Monthly Archives: October 2012


’Tis Hallowe’en. Darkness falls o’er the land. Ah, if e’er there were a night for ghoulies and the deil, ’twere e’en this one. A night when all is dark poetry… and a gremlin goes about stealing v’s.

No, that’s not quite it, but one does wonder. Hallowe’en, from Hallow even (as in evening); deil, a Scottish version of devil; and then there’s e’er and o’er and e’en… But of course those are not confined to Hallowe’en. Rather, they are hallmarks of heightened, poetic diction to most modern English eyes.

Well, there’s a reason for that: the place we typically see them is in archaic verse, where even and ever and over have been condensed into single syllables to fit the meter. We see e’en in Shakespeare, to be sure, and not always in the verse – it shows up in some of the more casual speeches too, demonstrating that it was also used in ordinary speech. Hamlet uses this contraction e’en five times (and other characters in the play another half dozen); it shows up nearly two dozen other times throughout the Bard’s plays. (On the other hand, e’er shows up 85 times, but only once in Hamlet, while o’er is used 211 times, including 14 in Hamlet.)

But who would say it thus? Does it not seem forced? We’re used to contracting vowels, but less so consonants. In modern English, where we do drop or greatly reduce consonants, they tend more often to be at the tip of the tongue – /t/, /d/, even /n/, sometimes /z/, innit? We are not so much in the habit of leaving out /v/ these days. So this hollow e’en truly does seem like a creature from Hallowe’en. It may intend to be even, but, frankly, it’s rather odd. It looks like a claw has come down and plucked the v out.

What it really is is a sign of shifting phonotactics. Different languages, even different accents, have different possible versions of a given sound. In the kind of English I speak, /t/ can be reduced to a stop or left out entirely next to a nasal or some other consonants, but not usually between vowels; in some versions of English, it can be replaced with a glottal stop between vowels; in others, it has to have the tongue touch the palate everywhere. In some kinds of English, [h] is lost at the beginning of a word, and [r] after a vowel becomes a lengthening of the vowel. In other kinds, no. In Spanish, [b] and [v] are two versions of the same phoneme, but not [p] and [f], and [d] and [ð] are versions of the same phoneme, but not [t] and [θ]; in Dutch, you can drop the [n] in an en ending; in French, many consonants are only pronounced at the end of a word if there’s a vowel starting the next word, and in past times it became so standard to drop s (said [s] or [z]) before certain consonants in certain words that it was just replaced with a circumflex over the previous vowel; and so on.

Differences between dialects, differences between languages… also differences within a language over time. Or should that be o’er time? You see, it was at one time the case in English that lazy lips could let the [v] sink and slip, and accommodating listeners would fill in the blank – just as “’sup” can be understood as “What’s up”… Nome sane? (Nome sane? Ima let you figure that one out.)

Yes, yes, it was lazy speech, of course, just as contractions ever are: economy of effort. But accepted enough in its time and place, just as ’tis. Now, of course, ’tis is considered formal or, if in dialect, cute, while it’s is just casual. And e’en? Words are known by the company they keep, and e’en, like o’er and e’er – and of course ne’er – is only ever seen in hymns, Shakespeare, and lofty poetry. It’s moved up in the world.

Funny, innit, how current syncopations can be so casual and archaic ones so formal. It’s as though the ghosts of working-class toughs gained tuxedos. When I was writing Songs of Love and Grammar, my friend and colleague Carolyn Bishop (who, by the way, has lately come out with a book of wordplay called Meaningless Platter Dudes) suggested a novel punctuation mark especially for these elevated revenants (and all the nonce contractions made by lazy poets to cram words into the line). Here is what I made of it:

The gravitastrophe

for Carolyn Bishop

Had I it in my pow’r
e’en for a wond’rous hour
to let words solemn hark’d
in print be plainly mark’d,
the mark I’d use would be
the gravitastrophe!

Momentous situations
oft call for syncopations;
howe’er, a plain contraction
is plebeian detraction.
To keep solemnity,
use gravitastrophe!

Take ink plash’d from a fount
on ’Lympus’ heavn’ly mount;
’scribe it with quill-pen gain’d
from phoenix wing detain’d;
’gainst alabaster be
writ gravitastrophe!

Like cherub’s down, the curl
shall clockwise-turn’d unfurl
’til, widdershins returning
(profan’d convention spurning),
with circlet tipp’d shall be
the gravitastrophe!

This stroke shall through the ages
be ’grav’d on scepter’d pages
so humbl’d reader knows
that whilom mundane prose
is rebirth’d poesy
with gravitastrophe!


Four years I’ve been working on this blog. Four years! One thousand two hundred seventy-six posts! And what have I earned from it? Bupkes!

Or bubkes!

Or bobkes!

Or bubkiss!

