Monthly Archives: December 2012


Capsule notes:

Visual: six letters, three of which o’s, including a double-o start. One ascender in middle, one descending loop at end.

In mouth: two syllables, trochee; starts with syllabic high back rounded vowel, thus involving back of tongue plus forward rounded lips; second syllable is liquid lateral at start and velar nasal at end. Articulation moves from front (plus back) through middle to back. Fully singable.

Semantics: a kind of tea that is less fermented than standard black tea.

Etymology: Chinese wū “black” lóng “dragon”.

Collocations: oolong tea.

Overtones: oblong, too long, lulu, Wollongong, fool, loo, all along, so long.

Full tasting:

The most beautiful tea I have ever tasted – for my taste buds, of course; your results may vary – is a milk oolong I bought from Natur’el Tea, a company based in Banff (obviously they don’t grow their own there). Milk oolong is a kind that is subjected to a sudden temperature shift during the harvest, and the result is a flavour like milk and caramel.

Most oolong is a bit more straightforward, less strong than black tea but not grassy and pale like green tea. It’s a tea I’ve been familiar with since sometime when I was young, though for a long time I wasn’t sure what made it different. A word like oolong sticks with you. Most words with oo stick out at least a bit, not just because of the pair of empty eyes staring at you but because of the /u/ sound, which, especially with a /l/ adjacent, can give a silly or crazy feeling – foolish, indeed woo-woo. The overtone of oblong confuses matters some, possibly causing a more technical or clinical feeling.

Imagine the difference if this tea were marketed under a Pinyin transliteration of the Chinese: wu long. The long looks like English, true, and is a word that can be valued negatively or positively but is seldom neutral. The actual pronunciation of the original is more like an English “loong,” however, which tastes as much of lagoon or lung. The wu has a srongly Chinese flavour, but one that can have a particularly powerful air, if you think of the Wu Li masters or of Wu-Tang Clan or of the Taoist principle of wu wei. The u in place of the oo tightens it up and makes it much more subject to orientalist projections. People seeking enlightenment from the east (east? China is the middle kingdom!) may like it better – certainly there is special interest in the kind of oolong called Kuan Yin (or Guanyin) after the Buddhist goddess of mercy, partly because it’s good tea, partly because it’s god tea, partly because “Oo! Chinese Buddhist tea wisdom!”

Now imagine the difference if this tea were marketed under a translation of the Chinese. Black dragon tea. Oolong tea, when you buy it from the better emporia, is already rather pricier than Tetley, Twinings, Red Rose, or Ty-Phoo. Call it black dragon and it sounds strong – stronger than ordinary black tea, which it is not. It sounds like a tea to tattoo on a big biceps. You would almost expect it to become popular among adolescent males. It sounds like kung-fu tea – and actually there is a way of making oolong (or other teas) that is called gong fu (the Pinyin way of spelling kung fu), using more leaves and steeping it several short times. You might imagine it featuring in a Tarantino movie – or a Jackie Chan one. Or as the title of a Bruce Li movie. (You might expect a similar kind of difference if rooibos tea were marketed as red bush. Which is what rooibos means. Do all those people who buy it know they’re buying something with an Afrikaans name?)

As it is, oolong is more a sort of confusing lesser-known kind of tea, a kind of tea tag-along. “Oolong? What’s that? I guess I’ll try it.” Well. I think you should.


Carol tends a special crop, a crop of words that come with music, words that come with music at one time of the year, always at one time of the year, only at the one time of the year. They are lovely as calla lilies but as seasonal as a Christmas cactus.

But climate change is affecting them. They used to show up on the same day every year and last for twelve glorious days, ringing in the air, macaronic mixtures of English and Latin, syntactic inversions, archaisms sweet with the dusty-honey scent of old books, gleeful alexicals (falala), references to holly and ivy and boar’s heads and wassail. Now they blossom earlier and earlier, fading in rather than bursting forth, and some of them barely open up at all; and in most places they drop dry to the floor and are swept away on the very day they used to blossom, or a day later at most.

Carol does not rejoice at this. Although she loves the longer blooming, by the time she most wants to hear these words they are coming faded, their scent not so much heady as decaying or simply desiccated. She finds she has to keep a window box, a little yard garden or corral, so that she can still enjoy the blossoms for herself when they should be in peak, in the days after most people have stuffed them into plastic bags and left them on the curb.

How churlish people can be. A little care’ll keep the cute curls of these lexemes as bright as a new poinsettia. What is needed is not a cure-all but simply the food of attention. If people would but keep these delicious harks and God rest ye’s and in dulci’s and many kinds of joy on their lips a dozen days longer, they would have such an epiphany!

It is lonely work, this tending of Carol’s. Her sounds of joy are often snatched up in passing on the way to saturnine Saturnalias and plutomania stretched from here to Uranus. She spends most of the year disconnected from all. She waters, weeds, waits, for the chance to see, oh so briefly and for just once in a year, her friend, her soul mate, who issues forth in a long breath and dances lightly as though on eggshells (at dancing she excels): Gloria.


Carol. Noun and verb. A word now used mainly for celebratory verse songs about Christmas, though it was first used in reference to a ring-dance, thence to a merry occasion at which ring-dances were performed, and then to the modern sense by the associated music for the dance. Some users may extend carol to refer to the fuller set of Christmas songs, including such ones as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “White Christmas,” but many would see those as outside the idiom and scope. There are some extant carols for non-Christmas occasions, such as “The Agincourt Carol” (listen to two different versions by Lumina Vocal Ensemble and Silly Sisters), but the common collocation Christmas carol is now pretty much redundant, though useful for helping distinguish carol from Carol.

