Monthly Archives: September 2012


Yesterday, @PopeShakey tweeted:

“Swan” is a nice word. “Sea” is a nice word. Why is “Swansea” such an ugly word?

Of course, tastes in words vary; I’m sure not everyone finds Swansea to be so ugly. But the question is still valid: what is it about Swansea that makes it different from simply swan plus sea?

Naturally, if you happen to be familiar with the place – any place with that name, be it the original city in southwest Wales or someplace named after it, such as the southwest Toronto neighbourhood (between High Park and the Humber south of Bloor) – your images of, and attitudes towards, the place will surely colour your taste of the word. But so will the pronunciation of the word – if you’re familiar with it.

You see, Swansea is not made from swan plus sea, nor is it pronounced like it. The s in the middle is said as /z/. This changes the feel of the word quite a bit. It moves the word away from any taste of sea or swan song or perhaps come see to echoes of many things ending with that /zi/ sound, especially with a nasal before it: quinsy, flimsy, pansy, clumsy, mimsy, also queasy, sleazy, frowsy, drowsy, and maybe even donzerly, and it likely allows in some echoes of such things as swinish and smarmy. And of course Swanee, but with that crazy z in it.

Look, too, at the difference in the vocal gesture between this word as a whole and those of its syllables. Swan makes a quick kiss of the air, almost like a fish. Sea (with /s/ or /z/) really is a lazy word; there’s just a little movement of the tongue. But Swansea is like a swan dive of the mouth – or rather the reverse: a sweep first forward and then back. The syllables contrast strongly, the lips pushing forward and round, then pulling back to wide and straight. If you’re just looking at the lips, it’s about the same as if you say “Why?

So, incidentally: why Swansea? Is it a place where you can see swans on the sea? No – when I said it’s not made from swan plus sea, I didn’t just mean phonetically. Although reanalysis of the second syllable as referring to the sea may have influenced the spelling (Swansea in Wales is indeed on the sea), the place name most likely (though not absolutely certainly) comes from a reference not to the sea but to an island (Old Norse ey), specifically one pertaining to a Norse commander named Sveinn: Sveinns ey. It was a Norse trading post, you see. And where does the name Sveinn come from? Originally “boy” or “lad” or “servant” – yes, cognate with English swain.

@PopeShakey most likely had the Toronto neighbourhood in mind. It gained the name Swansea after the Ontario Bolt Works factory there was bought by James Worthington in 1889; Worthington, originally from Swansea, changed the name of the factory to Swansea Works, and that spread to the environs, which ultimately became a village that was annexed to the City of Toronto in 1967. What was the neighbourhood called before that? Windermere. You know, I’m not that big on wind, and mere is not such a great word, but I’ve always liked the place name Windermere… even if it does come from Old Norse for “Vinandr’s lake”.

floccose, tomentose

Today, a song: 

My darling, as I nuzzle
you close against my cheek,
a little bit of fuzz’ll
brush me – oh, that’s what I seek!

Floccose, tomentose, floccose, tomentose,
I love those mementos,
those little downy furs,
be they its or his or hers!

Tomentose and floccose, tomentose and floccose,
not crispy like tacos,
so fuzzy and so woolly,
you know they thrill me fully!

I find your fuzz so succulent,
so esculent, so poculent;
I hope you won’t be truculent
if I dare call you flocculent!

Floccose, tomentose, floccose, tomentose,
how to represent those
little hairs that cover you –
oh, darling, tell me true!

Tomentose or floccose, tomentose or floccose,
packed all chock-a-block, o,
say are they flocked in tufts,
or groomed to go to Crufts?

Your surface so tomentous,
it gives me such momentum –
it would be so momentous
if you’d give me some tomentum!

Oh, my darling, your fuzz gives me joy beyond belief;
you know that I could nevermore turn over a new leaf.
No flat tomato, you; you chloro-fill my heart with glee;
you put the beau in botany; yes, you’re the vine for me!