Or bupkiss!

Or… OK, you get the picture. Words, they’re their own reward. Fine. As we say in show business (I used to be a theatre person, you know), “Don’t clap, just throw money.” Ah, money shmoney. I’m doing it for the fame. With a beautiful sweet wife like mine, how much luckier or richer should I expect to be? Still, I wouldn’t object to a few people buying my book.

But enough about me. Back to this word. You can guess what it means from context, even if you’re not familiar with it. And the context you’ll hear it in might lead you to guess soon enough what language English got it from. That object-subject-verb syntax for emphasis, the shm echoes, the bantering style, the rhetorical questions – all are characteristic of Yiddish humour.

And I have to tell you, English would be that much poorer without Yiddish humour. Many of the funniest people in 20th-century America had Yiddish backgrounds (including some you may not have realized, like Rodney Dangerfield, born Jacob Cohen), and the Yiddish music-hall shows in the early 1900s in New York made very important cultural contributions that may not often be acknowledged but show through in many places.

Yiddish vocabulary shows up in more places than you might even notice, and sometimes creeps into everyday usage almost unremarked. (I think of myself in 1990s Edmonton playing a Spanish soldier invading the Americas in Peter Shaffer’s Royal Hunt of the Sun, improvising a little bit about stealing some gold – other actor: “It’s just a trinket.” Me: “Trinket shminket!” Did I mention that my ethnic background is WASP and, growing up in 1980s Alberta, I knew very few Jewish people?) When you read “40 Yiddish words you should know” from Daily Writing Tips, you will surely find that you do know several of them, and may not have thought of all of them as Yiddish.

By the way: Do you know what Yiddish is? Yes, it’s the language commonly spoken for a long time (but not so much anymore) by Ashkenazi Jews in Germany and nearby places (and America). You may not have known that it’s basically a kind of Low German (“Low” because from areas closer to the sea; “High” is from areas higher in elevation) with a fair amount of influence from Hebrew, and typically written using the Hebrew alphabet.

Which is why there are so many spellings of this word. You’d think someone could settle on one! But what do I know? When I first heard this word (and for a while thereafter) I thought it was buttkiss. You know, “What did I get? Buttkiss! (As in I might as well kiss their butts!)” But there are so many different transliterations of Yiddish words, depending on who’s doing the transliteration. The spelling of this word that I’m most used to is bupkes, but that’s more of a phonetic transliteration than a phonemic one. The original is באָבקעס, bobkes, which means “big beans”, but voicing assimilation causes the /b/ to become [p]. But actually that’s not really the original original. The original original is thought to have been a longer word, קאָזעבאָפּקעס, kozebopkes, which means “goat droppings”.

So there it is. It’s a good word for it, with that opening bop, like a hand flipped up abruptly (in colloquial Italian there’s a word boh that’s said like a bop, with maybe a shrug, to mean “dunno” or something of that order), and the backing echo of guess… Actually, what it really is is more the sound of something inflated (your expectations maybe) being punctured (bup!) and all the air hissing out (kiss…). All this and what do I get? Beans! Goat droppings! Bupkes! I’d be better with a bunch of latkes…

Funny, by the way, how “nothing” has such power to it (sort of like words for sex or drunkenness or other socially outré things) that we have come up with a variety of colloquial ways to express it – as though the strong emotion it calls forth demands some sort of trope or linguistic excursion. There’s buggerall, diddly-squat, SFA, zilch…

Say, how many synonyms for “nothing” do you suppose I can collect? A whole lot more than bupkes… I’ll be watching the comments.

per se

A crowd-sourced reference such as Urban Dictionary is not altogether reliable per se, but it certainly can give you bits of insight that you won’t get in more authoritative references. Look, for instance, at some bits of its several definitions of per se:

A Pretentious term, often used both out of context and too often by people who would like to sound more intelligent than they actually are.

Frequently used improperly by persons who think it makes them sound educated.

a phrase that allows some flexibility in the topic at hand, so you can talk about something without being very specific

“as such” or “by” but really it seems to be used as a pause in a sentence. It is an overused phrase by Neanderthal wannabes incapable of speaking or writing clearly.

Trenchant thoughts about its pragmatic place in communication. But its meaning? Here are some versions you’ll get from Urban Dictionary:

on the face of it
generally speaking
on average

Synonym for “exactly” or “quite.”

Hmm, what? That’s not quite it per se… But you see how those might come to be seen as definitions. It is, as the best definition at Urban Dictionary says,

typically used with a negative to indicate that a term being used is understood to be imprecise or off-the-mark (i.e., not accurate ‘per se’) in a case where the term is nevertheless useful to an explanation. Usually followed by an explanation or justification for the use of the term indicated.

