is one, is more one of social set. People whose lives are softer seem to like sofa better. If you see the play Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare (or watch the movie made from it, starring Will Smith, Donald Sutherland, and Stockard Channing), you will see a scene in which a rich kid who went to prep schools is teaching a poor black kid how to fit into the rich social set, and one point he makes is that the piece of furniture is not a couch, it’s a sofa.

Not that it’s as tidy as that. Many people use both, depending on context or whim, even if they prefer one to the other (usually couch to sofa). If they want to emphasize the softness or sound somehow more high-class, they might go with sofa. Or they might associate one word or another with some particular person or social set from their own lives. Each word is couched differently for each person.

Oh, yes, couch has a verb, too, which sofa does not. In fact, it has a much wider set of uses, noun and verb. It shows up in many contexts where something is lying or set together or into another thing. Which is reasonable enough, given its etymology. You very likely know that French se coucher means “go to bed” or “lie down”. A couch is not simply something you sit on; it’s something you can lie on – like the psychoanalyst’s couch, not sofa. So you see that there are these extra little collocations that show up farther back.

Oh, yeah: that’s where the French coucher comes from, by the way. Latin collocare. Meaning “put in its proper place” or “lay with” (not “lie with” – that comes with the French).

And sofa? It comes from Arabic. You may have seen, in real life or in pictures, an Arabic room furnished with a low platform on which is laid a carpet or carpets and various cushions for sitting or reclining on. That is what Arabic ṣoffah refers to, that platform and its cushy furnishings.

And the different denotations? Don’t they refer to different things? Well, the analyst’s couch has only a half back and one arm (or head end), and that matches a particular type that can be distinguished from a sofa with its full back and arms. But in actual common usage, especially in North America, one simply can’t draw a neat distinction, not even a fuzzy-bordered distinction like between cup and mug. You just have to go by feel and whim. You know what effect you would get by saying sofa potato instead of couch potato; go from there.


In this dream, you are named Chester. You are in a field near Chesterfield, wearing a Chesterfield, sitting on a chesterfield, smoking a Chesterfield, listening to The Chesterfields. A Roman army is camped nearby. You look over to the town. The steeple of its church is twisted around and leaning towards you, as if looking over its shoulder at you.

It all started with the Roman army, really. Their encampment: castra, Old English ceaster. Near it, a field. Ceasterfeld. Eventually Chesterfield. The town – near Sheffield – with its church dating to the 14th century, Saint Mary and All Saints, with that famous spire, twisted and leaning. There are many folk tales as to how the spire got that way. A local blacksmith mis-shod the devil, who leapt over the spire in pain and made it crooked. Or it bent over in curiosity when it heard a virgin was to be wed in the chuch, and will straighten up when one is. Or, or. In reality, mistakes were made by builders and roofers.

Chesterfield has had earls. The fourth Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Stanhope (1694–1773), was a noted statesman and man of letters. He also, incidentally, commissioned a piece of furniture: a sofa with a squared back and arms of equal height, plush, with buttons deeply upholstered onto it, and upholstry often of leather. A Chesterfield sofa. In Canada, for quite some time, any sofa – any couch – was called a chesterfield. That usage is dying out now; the Canadian linguist Jack Chambers studied it 20 years ago and found a clear age grading. But for many Canadians, me included, the first thing they think of even still when hearing chesterfield is a couch.

Philip Stanhope was also popular in the colonies, at least until they rebelled. There are several Chesterfield places named after him in America. One is in Virginia, Chesterfield County. They grow tobacco there. A brand of cigarette, once quite popular but seldom seen these days (especially in America; it can still be seen in Europe), is named after the county. You would be well advised to avoid smoking a Chesterfield on a chesterfield, as the embers may land and burn in and smolder, leading to a fire. Perhaps this is why the steeple is canting towards you.

The sixth Earl of Chesterfield, George Stanhope, also made something popular, a bit of upholstry, as it were: a coat for men. Around 1860, he decided that he had had enough with the fitted coats of the time, made for wearing indoors and out; he took to a less shaped version, a straighter coat with lapels and buttons (single or double breast), that was meant to be doffed when one was indoors. The Chesterfield coat. You may well have one without knowing it. I have one hanging in my closet.

The Chesterfields, for their part, were a British indie rock band of the mid- to late-1980s. I should tell you that they came from Somerset. They came out with a number of songs that will be liked by the same people who like The Smiths. “Goodbye Goodbye.” “Nose Out of Joint.” If I were you, I would be listening to “Ask Johnny Dee” while reclining on that rural sofa smoking.