“These are a bit unusual for hors d’œuvres,” Jess said, looking at the plate Maury had just set down.

“Beefcake,” Maury said.

Jess raised an eyebrow. “Looks like meatloaf to me. Quartered slices of meatloaf.”

“It’s a cake made of beef,” Maury said. “Pâté de campagne. A bit of a terrine, even: you will find whole pieces of beef, plus prunes and almonds, and the whole macerated in Armagnac.”

“It’s not dessert,” Jess said.

“Your unfailing eye has… not failed you,” Maury said. “That would be cheesecake.”

“I could take a bit of cheesecake,” Jess mused.

“So could I,” said Daryl, who had gravitated to the food. “It’s kind of early for that, though. First the hors d’œuvres, then the word and wine tasting, then dessert.” He looked around at the other members of the Order of Logogustation slowly gathering for the monthly event. Then he picked up a piece of Maury’s offering. “This is what, again?”

“Beefcake,” I said.

“Doesn’t look like Chippendale dancers,” Daryl said. He bit into it. “Hm. It’s got a piece of beefsteak in it, though. Maybe it was a mis-steak?”

“Not all cakes are sweet,” Maury said.

“Not all beefcakes are male,” I said.

“Oh, come on,” Jess said. “Female beefcake? Now, I would like to see that.”

“Well, you should go see Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna,” I said. “There are some very stacked, muscular female gymnasts. Aina called them beefcake.”

“Why doesn’t your wife ever come to these word events?” Daryl asked, while chewing (how uncouth).

“She thinks you’re all figments of my imagination,” I said.

“I think a female usage of beefcake may be a figment of hers,” Jess said.

“Oh, no,” Maury said, “I’ve dated one or two women who could fit that definition.”

“Am I right,” Daryl said, “that beefcake is modelled on cheesecake, as in an alluringly presented female physique?”

“That seems to be the consensus,” I said. “Cheesecake was in use by the 1930s to refer to pin-up pictures of pretty women with much exposed flesh. I don’t know whether it was meant to make a direct equivalence between the pale thighs and the pale cheesecake, or whether it was just the standard connection between sex and food. Beefcake came around by the late 1940s, referring to bare-chest poses of hunky men.”

“As opposed to meatloaf,” Jess said, “which would be chunky men. Like the singer.”

“Beefcake men are beefy,” I said. “Whereas cheesecake women are not normally called cheesy. I think the sound of beefcake is a bit more suited to its object: percussive. ‘Biff!’” I picked up a piece. “I wonder if you could get something like this in Bishkek.”

“More likely than a cheesesteak, I suppose,” Maury said. “Although I am not much familiar with Kyrgyz cuisine.”

“Say,” Jess said, picking up a piece, “didn’t you have a little date last night?” She bit in.

Maury paused, pursed his lips. “Yes, this was made for that. Someone I had encountered online. I thought we were going to meet and have a picnic. She said she would bring the cheesecake if I brought the beefcake.”

Jess swallowed. “Well, what happened?”

“At the appointed time and place, she arrived, dressed very lightly and not apparently carrying food. I set down my offering. She looked at it and me and said, ‘Beefcake? Looks like meatloaf to me.’ And deserted.”

“Well, we get our just deserts, too, even if it’s not dessert,” Jess said. “It is yummy.”

“I’m just saying…”

Passive aggression has a currently popular byword – or byphrase: I’m just saying (sometimes I’m just sayin’). It goes into the pantheon of disingenuousness with “Don’t get me wrong,” “Don’t get angry but,” and “present company excepted.”

A person who says something that they then proclaim to be “just sayin’” is giving a point of view that they clearly think should be acted on – advice that they feel the other person needs to hear and heed. But conversational interactions have an economy of status exchanges and give-and-take. You can’t say just whatever you want to whoever you want in whatever way you want; some utterances can only be said to those who are of lower status, or on whom you have some claim, or who owe you something, or who have given you permission to demand things of them.