So what is per se, per se? In itself? “In itself”. That’s the Latin: per se is Latin for “in itself” (or “by itself”, “of itself”, or “for itself”, or “intrinsically”). When you say, for instance, “He’s not attractive per se,” you can follow it up with, say, “but his bank account does draw attention.”

It thus allows you to be a bit catty: a subtle undermining, a Parthian shot. There’s a little purr in what you say. Or it can simply allow you to be circumspect: first you thoughtfully purse your lips, then you say… for instance, “It’s not well written per se, but it makes some very important points.”

But, oh, watch out! Don’t get purr say or purse say stuck in your head. Many people write this phrase as per say. Why? Well, that’s not so hard to guess: they aren’t used to seeing it written down, they don’t know Latin, and that’s what it sounds like – two English words, per and say. Even if the sense of the phrase doesn’t match the combined sense of the two words per se, that’s not a big issue; English is loaded with idioms that have scant surviving relation to the senses of their parts.

Still, better to think of something that will help the proper spelling stick. I’m put in mind, for instance, of Perseus – the Greek hero who slew Medusa and saved Andromeda from a sea monster, among other things. How did he slay Medusa when the sight of her would turn anyone to stone? He had to look at her, right? Well, not per se. But did he then slay her without seeing where she was? Well, not per se. He used his shield to see her reflection. (A mirror may be a visual prosthesis, but it’s an imperfect one – perhaps the gorgonizing properties were carried only by wavelengths not reflected by his shield.) So he’s per-se-us… sorta. Or not.

You could also think of perse, which is a very deep shade of purple or bluish-black. It’s pronounced like “purse,” so be careful, but you could always say it’s not black per se… It’s more the colour of smoke on the water. Really deep purple. (It seems to come from an alteration of the Latin word for “Persian”.)

By the way, there is another usage of per se, one that is more common in the positive: as a legal term meaning, well, yes, “in itself”, but more strictly “by law” – as in “Exceeding the speed limit is an infraction per se.”

It’s really not a difficult term per se; it’s just loosely used and a bit confusing for some people. I’d have to say it beats the Aristotelian Greek phrase it was pressed into use to translate: kath’auto, which looks like a woman’s car and sounds a bit like catheter.


There are 26 ounces in a standard bottle of liquor. There are 26 letters in the alphabet. I’ll drink to that.

In fact, I decided to make it easier for everyone to drink to that. I set up a little store in where you can buy shotglasses, one for each letter of the alphabet, each one with a word, so you can also use them as teaching aids (yeah, right): A is for apocolocyntosis, B is for bahuvrihi, C is for cataskeuastic, D is for deliquium, E is for esoterogeny, F is for floccinaucinihilipilification, G is for glossolalia, H is for haruspex, I is for isogloss, J is for jildi, K is for kjerulfine, L is for littérateur, M is for monoubiquitination, N is for nudibranch, O is for onychophagia, P is for polyphloisboian, Q is for quux, R is for rocococity, S is for splanchnic, T is for tergiversation, U is for unununium, V is for vellicate, W is for whippletree, X is for xylyl, Y is for ytterbium, and Z is for zurrukutuna. Alas, the prices are not quite as cheap as souvenir store prices, so I doubt anyone will collect the whole set. But, then, people don’t often drink a whole bottle of liquor in successive shots in one event, either. If you did, you would probably very soon find yourself face down in bed, proofing your sheets.

Shotglasses do make nice little souvenirs. Not too expensive, quite easy to fit in your luggage, and capable of displaying to whoever might see it that you (or someone you know) visited the location or event thereon named. They are also handy in bars for measuring liquor (in those places where, by law, liquor has to be precisely measured) and selling shooters – which are an excellent profit centre for bars. And of course they’re good for selling shots of liquor. Hence the name.

The full course of coming into being of the word shotglass is disputed, and there are a variety of inane invented etymologies, which I will do you the favour of not sticking into your mind. But we do know that a short measure of liquor was being called a shot before the name shotglass (or shot-glass or shot glass) was ever known to have been used. And when did shotglass come about as a name? By 1940, but likely in the 1930s.

That’s right. Those “old west” images you have of cowboys or prospectors slapping down a nugget or a bullet (or several – whiskey wasn’t that cheap) and getting a modern-looking shotglass of whiskey in exchange are in need of correction. The saloons likely didn’t bother carrying special glassware for the small quantities, and if they did, the glassware – called a pony or jigger at the time (and still) – was slightly different in shape. The tapered, thick-bottomed glass we see now is really a post-Prohibition thing.

This word, shotglass, seems almost too long for its object, which is quite a short glass. Shotglass has two syllables! Nine letters! The measure in a shotglass (an ounce or an ounce and a half) can be downed in the time it takes to say either syllable of it – the time it takes someone else to say either syllable, of course. You shouldn’t try to speak while you’re tossing back a shot.