The name Carol is the obvious strong overtone for carol, but the words are not related. The song carol is of debated origin, possible related to chorus, or perhaps to corolla “little crown”. The name Carol is at origin the same as Charles and all the related ones (Carl, Karl, Carolyn, Karel, Charlemagne, etc. – though not Carroll as in Carroll O’Connor; that’s from an Irish word). It comes from a Germanic root meaning “free man” that is also the source of churl. Other tastes you may get from carol include curl, chorale, care’ll, cure-all, Clairol, calorie, and of course carrel.


We all know this word, this mellifluous holy ululation of elation, this exclamation of exultation in exaltation. It is, in any language other than Hebrew, not a verb or a noun (except when converted to one to refer to the original: “I will hallelujah a hallelujah”); it is a thing you shout to laud the Lord and enjoin rejoicing. In the Hebrew original it is an imperative: hallelu “praise” yah “God”. Those familiar with the more charismatic strands of Christianity will know the parallel invocation praise the Lord!

Christmas is, of course, a hallelujah-­heavy season, thanks to various carols (some of which spell it alleluia) and, of course, the Hallelujah chorus from Händel’s Messiah, a work originally intended for Easter performance – the hallelujahs are for the resurrection – but now a Christmas staple. Hallelujah is a word that is beautifully well made for singing; every sound is a continuant, a “singable” sound – the opening breath, /h/, the pneuma, the ruach, the wind of the spirit; the vowels making the round of the mouth from /a/ to /e/ to /u/ and back to /a/, swirling like that whirlwind of the Word; the lovely liquids /l/ and /l/; the glide /j/, almost another vowel /i/. It’s like a falalalala that has gained its angel wings. The exultation and exaltation are further expressed orthographically by the raised arms of the h ll l h (or, in the alternate spelling, then ll l i).

If you should find yourself in an Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (such as the one my wife grew up attending), you may find in the pews books with the title Kiriku Laulu- ja Palveraamat. “Church song- and prayerbook.” Estonian for “song” is laul, the genitive of which is laulu, which is identical to the Finnish word for “song”. (“Life” in Estonian is elu; I will not say that Estonians see life as a song, but song is very important in Estonian culture: they have an annual song festival that involves much of the Estonian population, and it was through a “singing revolution” that they broke away from the USSR.)

A charming coincidence? Perhaps. Words for “sing” and “song” vary from language to language, and while they are mostly singable, I think Estonian and Finnish win the prize among those I have seen. Estonians and Finns are not the most exuberant people going; they have a certain nordic restraint. But I can’t think of hallelujah now without thinking of the scores of books in the pews of the church in which we were married.

Words for “praise” also vary from language to language, naturally, and the Latin is laudare, which is pretty much in the same line; others are usually less singable. Words for “god” are often somewhat less singable – typically shorter, often with a stop and/or a fricative. But Arabic, which is overall a very fluid language, manages one of the most melodic and alleluia-sounding phrases going in its basic confession of faith: lā ʾilāha ʾillā l-Lāh, “There is no god but God.” The equivalent Hebrew phrase is Adonai Eloheinu Adonai ehad, “the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” – not quite as liquid but still very singable.

But the basic human experience of transcendence and release is universal, extending beyond confession and creed. Even an atheist who would never exclaim praise to any asomatous entity will still, on achieving a hoped-for goal or avoiding a dreaded event, have an urge to shout a yahoo or yesss or even perhaps a nonsectarian hallelujah, just as he or she would surely gladly surrender to positive emotions at the sound of a lovely song. Why not?

And so Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah has caught on quite broadly (by the way, it is not Jeff Buckley’s song. He just did a cover version, and it’s not even the best cover version, as far as I’m concerned – I like kd lang’s better). It invokes a religious connection, as many of Cohen’s songs do (he is Jewish, still observant, but also a Zen Buddhist – not a contradiction, as he explains: “in the tradition of Zen that I’ve practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief” – but he also has an at least modest fascination with the person of Jesus, who shows up in some of his songs: “Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water”… see “Suzanne”). But it also has a very strong emotional and sexual connection, as, really, all of his songs do:

And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

His hallelujah is a joy in the face of despair, a joy that owns despair because life has despair and despair is how we know joy:

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Even in the face of brokenness, the spirit must move upwards, reaching, hoping, singing. Such is the human condition: in the cold hollow light when the dream has dissipated and the reality may still elude you, you nonetheless look to be the lotus blossoming in the mud, a shining royal penny in the tea of aborted dreams. It is as in William Wordsworth:

The incumbent mystery of sense and soul,
Of life and death, time and eternity,
Admitted more habitually a mild
Interposition – a serene delight
In closelier gathering cares, such as become
A human creature, howsoe’er endowed,
Poet, or destined for a humbler name;
And so the deep enthusiastic joy,
The rapture of the hallelujah sent
From all that breathes and is, was chastened, stemmed
And balanced by pathetic truth, by trust
In hopeful reason, leaning on the stay
Of Providence; and in reverence for duty,
Here, if need be, struggling with storms, and there
Strewing in peace life’s humblest ground with herbs,
At every season green, sweet at all hours.

or as in Carl Sandburg:

The phantom of a yellow rooster flaunting a scarlet comb, on top of a dung pile crying hallelujah to the streaks of daylight

Hallelujah. The word for a nativity or resurrection, a goal achieved or evil defeated. Or perhaps simply the sound of a lost sailor alone on a little island, singing a solo “hello” in the surrounds of sea and sky, the eternal illative irruption of existence aware that it is, that it is.