If you recognize that your attempt to influence a person’s behaviour approaches them too much from above, as it were – you don’t really have the right to give them such bald instructions on how to live their lives – and that they may take umbrage to your positioning of yourself in their regard (and perhaps already have), you have to acknowledge that you don’t have the right to expect them to follow your dictates. This is why we use indirect forms for politeness: “Would you mind closing the window?” rather than “Close the window.”

So you may say “I’m just saying” to pretend that your utterance is nothing more than an act of speaking with no directive effect implied. Sort of like “No, of course you can take as long as you want. I’m just drumming my fingers.” The point is to pretend that you’re not doing what you’re doing, because you both know you don’t actually have the right to do it. It’s an entirely unnecessary disclaimer for those who actually do have a claim: it would be odd for a parent to say to a child “Your room looks messy. I’m just saying,” and odder still for an officer to say to a private “Soldier, your tie needs straightening. I’m just saying.”

It’s not out of the realm of reason, of course, for people to make suggestions for other people’s behaviour when they have no real claim on the others. We expect as much from our friends. We often give them the explicit right to say such things as “Don’t wear a bowtie! You’ll look like a dork!” But this is something that is negotiated individually, and sometimes you just don’t have the right to give the directions you want to give. There are various ways to disclaim, to adjust the status position, to make an even exchange in the conversational economy:

“Interesting. You’re wearing a bow tie!” [expresses surprise, implying that it is unusual in your experience, but not giving any direction]

“I wouldn’t have thought you would wear a bow tie for this.” [a statement of opinion, but without elevating the opinion; it leaves an opening for response]

“Are you sure you want to wear that?” [puts the speaker in the response-requesting position, which is a deficit stance and gives control to the respondent, while at the same time implying an instruction]

“May I suggest a straight tie for this evening?” [requests permission, putting the speaker in the lower-status deficit position, and gives the option of a negative response]

But of course each of these has its clear implied direction, its tug. The hearer knows very well what you’re doing when you say them. There is the ostensible deniability, which preserves the ostensible status relations and balances the economy, but you’re saying it for a reason. Even if you pretend you’re not.

The hearer knows this very well because we all know very well that all saying is doing. Every act of utterance is an act, an action. You are doing it because you have something you want to accomplish, an effect you want to produce, in response to a need or a stimulus. Even the simplest bit of abstract information is shared because you feel it will be useful to the other person, or it will make you sound smarter, or it’s your turn to fill a gap in the conversation, or you want to recruit affirmation of your interests for personal validation and/or social bonding, or or or… You no more “just say” anything than you “just punch” or “just kiss” someone without any implication or expectation of effect or response.

There are, thus, the following points of disingenuousness in I’m just saying:

I’m – The speaker is attempting to disclaim any real personal action, involvement, or effect, but of course he or she is directly involved.

Just – There is no “just saying” in the sense of “only saying,” and when you pretend there is, you are not saying justly, i.e., rightly and righteously.

Saying – Words are not physical force, but they exist precisely so that a person can have an effect on another person without physical involvement. They also allow us to cover more abstract topics in our quest to increase and consolidate our intellectual mastery of our world. Saying is doing.

So. Why am I saying all this? Just so you know…

Don’t tell me no lies

For the weekend – and maybe a day or two after – I’ll fill this space with another piece from Songs of Love and Grammar (still available on or for just $12), about double negatives and negative concord. A friend of mine says he’s thinking of setting this to music. I’ll let you know if he does.

Don’t tell me no lies

I met a little lady from way down south
and I thought she was kinda sweet.
She had a tasty tongue in a cowgirl mouth
that said things you’d wanna repeat.

“I don’t never go for that city stuff –
I like my drinks and men smooth and hard.”
And I said, “Won’t you leave me when you’ve had enough?”
And she said, handing back my credit card,

“I don’t want none of your money, sweet,
I don’t care for no one but you.
I don’t know nothin’ ’bout how to cheat –
that ain’t nothin’ I’d wanna do.”