But it is a nice word nonetheless. It slides in and slides out on voiceless fricatives, and it has a sharp joint in the middle that seems rather like an act of swallowing – you could think of it as like the liquor pouring into the mouth (sho), being swallowed (tgl), and pouring down your throat (ass). That swallowing also swallows the /t/. Just try saying the word clearly, with a properly said [t]. Because of the /gl/ after it, it’s just a lot easier to reduce the /t/ to a simple glottal stop – which, right before a [g], becomes an equivalent of a [k], really.* Shotglass is said just the same as shockglass would be.

And why not. What you swallow from a shotglass is probably a shock to the system. Oh, it might not be liquor; it could be espresso. That’s a nice, strong little dose, too. We know that whatever’s being served that way will have some punch to it, some amount of aggression in the image. To drink larger amounts of alcoholic beverage rapidly, you might shotgun it. If you have a shot of hot chocolate, it’s a thick, dark, spicy brew. You can think of having a shot of tea – if you picture slugging back some very strong black tea. A shot of chamomile tea just seems very incongruous to me.

There is another thing called a shot glass, by the way. In weaving, one passage of a shuttle across the web is called a shot. And if you use a magnifier to count the shot – to count how many threads there are in some fabric – that magnifier can be called a shot glass, though it’s more often called a linen proofer.

For me, the usual pattern of usage does not involve proofing linen through a shot glass. It involves drinking 80-proof from a shotglass (not 26 ounces in one session), and then hitting the linen later. Which is actually an inspiring idea for me right now.

*What’s the difference between /t/ and [t]? The slashes mean a phonemic transcription – the sound we think we’re saying. The brackets mean a phonetic transcription – the sound we’re actually saying, which may or may not be the same.

vignette, vignetting

There are a lot of photographs to look at these days. Since sharing them digitally online has become easy, the number of photos by non-professionals (especially personal acquaintances) that you see in an average week has increased exponentially. At every turn, you are being exposed to another exposure, a little highlight of someone’s life.

And there’s really a lot of eye-catching stuff out there. Photos are being shared around that have special qualities that you just don’t see with your own eyes. “Art” filters have become very popular – digital cameras are generally expected to include at least a few of them. And people with cell phones can take pictures right, left, and centre, and make them look somehow classic or hip or retro or you pick your style, thanks to the Instagram effect. It’s like dressing up boring salad greens with some sassy vinaigrette. The “lomography” movement already making its way through the grapevine of film phtography more than a decade ago – a movement that makes use of previously deprecated features of “bad” equipment – is now bearing digital fruit. Now, instead of a simple snapshot, you can have something that really seems like a glimpse of some significant, timeless moment, a frozen vignette.

And one of those bits of special sauce is vignetting. Do you like the look of this word, vignetting, with its sort of symmetry as though bright in the middle and shadowy at the sides? In photography, that is what vignetting is: fading away to shadows towards the edges, usually in a circular pattern.

It’s a natural property of light to be weaker as it is farther from its source (because the same amount of light gets spread over a larger area) – just think of a candle on a table in a dark room: the light spreads in a circle around it and gets dimmer over distance. When you have a lens focusing light onto a flat surface – a negative or a digital sensor – the sides and especially corners of the surface will be farther away from the centre of the lens, and the light getting to them will, if not corrected, thus get dimmer. This is easy to see in pinhole photographs. Lenses are designed with multiple elements to correct for that effect – and others.

Another thing to know about lenses, by the way, is that the image they project onto the film or sensor has its limits. You couldn’t put them in front of a much larger area of film or sensor and get a much larger picture. You would get a picture that had a circular border (probably fairly abrupt, thanks to the corrections for the vignetting as I just mentioned), and outside that it would be black. This is also a problem with lenses that are not well made or are mismatched to the format of the camera. This, too, is called vignetting. And you may also cause vignetting if you have a lens hood that cuts into the corners of the lens’s field of view.

But at the same time, you know what a vignette is, do you not? In my Word Tasting Note Index, when I refer to my little stories that I use for some word tastings, I call them fictional vignettes. Little glimpses of some focused bit of time, a stretch of activity surrounding some word that fades in abruptly and fades out abruptly. And you likely also think of a picture when you think of a vignette: a little cameo-type thing, just a little picture in a book that fades away at the edges into the black of ink or the white of the page. This is the connection: this fading away at the edge gives a focus, a centre of attention and a selective forgetting at the edges. The circle of attention is narrowed to one subject, one topic, one moment. It’s a little like looking at it through a lorgnette. It has a highlighting effect similar to that of chiaroscuro. It is a candle-in-the-darkness effect. A piece of literature that is small and focused is similar and so is called a vignette.