Thanks to Jim Taylor for suggesting hallelujah and alleluia.


Tacet. “Is silent.” Latin. Verb. Infinitive: tacere, “be silent”. Cognate with French taiser, as in tais-toi or taisez-vous “shut up”. Not cognate with Taizé, a style of Christian worship that makes good use of simple chants and some silence.

Tacet is a direction in a musical score, an instruction for a specific instrument (or instruments). It says the instrument is silent for that stretch; i.e., don’t play. Violin? It is silent. Voice? It is silent.

But while violin or voice is silent, something else is usually playing. The score says “It is silent” of the instrument in question. But the score does not say simply “It is silent,” as you would when stepping outside on a silent night. The it that is silent is a specific it.

John Cage wrote a piece, a tacet for one or more instruments, called 4ʹ33ʺ. It has three movements; they add up to four minutes and thirty-three seconds in length. During that time the instrument does not play. It is silent.

The “it” in the previous sentence refers to the instrument.

Have you ever sat in a concert hall, lights down, conductor at the ready, waiting for the baton to go up? Or in a pause between movements? It is not silent. The orchestra is silent. But you will always hear something.

Normally you ignore it – it comes through your ears to you brain, passes through your awareness, is treated as insignificant and is disattended and forgotten. (Unless it’s remarkable in some way, or at least annoying – crinkle crinkle crinkle of a cough candy inexplicably wrapped in the noisiest substance available, perhaps.) But it is there. It has value. It has aesthetic potential – perhaps not of the same kind as the performance you are waiting to hear, but more than none.

John Cage was a Zen Buddhist. (By the way, nearly everything that uses the word zen these days has less than nothing to do with Zen. Cleanse your mind of all marketing and lifestyle articles that have ever used the word.) He knew that there was something in everything, a value in even the slightest sound. Sitting simply watching your breaths can be as enjoyable as licking an ice cream cone. Pay attention. Don’t just do something; sit there.

He also knew that pure silence simply does not exist. One thing can be silent, but there will always be some sound somewhere in hearing. Stop and listen, he says: what you hear is now the aesthetic object. Ceci n’est pas une silence.

If you go into an anechoic chamber, where effectively all ambient noise is absorbed and prevented from reaching your ears, you hear your body, your nerves, your blood, all of a sudden almost deafening. It’s always there; you just don’t usually notice it.

Taisez-vous. You will find that silence is filled with simple chance.

Go out on a silent night. Perhaps the snow is falling and, because nothing else is moving, you hear the snowflakes landing. A car or train in the distance? A small animal? Just your breath, perhaps, and your heart. And the music of the spheres, the underlying hum of the universe, so low and slow you would never hear it, but scientists have found it, a slow soft vibration many octaves below middle C. We are part of the instrument. We may give it our tacit approval, but we can’t help it even if we don’t approve or we aren’t tacit. (Tacit is an adjective, tacet a musical direction. I.e., they differ.)

What is the shape of tacet? Between two crosses (obelisks, marks of obsolescence) or two plus signs (additions), we have ace, which is one, but which is also three: an A minor chord, or the letters for 1, 3, 5. What is the sound of tacet? A soft sound of a tassel, perhaps, if you should pass it and brush it, or perhaps an expanded hiss to admonish someone to be quiet: not “sshhh” or “tsst” but just a bit more.

And so what? What does any of that mean?

Why must everything have a discursive and rationally analytical meaning? Let it be an experience.

So there is no silence?

You will never get silence of everything at once. But there is always silence of everything that is not making noise at the time. The silence of some things will let you hear, if you pay attention, the sounds of other things. Not the sound of silence: the sounds in the silence.

All sounds are in silence. Every time you hear something, think of the things you could also be hearing but aren’t. In order to make out the sound of something you need the silence of other things in the area. Go to a noisy factory and see what you can hear.

So there is no silence but there is always silence. There is no silence of everything at once but there is always silence of many things at a time. And the more silence there is, the more we can hear what is still not silent in the silence and stillness.

Tacet. What it really means: “Let the other instruments be heard without you.” And if there are no other instruments? Let that be heard too.


Tonight I sang in the fourth of five performances of Händel’s Messiah with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It’s a great one this year – the soloists include Michael Schade, Russell Braun, and Daniel Taylor.

One of the choral parts of the Messiah is “All we like sheep.” It’s not saying that we all like sheep; rather, it’s the beginning of a sentence, from Isaiah 53:6 – “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” It has some runs of sixteenth notes that seem as though they are meant to be a a little like the bleating of lambs, presumably wayward ones that have all gone their own way.

Every one to his own way. That does sound a bit individualistic, doesn’t it? When I think of sheep, I am reminded of this joke: An old farmer is being assessed by a psychologist. The psychologist says, “OK, say you have fifty sheep in a pen, and one gets out. How many are left in the pen?” The farmer says, “None.” The psychologist says, “Um. Let me make sure I’ve said that right: If a pen contains fifty sheep, and one escapes, what is the number of sheep you will find in the pen after that one escapes?” The farmer again says, “None.” The psychologist furrows his brows for a moment and then says, “I guess what I’m really trying to get at is, what’s one less than fifty?” And the farmer says, “Look, young feller, I know my math, but you don’t know sheep. If one of those dumb things goes, they all go.”

