Monthly Archives: March 2013


Have you ever had the feeling the English language is some kind of trick? A slick cup-and-ball with peas under jiggers, except there are no peas? A juke box that takes your quarter to put your song in queue but never gets to it? A pig in a poke, a perverted sick joke, some kind of hocus-pocus that leaves you feeling like you’re juggling hot pokers after a few too many jiggers of potcheen? In short, a load of jiggery-pokery?

Never mind English grammar. We know that’s a bit odd and loaded with idioms and other exceptions, and that it’s stripped down from what it used to be and that it’s affected by centuries of influence from other languages. And never mind English spelling. It has its reasons for how it is, even if they’re not necessarily good reasons. No, even just English words, and what they look like and where they come from, may end up being like Peer Gynt’s onion: you peel away the layers only to find that there’s nothing inside the layers. Or at least nothing you can lay hold of.

Take jiggery-pokery. It’s a perky, jiggly word that brings to mind jiggers of liquor and finger pokes and elbow nudges and who knows what else. It’s been seen in English for at least ten dozen years (or sixscore, if that’s how you keep score). Where does it come from, this word for deceitful manipulation? The Oxford English Dictionary says “compare Scots joukery-pawkery.” So we do. That term, known since at least 1686, is formed from joukery (‘underhand dealing, deceit’) and a derived form of pawky (‘artful, sly arch, wry, sardonic’, etc.).

OK, so where is joukery from? The verb jouk (also jook), ‘dodge, duck, dart’. And where is jouk from? The OED says it is “A Scottish word of uncertain origin.” It notes the sound resemblance to duck.

Ummhmmm. And pawky? Apparently from the noun pawk, the OED tells us. And pawk, which used to mean ‘trick, artifice, cunning device’ and now in northern English dialect means ‘impertinence, sauciness’? The OED says “Origin unknown. Compare pawky.” In other words, at the end it loops back to just before the end. It’s like the inner groove on the original Sergeant Pepper LPs: once the needle has played the record to the centre groove, it plays a track that repeats infinitely until you lift the needle.

So. You thought you would get somewhere. Maybe this word is related to jigger? It seems not to be. Or to poke or poker? Again, no. In both cases, the original words have just been shifted so that they sound like the new words. Imagine someone who started hanging out with you and who then got cosmetic surgery to look like a member of your family. Creepy? Happens all the time in English.

I’m telling you, when you hang with English words you get into some pretty louche territory. But that’s hardly surprising, given that English is a language that, as James Nicoll is famous for having said, “has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.” The dodginess is part of its charm. And if it jigs you and pokes you and slips a jigger in your drink and knocks you out with a poker, well, that’s just in its nature.

8 odd sounds from other languages you could never make except you probably already have

My latest article for has been posted today:

8 bizarre sounds you’ve probably made without knowing it
And their prevalence in several foreign languages

(Please note that I don’t make up the captions for the photos. Where it says an uvular trill I would recommend reading a uvular trill.)

Watch a video of me reading it and making the sounds:


Is -ist the next -ly or -ster?

Does that make sense? How about this: After e- and i-, what’s next?

That might make more sense. With the e prefix (for electronic) on email came a welter of other e– branded items. And with Apple’s iMac and iPod and iPhone, there have come to be numerous other i- branded items wanting to ride the crest. It was the latest thing for a while. Once some brand leader comes along with a new prefix, expect a fad for that. So what next?

Likewise with suffixes. A few of us may remember Friendster, a proto-Facebook, and Napster, a music file-sharing network. They drew on a popular jocular -ster addition to names and nouns (“Hey, Rickster! How ya doin’?”), taken from the still-productive suffix as in gangster, mobster, teamster, and so on. A few other website names with -ster have also shown up, for example a speed-trap warning community, Trapster, and a tea-lover community, Steepster. There are other brand names such as the Veloster, a Hyundai car. And of course there are hipsters.

And there was -ly, as in and various other websites – because .ly is the Libya domain suffix and domains registered to it are available for a reasonable rate and it allows formation of words such as and, but also as a fad on the English suffix; it shows up in other domains such as and

And now there is -ist, as in the whole chain of -ist websites for cities – my local one is, but there’s a network, and it has clear hipster tones: Gothamist (New York is Gotham for geeks, fanboys, and other “in the know” people), Austinist, DCist, SFist, Chicagoist, and a few others. I am beginning to see other -ists as well, perhaps spurred by the city websites. There’s, a task manager. There’s Eyeist, an online photography review service. There’s Contemporist, about contemporary culture.

