Monthly Archives: August 2012


As I mentioned in my note on supernatant, the latest video from NurdRage is on triboluminescence.

Triboluminescence. Rub that around in your mouth for a bit. Is it a light word? Does its form bring any light to its sense? It breaks with a bit of friction on the tongue tip at the start, then bounces between lips and tongue twice before easing to a hiss and then a nasal plus hiss, all on the tip. Seventeen letters, fifteen phonemes, six syllables (all but the last of which open, i.e., ending with a vowel).

But what makes all this trouble, this voluminous verbal tribulation? Its letters are superabundant like tribbles. It seems to balloon; it may recall bulimia, but it ends “in essence.” There are dark mines in the heart of it, but at the beginning a rib – from Adam’s tribe? Let us triturate it and reform it, to find in its parts centre cues in limbo, minor cuts been lice, nimble stucco Irene, lo mini cube centres, combines in lecture…

No sparks? No flashes? Not even a scintilla? Sometimes the best way to be enlightened is to start in the dark, in the hard, cold dark. Sometimes a bit of friction is necessary to discover the attributes. Smash a sugar cube – or, better, chew a wintergreen mint – in a dark room. You may well see – a spark? Just small flashes of light. So let us break apart this word into its morphemes.

It ends in ence, which is a Latin- (via French-) derived suffix forming nouns that refer to abstract qualities. Before that is esc, which is really escent with the ending eclipsed by ence; it refers to becoming: adolescent – becoming an adult; somnolescent – becoming sleepy. Before that is lumin, referring to light; there are several kinds of luminescence, of which bioluminescence may be familiar to you – living things giving off light (fireflies, for instance).

But tribo: groups of people? (Tribes are often thought of as benighted, but that is a colonialist view.) Tribunes? No. Rubbing. It comes from Greek τρίβος tribos “rubbing” (as in tribology – and the i is “short”) – meaning that this word, triboluminescence, is formed of a short Greek front and a long Latin back. It is crystallized in an asymmetrical form.

Which means it might give sparks when broken apart. Asymmetrical crystals seem to produce the little flashes due to electrical charges being separated and recombined when the crystals are broken apart – through rubbing or other fracturing. Do watch the video and see what happens at the end.

This word, triboluminescence, isn’t the crunchiest or crackliest word. But we have had little flashes of insight by breaking it apart. And then putting it together again.


One of the YouTube channels I subscribe to is NurdRage, a series of videos showing cool chemical reactions and processes, hosted by someone who calls herself Dr. N. Butyl Lithium (“herself”? the voice sounds male, but it is evidently synthetically lowered, and its quality matches what I’m used to hearing in synthetically lowered female voices – so the host could be male, but I’m guessing female).

Today’s video, demonstrating triboluminescence (wait for a tasting on that word), was announced with an email that used the word supernatant. That immediately precipitated a solution to the question of what I was going to write about today.

“Precipitated a solution?!” the chemistry geeks snort. Of course, the joke is that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate – a precipitate is what falls out of a solution. Things precipitate from a solution. But do you know what’s left, what’s floating above the precipitate, what the precipitate was born out of? The supernatant.

I won’t go so far to say that this word is supernal or supernatural. On the other hand, I won’t spurn it either. It has two obvious parts: the super, which we all recognize as a morpheme, and the natant, which is actually two morphemes (nat and ant). That natant has a nice sort of varying pattern to it – it makes me think of the sort of molecular transposition that chemical reactions often produce. It’s the part at the end, anyway, the part that comes last, sitting there like a tenant ejected by a superintendant. Above it, naturally, is super, which means “above” (so close to supper or purse but just not the same). Put them together and it does look a bit like a comic-book hero…

So we have the start, super, with its soft hiss, lip pop, and rolling liquid, and the end, natant, with its tongue-tip stops and nasals. It seems to settle easily into a pattern rather than to have a falling out. But how would you think of the process of precipitation? Is it something being ejected, wasted, dying out? Or is it something being born? I guess it depends on whether you want to keep the precipitate or the supernatant. In the triboluminescence reaction, it’s the precipitate that is kept. It is born from the solution. O nata lux!