We had a little drink and we had a little dance
and we painted lots of red on the town,
and pretty soon we had ourselves a fine romance
and I took her out shopping for a gown.

Oh, I bought her a ring, and I bought her a home,
and I got her set up nice and neat.
But sometimes I’d worry she would use me and roam,
and whenever I did, she’d repeat,

“I don’t want none of your money, sweet,
I don’t care for no one but you.
I don’t know nothin’ ’bout how to cheat –
that ain’t nothin’ I’d wanna do.”

So now why am I sittin’ with my head hangin’ low
with nothin’ left, not even pride,
wonderin’ where my sweetheart and my money did go
and how I got took for a ride?

My gal was a master of verbal predation,
a lawyer who took her reward –
she tripped up my ears with double negation
that I thought was negative concord:

“I don’t want none of your money, sweet,
I don’t care for no one but you.
I don’t know nothin’ ’bout how to cheat –
that ain’t nothin’ I’d wanna do.”

The double negative is one thing the prescriptivists won on. English had negative concord for a long time – if you negate one part of a phrase, you negate them all for consistency, just as in some languages you make the adjective feminine if the noun is, for instance. Romance languages still use negative concord. But by the 19th century it was pretty much vanquished in English by appeal to “logic” (rather than appeal to Latin, which actually uses negative concord). And yet in many “nonstandard” versions of English it’s still used – and understood. After all, language doesn’t actually work like math. But the “standard” rules – put in place by the legal class, in fact – are what prevail in law.

Oh, and all those -in’ endings? That’s another thing prescriptivists won on. By the 18th century, the –ing suffix had come to be pronounced as “-in” by everyone (because the tongue is drawn forward by the vowel); rhymes by English poets of the time don’t work with the “ing” version. But the spelling hadn’t changed, and so it was insisted by those who taught the stuff that the ending should be pronounced as written. Nonetheless, while the formal standard has changed, the old way hasn’t been eradicated. By the way, saying “-in” isn’t actually dropping the g; there is no g to drop (ng is just how we write the sound – do you heard a “g” in there? only in words like finger). It’s just fronting the consonant – from the velum (at the back of the mouth) to the alveolar ridge (near the front).

pipe dream

The things that may be made with the blending of words… He knows the words; he tends them, he cultivates them, he cuts them here and there, puts one beside another, tries them out loud and in quiet, discovers in loud and out quiet that some simply don’t work together. And sees that some pairs produce something more or other than their parts when juxtaposed.

Here he tends a patch of pipe. These are words a little like reeds, but hollower: a reed has the membrane, you can see it in e, and it makes a more piercing sound. A pipe has length and hollowness – you get both views in p – and it does what it does by the unimpeded passing through of air, water, other fluids. The pipe and the air vibrate; you get a hollow sound, but one that can pierce.

That useful emptiness, that holding. A pipe is only a pipe because it can be filled, but never with exactly the same thing from moment to moment: it moves, it passes, it changes. It is the solid walls /p/ and /p/ between which is the “eye,” the hollow, the hole. But it also owns a silence, e. From the oldest times – back in Latin – this word has had to do with music, but the name has long been used also for tubes instrumental in carrying other stuff of life: water, effluents, blood, gas, oil, smoke. Sometimes lava. Blood vessels are pipes, and pipes are found in many organs.

He irrigates the pipes with pipes; he plays pipes for them; he fills his pipe and sits and smokes it in the quiet and watches the pipes grow. He dreams.

He cultivates dreams. This patch, here, a myriad of small joys, fancies majestic and minuscule. Some blossom, some come to fruition, some go to seed. He has a set of them in the corner that seem to come from different seeds: the Old English dréam, meaning “joy, pleasure” or “a sound of music”. They seem dreamy enough, but where did they come from? These other dreams, the ones everyone uses and knows, those are the fancies and aspirations we know, growing from the subjunctive world of the unconscious, and sprung from another Germanic root, the same one we see in German Traum – but though some dreams are traumas, there is no connection at the source; they are simply two dark flowers that look much alike.