Perhaps next will be -age. It’s already popular for colloquial formations of mass nouns: if you can have verbiage and sewage, why not feedage (already the name of an RSS directory) and trollage (also in use, because trolling is not nounly enough, I guess)? What website and other brand names may show up with it?

I raised the question today on Twitter of whether -ist was the next -ly or -ster. A fellow Tweeter, @maxbaru, asked, “isn’t ist already a suffix in SE?” I answered, “Suffix, sure, but fadfix?” I clarified: “You know, affixes that are used faddishly in brand names. (Actually, I think I just made up the word “fadfix.”)”

You can find fadfix with a Google search, true, but not with this usage: there is a publicity consultant for fashion companies, and a Saudi finish building material company belonging to the Fadl Al-Ashey Group, and a lot of usages of fad fix (as in getting your fix of the latest fad). People who are not linguistics geeks are less likely to have suffix, prefix, and affix in their mind. But I think it’s a perfectly good coinage for the purpose at hand – a portmanteau of fad and affix. If affix is not a familiar term for you, I will clarify: it refers to any bits that can be attached onto words but can’t be independent words themselves. They can go at the start (prefix), at the end (suffix), or even in the middle (infix) – though we don’t do infixes in English, just colloquial tmesis. As a bonus, affix is from Latin ad ‘to’ plus fixus ‘fastened’. So it would be adfix except there was assimilation in the Latin. In the Latin, though, not the English! We will not make faffix out of fadfix.

So fadfixes are any affixes used faddishly, especially for brand names. I wonder whether we might even include pseudofixes – not real affixes, but simply catchy replacements of existing elements, such as X in a million places where there might otherwise be ex, or the various replacements of to and for with 2 and 4 (such as in In4mation, In4mants, and even a Spanish website that uses the English replacement in the middle of a Spanish verb: In4mateinfórmate is “inform yourself,” but incuatromate is nothing…). Maybe, to be extra-hip, we can de-X the X and call those fadfickses. Or would that be just too fickle?


In word country, where the realms of different languages meet, there is mist. The view is unclear; on peut perdre le sens. There is a mystique. The greenery hisses as you brush past it, all mixed: insalata mista. You hear it: “mist, mist.” But be careful of what you may have missed.

You know this word mist, of course, this good old word of Germanic origins, recognizably cognate even with Sanskrit (mih). You know where you hear it, coming through the morning mist, a fine mist, a light mist; you see the mist-covered mountains of home. You see mist on bottles of beverages, shampoos, cleaners. You cannot mistake it, the fountain m, the spray-top i, the sinuous s, the capped-off t. You say it: the mouth starts warm, /m/, and then the nozzle opens and tightens to a spray, /ɪs/, and then stops, /t/. Short. Simple. Clear.

But mists are not clear. They are things you get lost in, and not just the mists of time but the mysteries of language. Even with so few letters, you can get mixed up, ISTM. Wandering in English, you may smell must and find your shoes messed. This cannot be dismissed. Perhaps you have wandered over into German, where Mist means ‘dung’ or ‘rubbish’. Your ears and eyes and mouth may have taken you astray, and now you find you are in something you do not want to be in at all.


Visual: This word looks like its hair is standing on end. It has an interesting pattern – it starts with the curvy s and then mixes verticals with the racy cross-angles of the kickers on the k’s. The u in the middle seems like a little receptacle (perhaps a cryoconite hole) or something small just hiding.

In the mouth: It’s smooth on the tip of the tongue but knocking at the back: an up-front gentleness belies a knockabout behind the scenes.

Echoes: There are a few words this one brings to mind: skull, skullcap, skunk, skink, hulk, sulk, shirk, and perhaps dulcet and sultry and lurk and maybe milk. And inculcate. It has a sound of something metallic being retracted or sheathed. Or of someone being choked.

Etymology: Like many words in English, skulk seems to come from old Scandinavian sources. It appears to be cognate with Norwegian skulka ‘lurk, lie watching’ and Danish skulke and Swedish skolka, ‘shirk, play hookey’. One interesting thing is that after being in common use in the 1200s and 1300s, this word pretty much disappeared in the 1400s and 1500s, and then reemerged after two centuries of skulking.

Collocations: Skulk around, skulk off, skulk away, skulk behind [something]. It’s not a common enough word to have a clear set of usual people who skulk.