Hardly every one to his own way, is it? Funny, though. We think of sheep as being herd-behaviour animals, but we also have ideas of lost sheep. On the one hand we scorn them for being such followers, and on the other hand we scorn the ones that don’t follow – evidently because we assume they must have simply failed to follow. Somehow they are brainless because they follow but wayward if they turn every one to its own way.

They do follow, of course. Pick the ram (a.k.a. wether) that is most likely to lead the bunch and put a bell on it and you have the bellwether, a leading indicator of mass movements. We somehow like bellwethers – they tell us which way to go. And what are the examples for which way not to go? How about the black sheep? The black sheep of the family – the one who stands out, does not conform. It’s as though we want conformity without admitting that we want conformity. Bah.

Or rather baa. Which is what sheep say. “Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?” We know that sheep say “baa” like we know that cats say “meow” and dogs say “woof” or “arf.” We use this word with a double a – uncommon in English. It looks like an acronym, almost. Perhaps as in BAA, the Boston Athletic Association, host of the annual Boston Marathon (marathon running is an individual sport, not a team sport, but a large marathon is a remarkable vision of human herd behaviour). Or maybe BAA, the British Airports Authority, which oversees such hubs as Heathrow, where people are herded by the zillion every year through invasive checkpoints and into metal tubes that are blasted at high speed through the air.

But even if we “know” that sheep say that, what is the sound they really make? Cats don’t really say “meow,” after all. And if you get a person to imitate a sheep, they will not just make a “baa” sound. And different languages represent the sound differently: some have a /b/ at the start, some a /m/; some have an /a/ sound, some an /æ/, some an /e/. So what do sheep sound like really?

As it happens, at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto this past fall, I used my iPhone to record some sheep noises as we (and assorted strangers) wandered around through the sheep area. Have a listen:

You hear it? All those sounds that sound like people imitating sheep? Those are the sheep. (And then there’s the death metal sheep, which you hear clearly at the end.) When you get a person who doesn’t spend much time with sheep to imitate a sheep, they produce a sound that’s much more like what we expect from a sheep. Sheep themselves sound like people doing bad imitations of sheep.

Sheep make me think, thus, of Jean Baa-drillard – sorry (or not), Baudrillard – a French philosopher who wrote about the hyperreal. In the world, as Baudrillard saw it, we evaluate the reality of something on its reproducibility and its matchability to an idea of what reality should be. The hyperreal, which is the world of Disneyland and Las Vegas but also increasingly of our daily lives, is the real that is more real than real, the perfect simulation that is perfect because it perfectly matches other simulations; it is “the always already reproduced.” But which is more real or more hyperreal, the imitation that is taken as more real than the real thing, or the real thing that seems like a bad imitation? Is the abstracted ideal the real basis for the insufficiently real real?

And what are we herding after? We can be such a culture of people who believe ourselves to be following our own ways – but not in error, waywardly, but finding our own individual truth – but are in fact following prepackaged formulas and constructing identities that are just a group-think emulation of an ideal of individualism. We want to turn every one to our own ways, but in so doing we herd. We criticize black sheep but want, in our ways, to be black sheep, but the problem is that real black sheep aren’t a good enough black, so we’re all white sheep getting dye jobs to look blacker than the black ones. (And then there’s whole problem with the valuation of white versus black.)

And of course this time of the year is a classic time for herd behaviour. Go to a shopping mall. Everyone is there looking for that perfect gift for that individual someone (or multiples thereof). And that individual perfect gift will be one of many identicals, a reproduction of a pattern: an article of clothing, an electronic device, a book, whatever – as unique as the person you’re buying it for. Funny how they can say that and be taken to mean one thing but really mean something quite the opposite.

Well. We know what comes after “baa”: “humbug.” It’s easy to be cynical, just like all the other cynics. Yes, yes, we all do turn our own ways and do things our own ways. But we might as well hear ourselves in that baa and not be so sheepish about it.


“Wine comes out nose.”

This is the first definition (of sorts) I can find for gsnerk. It’s a word that was invented several years ago by a wonderfully funny fellow editor, Karen Black (who changed planes of existence abruptly a bit over three years ago, leaving a brace of cats).

The definition can be extended to any other fluid coming out your nose – for instance, coffee, all over your computer keyboard. The obvious stimulus is something unexpected and very funny. You can gsnerk your coffee; you can clean gsnerk off your keyboard. It has that flexibility that we expect of playful English.

But it does not refer to what, in the entertainment biz, is called a spit take. There is no spurting from the mouth involved. That, as was established clearly in discussions on the listserv of the Editors’ Association of Canada in 2008, is splurt.

I do think some people are more prone to gsnerks and others to splurts. I can’t think of a time I have actually gsnerked, but once when I was in grade 6 my brother managed to get me to splurt my milk all over the table at supper (by making a reference to something very funny from earlier in the day). My parents were displeased with him.

Both of those words, gsnerk and splurt, combine onomatopoeia with phonaesthetics. Which is to say that they aim to sound like what they refer to, but they also make use of established sound patterns for referring to certain things (sound patterns that themselves may have onomatopoeic value). The /spl/ onset is often associated with gushing or spraying – gobs or droplets of wetness: splatter, splash, splodge, even perhaps explode. Words having to do with the nose or nasal things, on the other hand, often have a /sn/ onset: snoot, snout, snot, snicker, snort… To which add the velar /g/ to involve the swallowing part of the mouth. Everything that comes out by the nose goes past where /g/ and /k/ are said; everything that comes out by the mouth goes past where /spl/ and /t/ are said.