But if you think that this is heading towards natant being related to prenatal and all the other nat words referring to birth, well, you’ve gone after a red herring. This is the other nat – the one that refers to swimming. The supernatant is swimming above the precipitate – or, actually, floating on top of it (natant can also refer to floating). Well, that’s as long as everything goes swimmingly.


Of all the woods that flowered out,
that bloom most prone to be excrescent
of all that would’s the flower doubt:

indubitably efflorescent
though doubly trimmed, it doubles back
that bloom. Most prone to be excrescent

is the b, that sign of lack,
lost once, now showing debt to Latin
though doubly trimmed. It doubles back

as if to say, “Should we put that in?”
Return to find a sound that we’ve
lost once now. Showing debt to Latin

dubitare: keep or leave
that seed? Weed out? And sow we? No –
return to find a sound: that weave

that fools us still. What steals the show
of all the woulds that flowered out,
that cede? We doubt, and so we know –
of all the woods, the flower: doubt.

A note of explanation: Latin dubitare became Old French duter, which became Middle English duten, which with loss of the last syllable and a change of the main vowel (in the Great Vowel Shift) became doute; at a certain point some scholars fancied that we should show the noble classical roots in our words, so silent etymological letters such as o in people and b in debt and doubt were inserted. “Um… did we really want to lose those? Maybe let’s keep them in after all…”


This word feels to me thick, humid, like a muddled mass of humanity, perhaps a murmur – no, more, a roar, and not just of people but of things, machines, and bright flashes. It is not dry and soft like halfway. It may seem to mean the same as halfway, but this word goes all the way, right into the middle of things (it may even meddle in the midden). If it is the middle of the road, it is not the noncommittal even-handed blandness, it is the madman at midday in the middle of the way, waving. You may feel you are midway between the devil and the deep blue sea, or perhaps midway in the Red Sea behind Moses.

It is a word of life, a medium. We are mandated to move to the middle of the way, to choose moderation, but what we find when we are midway between birth and death – in a murky wood, maybe – is that the midway is where it all happens, and we have always been in the midst of it. The midway is a midwife, a medium of emergence; and when we have at the end made our way away, we may emerge again by way of a medium. And in the midway between? Sound and fury and light.

Midway is the point in a sporting season when games have been played and teams have moved up or down in the standings, and trends may continue or may be reversed – the outcome is still up for grabs, but there is a history to look to. Midway is the name of an atoll in the middle of the Pacific where an important battle of World War II was fought – a battle that happened midway in the war and that helped turn the tide between the US and Japan. Midway is also an airport in Chicago – the smaller, more tolerable, more central alternative to O’Hare.

And midway is a place in a fair, a carnival. It is where the fun foods and fun rides are. The carnies roll up and set up and the crowds flood in and for some stretch of time in the summer or fall people eat deep-fried things on sticks and throw things and spin things and shoot things and fish for things to win prizes, and people pile onto machines to experience key consequences of the laws of physics in a very immediate way. It is all midway in the year – between winter and winter, between the birth of spring and the death of the late fall. And it comes around every year. Ever since 1893, when the Midway Plaisance – a south Chicago park, originally meant to be an answer to New York’s Central Park (by the same designer) – was included in the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, this stretch down the middle of a fair, the fun grounds, has been called the midway. (The Midway Plaisance is now part of the University of Chicago’s grounds.)

So midway has made its way. Its real source is now academic; for millions midway has an immediate humidity and wildness, an air of deep-fried everything and a smell of onions and fat, and sticky fingers, and the pops and bangs of games and the urgings of young men and women with megaphones to get you to spend your money on their entertainments, and the attractions of rides that make you fly and fall and scream and splash and laugh and whirl. It is the via media, admitting all – for a price – and everything is up for grabs, and while we are amid it it is all our world whirling around us: a madness we have made for our own diversion, until at day’s end leave, arms full, pockets empty, following the dispersing crowds and at last making our several ways back home.


This mountain is not quite smooth, not quite even all the way up, not quite furry with the green of trees from top to bottom. Wrapped in a band around it near the top is a grey scarf of rock face, a scar of earth. This is no simple hill you could drive a car up – you would get more than a scare if you tried. I cannot say you would face the wrath of the mountain, as I think it would not truly care; it is just the implacable reality of this swath of scarth, swaddled at the bottom in scree. If you were to be scrappy and scramble up it, your boots would make the sound of what they were trying to climb: “scarth, scarth.” A soft slide, a catch with a kick, and then more sliding – dirt hissing down, perhaps, or your boot, or all of you ruffling down, and then it may be you who would have the scar.