Overtones: Skulk seems like a more mobile version of lurk, the very shape of its articulation suggesting to my mind a kind of ducking and peeking. You lurk in one place; you skulk around like a would-be ninja or a pervert or some other kind of guilty party. The nucleus of the word (that vowel plus liquid) has a very dark, cloaked feeling, and the fact that it’s followed by /k/ (especially /lk/, since the /l/ has a velar coarticulation – the tongue is up at the back of the mouth) joins it to words like lurk, dark, cloak, murk, and similar words with obscure images.

Semantics: This word refers to sneaking around or to lurking in concealment. One thing is certain: it imputes dark or cowardly motives.

Where to find it: It’s more often seen in literary or high-toned prose. It’s not that it’s no good for a tabloid newspaper; indeed, tabloids spend inordinate amounts of space on personages who are skulking around doing this or that – stories gathered by reporters who skulked around a lot to get it. But it’s become a less common word, and that raises the tone. You’ll find it in Dickens and Fielding and similar greats of the kind of literature that was once read by hoi polloi but is now a hallmark of a bookworm. The word, like its readers, has gone into skulking.


Etymology is a great field for the amateur sleuth. Can’t you just picture a word nerd donning a deerstalker cap and piloting a big magnifier to ferret out early citations for a word? You know, there are some people who put quite a lot of time and energy into antedating words – finding citations that show that the word was in use earlier than previously thought, and perhaps giving some clue as to where it came from. One might imagine it as being like a bloodhound, sniffing the old foxed library books for the faint hints of a lexical trail.

Those of us who benefit from the lucubrations of such dedicated geeks can be more slothful. If I want to sleuth out the origin of a word, all I need do is consult a good etymological dictionary, as long as it has the info. If I want to know what words it is used with, there are corpus databases for that. And if I want to know what other words could be influencing it by resemblance… well, no one is doing formal studies on that, so the best I can do is taste, imagine, surmise.

What does sleuth mean to you? Yes, ‘detective’, certainly, as in the common collocation amateur sleuth; it is also a verb, as in sleuth it out. But what image do you get? Popular culture has some images it has determined, thanks to books and movies. But can you use the term for any detective? Is Mike Hammer a sleuth? Sam Spade? Hercule Poirot? Miss Marple? Jessica Fletcher? Sherlock Holmes? Are they all equally sleuthy, or do you tend more to have an image of, say, the Basil Rathbone version of Sherlock Holmes, with the deerstalker cap (as opposed to the Jeremy Brett version, top-hatted and more accurate to the books and also very entertaining, or the more recent Holmses such as Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch)? Is a tough-guy detective not soft and subtle enough to be a sleuth slinking like soft silk through the dark alleys and drawing rooms?

If so, is this just an effect of which image is strongest- and longest-established, or does it have something to do with the sound of the word, coming and going with voiceless fricatives and, between them, the liquid /l/ and that dark, hollow high back vowel /u/? It slips and slides but sounds as though it seeks the truth like a soothsayer. Try this for comparison: in German, the word for ‘key’ is Schlüssel. Which sounds more like it would slip smoothly into a lock, key or Schlüssel? Now tell me what tones detective, private eye, and sleuth have for you.

But where does this word come from, sleuth? Ah, well, there’s an interesting trail. And it’s a trail that can’t be pursued without sloth. You see, sloth is the older form of this word. But this sloth is not related to the word sloth that we know and use today; that word comes from slow+th just as width comes from wide+th. But it happens that the modern word sloth also used to have a form sleuth, so it seems that the shift from sloth to sleuth is a more natural one than some might expect. (It’s easier if you’re an armchair sleuth.) Anyway, the sloth that our sleuth comes from is from an Old Norse word for ‘track’ or ‘trail’. That is what a sleuth (sloth) first was: the trail of an animal… or person.

And if you are tracking a person or animal, you may find it useful to have a bloodhound. What, since the 1400s (though less so today), is another name for a bloodhound? Sleuth-hound. It was not until the mid-1800s that persons who tracked other persons came to be called sleuth-hounds. But it took a mere couple of decades for that to be shortened to sleuth. The term was used for fictional detectives at least 15 years before the appearance of Sherlock Holmes (the Oxford English Dictionary has an 1872 citation naming a story called Sleuth, the Detective).

Was sleuth applied to Sherlock Holmes by his author? In “The Red-Headed League,” we see this: “his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive.” That appears to be the one and only use of the term in Arthur Conan Doyle’s works (at least that I can find from sniffing around in the Project Gutenberg library), and that’s a sleuth-hound. But that’s not so surprising if you know that the use of the word sleuth for a detective first came about in America. And its use as a verb meaning ‘ply the trade of a detective’ appeared at the beginning of the 1900s.