Let’s look at this effect in a photograph for a moment, shall we? Here is a photograph of my lovely wife standing on the road up to the golf course from Le Manoir Richelieu in Charlevoix.

First, cut it down to essentials: black and white. Just one scale to go on.

Now heighten the contrast. Everything sharper, crisper, grabbier: darks darker, lights lighter.

Now add vignetting. Not strong, strong, strong; just enough to shade the corners and edges off, to make it clear that they’re less important, less focal.

There. You see? Scroll up and look at what we started with. Now look at this. The first photo was a moment. This one is a vignette. (But does it seem overdone or trite? It might.)

Try it with a scenic shot, like this one from the Eglinton Valley in New Zealand. Here it is in original colour:

Here it is with the same processes applied:

Contrasty clouds are especially popular in photos I’ve seen lately.

But why this word vignette? We do not normally choose words because of their shape; nor is it truly pertinent that this word has, as its central consonant, a palatalized nasal, that /nj/ spelled gn, like an ordinary /n/ with vignetting around it so that it shades into the vowels with an intermediate glide. This word is often associated now with things “vintage” – old books, old photos, old cameras… What is its vintage?

Its vintage is the wine that helps us to forget the things at the edges, to focus our view more on what matters in the middle – as Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet puts it in the eponymous opera, to pour intoxication and forgetting into our hearts (verse l’ivresse et l’oubli dans nos cœurslisten to the aria on YouTube). I’m not being cute here: wine and vine are cognate, and vignette is not a cousin but a child of the vine. Latin vinum “wine” became vinea “vine, vineyard”, which became French vigne, and the diminutive of that is vignette. Little vine? Little drawings of vines to fill space ornamentally in books, and little pictures with vine borders. Then vignette transferred from the borders to the pictures, and when the vines fell away and the pictures simply shaded into the page, the name vignette stayed.

But you don’t remember all that history when you see a vignette, or when you see vignetting. You remember only the intoxication of the image, with that sauce poured on it, that tunnel vision. What is in the heart of it is given, and you are getting it; the rest is not for getting, so you are forgetting it and it is taken away when the picture is taken.


Word country is not one place; it’s wherever you find it. Words have their carefully cultivated ground, places where they are grown to be bottled and shipped and ship-in-bottled, but they spring up in the wild on the banks of everywhere. Where there are people, there are words. You may have a set of roots sprouting into syntax trees in your own backyard and not notice it. You doubt? Take a kwikluk.

What is a kwikluk? It seems to be a very common thing: people will often say, when they are uncertain of something but have – or hope to have – ready access to usable information or verification, “I’ll take a kwikluk.” If someone wants your instant opinion on something – or wants your approval without too much argumentation – they may ask you to take a kwikluk. And if you want to comment briefly on something, then too you may take a kwikluk. It’s always one, and you almost always take it – sometimes you have it.

Oh, you think I’m being cute. But this word grows in the wild. Take a kwikluk in your atlas. Where? Well, what kind of word does this sound like? I’ve always thought it sounded like Inuktitut, something from Aklavik, Inuvik, Iqaluit. Either that or perhaps Kwakiutl (a language and people from Vancouver Island). And in fact where you find a kwikluk is on the west coast of Alaska, in Yup’ik soil. Yup’ik is related to Inuktitut and Aleut. So there it is.

But I should not really say you find it in the soil there. You find it running through the soil, between banks of soil. This word may seem hard, with its three /k/s, but it has a liquid /l/ and a glide /w/ too; it could as easily be the sound of a trickling brook or of rocks clicking together in their liquid creekbed. You see, a river runs through it – but look quickly; the river changes course constantly. It is a stream on a flat alluvial plain, and it meanders. This word may seem the same, may sound the same, but it wanders far and wide, diverging into soil that had been dry the day before. Such is language change, such is the stream of language. Take the long view and you see not a neat fast canal but a lazy delta. And mathematicians know delta means change. So do potamologists.

And anyone who watches television knows that change also goes with channel. Do you want to take just a kwikluk at what else is on? Change the channel. But with the kwikluk, the channel will change unbidden. Kwikluk, you see, is a channel, a meander in a delta: the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, one of the largest deltas in the world. The name Kwikluk comes from Yup’ik kwikli, which means “river” – this river may meander, but it always flows kwikli.

How quickly can it change? Like this: in 1898 the name of the river, this 137 km meander, was written down as Kwikluk, on the basis of the Yup’ik name for it. By 1915 it had become Kwethluk, which is what you will usually find it under today. How we write what we hear can change, not just because language changes but because when we hear it first we don’t always get it right, and sometimes when we hear it second we don’t either. Different languages have different sounds. This is why we have ketchup and catsup, for example. So if you take a kwikluk you may need to change your view later.