How did it get to be here, this scarth on the mountain of words? Was it the result of some unnatural or accelerated process? Seismic or volcanic changes in the geology of lexis? No, no – it has been here for a long time; it came up naturally, from Old Norse, skarð “notch, cleft, mountain pass”, cognate with our word shard – such cracks and gaps are broken places, and in some things the break leaves pieces. And here is a piece that slipped into a gap in the language, and it has been there ever since. Few people now know of it; you might say it has passed out of usage. Yet it still abides in a few old books, peeking out between the mosses, and in some dialect. A word, once having been, cannot un-be, but it can change its form and its meaning, and it can be forgotten. Until one day, hiking in word country, you find a gap… no, not a gap. There is something there: bare rock, a cliff. A scarth.


“A Canadian,” Pierre Berton once said, “is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe without tipping it.” I wonder to what extent that’s still true, if it ever entirely was. But you expect a Canadian to know about canoes and to have some idea of how to use their noodle – I mean their brain – when canoeing and canoodling. And, come to think of it, I would assume a Canadian would know what canoodle means. (So would an American – the word seems to have come from the US.)

Admittedly, the word is not the most transparent word ever, morphologically. It sounds sort of like a version of cannoli made by Chef Boy-ar-dee. It has the can that makes one think of Canadian and of being able; Canadian reactions may include CANDU, which is a Canadian-made reactor. It could give an image of canoes and pool noodles and oodles of similar things. And, yes, it has that oodle end that is rather gleefully silly (I really have never quite been able to get my head around the fact that, in Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles appears at first in the form of a poodle). Also possibly aimlessly wandering and exploratory, in an artistic sense: in drawing, we have doodling; in music, noodling.

And in romance, canoodling. It’s not the full deal; it’s something that, if you see two people doing it on the subway, might make you think “Get a room” but won’t make you call security, escape to another car as soon as possible, or (if you’re a teenage twerp) pull out your phone and take a video. It’s just kissing and cuddling, caressing, fondling, petting – light petting, not heavy petting. Rather the romantic equivalent of doodling or noodling.

It’s not usually used to mean “cozen” or “blag” or “caboodle”, though it can be used in that sense – there is some connection between smooching and schmoozing, between gentle caresses and subtle blandishments. And it’s not kibbitzing or confabulating or, in general, chatting. It’s important to know this.

Which CTV News anchor Andrew Johnson didn’t. Following a segment in which an interviewee referred to canoodling, he suggested to weathercaster Astrid Braunschmidt that she might want to canoodle with him before giving the weather report. His producer set him right (by way of headset) before Astrid had finished laughing (but not before she informed him that they were not going to be canoodling). You can see the clip at

Ah, language. Especially a language as overloaded as English – we’re never satisfied with having just one way to say anything. We like to play around, idly noodle and doodle… it’s a sort of way of canoodling with the lexis. But watch out you don’t get bamboozled or otherwise look like a fool. You k’now… use your k’noodle.

Thanks to my friend Brian Bukowski for sending me the link to Andrew Johnson’s embarrassing moment.

academia, macadamia

Mmm, academia. I’m nuts about it. Abstract things from their natural contexts and give them names and analyze them and share them around. Its many excursions have both expanded and shrunk the world – there is so much more known, but it is all so much closer together – and joined together disparate things for delectation and nutrition of the mind. And for intellectual snack food too. And to pave the road to sealing one’s reputation.

Every area of inquiry is at inception an unknown continent – unknown to the inquirers, anyway, even if well known to others. (Quoth the ichthyologist: “That’s a coelecanth! They’re supposed to have been extinct for millions of years!” Quoth the fisherman: “Those ugly things? They’re no good for food. We just throw them back.”) In the 19th century, Australia was certainly one such supposed terra incognita. It had been populated ab origine by the Aborigines, but it had not been subjected to analysis by European academe, those “sons of Adam” bringing their knowledge of good and evil.