But splurt hasn’t caught on as much among my editorial colleagues. There is something especially catchy about gsnerk. The fact that it has an opening consonant cluster that is theoretically not allowable in English is certainly a catchy factor – indeed, it gives it a nice syllabic ambiguity: less than two syllables but more than one. It just seems as awkward as what it names. And for that reason it doesn’t look so much like words you already know or suspect to exist in English, so it stands out more. And it starts with that g with its look of knotting and its descender that might make you think of a throat, and blows through three x-height letters to end with the éclat of the k shape, shooting up and ahead. And, really, it just sounds right.

I note that gsnerk also has a bit of an accidental Austrian oenological air to it: the German ge prefix becomes, in Viennese dialect, a simple g where it can, giving us a word like Gspritzn, which refers to an Austrian version of a spritzer. Which is, I think, not something you’d want to gsnerk.


A baker’s dozen of reasons I like the word lagniappe:

1. Who doesn’t like a little something extra, such as a tip or a bonus or that little extra baked good that used to sometimes be slipped into my bag at Pop’s Bakery? That’s what lagniappe means, after all.

2. It’s borrowed from French, which borrowed it from Spanish, which borrowed it from Quechua, which is what the Incas spoke.

3. The Spanish version is la ñapa, which makes me think of Napa, which is a nice place in California where they make wine. (I do not care about NAPA Auto Parts.)

4. That tilde on the ñ looks like a toupée, or a spoiler on a car. Or a scowling or skeptical eyebrow.

5. The Quechua source word is yapa, meaning “that which is added”, and I think it’s a nice, happy-looking word, even if it does make me think of little dogs.

6. The /njap/ sound makes me think of the “nyup nyup” sound the Ewoks make in Return of the Jedi.

7. The sound of the word makes me think of “line ya up on the lawn, yup, for a long nap.” And who doesn’t want to be lined up on a lawn for a long nap? It sounds lovely to me. Provided the weather is warm.

8. Looking at it makes me think of apple lasagna.

9. For whatever reason, I associate it with Louisiana, and especially New Orleans. I have never been there. But it seems like a term that should be used in stores and restaurants there, and to refer to what you give the dealer at your baccarat table on the riverboat.

10. Lagniappe doesn’t easily lend itself to a fake acronymic etymology, unlike tip, which has the inane and false supposed origin to improve performance being passed around like a doobie at a high-school beach party.

11. It has nine letters but only five phonemes – or six, depending on whether you say it as “lan yap” or as “la ñap” (a palatalized n is really a single sound just as a diphthong is). And you know how classy “silent letters” seem.

12. It can anagram to pagan pile or leaping pa or apple gain. Please write a 250-word story involving these three things, due on Friday. We will read them in class.

13. Constance Hale, @sinandsyntax, recently tweeted “I don’t know why I love the word lagniappe, but I do. Maybe I just like freebies?” And if it’s good enough for Constance Hale, it should be good enough for anyone.

What we pay with in word country

In word country, words aren’t just what you buy. You can pay with them too. Not word by word, mind you; a word by itself usually doesn’t work as payment in a value exchange, except for words like “Thanks.” What people want are words in sentences. Words that signify obligations and expectations and negotiate status levels. The economy of social interaction.

This is pretty plain once you see it in action. Every child is taught it: a request with “please” in it is usually worth a little more than the same request without “please” because “please” acknowledges that you don’t have the right to make flat demands, so it doesn’t borrow as much status from the other person. And an indirect request, which allows the other person more latitude, costs you less – is worth more – than a direct request, which demands more of the other person.

Consider Mark, a word grower. He’s tending his words one afternoon in harvest season. He’s by the side of a dirt road, not too far out of town. People walk past every so often. Mark hasn’t set up a stand. He’s not out to sell his words to people who just walk past. But people come out this way not just to listen to the susurrus of the syntax trees and relax in the penumbra of a lexis vine, awaiting Morpheus. There is always the hope of some fresh words to bite into.

“Are you selling words?” A young guy in a hat and T-shirt is standing at road’s edge, looking down at Mark, who is busy pulling some weeds.

“Nope,” Mark says. He’s pretty laconic: he’s not in the business of giving words away for free either.

The guy strolls along a bit but doesn’t really go away. He stands inspecting a particular plant. “Some mighty nice-looking words you got here. Are these Greek roots here?”

“Latin,” Mark says, without glancing over.

“Could I buy one from you?”

Mark jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “There’s a guy with a stand up the road.”

Offer made and deflected without any direct request or rejection. You see: not “Sell me one” and “No, go buy from him.” Much less exposure and demand. This is all small-coin stuff.

“I’ve seen his stuff. Yours looks a lot nicer.” There’s something you can pay: a compliment. Coin in the bank.

Mark can see this guy isn’t going to go away so readily either. He stands up, looks up and down the road. He doesn’t want to commit to selling to anyone else. But there’s someone coming. More than one person, in fact. “If you can wait a few minutes, I might have something I can spare,” he says. Low commitment, low demand: not “Wait a few minutes and I’ll sell you something.”

“Okay, thanks.” The guy wanders just a little ways away and looks at the plants.

A young woman approaches. She is what one calls winsome and sporty. She has just a little bit of playfulness and naughtiness in the way she smiles as she walks up, stops abruptly, stands with her hands knit together behind her bum, leaning her chest forward. “Hi.”

Mark gives her an elevator look: top floor to bottom floor, back to top. He wipes his dusty hands on his jeans. “Good afternoon. Something I can do for you?” So far he’s gotten one word out of her and already he’s offering. This is because she has more that he wants: he likes looking at her and talking to her. Attraction is already partial payment.