This channel, flowing through an alluvial plain of a northern word country, has meandered as an unsuspected current in our language. We may think we are merely speaking of a quick look, but when you look again you find that you are standing in arctic waters that were not there a moment ago. The word has meandered into your mind and will move much soil in its sedimental journey. Now you know: when you take a kwikluk, you are taking a piece of a river, an ever-changing flow, just a cup out of water that will have moved on when you turn back – from a channel that itself writhes constantly in its landscape, ever changing course by inches, never going straight. You are taking a quick sip of the river of language.


I remember that first day of junior high gym class in Exshaw – or what I thought was gym class. Mister Hogarth (a thirtyish guy who had formerly been a trucker) strode up to the board and wrote FIZED. And underlined it with a tossed-off stroke. We weren’t in gym class! We were in fized!

That might seem really odd to you if you don’t know how it’s pronounced. This is not a typo for fixed – actually it very often is, but not in this case – and it’s not one for fizzed either. It’s not one syllable; it’s two, and the stress is on the second syllable. It’s /fɪ ˈzɛd/.

My developing mind accepted it as yet another new word that one simply associates with a thing. At that age I wasn’t tuned into etymology. This was a thing, this class, and for some undefined reason it was something other than gym. It was this new thing with a name that seemed possibly rakish (as zeds will), possibly fuzzy or frowsy, certainly with a softer and buzzier name than gym, which echoes the sound of balls bouncing on the floor (drop a basketball: “gym, gym, gym, gym gym gym gymgymgym”). It was also vaguely reminiscent of the name of another kid in school (not my grade, the one above, but it was a small school), Peter Fisera (which we said “fizeera”). Ironic, because he was – like me and my brother – an unathletic nerd.

But there it is. New word. You hear it, it has some sort of phonotactic plausibility, it comes from a source that gives you new words every so often, you accept it. You don’t need to be a child to do that. Full-grown adults quite normally accept new words with no real bona fides. Don’t believe me? Read about classiomatic.

So where could this word come from? Does it look Turkish, maybe (would that be fezzed), or, um, I don’t know, Kazakh? How about Jurched? A Dutch family name, maybe (it apparently is one of those too)? And why do we not say it as “fee zed” or “fie zd”? Phonologically, it seems that it’s treated as /fɪz ɛd/, with the /z/ moving to the next syllable just because we automatically do that in actual pronunciation: prefer onset to coda for a consonant.

I imagine many of you have already guessed it. And in fact it didn’t take all that long before I saw the usual spelling of this and figured it out. Usual spelling? It’s this: phys ed. As in short for physical education. Mister Hogarth was making a funny (I assume). Which was likely lost on the whole class.

Well, syllable acronyms are nothing new. Sometimes they don’t even look like syllable acronyms. Near Johannesburg, a place first called South West Township was accordioned down to Soweto, for instance, which really does look like a very African word to those who don’t know better. In New York City, they have SoHo (South of Houston), Tribeca (Triangle below Canal), and assorted others. But the vogue has shifted now towards letter acronyms (as in Brooklyn’s DUMBO, Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), and indeed phys ed is also called PE.

But really, Anglophones will generally find phys ed (or fized) easier to say than PE, because there’s that glottal stop in between two open vowels in PE, and that always seems like an extra effort – it requires less muscle than the tongue touch in fized, but it involves a full stopping of the breath flow, and with a muscle we may not be as used to using in a significant way.

So. Fized. A name for a class I didn’t look forward to, loaded with team sports and bouncing balls and shouting and ways to get injured. Why couldn’t I just go read more books? I can’t say my interest in it fizzled, because it really wasn’t much there in the first place. (Indeed, my lack of interest has fizzled; I still don’t like team sports, but I love individual sports and am an avid runner.) What I can say is that that word – attested then first, then last for me – has stuck in my mind ever since. First encounters can have lasting effects – as witness the fact that whenever I see a painting by the 18th-century British artist William Hogarth, his name makes me think of… yes, fized.


I guess soldiers are using bayonets less and less these days. (Horses too.) Actually, even a century ago they were responsible for less than one percent of battlefield casualties. But they do have their uses.

Heck, I use a bayonet pretty much every day.

OK, no, I use a bayonet mount.

Let me back up a bit first. A bayonet is a blade that can be affixed to the front end of a rifle, allowing the soldier to use the rifle as a stabbing or cutting weapon. I’m put in mind of a cartoon – I wish I could remember where I saw it; MAD Magazine perhaps – where a man who’s about to be executed by a firing squad is asked if he has a last wish. “Yes,” says the man, “I wish not to be shot.” The colonel tells him his wish is granted. Ah, the condemned man smiles! Then the colonel turns and shouts to the squad, “Fix bayonets!”