And I would be thinking about that word: chesterfield. Three syllables, like the three cushions of a chesterfield. All consonants are voiceless or liquid, except for that last voiced stop /d/. An affricate to start with, then a fricative plus stop – the reverse of an affricate. After the liquid /r/, another fricative to move the sound from tongue-tip to lips. But it goes back to the tongue-tip after that. It is soft for the most part, like cushions or ashes or perhaps a long coat, but with a bit of crispness.

And there is a contrast between the expansive feeling of field, the images we get of open plains, and the solidity of chest, like your chest which you may smite through your coat, or a chest of drawers, or a treasure chest.

Yes. You snuff your Chesterfield and toss your Chesterfield on the chesterfield. The treasure chest must be buried here, in the field near Chesterfield. You had gone all the way to the Chesterfield Islands in the Coral Sea looking for it, but, though you felt you were following Philip Stanhope’s advice, “The world is a country which nobody ever yet knew by description; one must travel through it one’s self to be acquainted with it,” you now realize the treasure is at the source, a place much less exotic. No doubt this is why the Romans are here, these thousand soldiers – mille milites.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, in Nunavut, Canada, a chest lies buried in the permafrost at Igluligaarjuk – also known as Chesterfield Inlet. You will wake before you get there.


How fitting that I set to tasting this word just after reading a brief article on obscure quaint imported liquors and the ever-so-arcane-and-cute cocktails one may make with them. This word is a Sazerac served on the marble counter of your prose – or a brooklyn cocktail made with coyly copied Picon, or an old-style martini: two parts gin, one part dry vermouth, half a part sweet vermouth, and a dash of Angostura. It is a sometime word for “sometime”, an erstwhile or whilom usage for “erstwhile” or “whilom”, a former way of saying “former”.

Never mind why we have all those words that denote pretty much the same thing. Listen, I have six bottles of different kinds of Scotch in my liquor cabinet. I have three different kinds of gin in various places around the suite (freezer, cabinet). I have five kinds of rum, four kinds of brandy; for heaven’s sake, I have two kinds of cachaça. Some people even keep several different kinds of vodka. For much the same reason, I see no issue with keeping sometime, erstwhile, whilom, former, and quondam in the lexis cabinet.

Each one has its own sounds, of course, with their associations: two have the grey whiskers of whil, of which one has the Teutonic greying temples of erst and the other smokes the meerschaum of om; one is a common word elevated to pretension by the docking of an s from the tail; one is really quite common; and then there is the one with that quirky-yet-recondite pure Latin qu formation. Quondam. It smacks of Gregorian chant, and yet it also rather sounds like a Brooklyn prophylactic, doesn’t it? Add to that the clowns and acrobats of Quidam, at least for those who like Cirque du Soleil.

These several words, like all words, are also known by the company they keep. Quondam, perhaps more even than any of the others in the set (with the possible exception of whilom), sets a particular tone, a register, an air; it tells you something about the person using the word. If the user is male, you may reasonably expect that he owns real bowties and knows how to tie them, and can tell the difference between a tuxedo (black tie) and tails (white tie) and knows when to wear each. A woman who uses this word is surely not an utter stranger to elbow-length white silk gloves, nor to the arched eyebrow and arch comment – delivered not over tea or even juleps but something a little stronger, if you don’t mind, and another after that.

Roberto De Vido has drawn my attention to its use in a letter (quoted in The New Yorker) by none other than the great New York acid wit of round table and reviews, Alexander Woollcott:

To me you are no longer a faithless friend. To me you are dead. Hoping and believing I will soon be the same, I remain

Your quondam crony,

A. Woollcott

There’s a shot of bitters for you! But the words live on.

Indeed, anyone who uses it now may be assumed to be aspiring or pretending to a status of erudite wit, whatever their topic. It may even be used for contrast, as in this quote from a 2006 National Post article: “The future of ‘Hart House’, quondam home of the first family of professional wrestling, was secured by a new development plan.”

Ah, yes. House. That’s actually a less common usage. One further detail is that quondam is used more often of people. One not so often will hear of “my quondam domicile”; much more likely “my quondam domestic partner.” It was in its oldest English usages (and still is, occasionally) a noun meaning “former holder of an office or position” (as the OED says). It can also be an adverb, which is what it was in Latin – meaning “formerly”, of course.

Well, enough for this evening. The weekend awaits. As does a bedtime cocktail… with, let us say, Cointreau and Zuidam gin? Ah, I’ve finished the latter (sometime since, in fact). Well, there’s my quondam cocktail, then: Cointreau and – damn, I’ll have to use the Magellan gin. And a little whisper of Becherovka, for the requisite bitters.