You may think of the ideal ornamented evergreen as being some kind of pine, fir, or spruce. Branches like bottle brushes, well suited for being bedecked with garlands and tinsel and bulbs and balls and little sleighs and skaters and lights, lights, lights.

In word country, there is another yule plant that is preferred, a plant that you and I may use branches of for decking the halls but that we would not cut down whole and drag into the living room. Well, they don’t cut it down in word country either; it’s bad luck to cut it down – ask any druid – and decorating it could be painful due to the sharp points on the leaves, adding extra spots of red from your dripping fingers to match the winter berries. So they just appreciate it in its natural environment, like good linguists, and have their children draw diagrams of it. And they bring their gifts to its base.

The ilex. A magical tree, evergreen and bearing fruit in winter, beloved of druids and a symbol of fertility and eternal life; Romans associated it with agriculture and harvest and decked the halls with boughs of it during Saturnalia. Christianity naturally coopted it. Some carols sing of it – though usually by its more common Germanic name, rather than its Latin one. We don’t sing “The Ilex and the Ivy” or “Have an Ilex Jolly Christmas.”

Well enough. Although ilex is now fully borrowed into English, its Latin origin adds a bit of ambiguity: in Latin, the word names the holm oak, which happens to resemble the holly tree to some extent. The name was transferred, and by no lesser a light than Linnaeus.

So in word country the ilexicographers gather around the ilex, flower in the midst of a grove of syntax trees. They are very careful to watch the orthography of their ilex: a slip of the pen and it is the ulex, which is a different tree, or the ibex, a goat with huge arching horns that are alarming to behold. Add an extra letter – write this ilex sloppily – and you get silex, which is silica, and your evergreen life is evergrey and inorganic.

Where will you find the ilex in word country? Look to a series of islets, sewn like eyelets in the brook that bisects the plain. This is land where they grow lexis, often wild, rough lexis. They let it come uncultivated and then sell it in bunches with brambles and thorns still sticking out. Same words, same sound, but you can see that it’s rustic: it’s full ov ruff things sumwun sed, mite of sounded like normal speech but yew no there unejucated so it shoze up like this. The ilex and the ilex are different things that look the same; the eye dialects are the same thing but look different.

But it will ever be thus. And you will see, too, by the ilex, the Rolex-wearing Lexus driver. Growing near its base you will find lilacs. People picnic around it, some enjoying regrettable food as gallerized by James Lileks ( They may drink mate (sometimes spelled maté), which is Ilex paraguariensis. Those wanting the harder stuff have lately taken a liking to Elyx, but there is many an elixir liked for luxuriating. They sing “lully, lullay” and relax (the younger ones listen to Skrillex and say goodbye to go watch flicks). Others circulate, quietly capturing pictures with the soft and surreptitious shutter of a Rolleiflex. And off in the corner is an exlex awaiting exile, allowed to prick his finger on a leaf’s circumflex-like apex and leave red specks of vital flux as a last look back at the land of lexis and syntax.

2 responses to “ilex

  1. So do I have this right, two things look similar and have the same name, but are really very different things? Is there a name for that? I was thinking about tortillas. Here in Texas they are a round flat bread, but in Spain (Catalonia to be exact) they are round flat pancakes made from grated potatoes and eggs (served in Tapas bars).

  2. Pingback: culex | Sesquiotica

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