Dreams come, dreams go. When you are asleep they pass through your mind like music through a pipe, and then they escape and are usually long gone by the time you reach for them awake. But some leave echoes. Sometimes you can catch the thread of the threnody. Sometimes you are aware, awake, and blowing in the pipe… but the dream will escape still, streaming away on the wind.

No. No, that is not how it happens. He puts pipe and dream next to each other, and he sits and ponders the phrase, inhaling. And he knows what flavour it has. He realizes that a tune you play on a pipe may escape you, but it reaches others. But what you inhale from a pipe goes nowhere but your head. It is a mere opiate.

He knew there was that extra taste. Pipe dream: such a pleasant pair of words, one crisp and one smoother, naming two lovely things, talking of another lovely thing that is ever evanescent, a hope far too removed from reality. A term that carries, then, some bitterness: it is used never approvingly, often insultingly. And it carries the sweet, floral reek of opium smoke.

Smoking opium is not like smoking tobacco; you do not sit and puff at leisure. Rather, you use a small amount and inhale it all at one time. The smoking is done within a half a minute. Then you recline into a bed of flowers in a beautiful meadow on the most lovely day of the year and all is bliss for a quarter of an hour. You may be in outer squalor; indeed, your chasing these opium dreams may increase your outer squalor. But they are so sweet.

Yes. Put this in your pipe and smoke it. When what you smoke is opium, you have delightful dreams. You float on clouds of fancy. Your outer form is inert; you romp through inner worlds that have no issue. They are nowhere, will go nowhere, will take you nowhere, though they are so nice. These… these are pipe dreams.

He tastes the two words together. They are well blended. They produce such flavour. He knows where he can use them, and how. He has the genius; he will put it to work. He has plans. He inhales, smiles, relaxes.

My source for some of the information on opium is Opium: A History, by Martin Booth – read to learn more. My source for the etymology is, as usual, the Oxford English Dictionary.


I recently acquired a pinhole cap for my camera. I’ve wanted something like it for a while, because pinhole photography produces some interesting ways of seeing things. I was happy to see that a company called Wanderlust makes pinhole body caps for Micro Four Thirds format cameras. Much better than making my own. And still much cheaper than a lens.

Pinhole photography is experiencing something of a resurgence in interest. There are various companies making pinhole “lenses” for your camera and entire pinhole cameras for a variety of film formats. Some of them are very nicely made indeed – see Zero Image’s website, for instance (yes, I do want one… eventually). And the pictures that can be made are often very striking; see the galleries at The Pinhole Gallery and the rather fantastical digitally manipulated nude photos by Dan McCormack, and the year-long pinhole exposure of the Toronto skyline done by Michael Chrisman.

In principle, of course, one doesn’t need pretty equipment to do pinhole. You can make a pinhole camera yourself using materials you likely have at home. Or you can buy a kit at some store catering to scientifically minded children. Shutters can be simple because the exposure times are so long, since the aperture is so small. You need no glass; in place of a lens you have a pinhole. If you have a digital camera that takes interchangeable lenses, you just need a body cap that has a little hole in it. Which is what I used – a precision-made one.

Pinhole. Pin. Hole. A hole made by a pin, or the size of a pin, or the size of a hole that would be made by a pin. Both pin and hole are old Germanic words that have not shifted substantially in meaning over the ages, hole long meaning both “hollow” (noun) or “indentation” and “aperture” or “piercing”. The central vowel shapes are illustrative: pin has that pin-like i; hole has the o with the hole in it. The sound of pin is high and tight at the front of the mouth; the sound of hole forms your mouth into a deeper concavity.

Do this: inhale through your mouth, but close it up with your tongue or lips so that only the smallest possible little hole is left for the air to pass through. You won’t be able to do this for long, of course, because so little air will get through. But what gets through moves fairly quickly; you can feel it moving. It’s sort of like when you put your hand over the end of a hose or a faucet and let the water out through just a little gap: you get a sharp jet rather than a simple flow.

