Monthly Archives: February 2013


What does this word bring to your mind? Perhaps nothing. But if it does bring something, then I wouldn’t be surprised if that something were a tomato coulis, or a red pepper coulis, or a raspberry coulis or some other berry coulis: a fairly thin purée-style sauce without hard lumps or seeds, probably distributed in Jackson Pollock style like jacks and a ball on your jackfruit and pollock, or even more likely in Saturnine or Saturnalian orbit around a chocolate dessert of some sort.

John Ayto, in The Diner’s Dictionary, coolly sets the record straight:

A coulis is a thick purée or sieved sauce made typically of vegetables or fruit (tomato coulis is a common manifestation of it). Nouvelle cuisiners’ penchant for using fruit coulis, especially made from raspberries, at every opportunity has recently made the term familiar to English-speakers, but in fact it first crossed the Channel nearly 600 years ago, in the form ‘cullis’.

Cullis! My, the things one culls. And by what portcullis or port-of-call did it come to England? What was this thing? It was a strong broth made from boiled meat – for example, beef tea (beef tea is a term forever tainted in my ears by its being repeated enthusiastically by an annoying boy android in an episode of an after-school cartoon I watched in my childhood, not that you would care about that).

And a coulis was originally a broth or jelly made from the juices of roasted meat (you now have a new name for that stuff that comes from your roasting pan – it’s not just jus, and, oh, it’s not au jus, which means ‘with juice’: your language is too lumpy if you serve a meat “with au jus”). The key, though, in all cases, is that it’s strained. The source of coulis is ultimately Latin colare, ‘strain, flow through’, source of our word colander.

Do not confuse coulis and coulisse (and do not confuse coulisse and calice, but that’s another thing). A coulisse is any of a few things: a corridor; one of the wings on a stage; the outside traders on the Paris Stock Exchange, and the place they gather; and a groove for a sliding sluice gate. The last of these is likely something you will find somewhere on the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State.

Coulee, like coulisee, comes from the same Latin source as coulis, but in the case of coulee it’s by way of the French verb couler – cool, eh? A coulee is a ravine or gulch or arroyo or wadi, a sort of grand natural sluice for rain runoff but dry most of the year. This, apparently, is a western Canadian and western American usage. I didn’t know that, and I didn’t know, when I was in high school in Banff, that not even all of my classmates knew the word. I was new in the school in grade 10 (my classmates from Exshaw all went to Canmore, and I was glad not to), and one of the students had the last name Coolie. I remarked to another classmate, “That Coolie is a son of a ditch.” He did not get the joke. But I got a reputation for saying things that didn’t make sense.

Anyway, the Grand Coulee was a great big coulee. I say was because it doesn’t really count as a coulee now. It’s filled with water, thanks to the work of many labourers – men who carried heavy loads here and there, among others. Not waterboys! But also not – perhaps you thought I was going to say – coolies. Why not coolies? Because coolie is, as you likely know, a racist term used pretty much exclusively on Indian (i.e., from India) and Chinese manual labourers, particularly freight handlers and carriers. The word comes from Gujarati and/or Tamil and/or Turkish; it seems a sort of collation of words for an ethnic group, a labourer, and a slave. It was what they called the poor sorts who had to go around (often in broad shallow conical hats) doing hot work while the European colonials coolly oversaw them from the cooler shade while having a cool drink.

So the labourers on the Grand Coulee Dam were not coolies. And their work was to build the dam, not directly to fill the coulee. But the results was that they blocked the Columbia River, displacing many people and obstructing many fish – and permitting the irrigation of many crops and the production of much electricity. Quite the strain; was it worth it?

Imagine, though, if the strain had been not civil engineering on a big coulee but a big colander sieving coulis – filling the Grand Coulee coolly with coulis. Would you say “Raspberries to that”? Would you throw tomatoes? Or would you gulp the gully down your gullet, gorge yourself on the gorge? Or just use it to sauce the fish?

English’s foreign plurals

The monetary unit of Swaziland is the lilangeni. English speakers are helpfully reminded that the plural is emalangeni: one lilangeni, two emalangeni.

But why?