“You wouldn’t have any words you could sell me today, would you?” She’s offering him lots of latitude. This is bigger payment than a simple request. She puts him in charge.

“Well, I don’t know…” It’s not that he doesn’t want to sell to her, and it’s not that he doesn’t know, either. He just doesn’t want to put himself in a weaker position with that other guy there, who can see this going on, and he also wants to draw out the interaction with this girl. He’ll get as much interaction as he can from her in exchange for some fruits of his labours. “I might have something.”

The girl wanders up to a vine. “These look nice. What are these?”

“Anglo-Saxon,” he says, and is about to step over and show her more closely, but a man wearing sunglasses and an expensive-looking suit has just walked up. Mark wants to ignore him but it’s too late; he’s already glanced at him.

The man pulls a fiver out of his pocket. “One word. I’ll have that one.” All demand, no payment – not in words, even if he’s offering money.

“No,” Mark says.

“I want that word. Give me that word.”

“I’m not a roadside word stand.” Mark isn’t interested in accepting this guy’s high-status positioning at all. If you let that sort of thing pass, it’s like giving a person a permanent line of credit that they don’t have to pay back.

“You’re selling to her.” He gestures at the young woman.

“I’m talking to her.” Pause. “She’s a lot nicer than you are.” Pause. “I already have buyers for all my words. There’s a guy down the road who has a stand.”

The guy thrusts his fiver at Mark. “That one,” he says, pointing.

“If you want Anglo-Saxon words, I can give you a couple you might already be familiar with.” Pause. “Go. Away.” The guy hasn’t once given anything of value to Mark. Mark doesn’t need the fiver, and there’s been no deference, no inconvenience on the guy’s part, nothing that advantages Mark or disadvantages the potential buyer. And he’s taking up Mark’s time.

“Some businessman,” the guy grumbles as he starts away, a last little shot to see if he can get Mark to open up a vulnerability, at least keep talking. But Mark just snorts a little as he turns back to the young woman. If he spent all his time taking fivers for a word at a time he wouldn’t have much of a business at all.

“So tell me about this one,” the young woman says, gently touching a nimshite.

“You don’t want to get any of that on you,” Mark says. He gently pulls her hand slightly away from it, which is exactly what she had designed the gesture for, and he knows it. Physical contact with an attractive person: that’s definitely coin of the realm. It may not be words, but it’s communication too. Value is given. “That’s not a word you can use in too many places. It’s rather rude. Crude.”

“What kinds of words are you growing here?” She steps back a bit and looks over the lot. She’s demanding time and information from him, but in this case it’s welcome because it puts him in the role of knowledge giver to someone he might want to have a positive balance with, and because she’s paying him something he wants from her: attention.

“Well, aside from the Anglo-Saxon, we have some Greek rootstock, lots of Latin rootstock, and I have a section over here that I’m really fond of, some borrowings from East Asia. Including some really interesting hybrids.” He starts walking towards that row and gestures forward. He doesn’t pat her on the back to encourage her to go forward: that might cost him a bit. “I like these ones. Here, look at this.” He points to sarariman. “And this.” Beisuboru. “Loans from English into Japanese. I’m looking at bringing them back into English.”

“Crafty!” she says. “Oh, what’s this one?” Bakkushan. “Could you spare this one?” She glances sideways at him, her head tilted slightly down: a submissive gesture. He knows he’s being played, but it’s fun, at least for now.

“Trust me,” he says. “You don’t want that one. It looks good at first, but I wouldn’t give it to my friends.” He doesn’t say “I wouldn’t give it to a friend” because that might seem too much like he’s calling her a friend. But he did say “give” – not “sell.” He’s loosening his position.

She makes a pouty little moue. She’s playing it maybe a bit too much: now it’s clear that she’s angling for something she wants, not just to spend time with him, so her currency is devalued slightly.

“These are interesting but not all that useful. You can sink your teeth into them, but you might find they don’t go with a whole lot of things.” He gestures towards the Latin section. Lots there that he can spare. That stuff grows like zucchini, courgettes, marrows. Cross-breeds spontaneously with the Greek stuff too.

They walk in that direction, a few accidental-on-purpose contacts between hands and hips as they walk. Just a little more flirting. He can’t be sure it’s of value to her other than for persuading him, but it’s of value to him and he’ll take it for a little longer before getting back to work. He’s not bored quite yet.

“Ooh! Look at this one!” She darts ahead. “I’ll take this one!” Before he can stop her, she’s run up to a word and grabbed it. “Callitrix! I love it! Like two little girls, Callie and Trix! So crisp and smooth and fast and stylish and… feminine! Oh, I just love it!”

Mark stands there, looking at her, lips pursed slightly. She’s overstepped a little, not paid enough respect in this interaction: her direct and demanding approach has taken money off her balance. But it’s done. He can’t unpick the word. He would have liked it to grow a little more – it’s riper with an h after the t, callithrix. But no point in saying that now.

She knows she’s presumed just a touch too much. But she doesn’t want to risk refusal now. She smiles at him, eyebrows lifted. Then she says “Thank you,” darts over and kisses him on the cheek, and scampers off.

Well. That was a brief bit of entertainment. And not all that expensive. And…

The young guy in the hat has been watching from nearby. He takes a few languid steps up, looking at the young woman as she scurries away. At first he’s not sure what sage or witty observation to make. Mark remains tacit. At last the young man says, “Hope you got a good price for that.”