That’s not exactly how pinhole photography works – although pinholes do let less light through, light is not speeded up by the passage through the pinhole; there is no “light pressure” – but there are analogies. The simple fact of the narrowing of the aperture sharpens the focus (like squinting does) – to a point. Why? Curl your index finger into a little hole behind your thumb and put a pencil in it. Put the point on some paper and hold your hand steady and you can draw a picture on the paper by moving the eraser – the picture shows up on the paper rotated 180 degrees from what you did with the eraser. Now loosen your finger a little so that the pencil has some wiggle room. Try to draw. There are too many different places the tip can be for every place the eraser is, so you can’t get a good picture. If you imagine the pencil’s positions as rays of light, you can get an idea of why a smaller aperture means a sharper image.

The original idea, as propounded by 19th-century Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster, who took the first pinhole photograph (though the principle had been known for centuries and sometimes used for drawing – look up camera obscura), was that you could get sharper and sharper and sharper images with smaller and smaller and smaller pinholes, and would be limited only by how small you were able to make the hole and how fast your film (or, at his time, wet plate) was (the materials of his time would have had ISOs in the single digits). This has an attractive simplicity to it: narrow in and get an absolute pinpoint clarity. Focus, focus, focus! (Actually, with pinholes you don’t need to focus; at so small an aperture, everything is in equal focus from right in front of the camera to infinity.) Restrict the opening through which you view the world. With sufficient constraint and discipline, all will be clear.

But that was before they encountered diffraction. Light comes in waves, you see, and waves have actual size, and when the hole is too small it causes interference effects that reduce the sharpness. This is why your camera is sharpest (in the area of focus) around f/8 to f/11, and then the sharpness falls off again. (You can read more about the details at Cambridge in Colour, among other places.) Likewise, in dealing with life, if you constrain your focus too much, you can lose clarity. It can give some beautiful effects, of course. And do remember that at f/8 you need an actual lens or you will not have any sharpness to speak of, whereas a pinhole can make an image simply by having a little bit of nothing there.

But pinholes also have another characteristic: vignetting. The film (or sensor) plane is flat, you see, and so it’s farther from the hole at the sides. This means that the same amount of light is spread over a greater bit of the film. Again, this gives what can be a very alluring image, bright in the centre and darkening off towards the sides, bringing the view quite definitely to the point of central interest while leaving the sides mystified in the shadow. This can be a quite nice artistic effect. But in life, while such views of the world can be very attractive, they are not always well adapted to the fullness of reality.

This effect happens more with wider angles – shorter distance from pinhole to film or sensor. You can get an idea why when you think about how, in the pencil experiment above, at a certain point the pencil doesn’t easily touch the paper. So this is the irony of pinholes: they let you see in equal focus at all distances, and they can let you take in a very wide angle of view, but you are absolutely limited in sharpness and things get gradually dimmer as you move towards the edges. The effect can be striking and beautiful, but – or because – for every gain there is a loss.

The word pinhole also makes me think of a line from “Nobody Home” on Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in which the protagonist sings of “the inevitable pinhole burns all down the front of my favourite satin shirt.” Pinhole burn: a small hole that was made by accident by little falling cigarette embers. A hole that is a simple little destruction. And yet if you intentionally make a small hole like that in an opaque material and put light-registering material in the darkness behind it, you capture the world by letting the light burn it in so slowly you could watch it happen. I am tempted to say something sententious about the little holes in our lives, the little burns, letting through light that captures a beautiful – if limited – image of the world. But instead I will say, “Here, look at this.”

cadre, dacre

So I was thinking about the word cadre and how it has a cadre of anagrams: cared, raced, acred, cedar, arced, dacre – wait, is dacre a word? Well, if you accept archaic spellings, it is: it’s an old version of dicker, which has also been seen in the past as dyker, dycker, deker, diker, dikar, dickar, dikkar, dicar, and daker. But if you’re thinking of the verb dicker “bargain”, think again – this is the noun, meaning ten of something (from a Germanic root that in turn is related to Latin decuria). It’s a half a score, a standard commercial lot amount for various goods (hides, for instance).