I don’t mean “Why does SiSwati, the language of the Swaziland, pluralize that way?” That’s easy: as with other Bantu languages, its nouns are in different classes, identified by prefixes, and plurals are a different class from singulars. No, I mean “Why do we feel obliged to use the SiSwati plural when we’re speaking English?”

It’s not normal, you know. It’s not normal for languages, when they borrow words from other languages, to borrow the morphology: the different forms for plurals, possessives, etc., and the different conjugations for verbs.

It’s not even normal for English to do that. We don’t borrow conjugations when we borrow verbs: we don’t say “They massacreront them!” instead of “They will massacre them!” We don’t borrow possessives when we borrow nouns: we don’t say “The radiorum length” instead of “The radiuses’ length” – oh, sorry, that should be “The radii’s length.” Right?

Because sometimes – just sometimes – when we borrow a noun we also borrow the plural form. This is especially true with newer borrowings and with borrowings in specialized areas (science, food, the arts). We’re not very consistent about it, so it can sneak up on you, like so many other ambush rules we have in English.

And there are so many borrowed plural forms – because there are so many plural forms to borrow. Read 9 confusing ways to pluralize words (by me) on for details on ways and reasons.

But if we’re going to talk about pluralizing things the way we always have in English, there’s one other issue: we haven’t always pluralized using –s in English

Nope. In fact, a thousand years ago, when English nouns had three genders, only the masculine ones got –s (actually –as), and not all of those did either. Other ways of showing the plural were to add –u, –a, –e, or –n, or change the vowel, or do nothing. English has changed a whole lot since then. Noun and verb forms have gotten much, much simpler – thanks to interaction with speakers of other languages, especially Norse and French. You can really thank the French for the fact that we use –s/–es on most words now for the plural.

But since that’s what we do now, should we do it with all new words we steal, I mean borrow? Well, it’ll sure make life easier if we can settle on octopuses. But it might just sound kind of wrong and blah if we order paninos and look at graffitos on the wall. And it would be less fun if we couldn’t jokingly say to a bartender, “I’ll have a martinus. No, not martini – I only want one.” It’s the eternal struggle of English: do you want it easy, or do you want it fun?

A Word Taster’s Companion: Wow! Yay! Glides!

Today: the thirteenth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Wow! Yay! Glides!

Glide. Come glide with me. You’ll get the hang of it. In fact, you already have the hang of it. You may never have been on a hang glider, but you have certainly glided smoothly on open air. If you’re flying a hang glider you may say “Wow! Yay!” But any time you say “Wow! Yay!” you’re gliding, no matter where you are and what you’re doing.

A glide is really a high and tight vowel sound serving as a consonant, the open air flowing smoothly but somehow making a consonant. In English, we have two glides: /j/ and /w/, the first sounds in yay and wow. You know (if you’ve been paying attention and have read “The vowel circle”) that the ay in yay and the ow in wow are diphthongs: vowel sounds that involve a movement. These ones in particular move to narrower vowels, [ɪ] and [ʊ]. But you can also hear, especially if you say “wow wow wow wow” and “yay yay yay yay,” or if you hold the opening sound (“wwwwwow” and “yyyyay”) that the opening sounds are pretty much the same as the final sounds of the diphthongs.

Glides illustrate even more clearly than liquids the fact that what is a consonant is often a matter of how it is used and thought of as much as of its characteristics. This is not true of all sounds; /a/ will never be a consonant, and /t/ will never be a vowel. But there is a grey area where consonants and vowels blur together, and the glides are in it (although I think glides sound more blue and yellow than grey).

This is not to say that the glides are absolutely identical with the vowels except for how they’re used. They may or may not be. Say “ye ye ye ye ye woo woo woo woo woo.” Notice how you can tell where the glide stops and the vowel starts. In these words, the glides have to be tighter than the vowels in order to be distinguished from them. Watch how you say ya and you and we and wa. See if they’re as tight.

But now say “ow ow ow ow a wa wa wa wa” and “ay ay ay ay a ya ya ya ya.” Watch how you say them. How closed are the glides? What else are you doing to make the distinction so it doesn’t just sound like “owowowow” and “ayayayayay”?