Bayonet is a reasonably straightforward word. It’s pronounced like three English words, “bay o net”… seems almost too easy, doesn’t it? (It also has the ring of “ban it” in a strong Southern US accent. But bayonets have not been banned. They’re safer than most weapons – for the victim. Much more dangerous for the attacker than the means of killing preferred today.) I suppose if you buy one in an online auction, you could call it an ebayonet. After all, it looks like a San Francisco (or Boston) network: bay-o-net. But no, it’s a now well established symbol of military aggression and even valour. It may not be needed that much in battle, but the image of a knife plus a gun has such epic appeal – it’s two, two, two deaths in one!

It is thought that bayonet comes from French Bayonnette, referring to an origin in the city of Bayonne. What the French were doing in New Jersey I don’t know. Oh, wait – the other Bayonne, the one with the really good ham (a French equivalent to prosciutto – slice it thin!).

Anyway, when the bayonet was first attached to guns, the gun in use was the musket, and they took some time to reload – time during which a wounded enemy or animal (they were also used for hunting) could escape or attack, endangering the sporting baronet or his huntsman – or the soldier, of course. So the idea came along of fixing this flat dagger, called a Bayonnette or bayonet, to the front of the gun quickly so you had a nice long stabbing thing. (Yes, yes, you could just stab the beast or man with a blade in your hand, but that would mean getting very close. Better to have an extra several feet of reach. Even at that it’s awfully close.) Ere long bayonets were permanently associated with long guns.

But at first they fixed it on by sticking it into the muzzle of the gun. Well, that had its hazards, which I think are probably fairly guessable. When you had fixed bayonet, you could not shoot! So they quickly came up with the idea of attaching it to the side of the barrel at the front, so you could fire with the bayonet in place. Various styles and mounts were developed. You wanted something that was easy to use but would hold the bayonet in place no matter how much stabbing and pulling you did. Or digging and cutting – many bayonets were designed to be usable also for cutting wires (using serrated edges), digging in the ground (with a more spade-like shape), and other similarly utile applications for a sharp and pointy tool. (They’re useful detached, too; I’m sure many a bagel or beignet or even Bayonne ham has been sliced with one in a pinch.)

One kind of mount developed for bayonets involved rings with flanges – or pins and grooves – that would be matched and then twisted into place to overlap and hold the bayonet in place. As with many things developed for military purposes, it came to have civilian applications too. Some kinds of light bulbs, for instance.

Photographers who use cameras with interchangeable lenses are generally familiar with a bayonet mount: put lens against body, ring to ring, matching the dots, then twist a fraction of a turn until you get a satisfying click. And then – ironically – with bayonet fixed, you are ready to shoot. You may not be mounted (on a horse or otherwise), but your lens is, and we hope it’s nice and sharp. And you’ll be taking pictures, not lives.


I have a collection of more than forty-five forty-fives, accumulated by when I was fifteen, a third of my current age.

My life has always revolved with music – not around it, and not it around my life, but spinning together. I have several dozen (perhaps a hundred?) vinyl LPs, each one made to revolve one hundred times every three minutes as it plays from outside in, each one twelve inches in diameter. And I have more like a thousand CDs, each one 4.75 inches in diameter and playing at a constant linear speed about 1.3 metres per second, making about 500 rotations per minute when it starts at the inside and slowing to about 200 RPM by the time it reaches the outside edge – if it does. Each of these is a collection of songs made to be played in sequence.

But a forty-five – originally made as competition for the 33 1/3 to replace the 78 – has one song per side. It has a large hole in the middle, made so that it would be easier to play them in quick sequence – a large spindle, easier to slide onto a tapered top, so a changer could play through a symphony on several discs with minimal interruption. It plays from the outside in, and it’s a one-shot deal; before you get to the large hole, the song is over.

There’s another song on the other side; it’s not expected to be as good. On the backside of “Rasputin” (which we played many times) is “Don’t Change Lovers in the Middle of the Night” (which I could not possibly say anything more about). On the backside for “Bette Davis Eyes” is “Miss You Tonight.” Backing “Industrial Disease,” it’s “Solid Rock”; the B-side of “Urgent” is “Girl on the Moon”; Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” is backed with “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got”; “Turn Me Loose” is backed by “Prissy Prissy”; “Echo Beach” has “Teddy the Dink”; for “Harden My Heart,” it’s “Don’t Be Lonely”; with “Start Me Up” you get “No Use in Crying”; for “Da Da Da” it’s “Sabine Sabine Sabine.” You may conclude that they didn’t want to have two hits on the same single – they could sell more records if they had one hit each. So you get the two sides of the record: one made to be number one with a bullet, the other to take the bullet.

There are exceptions. The back of “Seven Bridges Road” by The Eagles is “The Long Run”; on “Another One Bites the Dust” it’s “Don’t Try Suicide.” Both of those B-sides were also popular. And some of the forty-fives just have two versions of the same song – such as “How Long” by Rod Stewart and “Heat of the Moment” by Asia.