Well, academy comes from the name of the grove where Plato taught philosophy, named after its purported original owner, who, when Helen was in hiding, betrayed her location to Castor and Pollux, allowing these interlopers to discover the famous beauty. The grove of an unveiler of beauty – a suitable name for something, academia, that has long sent men into groves to unveil and betray and hand over beauty.

It sent Ferdinand von Müller, for instance. He was a German who moved to Australia and made his mark exploring much of the continent and describing and classifying much of its botany. He named various plants after friends and colleagues. It seems he didn’t learn an Aboriginal language or two and ask the speakers what the plants were called and what else they could tell him about them. I suppose that might be harder for an invader to do – why would they want to tell him? – but I don’t know how hard he tried. Europeans have long had a narrative of “discovering” things that they actually walked in and simply took from others. Sort of like young children “discovering” playgrounds and other people’s rhubarb patches and so on.

One of the people von Müller named a plant after was his colleague John Macadam, a Scotsman who had moved to Australia to teach in Melbourne and study the botany thereabouts. (Macadam means “son of Adam”; another variant on it is McAdam, and sometimes they’re interchanged, as with macadam, a means of paving and sealing a road, invented by a John McAdam.) Müller and Macadam were both on the organizing committee of (as it seems always to be called in full) “the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition”, an expedition to transect the interior of Australian south to north and back, from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, which resulted in the death of its leaders and a few others due to misjudgement and bad luck (Müller and Macadam did not actually go on the expedition). Macadam himself went the way of all sons of Adam – he died – in a shipboard accident after a mere decade in Australia.

But before that, before the expedition, only a brace of years after his arrival on the continent, Macadam had a broad-leaf evergreen (called variously gyndl, jindilli, and boombera by Aboriginal peoples) named after him by von Müller: Macadamia. This tree produces nuts. Actually, there are several kinds of Macadamia trees, and only two produce nuts that are edible; the remainder are inedible or even poisonous. Obviously one needs to know which are good and which are evil. But the ones that are good are very good, and have become the only plant food native to Australia that has come to be exported in important quantities.

Not that the macadamia nuts you get now are likely to have been grown in Australia. There are several other places where they are grown now, most notably Hawai‘i. So they were indigenous to Australia, were renamed by a German after a Scotsman, were transplanted to northeastern Polynesia, and from there are exported around the world. These hidden beauties are no longer hidden; they are also no longer much associated with their place of origin. They are Macadam’s fruit of the good and evil knowledge of trees; only who, now, is the snake? Perhaps all of academia…

And yet I do still love it. Academia, I mean. And macadamia. And the word macadamia with its single hard crunch /k/ and single softer crunch /d/ and pair of yummy m’s and the four a’s for forays and always i somewhere in there. And the echoes that both words may be deemed to have… et in Arcadia ego.


It is a typical workaday sound, but it caught my attention at work yesterday: a staccato duet of digital slapping and rattling, two typists’ particular aptitudes setting in tandem a tidy recital, inputting a tapestry of tapping artistry. One would crescendo, then the other would join; a weave, an ebb, a flow, an echo. Utterly stochastic and yet quite perfect, like slapping droplets of hat-ripping rain attacking a flat roof – so calming as long as you’re dry and inside – or the ecstatic crackling of a fire as it licks up a partly wet or sappy log. I had to pull out my iPhone and record a snippet of it – not a high-quality recording, but still you can hear just a little bit of the concert:

Such a tight little tattoo they type! Like a tapdance solo, but not in any particular time step; there’s not even an eccentric ictus; rather, it’s just a quotidian utterance in its erratic iterations. Its notes are detached (older Italian distaccato, reduced later to staccato), making what we might call a patter.

The patter of raindrops. The patter of tiny feet. Patter is often thought of as gentle, or quiet, or steady, or rapid; people who patter are auctioneers and salesmen and singers of Gilbert and Sullivan. You know a pat is usually light, like a tap, but still crisp; the word pat is imitative (probably). To it add the old frequentative er suffix you see on clatter, flutter, wander, waver, twitter. A pat and a pat and a pat a pat pat, pat a pat, pat a tap pat, tap a tap pat tap, pat a tap a pat pat. Stochastic terpsichore of the distal phalanx: fingertips trip the light fantastic in an epileptic puppetry.