Glides are voiced. They don’t have to be. But we no longer have phonemic voiceless glides in English. We almost still do: if you want to distinguish which clearly from witch, you may devoice the /w/ – or just say a /h/ before it that spreads the devoicing onto the /w/, which is not quite the same thing. A similar effect can happen in words such as human and humour. Glides are also susceptible to the same devoicing caused by aspiration that affects liquids: try pure twit. Say that slowly, perhaps as if you’re describing someone with great disdain. Listen to the glides: /pjur twɪt/ – the aspiration from the /p/ and /t/ spreads onto the /j/ and /w/ and devoices them.

Glides can also be nasal or non-nasal (oral), just like the vowels they resemble – and, as with those vowels, this variation is allophonic but not phonemic in English. It spreads from a nearby nasal: compare mute (/mjut/) with beauty (/bjuti/). You may find it hard to hear the difference, but it’s there.

What do glides feel like to say? They’re sort of like the yo-yos of the mouth, perhaps in part because yo-yo uses them. The tongue (and, in /w/, the lips) swings in close and then pulls back, like an upside-down bungee jump. These are also things your mouth does while tasting – tasting wine, for instance. A wine taster will have a sip of wine and, holding it in the mouth, inhale on a [w] gesture to aerate it. Then, lips closed, the taster may make a series of [j] gestures ([jajajaja]) with the tongue to swish the taste in the mouth and get it into the nose. When held, glides can have a sense similar to that of nasals: they can express hesitation (“Yyyyyyyeah… wwwwwell…”) or enthusiasm (“Yyyyess! Wwwwwow!”)

Next: Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.


Visual: The x is likely to leap out. They always do. The two i’s stand up like lit cylinders. The word starts with mo and ends with on, a near-symmetry at the extremities. It looks like a mixture of odd parts, about which more below.

In the mouth: The word starts and ends soft with the nasals /m/ and /n/, but in between it has a certain catch and burst. The /ks/ near the start and the /stʃ/ near the end give a sound like a lighter being flicked, and the /bʌ/ (/bʌs/) in the middle is percussive in a dull, solid way.

Etymology: This truly is a mixed bag. The bustion is the end of combustion, and so is from Latin – splitting an original root, combu- (referring to burning up). The moxi does not come from the same root as moxie, nor is it related to amoxicillin (the amoxi there comes from amino and oxy). No, it is more related to mugwort – the herb, not the word. It comes from the word moxa, which is not mocha – it’s a soft wool made from the down of the leaves of certain plants, notably mugwort. The word moxa comes from Japanese mokusa, which is a variant of mogusa, ‘mugwort’, which has no relation other than coincidence to the word mugwort; rather, it is from Japanese moe-kusa, meaning ‘burning herb’. So the word starts with a burn, reduced and transformed, and ends with the cut-off tail of a burn, plus a noun suffix (tion).

Collocations: This is not a common word. Where you do see it, typically in articles, one word that you’re likely to see near it, though not next to it, is technique.

Overtones: This word has moxie. Never mind the etymology; you can’t disregard its strong flavour in the opening. You may also get a taste of maxi and perhaps mix. The x is a little sexy, like a Roxy roller, or perhaps a little radical and independent like Moxy Früvous. Its exceptionality is axiomatic. The short bus in the middle gets lost in the conflagration, the rumbustious burst of combustion. Somewhere in the background you may hear mock Sebastian, but while Saint Sebastian was pierced with arrows, there is no puncture in this word. Not quite.

Semantics: No puncture? No, moxibustion is something you may do as an alternative approach for acupuncture. Instead of putting needles in key points in the body, you light a pointed paper tube filled with moxa and hold the point of it where you would put a needle. You may remove it before the skin is burned, or you may hold it there long enough for the skin to be burned at the point, to blister and burst thereafter. The aim is to stimulate circulation and improve flow. Sure you wouldn’t like a needle instead?

Where to find it: You will find this word pretty much exclusively in articles on “alternative” therapies. They will explain that moxibustion is a technique involving [etc.] and used for [etc.] and so on.

Serve with: Are you the sort of person who likes to put whole peppercorns in salad dressing so that your guests may, every so often, be taken unawares by a burst of black pepper in the mouth? Then you may enjoy popping this word into your prose for its sound and obscure reference. Just once. See if you can find a place to do it sometime this week. Don’t explain. Just word-bomb. “The service cuts are a sort of civic moxibustion, leaving blisters and just a hope of efficiency improvements.” “He was not so much smoking the cigarillo as performing moxibustion on his lips with it.” “‘Shingles or moxibustion?’ she said. ‘Freckles,’ I said, and pulled my shirt back on quickly.” Your turn. If you’re on twitter, tweet me your sentence: @sesquiotic.


