Daily Archives: July 18, 2012


“What’s this?” Edgar Frick held up a pink cube of some kind of comestible.

His better half, Marilyn, glanced over. “I’m pink, therefore I’m ham.”

Maury, who – as often – was bustling about setting up the food for this month’s Words, Wines, and Whatever tasting, stopped long enough to say “Mortadella.” Then he continued setting foodstuffs out.

“Baloney,” Edgar said, and popped it into his mouth.

“Not exactly,” said Maury over his shoulder as he bustled about. “Bologna – or baloney – is an American version of mortadella, but this is the real thing. From Bologna. The city.”

“No,” said Edgar, “mortadella is a great big pink slice. Like this.” He gestured with his hands. “In fact, an end of a mortadella looks pretty much like –” he reached over towards his better half, in particular a rounder part of her anatomy, but she swatted his hand away. “Hm!” he said. “Cruella!”

“It’ll be the morta della you,” she said, more leering than indignant. Then, to Maury, “Isn’t that what mortadella means? ‘Death of the’? Death of the what? Do they know?” She looked skeptically at the white stuff dotting the pink mass.

“That would be morte della,” I volunteered. “Or morte dello, or del, or delle, or degli, or dei.”

“Well, I’m still wondering what fell into the sausage grinder,” she said, impaling the cube on an inch-long vampire-red little fingernail. She waggled it at Edgar and then ate it as though she were doing a community theatre version of Tom Jones.

“The white lumps are pork fat,” Maury said from partway across the room. “It is also seasoned with black pepper and myrtle.”

“Myrtle!” Marilyn exclaimed. “That was my aunt’s name. I always wondered what happened to her…”

“So it’s myrtle-della,” Edgar said, and found it not beneath him to eat another cube.

Maury’s orbit drew him nearer again. “It’s thought that the name mortadella comes from Latin murtatum, meaning ‘seasoned with myrtle berries’, and a diminutive ending ella.”

“Ella was my other aunt,” Marilyn said. “Her ending was not diminutive. If you think mine is something to see…” She edged her leather-cased rotund end towards Maury, who quickly jumped over to the next table.

“Perhaps this is morte di Ella,” I suggested, spearing a cube with a toothpick.

“It has also, on the other hand,” Maury said, “been long held that the name comes from mortaio, referring to the mortar in which the meat was pounded.”

Marilyn cocked her head at Maury and raised a leering eyebrow. Maury sighed, realizing his unintended double entendre, and drew further away.

“It’s a big-sounding word,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to divert the conversation from its downward trend. “I mean, four syllables, that rather big back round effect on ‘mort’, uh… Della could be a name of someone big, though it could also be small…”

“But really,” Edgar said, eating yet another cube, “mort a deli ever serve it this way?”

“In the orbit of Bologna,” Maury said, trying to remain in the conversation without getting too close to Marilyn’s centre of gravity, “it is often served this way at the beginning of a meal, with rustic bread.”

“So where’s the bread?” I asked.

“I was just about to bring it out,” he said.

Marilyn stepped forward and reached her hands towards Maury, rolling the fingers in the air in her best vampirella fashion. Impaled on her nails were the last ten cubes of the mortadella. “Just bring your buns here, dear boy,” she purred.

Maury stepped back. “You will be the death of me,” he croaked, and disappeared into the kitchen.

Marilyn shrugged and proffered her digits to me and Edgar. “Finger food?”


You want an author with a taste for the words of the English language and how they fit together? I recommend Vladimir Nabokov.

Yes, Nabokov, that great nabob of books, who grew up in Russia – though he could write English before he could Russian. Nabokov, author of Lolita, which, aside from treating a topic that is still shocking today (and incidentally providing a useful eponym to certain kinds of classified ads and websites), opens with a little word tasting on Lolita. (I’m not going to quote it here. Go read it, for heaven’s sake.) A man whose prodigious vocabulary was matched by an ability to string these marvellous ingredients together into some of the most sapid sentences ever set in type. He truly squeezes the juice out of words to make the ink of his page.