Mark smiles a little. “If she’d given a little more she might have gotten a little more. Such as the definition of the word.” She gets less value, and he gets a little boost: even if she left with a bit of upper hand, he has the upper hand in the long run because he knows she might be in for a little surprise. Heh.

“What was the word?”


The guy starts to laugh. “A little monkey.”

“Business,” Mark says.

“At least she didn’t take this one,” the guy says, pointing to meretrix.

Mark smiles. The young man has shown some interest and a certain degree of knowledge. A common bond is always worth a little something. He gestures towards the crop. “And what were you hoping might be ready for picking?”


You know about the Higgs boson, right? Its existence was recently confirmed. It had been deduced years ago that it had to exist if the standard model of subatomic particles was correct. Other particles had been identified, and a nice table made that had a spot where a certain kind of particle should be in order for it all to be tidy. But no one had observed that particle. So once the Large Hadron Collider was built, which would finally have enough power to make these particles appear, experiments were undertaken to see if they could find it. And they did.

That’s certainly not the first time that the existence of something has been deduced or even required in order to make a model work. And those of us who like to do puzzles know the feeling: you have a general solution that seems consistent, but there’s something missing, a blank that needs to be filled in or everything just doesn’t work. It’s a task that may involve deductions and mass observation, or it may involve artifice and technique.

Say, for instance, you have worked out that the world is round, not flat. According to your calculations, if you go a certain route, you will end up in a place that had been thought to be far in the other direction. Or say you’ve observed a certain insect, but you’ve only observed the female of it. You know that somewhere there has to be a male. Or say there’s a missing link in the fossil record between apes and hominids. Or say you’re an astronomer and you find that there is a perturbation in the motion of a star that can only be explained by the existence of a planet. Or you find a bunch of bones at an archeological dig that can’t be put together into anything anyone already knows about.

Or say you have a chart of elements. Chemical elements. The basic stuff of which all stuff is made. And you’ve identified quite a lot of bits in the wild, but you see that there are slots that need to be filled in – places on the chart where there isn’t anything known to exist yet but where something must exist unless the structure of the chart is wrong.

Funny to think of it now, but the periodic table of elements was once, even right in the middle of it – not just at the high end – a work in progress. And in spot 43, there was a blank to be filled in. An unknown element. Who would discover it?

And what would they name it?

Once Dimitri Mendeleev had made his periodic table and, in 1871, posited an element in the 43rd spot, just below manganese, the race was on to find it and, in the great tradition of scientists and explorers everywhere, name it. They didn’t have a name set in advance like the Higgs boson – oh, yes, Mendeleev did have a proposed name, but it was just a space-filler, ekamanganese, meant to indicate that the element was one row directly below manganese. So whoever found the element would get to name it what they wanted.

This is sort of like being a paleobiologist. If you find a bunch of bones that don’t look like what you’ve seen before, you assume there must be a new creature. Once you manage to put them together to make a real creature, you have to give it a name. If you’re someone like Krister Smith, you name it after friends: Suzanniwana patriciana.

The discovery and naming of element 43 happened quite a few times, as it turned out. People had what they thought was the long-awaited 43rd element but was actually some impure specimen of another element that fooled their tests. That element is a true graveyard for names given to the wrong thing, like flags planted on ice floes that turned out not to be at the north pole after all. Roll them on your tongue and savour them, these forlorn flags of lost pride: polinium, ilemium, pelopium, davyum (after Sir Humphry Davy, who abominated gravy and lived in the odium of having discovered sodium), lucium, nipponium (that one because the scientist in question was Japanese – Nippon is Japanese for “Japan”), and masurium (named after the region of Prussia where the lead investigator’s family was from). Those who actually identified the element were given the suggestion by their university, the University of Palermo, to name it panormium, since Panormus was the Latin name for Palermo. But instead the scientists named it technetium.

Why technetium? Well, it was the first element to be produced artificially – it wasn’t discovered in some natural source (it very rarely appears in natural sources, but not never); it was isolated from materials that had been used in a cyclotron. So the discoverers gave it a name not based on some family connection or in honour of some great scientist, but just taken from the Greek word τεχνητός technetos “artificial”, derived from a word referring to making; the tech root you see in so many places comes from this too. The word technetium, by the way, is pronounced with the t as “sh”. So there’s no “neat” in this word to go with the tech (“teck”); rather, you get the “niche” that it fills, and a sound to recall the “technicians” who helped fill it.

Imagine a pond where different animals eat different kinds of plants. No animal they have seen has eaten the quux plant, but the quux plant keeps getting eaten. So it is deduced that a quux-eater must exist. Various biologists think they have found this beastie, and name it accordingly: one discovers what he names the Myriamber after his mother and his sister, but it turns out to be a fat duck; another declares discovery and calls it the texasholdemodon, but it is finally identified as a maimed alligator; another finds something that ends up being the neighbour’s cat in a Hallowe’en costume, which he had named a burgundee.

But of course no one can just synthesize a swamp creature. It actually has to be found somewhere. Not that the discoverers of technetium really just put a bunch of neutrons and protons and electrons together and said, “OK, here’s your element.” It had been created by the breaking up of bigger elements. And its properties were partly a matter of deduction and partly a matter of discovery. It is, for instance, the lowest-numbered (thus smallest) element to have no isotopes that aren’t radioactive. Every single variation of technetium ever found is radioactive, though generally not very strongly, and they have different half-lives (a half-life is the amount of time it takes for half of a given element to decay into something else).