This word has a much fuller flavour from experience for me than it probably has for most of you reading this. I grew up on the Stoney Indian Reserve in Alberta – the Stoneys are a branch of the Sioux people. In their own language they’re the Nakoda (compare Dakota for a better-known branch of the family). My parents worked for the Stoneys and had – and still have – many friends among the Stoneys. My father is fluent in the language.

So there were many evenings in my younger childhood when we would go to a pow-wow (yes, a pow-wow – a big social gathering with dancing and drumming and lots of socializing, and no alcohol on a dry reserve like the Stoney reserve, just lots of tea) and I would trail my parents around as they greeted and chatted with scores of people one at a time, each greeting starting with “Âba wathtech” (sounded like “umba wastich” to me at the time) and a handshake.

And at the Calgary Stampede we would always go to the Indian Village and stop by the teepees of people we knew and go in for a cup of tea. And then another at the next. And another at the next. Until I was full of tea pee from the teepees.

Many people probably think that teepees are some Hollywood thing or are a racial stereotype or what have you. Actually, setting up the teepee and spending some time in it are now sort of the Stoney equivalent of what many city dwellers do when they open up the cottage in the spring and go up to it for weekends, or the same with the dacha for the well-off in Russia. Teepees are a part of the cultural heritage, somewhat improved with the availability of canvas (just as tea and bannock have become very important imports in the cuisine); they are no longer principal residences, but they are still valued. And when I was a young teen and we lived in a large piece of land at the edge of the reserve and the foot of a mountain, we had one that we set up a short distance from our house and would go out to it with guests.

We also had salt and pepper shakers shaped like teepees. Little ceramic teepees. We didn’t use them much at the table – we had others that poured better. There was also a motel in Canmore that had a teepee-shaped cottage or cabin or whatever you want to call it; it was two storeys tall. We stayed in it once, due, I think, to renovations on our house. It was cold and the shower had poor water pressure, and it wasn’t very pretty inside. It’s not there anymore.

So anyway, teepees were once the portable residences of Plains Indians such as the Nakoda, permanent residences in that they always lived in them but not permanent in location. Now they are temporary and second residences and tend to be set up in more or less the same place every year. The impermanence has shifted from location to habitation.

And where does this word, teepee, come from? And am I spelling it correctly? Indeed, there are other spellings. You may see tepee; more common recently is tipi. It happens that I grew up with teepee, but the tipi spelling appeals to me, as it exactly matches the International Phonetic Alphabet spelling of the word. We used to render the [i] sound with ee by default; now that we are much more aware of the orthographical traditions of other languages and are less confident in our own, tipi seems a better way to spell it. And that is how you spell it in the language it came from.

Which is not Nakoda. Not quite. Tipi is a Dakota word. The Nakoda word is tibi (same spelling as the Latin for ‘to you’). If you look in the Oxford English Dictionary, you will read that the word comes from “Sioux or Dakota ˈtīpī tent, house, dwelling, abode.” But that’s not quite the whole story. Where to get the accurate goods on it? From my dad, of course, fluent Nakoda speaker and trained linguist. I’ll just quote him directly:

Stoney Nakoda ti = “dwelling, house,” etc.

Duki ti = “Where does he/she live/dwell?”

Duki tibi (or in Dakota Sioux, tipi) = “Where do they live/dwell?”

Tibi ze = “the place where they live/dwell”

Tibi (Dakota, tipi) = “they dwell”

BECOMES ENGLISH BORROWING WITH QUITE SPECIFIC MEANING: “teepee/tepee” = “conical canvas tent used principally among Plains Indigenous people”

So there you have it. A bit of linguistic teepology for you.

And so a teepee is where they dwell. Not where we dwell – where they dwell. It’s an English-speaker’s word, taken from someone else’s language, for where those someone elses live. Or lived. I don’t know if there’s any verb morphology available to express that it’s now habitual but intermittent.