And you can, if you want, see the sound reflected in the word shape: every so often the thumb hits the spacebar p and in between some taps are sharp and spiky tt and others are soft a er. If you set to typing it repeatedly, patter patter patter patter patter, you will get a type of rhythm – you may also notice that the right hand just pops in for p and space while the left gets up and atter. Say the word in repetition and you will observe quickly how it ricochets between lips and tip of tongue, a very simple pattern that keeps a tight apterture.

Real actual patters can be more complex and chaotic, of course. Keep an ear and a recording device cocked to capture the slapping and patting and become a tapping patter pattern trapper.

more chiaroscuro

Eight years ago I did a little spate of night photography with my Bronica SQ, a very nice medium-format camera (a bit of a tank, though – not light to carry around). I would have included a couple of photos from those sessions with my post on chiaroscuro, but I thought I would have to find them and upload them, and I didn’t want to take the time to do that after midnight.

If it had been before midnight, perhaps I would have remembered that I already had them on flickr.

I add them here as an adjunct and just because I adore night photography. Click on either of them to go to the flickr version, where you can view it larger.

If you like black and white photography, I have a gradually growing set of such images on flickr.


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Thus begins La Divina Commedia by Dante Alighieri, the words dancing on the tip of the tongue, a play of contrasts between the rolling liquids /r/ and /l/ and the voiceless stops /k/ and /t/ (with the voiceless fricative /s/ to augment the edges), even to a contrast of long versus short: diritta short /r/ long /t/, smarrita the reverse.

Una selva oscura”… a dark forest. Dark and savage? Perhaps – savage is related to selva (so is sylvan). But we know where Dante is headed: first, down into the inferno, down, down, to the darkest depths; then, by way of purgatory, to the greatest heights of paradise. Such a great contrast, night and day, light and dark, clear and obscure.


Italian chiaro means “light” or – its English cognate – “clear”; oscuro means “dark” or – its English cognate – “obscure”. A study in contrasts. It is eye candy: it refers to a painterly technique that accentuates contrasts between light and dark; it has also been used to excellent effect in movies and photography and other visual arts. Shades of grey have a lovely texture, and there is a great thrill in the depth you can get of not just fifty but two hundred fifty-six shades of grey (or even many more if you’re using a good film like Kodak T-Max or sixteen-bit encoding in your image files – subject to display medium limitations), but contrasts are less demanding of the fine discrimination of the senses and give a more heightened emotional and aesthetic response. Think of faces by candlelight; think of scenes at night. That’s why I love photographing after dark.

We love contrasts in other things, too, of course. If you have an equalizer on your stereo, boost the bass and treble – the music becomes ear candy. Sweet and sour are a favourite flavour combination. And in the realm of public discourse and news, stories about good versus evil or little versus big or, or, or, go over very well. We all have our good and bad sides, our bright parts and our dark parts; we like to think that one side or the other is the “real” person – whichever side is kept hidden must be the reality, and whichever is shown publicly must be the act. Not true, of course, but brain candy is brain candy.

And mouth candy is mouth candy. Say chiaroscuro crisply, with a rolled /r/, four syllables: “kya-ro-sku-ro.” The crisp back stop contrasting with the liquid rolling on the tip of the tongue. And the vowels – well, a more front one to start with, but then leaning to the back and round. Of course, for Anglophones, there is the added contrast between what you hear and what it looks like on paper: perfectly phonetic for Italians, a little less so through the Britannic lens.

By the time we reach the middle of the road of life, we of course ought to know very well that pure contrasts are not in the usual nature of things; they are not usual in the things of nature. But at the same time, we have seen enough dark to have our doubts, and we are tired enough that we may want to take the easy angle now and again, and we may be disillusioned about our compromises and one day look up and find ourselves in a dark wood, the straight path lost.

Have we been betrayed? Have we betrayed? Can some clear light be shed on this? How are we thus translated? How may we interpret the original word, the original sense, into our present existence? Oh, traduttore traditore: a translator is a traitor. We lose our way in the grey and grope for light or dark. And we find different paths when we try to make our own words. As witness the many different translations for the opening of Dante’s book – you may read a few fistfuls of them at Litrefs Articles. See the contrasts! They clarify and obscure at the same time.

To see a couple more photos in the chiaroscuro vein, see more chiaroscuro.