So cadre doesn’t quite have a dacre – or I should say dicker, I suppose – of anagrams, but it draws near. But if you wanted to rearrange its sounds, you could have a bit of fun too, especially since it has a trio of pronunciations: “cadder,” “cadree,” “cadray.”

It also has multiple meanings. I must confess I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the way I see it used most often now: to refer to an office-holder or Communist Party persona in China. I don’t mean that I think it’s wrong to use it that way; it’s just that I grew up with the understanding that a cadre was a group of people. To refer to a single person as a cadre still feels to me like calling a single person a committee or a triumvirate.

Or calling a single hide a dicker, I suppose. But then dicker did one better by going from the lot to something you do over the price of the lot to something you can do over the price of an individual item.

But let’s get down to the numbers on cadre. Before it meant a VIP in China, it meant a member of a communist worker’s group in any communist country, and that came from cadre meaning a communist worker’s group. Which came from cadre meaning the core complement of a regiment: its officers and so on, with necessary extra numbers fillable by recruitment. That in turn came from cadre meaning framework. And why would a cadre be a frame? Because a frame has four sides.

It’s not clear what four has to do with this? If you can spot the /d–k/ in dacre and dicker relating to the Latin dec “ten” root, surely you can spot the /k–d–r/ in cadre relating to the Latin quadrum “square” and the rest of the quadr and quatr roots relating to “four” (with the /w/ trimmed out like in catercorner). Ah, yep. Ten-four, good buddy. That’s ten, a dacre, as in the number of anagrams of the letters acder (seven) plus the number of ways people say cadre (three), and four as in the number of meanings of cadre (if you count tendentiously – it could also be five).

Of course, you could fill out the number of anagrams if you added to the letters: redact, cradle, farced, racked, dancer, scared, carved, crazed… and more. Sort of like filling out the cadre of a regiment. Or like how cadres in China sometimes fill their pockets and those of their families…


This is a word for something you may see on a woman but you won’t likely see on a man.

It does sound like a not-well-known name for a common bit of connecting tissue, like philtrum or perineum, doesn’t it? But it’s not anatomical.

No, think hard about where you may have heard or seen this word. Perhaps in a growly-voiced narration from The New York Times’ Cathy Horyn overtop a video of the latest fashion shows from the runways of Milan, Paris, or New York. Peplums are a big thing these days. There’s even a little spat between Horyn and Oscar de la Renta that has some relation to whether he was the first to pair a peplum top with cigarette pants.

If peplum top with cigarette pants is a meaningless string of words for you, you’re in good company. Fashion is sort of like poetry: a collective hallucination that is all-consuming for those within it but makes about as much sense to those not in its psychedelic grip as the amazements of acid trippers or giggle fits of stoners do to those in more constitutive states of mind. I mean, yes, of course we pretty much all follow fashion to some extent; it’s inescapable (even the sartorially clueless and indifferent still wear clothes from something like their time and place). But the world of people who toss around words like peplum and gusset (not the bookbinding kind here) is to the daily-wear world rather like the world of bullfighting is to the world of farming.

High fashion is a form of modern art – it really is; it is a form of modern art that follows its own fascinations (as they all do) and delights in what some would call grotesquerie, and also to some extent in self-torture and especially the abuse of stick-thin young women (when people dress their dogs this way it ends up on humour blogs with captions like “Now we know why dogs turn on their owners,” but dogs don’t get lashings of champagne before hitting the spotlight), and it has its own detailed vocabulary and idiom that are Greek to most people.