Teepee sounds, obviously, like TP. I don’t see connection between a teepee and toilet paper, though. I would be more inclined to think of a teepee as a DP as in “dwelling place.” But DP also stands for displaced person. That term usually means someone who has had to move from where they lived. For some people it’s more accurate to say they had to stop moving with where they lived. Now they’re placed, and their displaceable dwellings are no longer their permanent impermanent addresses.

Maybe I would do better to think of TP as standing for tea place. Because that is one thing it certainly is. But I won’t dwell on it.


I was recently looking at the website of a pharmacy chain and noticed a product advertised, oblipicha mask.

What mask? I almost took off my glasses to look again. The arrangement of letters was unexpected.


Hmm. It’s a spiky little bush of a word. Starts with ob as in obscure and obelisk, obl as in obloquy, obli as in oblique. After an opening zero there is a blip. I see lip; I see lipi as in lipid; I see ip as in ipecac; I see pic; I see pich as in almost pitch and rearranged chip; I see ic; I see cha as in cha-cha and the Mandarin and Japanese words for ‘tea’; I see ha. The word has three ascenders and two dots plus, in the middle, a sole descender. It almost looks like an infernal machine designed to input an o and output an a.

Given the context – a nourishing hair mask (hair mask? that’s a thing now?) – and the fact that it’s an exotic and eye-twisting word, sort of like ylang-ylang, I can assume it’s some herbal thing.

So I Google it, of course.

Google asks me if I meant obliphica and gives me 460,000 results for that. When I say I wanted oblipicha I see 98,200 results for that. Hmm. So which is the misspelling? Or are they both possible transliterations? I look at a couple of results.

At the blog Take Nina’s Word for It, I enjoy reading this bit that proves yet again that I am not barking up the wrong tree with word tasting: “To me, Obliphica has a very unappealing ring to it, some weird combination of ‘obligation’ and ‘fichsa’ (literally: yuck!). Therefore it translates in my brain as ‘…this obligatory yucky stuff will do wonders for your complexion…’”

But another hit gives me the valuable information I really want: this word is transliterated from Russian oблепиха. Now, you probably don’t read Cyrillic, so I’ll tell you an important fact: Russian has a letter for the sound “ch” like in English “chip,” and it has a letter for the sound “ch” like in German “ach” and Scottish “loch.” That latter sound is normally transliterated as kh from Russian for clarity, or as h because it’s not always quite as harsh as the German or Scots versions. In this word, it is the latter letter that is used: like kh or h. Also, the vowel after the l character is an e but the Russian e usually has palatalization before it (so the word for ‘no’, which looks like it might be transliterated as net, is – as you probably know – said “nyet,” with the “ny” like a Spanish ñ). Which means that this word is better transliterated as oblepikha or oblyepikha or oblepiha or oblyepiha. Which get 10,800, 1, 59,700, and 9 results, respectively. That palatalized e can also sound a bit like a “short” i, giving oblipikha or oblipiha, with 152 and 3110 results, respectively.

Or you could just call it sea buckthorn (not to be confused with non-sea buckthorn, a different species). Or sallowthorn, seaberry, sandthorn, Sanddorn, argousier, finbar, homoktövis, dhar-bu, tindved, rokitnik, or Hippophae, depending on what your marketing department thinks is best. I actually kinda like sea buckthorn just fine. It has a spiky cowboy-sailor feel to it.

So why oble– oblye– obli– um, obliterate that with that Russian word? Let’s take Nina’s word for it: “The most recent ubiquitous ‘wonder’ oil is Obliphica oil. Note, however, that this name appears mostly on Israeli websites as well as on eBay, by people (Israelis?) trying to sell hair care products.” Why would Israelis use a Russian word? Because Israel has a sizable Russian population – when Israel started offering citizenship to anyone who was Jewish by birth, a lot of Russian Jews took them up on it and moved there. They speak Hebrew in Israel, of course, but if they need a word for something they don’t know a Hebrew word for, why not use a Russian word?

Sea buckthorn has been used in various cultures for various healing effects for ages and ages. It has a lot of vitamins C and E and assorted other antioxidants, and it produces some oils that are apparently nice to use on the face and hair and some juice that you can drink. So there it is. Where? In a hair product or face cream near you.