This actually makes some isotopes of technetium very useful. The technetium-99m isotope binds nicely to certain things in the body – red blood cells, cancer cells, calcium deposits – so that you can see where they are in medical diagnostic imaging, and it has a half-life of about 6 hours, which means that it pretty much all goes away fairly quickly after the imaging test is done. It fills a spot and then makes itself scarce. No wonder it was so hard to find it. It’s almost like a Snuffleupagus, except that everyone believes it must be there, though it’s not there when they look again.

So there it is. A discovery that involves two creations that are really just use of bits that were already present: the technetium in the residue of cyclotron waste, and the word technetium made from an existing Greek root and morphology. With several false starts on each.


I always enjoy the beginning of a word tasting course. All those new faces – some eager, some dragged there by their girlfriends or significant others – ready for what they hope will be an enjoyable experience but, at the very least, will leave them somehow more cultured.

Of course you get all sorts. People who have retired and now have the time to enjoy words. Young couples, the guy nearly always trying to impress the girl with what he knows about words, even if he seems only to know things that aren’t so (“Oh, no, no one likes adverbs anymore…” “There was a fashion for Scandinavian loans a while ago, but it’s East Asian ones that are pretty much where it’s at now…” “Yes, you see, you know it’s voiceless because it’s spelled with an s. A z means it’s voiced.”). Businessmen who get exposed to some pretty expensive words while out with clients but who never really get to appreciate them, now wanting to learn how to really enjoy them. Groups of women who couldn’t persuade their associated males to come – or didn’t want them to anyway.

I like to start them off with a few words right off the bat, just to have a sense of what level they’re all at and to give them a starting point. I’ll give them words they probably haven’t heard before and ask them to write down what the words make them think of, what they feel like to say. I insist that they write down the first ten things they think of. Of course the results often begin to sound a bit like a psychotherapy session.

Then, having made words a little strange, I give them some words they know quite well. I like the reactions to dog and then hound. Eyes begin to open: what different tastes, feelings, and images for words with pretty much the same objects. I used to use cat and pussy, but some of the responses were sometimes a bit much for some of those present to take graciously.

Then we dive into the exploration of the basic sound-generating organism of the body. I usually start with the voiced/voiceless distinction. This can sometimes be surprisingly unfamiliar. It can also be an occasion for some good partner work for those who have come with others, as in the case of one young lady who was in the class with her boyfriend and didn’t quite cotton to it.

“I don’t get what you mean,” she protested. “Every time I speak I’m using my voice.”

“Every time you speak you’re using your vocal tract, but your voice turns on and off.”

“If my voice was off you couldn’t hear me.”

“Say your name,” I said.


“Or anything. Just say a word.”

“Malcolm.” She made a sideways glance at her boyfriend.

“Now whisper it.”

She leaned up to him, cupped her hands around his ear, and whispered it into his ear. I think she licked his ear slightly, too, but her hands were in the way.

“Whisper it in this direction, loudly enough that I can hear it,” I suggested.

“Malcolm,” she obligingly whispered, reasonably loudly.

“OK, great. You whispered it. You weren’t using your voice, but I could hear it.”

“Of course I was using my voice! I was using my whispering voice!” she insisted.

“Which isn’t actually voice, because your vocal cords don’t vibrate.”

“Well, I know what my English teacher, Ms. Van Tilt, said. ‘Use your whispering voice.’”

I sighed. There are a lot of unfortunate things that get said in English classes.

“She should have been… more careful in her choice of words. If you have laryngitis, you lose your voice, right?”

“Well, yeah, but that’s just a figure of speech.”

“Actually, it’s the same use of the word voice. The technical use.” Technical usually seals it. And of course her boyfriend was forced to nod sagely. Guys always want to seem like they know something if it’s technical. “If your vocal cords are vibrating – your voice box – then a sound is voiced. If they’re not, it’s unvoiced. Put your hand on your neck and say missing slowly.” I demonstrated.

She tried. “Mmmiiiiisssssssiiiiinnnggg.”

“You feel how it’s not vibrating during the s, the ‘ssss’?” I turned to the rest of the class. “Everybody try this. Try a few words. Try some of the ones we started with.” They obliged. The air was filled with slowly echoing words, people speaking slowly with their hands on their throats – like a scene from some sci-fi movie (“Time… warp… losing… air…”).

The girl’s boyfriend, Malcolm, took this occasion to improve their partner work. “You can also feel it in the chest,” he said, putting his hand on her chest. She said “Shampoo.”

“Wait,” he said, “your shirt is damping the vibration.” He worked his hand underneath it.

“Thixotropic,” she said, and smiled. “Woo!”

I tried not to roll my eyes. “Yes, quite a lot of your body resonates with sound. That’s what helps produce the sound quality. You’ll feel it on the top of your head, too.”

Malcolm grabbed her butt. “Say it now.”

“Hey,” she said, smiling, and smacked his hand.

“It doesn’t usually make it all the way down there,” I said. “Unless you’re an opera singer.”

I moved on to the shape of the vocal tract. I showed the class the diagram of the mouth and started talking about the parts. I always encourage people to explore the insides of their mouths with their tongues.

I hadn’t really thought of this part as so much of an occasion for partner work.

But as I had the class making as many different variants of /l/ as I could, sweeping their tongues back and forth over their palates, I turned and saw Malcolm and the girl playing championship tonsil hockey.

“Now, I know that words are stimulating and can be romantic…” I said.

“Oh,” she said, pulling away, “sorry, we were just curious whether we could make sounds with each other’s tongues. Like, my tongue in his mouth. And vice versa.”

She was looking like an altogether more promising student than I had first anticipated. I glanced around the class. “Try it at home,” I said. “And report back.”