It is in a work of his that I confess I have yet to read that you will find today’s word. I was talking with a fellow regular passenger on the bus recently, a school teacher, and she was reading his book Speak, Memory, in which he described his governess’s hands thus (you can read a longer quote at the blog Riverside Rambles):

In our childhood we know a lot about hands since they live and hover at the level of our stature; Mademoiselle’s were unpleasant because of the froggy gloss on their tight skin besprinkled with brown ecchymotic spots.

I want you to read that whole sentence out loud. Do it carefully. Savour the words. Read it out again. Find the sound patterns and the rhythms. The sounds feed forward and back like sephiroth: live – hover – level – stature; froggy gloss versus tight skin; not sprinkled but, for rhythm and to foreshadow brown, besprinkled; the echo in ecchymotic spots; the rhythm of that whole last clause: Mademoiselle’s were unpleasant because of the froggy gloss on their tight skin besprinkled with brown ecchymotic spots. You see? It holds a three-beat rhythm that it interrupts at the most important parts with a shorter, punchier cut rhythm. (I cannot resist suggesting that Nabokov may have been extra sensitive to rhythms since the Anglophone world is full of people who say his name with the wrong one – it’s really Vladimir Nabokov [with the final v said “f”], not Vladimir Nabokov.)

In all that, there is really just one word that most readers will not know. They can tell from context what it must mean – and just as the spots are icky or yecchy, the word, too, is the yecchiest, stickiest one there, and it has a sort of unappealing peeling ugliness. The cc is like eczematous scales (though ecchymosis is not eczema); its heart holds most of chyme (related, as we will see, though stomach juices are not involved here) and mote (though an ecchymosis is not quite that either). It starts with ec and ends with tic – but while the usage of language here may be ecstatic, there is nothing ecstatic about ecchymosis. Nor, in spite of the rhymes, anything erotic or psychotic. Exotic, perhaps.

But if you want to squeeze the juice out of this word, well, you have an etymological basis. Ecchymotic is formed from its noun ecchymosis, which comes from Greek ἐκ ek “out” plus χυμός khumos “juice” – the Greek verb ἐκχυμοῦσθαι ekkhumousthai meant “let or force out blood”.

Which means that the spots on the hands of this governess, Mademoiselle O, were not liver spots or freckles; they were hematomas, or at least something caused by the rupture of capillaries. Nabokov was fluent in French – indeed, he learned it at the hand of Mademoiselle O – so he certainly will have known the French word ecchymose, which means “bruise”. Which is what ecchymosis generally is. It’s something caused by ruptured blood vessels under the skin (but a larger spot than you get with petechia), and that’s going to be a bruise as a rule. The blood pools into the tissue, phagocytes and macrophages eat the red cells, and the ruddy hemoglobin is converted to bilirubin, which is blue-green; that is then converted to hemosiderin, which is brown. And the process is converted into the word bruise, which is typically black and blue, or the word ecchymosis, which is purple.

Nabokov will also have known very well the common French word for ecchymosis: bleu. A bruise is a “blue”. Now read again what he wrote: brown ecchymotic spots. So these were not fresh bruises; they were blood that was long pooled there. I am inclined to suspect that these were really telangiectasias, little spider veins, that had burst. Manual aneurysms. But there’s more to writing a good sentence than just choosing the most clinically correct word. If you want to construct a succubus of prose, ready to seduce your reader, you must feel the flow of the sounds. It is not that your prose must be immaculate; it is that it must have the spots in all the right places.

I should mention, as a postscript, that I showed the school teacher – a woman named Reet of Estonian extraction – my book, Songs of Love and Grammar, and she bought a copy. And, oh! By the way! It’s now available on Amazon.com – though if you can get it through Lulu.com, that’s better.