Actually, most of the world’s cultivated sea buckthorn – or oblipicha, or whatever oblique picture of a word you want – is in China. It’s planted there for soil and water conservation. It grows, you see, in places other plants will not: deserts, and also that bit of the shore so close to the sea spray that other plants can’t hack it. Once you’re away from the harsh environment, the other plants outcompete the sea buckthorn. So this spiky deciduous dioecious shrub with slivery silvery-green leaves and orange berries (those are the useful, nutritious part) is found in an assortment of unfriendly environments. And probably doesn’t give a damn what you call it.

incent, incentivize

“I’m incensed!”

Margot swatted a small sheaf of papers down on the table, nearly toppling our paper coffee cups. Of course, if anyone would edit on paper, it would be Margot, age 30-going-on-80.

I raised an eyebrow. “What has you burning up?”

Jess, at the same time, said about the same thing: “What’s the incendiary device?”

“Look!” Margot thrust the top page forward and jabbed her finger at a line. We craned forward, Jess, Daryl, and I, trying to read it. Margot, after hesitation, read it out loud to prevent knocking of heads. “‘We have season’s tickets to Maple Leafs games, but client demand for these seats is less than formerly. We have previously had raffles to give away game tickets to employees. We have decided to incentivize these seats. One pair will be given to a top performer every two weeks to incent our employee population.’”

I clucked my tongue. “Yeah, needs a little work. Amazing that they asked, though. This kind of stuff usually goes out as is.”

Jess sat back. “I’m not surprised that client demand for Leafs tickets is down.” She knew, as I did, that the very usage Leafs irritated Margot, but as a brand name it’s regularized – maple leaves are actual foliage.

“Yeah,” said Daryl, stepping in the biggest cow patty, “that’s not how one usually uses incentivize.”

Margot’s eyes swivelled onto him like two overloading lasers. “One does not. Use. Incentivize. At all. Ever.”

“Well, I don’t see why one would need to,” I said, trying to keep a straight face. “When there’s a perfectly good word already. Incent.” I tried to have a sip of my coffee without giggling.

Margot looked at me for a moment as though she was going to say “You stay out of this,” and then remembered it wasn’t a lovers’ spat between her and Daryl. Finally she said, “That is a perfectly awful word.”

“It’s a perfectly elegant word,” I said, the corner of my mouth curling up. “A tidy backformation from incentive. Been around since the mid-1800s. Whereas incentivize showed up in the 1960s.” Daryl, meanwhile, was tapping away on his iPad.

“What’s wrong with give an incentive?” Margot said.

“It’s three words where one will do?” I said.

“To be fair,” Jess said, sitting forward again, “those older uses of incent are with the older sense. They mean ‘incite’.”

“Sure,” I said, “because incentive meant ‘incitement’ – the current sense of ‘reward’ or ‘encouragement’ didn’t show up until the mid-1900s. Incent was a backformation from the older sense, and now it’s one from the newer sense.”

Daryl laughed at something on his iPad. “On Merriam-Webster, they have comment threads –”

Margot and Jess simultaneously exclaimed, with entirely different tones, “On a dictionary?!”

“Yeah! And the top comment on their entry for incent is, ‘I am shocked this is in a dictionary. I hear “incent” all the time at work and I just don’t think it’s a real word. Nor have I any use for “incentivize”. That’s even worse.’” Daryl laughed again as he looked up. “Usually prescriptivists refer to a dictionary to prove something’s ‘not a word.’ Now this guy finds incent in the dictionary and he won’t accept its authority.”

Jess intoned a chant: “‘It’s not a word, it’s not a word…’ The old familiar incantation.”

I looked at her for a moment. “You know, don’t you.”

“…That incentive and incantation have the same Latin root? Why yes, I do.” Jess smiled broadly. “Canere, to sing. Incentives set the tune. Well, now they not so much call the tune as pay the piper.”

“Same person,” Daryl said. “Calls the tune, pays the piper.”

“Formerly,” I said, “incentive was sometimes mistakenly thought to have the same root as incense, verb and noun, which is actually the same as incendiary – since an incentive gets people all fired up.”

“Well,” Jess said, “incent seems to make cense.” She sipped her coffee and glanced at me, evidently confident that I would hear the pun she meant – with the old cut-off version of incense.