And there are hidden treasures, too. Listen to this: “Urgent” by Foreigner, as sung by the Doobie Brothers. Where did I get that? It’s just the 45 of the song by Foreigner, played at 33 1/3. Slightly less urgent, much more doobie flavour.

Forty-five thus has a taste of revolution (forty-five per minute), of double-sidedness, of one shot (and then a flip and one more shot). It also has a taste of a revolver. Something over a century ago now, when the bullets of the day seemed not to have enough stopping power for colonial invaders who wanted to quell the natives quickly, bigger bullets were specified. A few manufacturers stepped up to the plate, and the winner was Colt. We are familiar with the Colt .45, yes? It’s a revolver. Six shots. Big bullets, much more forceful than the .38s they had been using: these ones were almost half an inch wide (.45 means it’s .45 inches in diameter). You get not just one shot, not just two, but six, if you can. And it makes a big hole, fairly well guaranteed to cap the number of its target’s days.

Six shots with a forty-five. Six-forty-five: another term that relates to shooting – the nominal 6 cm by 4.5 cm negative format for medium-format cameras (actually 5.6 by 4.2). They fit 16 rather than 12 photos on a roll of 120 film. A 4:3 aspect ratio and a 4:3 ratio of number of photos. Just as you have 60 seconds in a minute and 45 revolutions in a minute – also 4:3. And then there’s 33: 3+3=6, yes, but consider this: the factors of 45 are 1, 3, 5, 9, and 15. They add up to 33. But there is no third. Oh, but 45 is still prettier. You have 3×3=9, and 9×5=45, and 4+5=9.

But what you really want to know is that it all comes around to 45, it all adds up to it: all the single digits. 0+1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9=45. Once around, and there you are, and then you’re back to 0 – the big hole in the middle. The needle is clicking against the inside track as it rotates over and over again, making its little “forty-five, forty-five, forty-five” sound. Time for the next song. Would that be the B side? Or did you save the A for the second spin?


If you’re much of a Scrabble player, you know that two-letter words are the real base currency of the realm. Seven-letter words are the brass ring, but you often make them – and many other words – by playing a word alongside another word and making two-letter words in the process, adding points to boot. And you know there are some two-letter words that you never, ever use in real life but that save your bacon in Scrabble. Words like qi (not your IQ in a mirror; a Chinese loan word for a life force) and xu.

Xu. That’s a real shiny penny, isn’t it? Do you even know how to say it? Can you guess? Any idea where it comes from?

You might know that it’s one of the many currency names that have been granted automatic membership in English. When we speak of foreign currency, we have to use the name for the currency, but it’s not a proper noun. So words like peso and lira and rupee and baht get into English on diplomatic visas and have immunity from prosecution (by which I mean they survive dictionary challenges). Also in that gang of UN delegates: xu.

And how do you say it? In English, I mean. I had thought perhaps in line with “shoe,” since I was thinking of how it would be pronounced as a Chinese word, where the x is sort of like the ch in German ich, a voiceless alveopalatal fricative. I knew it would not be like “zoo,” which would be in line with English treatment of x in Greek loans. But, although the Vietnamese x is pretty much like the Chinese x, the English pronunciation of this word is /su:/. Rather like the French word sou, which means “penny”.

Oh, yes. What is a xu worth? Well, I should say was, since the xu-makers have stopped making xus. The main currency in Viet Nam is the dong. It used to be divided into 10 hao, and each hao was divided into 10 xu – so a xu is 1/100 of a dong. They stopped making the xu and the hao in the 1980s. But you can still use the words in Scrabble. It seems that diplomatic passport has eternal currency – which is good because, though xu may be an underling in its office, it is very useful to us here.

Ah, yes, these excellent exotics. That eye-catching x, matched with the unexpected u (I mean, if it were qu, OK, they go together, and we have mu and nu too thanks to the Greeks, but while we have exude and exult and so on, we just don’t start words with xu – or make whole words with it… except we do in Scrabble). So charmingly foreign and utterly un-European. It’s like going to a restaurant and ordering a bowl of pho.

Say, did you know that pho, that classic Vietnamese soup, has been around for only about a century, and the name is thought to come from French pot-au-feu? The Vietnamese word pho is said pretty much like French feu. Seriously! You know, the French were colonial overlords of Viet Nam for some time, and they had their influence.

So anyway, where was I? Oh yes. The sou. Oh, sorry, the xu. The exotic xu. Which – have you guessed it yet? – is really sou in Vietnamese dress.

Yup. It’s a French word, a coin of another realm, borrowed into Vietnamese and respelled accordingly. And here it is, no longer employed by its adopted country, now eking its existence in Scrabble games. Where it can be very valuable indeed.