This terminology arises out of its difference from other forms of modern art. Paintings, for instance, don’t all have a lot of little standardized bits because they don’t all have to fit on human bodies one way or another. Also, when you make a painting you make a painting; when you design clothes you need to get people to make them for you, in quantity, and you need to talk about them to the people who will evaluate them and buy them and write about them for all the people who would like to buy them or wish they could afford them. Painting has terminology, to be sure, but fashion has a lot of terminology. Fashion has every bit as much in-group geekery of terminology as you’ll get among the most unfashionable metal-listening physics-loving RPG-playing nerds out there. But this is terminology that somehow you the “normal” person manage to feel like you should have known (at least if you’re not an ordinary male). You don’t know what a peplum is? Next you’ll say you can’t tell mules from pumps!

So of course you know what a peplum is. You wouldn’t admit it if you didn’t. Everyone knows it’s that skirt-like bit that some tops have attached to them at the waist! (Or, as the OED puts it, “a short flared, gathered, or pleated strip of fabric attached at the waist of a woman’s jacket, dress, or blouse to create a hanging frill or flounce.”) It can be plump or limp, like an apple or a plum; it can add pep or amplitude. It can be as hierophantic as a phylactery or as puerile as pablum. It may resemble a pimple or a lamphsade. A top with a peplum is shaped rather like the sound of peplum, with two parts, connected at the top, attached in the middle, and then hanging soft. The peplum is, in its way, a modern answer to bustles and hoop skirts – much reduced.

Only the peplum is not modern, really. I mean, yes, peplum tops with cigarette pants are – next year they’ll be “so last year,” so that’s modern – but what we now call peplums have been around since Victorian times at least. And the original peplum is what the Greeks called πέπλος peplos (peplum being a Latinized version of the word), a long garment that was foot-length and folded over at the shoulder so that a second layer hung to the hips, with a belt at the waist – well, see the Met Museum on the subject.

But beware! If you want clothing names that are Greek to you, presented with diva-like pronouncements about what is and isn’t what, the Met gives you these gems: “a garment is not a peplos unless it has been draped with an apoptygma”; “Of all the identifying characteristics of a peplos, the fastening of its shoulders with fibulae is its single defining detail.” Well, zing! Darling, where are your fibulae? You call that an apoptygma? Please. Suddenly peplum tops with cigarette pants worn by anorexic over-made-up champagne-addled 15-year-olds don’t seem so daunting, now, do they?

Thanks to my mom for suggesting I do this word.


Are you familiar with this word? If you are, then I know something about you. If you’re not, can you make a guess as to what it might refer to?

It’s not a very pleasant-looking word, I don’t think. Maybe this is because to me it looks like a popped blister. It also reminds me of keister (which means “buttocks”), cluster, and Listerine. And glister, as in all that glisters is not gold (yes, that’s the original). It has that klutzy Germanic kl at the start, so obtrusively blocky that you may not even notice at first that the rest of the word is like sister minus the first s. You’ll be busy rating its resemblance to strike, like, stickler, killdeer, and Rilke on a Likert scale of 1 to 5.

I also think klister unpleasant because it makes me think of clyster. A clyster is not like a shyster in a cloister; it’s rather more claustric. It’s a medication that you stick, um, up your keister, as it were – could be a suppository, but usually it’s liquid.

Gross? So is klister. But it’s unrelated. Whereas clyster comes from a Greek word for “rinsing out”, klister is from Norwegian for “paste”. But what sort of Norwegian paste-like thing would we be using where when?

Well, the thing I know about you if you know this word is that you’ve probably been cross-country skiing at least once – and likely more than that. Cross-country skis get waxed (they do sell skis that supposedly can do without it, I’m told, but I think wax will always help you – it’s been a while since I last went cross-country skiing). The kind of wax varies according to the temperature and snow conditions, from really hard stuff to fairly soft. And when the weather is really on the warm side and the snow is very soft, you don’t use sticks of wax, you use klister. Which is this gooey paste-like stuff. Kinda disgusting.

But not quite as disgusting as it sounds. I don’t think, anyway.