“It makes nonsense,” Margot said. She looked as if someone had just put lemon juice in her coffee.

“You know what it means,” I said. “You just don’t like it because it’s business-speak.”

“What if we always backformed words like that?” Margot said. “If instead of sending someone a missive we said we missed them?”

“If I miss you, I’ll send you a missive,” Daryl said. “To say so.”

Margot froze for a moment and then continued. “And instead of giving a laxative we laxate?”

“I think we could laxate this document of yours,” Jess said, reaching for it.

“Ugghhhh,” Margot said, reacting to the document, Jess’s use of laxate, or both.

“Yeah, never mind whether those are real words,” I said, “it’s a bit of a piece of sh–”

“Ssshhh!” Margot said. She’s allergic to crude words. She gathered up the document. “I can handle this. I wasn’t looking for help. I simply wanted to air my frustration.”

Jess and I looked at each other. Why she would air it in our direction was an ongoing mystery. She couldn’t possibly be expecting simple sympathy.

Daryl set aside his iPad. “What incentive are you getting for editing this?”

“Tickets to the Maple –” Margot hesitated. “The…” Could she make herself say Leafs? She exhaled through her nose. “To a hockey game.”

Jess rolled her head over to face Margot. “The Leafs? I wouldn’t be incented. I’d be incensed.”

A herstory (or mansplanation) of portpersonteau words

A herstory (or mansplanation) of portpersonteau words

From broceries to guybrarian to Galentine’s Day, we often employ wordplay to poke at differences between the sexes

Another article by me on Read it at!

A Word Taster’s Companion: Lovely, lyrical liquids

Today: the twelfth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Lovely, lyrical liquids

Liquid. Say rarely rural, really, Larry. Oh, come now, you can do it! Why would such flowing sounds cause any trouble?

And they are flowing sounds. English has two phonemes of the type called liquids: /r/ and /l/. Mind you, they do each have more than one allophone.

Liquids are consonants that involve contact or near-contact of the tongue with the palate but allow ample air to pass around – more than for a fricative. They produce no buzz or hiss. You could actually almost drink some kind of liquid (water, beer, wine) while holding your tongue in the position to say a liquid, but the swallowing would cause you to say a nasal instead.

Liquids are lovely, lush, lyrical. You can sing them, though your voice teacher will probably tell you to sing vowels instead. The singability of these sounds means that they can be syllables, and often are. Say burble, turtle, gurgle. If you’re like most Canadians and Americans, your first syllable of each word has not a vowel per se but simply a sustained /r/ with the tongue not really moving during it. And while you may or may not slip in a little vowel – a short schwa – before the /l/ in burble and gurgle, you almost certainly don’t in turtle, where the tongue can maintain the tip contact and simply release the sides to go from the /t/ to the /l/, making the peak of the syllable not a vowel but the liquid /l/.

So why aren’t liquids considered vowels? In the case of /l/, the tongue tip touches the roof of the mouth, so that rules it out. But in both cases, even though they can be peaks of syllables (meaning you can use them where you would use vowels in words like turtle and gurgle), they don’t behave like vowels anywhere else. We use them where we use consonants, at the beginnings and ends of syllables. And liquids aren’t the only consonants that can be the peaks of syllables: we also do it with nasals (like the syllabic /n/ we usually say in button).

We don’t have unvoiced versions of these sounds in English, though they do exist in other languages – Welsh, for instance. Well, let me make a small correction here: we don’t have separate unvoiced phoneme pairs for these. But we do sometimes say unvoiced versions of them, thanks mainly to our habit of aspirating voiceless stops at the beginnings of stressed syllables (remember that from “Stop! What are you doing”? Don’t make me explain it all over again!). If the stop is followed by a liquid rather than a vowel, the aspiration makes at least part of the liquid voiceless. Say play and pray. If you pay attention, you will find that your voice doesn’t really start up again until the ay part – the /l/ and /r/ are said mostly or entirely voiceless.

There are some other allophones of liquids as well. You’re probably used to saying /r/ with your tongue humped up in the middle but not touching (except at the sides). But you’re surely also used to hearing trilled versions, from languages such as Spanish and Italian but also from Scots English and some other kinds. Trills are actually not liquids. They’re functionally similar to liquids and tend to be used in the same ways and places, but the difference between a trill and a liquid is like the difference between dribbling a basketball (trill) and just picking it up and running with it (liquid). Except that you don’t get whistled out for saying a liquid.

A further effect of this is that /r/ can be said in some dialects as tap – rather than a trill, which is multiple bounces, you say just one bounce. This is why some British accents can sound to North Americans like they’re saying “veddy” when they say very: we only use a tap for /d/ and /t/, not for /r/. But it goes both ways: a Yorkshire accent can sound to someone from southern England like it’s saying “gor any” rather than “got any” because they, like North Americans, tap /t/ in that position, while in the standard southern British accent only a /r/ would tap in that position.

To add to the fun, in English we have two kinds of /l/, a “bright” one and a “dark” one. The difference is that the “bright” /l/, which is used at the beginnings of syllables, has the tip up but the back fairly low, whereas the “dark” /l/ has the back well up, and sometimes the tip doesn’t quite touch, especially if it’s before another consonant. Compare la la la la la with all all all all all. And then say elk elk elk elk elk and see how the /l/ is reduced to something almost like /u/ without lip-rounding.

Oh, and speaking of lip-rounding, you will notice, if you observe for a bit, that we normally round our lips to some extent when saying /r/. This makes the sound more distinctive. Stand in front of a mirror and watch yourself say ring. Say it slowly and clearly. Maybe take a little cell phone video of yourself doing it. You will see that your lips are rounded. Now say wring. When you say that, you think of your lips being rounded. And they are. But they’re just as rounded when you say ring.

Liquids are certainly mellifluous sounds, though holding them too long can have a sort of “low class” sound to them, just due to established norms in speaking English. Say “haaaaaaard” and then say “harrrrrrrd.” The latter sounds like what? A pirate, perhaps? Now say “faaaaaaaall” and then say “falllllllllll.” Does it sound like a dog, or like someone’s choking you? The effect is much less, however, at the starts of words: “rrrrrright” and “llllllllush” probably sound simply emphatic, and perhaps even a little upper-class – again, due entirely to association with who is heard to say them when.

What do liquids feel like to say? Well, in theory you can sustain them indefinitely, but in practice you will find that your tongue tires out sooner than you might expect because it’s being held in a tensed position. This is especially true of the “dark” /l/, which can feel a bit like choking. Ultimately, in their fluidity, liquids are rather like the fish in the stream of your speech. They’re slick and smooth and wet, and as lovely as they are to look at you probably won’t enjoy holding them for all that long.

Liquids are called approximants by linguists. But they’re not the only approximants out there. Along with these consonants that can behave like vowels, there are sounds that are vowels behaving like consonants…


Creeping in a tropical crepuscule, you approach a portal. What epic will it open to? A paradise of rhapsodic terpsichore, or a pit to trap you in perpetuity? As you tiptoe to it you seek an apotropaic. What will protect you, what will send evil away so that you live, transposing as apo transposes to opa that you may say “I see” safely (apo tr opa i c) and escape captors?

A typical approach is to expect that spiritual raptors will be reflected and ejected by some particularly wretched complection: with ugly gargoyle or sheela na gig you can provoke apoplexy in spooks from poltergeist to perkele. Perhaps a hippopotamus? No – that would only endanger your life and limb (they’re not just porky and pug-ugly pachyderms; they’re exceptionally truculent), and you happen not to have a hippo in your pocket. You pick apart your anorak hoping to prestidigitate some unexpected amulet. In the peripheral aspidistras you glimpse a pair of eyes, a couple of fangs, perhaps an ear, all shaped like the word apotropaic. You step back and keep patting your pockets frantically.

But what provokes “Eureka!”? What little bit of plastic epitomizes the dactyl and trochee, or trochee and amphibrach, “ap-o-tro-pay-ic,” you happily exclaim? What has seen that you lived without devil, what will you set atop the portal for protection as you pick its lock? As ugly as any projectile that has traced an erratic hyperbole: a Poopatrooper. An apotropaic Poopatrooper.

You toss it up. It approaches apogee and pops its parachute, and drops loopily to the capstone of the portal, where it perches. You approach, trepid but expectant…