So there it is: the fruits of amateur armchair sleuthing… a small amount of digging but mostly just looking things up. But the tasting is still up to you.


Visual: A pretty and pleasant enough word; eight letters, heavier in the front than the back, descenders at the front – one long and straight, one curved – and ascender and dot at the back.

In the mouth: This one uses the whole mouth: it starts at the lips, then after a low front vowel it bounces off the back with a soft and sticky nasal-stop combination, followed by a vowel that could be mid-back rounded but will probably be neutral and reduced; then it’s to the tongue tip for a liquid, a mid-high front vowel, and a nasal. Nasal, stop, liquid, voiced, voiceless, front, mid, back; it’s like a sampler tray.

Echoes: To me, it has always sounded like a name of a place in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. But no – that’s Gondolin. It might seem like a musical instrument, not so much a violin as a mandolin, right down to the plucking sound of “pang.” It also has a resonance of penguin. And you can hear pang and angle.

Etymology: From Malay pengguling, which means ‘roller’ – i.e., a critter that rolls up.

Semantics: What is a pangolin? It is also called a scaly anteater. But it’s not an anteater. Oh, it’s an ant eater, yes, and a termite eater, and it does look rather like an anteater if you were to replace the shaggy hair on the anteater with sharp scales. But it’s an unrelated beastie; the resemblance is due to convergent evolution (critters that do the same thing tending to become similar in form due to the functional advantages). It got its name from rolling up when threatened. This is not some ostrich move, either; a rolled-up pangolin is a very difficult-to-open ball, and you’ll likely injure yourself trying. And yet people do eat them. Altogether too much, in fact.

When it’s alive and not balled up, the pangolin strolls around on its back legs, counterbalanced by its long tail, not touching its long front claws to the ground. It uses those claws to dig into anthills and termite mounds. And then it simply licks the ants or termites up with its tongue, which is half a centimetre wide and up to 40 centimetres (16 inches) long. The world is its sampler tray. Read more about it at, and watch a short National Geographic video about it at (OK, it’s not the honey badger, but still). Thanks to Adrienne Montgomerie, @sciEditor, for directing my attention to the video.

Where to find it: You’ll find the word where you’ll find the animal – various parts of African and Asia – but also elsewhere, such as where you’re sitting now. I have not seen this word used figuratively, probably because not enough people know what a pangolin is for it to be an effective image. But, now that you know what a pangolin is, you would probably get the sense of a phrase such as pangolin management style – someone who ambles around lapping at small details, and in a crisis balls up and you’ll just hurt yourself if you try to get them involved.

What’s including what?

A colleague was wondering about a sentence of the type “Borgop Company’s commitment to environmental responsibility is wide-ranging, including [assorted things].” It didn’t sound quite right to her but she couldn’t put her finger on the reason.

My take is that it’s because a set of things “including” specified things is a plural, whereas commitment is a mass object. If it were a collective, it would work:

Margaret’s doll collection is wide-ranging, including seventeen from China, eighty-six from Scotland, and at least two from Las Vegas.

And as a plural it would work (though it might seem to suggest that the individual objects travel a lot):

Margaret’s dolls are wide-ranging, including seventeen from China, eighty-six from Scotland, and at least two from Las Vegas.

But as a mass object, and an abstract at that, it’s problematic:

Margaret’s interest in dolls is wide-ranging, including seventeen from China, eighty-six from Scotland, and at least two from Las Vegas.

Also, some people might find it odd to say a commitment is wide-ranging.

Scandinavian words we say differently

My latest article for is up. My editor has given it a funny title – as one commenter points out, it’s more like “The strange English pronunciations of common Nordic words,” but the title on the article is

The strange Scandinavian pronunciations of common English words

I hope you enjoy it!


I heard this word spoken just this evening, in the documentary Chasing Ice, about the photographer James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey, a project to photographically document shrinking glaciers. Interestingly, he puts the stress on the o, following a common model for dealing with polysyllabic Greek-derived words, but the dictionary pronunciation has stress directed by the morphology: cryoconite.

Very well, but what is it? You see the cry and you may think of tears, but you see the cryo and may think of cold things. And the conite – is it tears of contrition? Or is it some kind of cone? Or pneumoconiosis? Is the ite a signal that it is a mineral, or is it leading us into – or out of – nite?

The source parts tell one story, but the reality of it is more complex. The word comes from the Greek κρύος kruos ‘icy cold’ plus κόνις konis ‘dust, ashes’ plus that ite ending, also originally from Greek. So it’s cold dust. But it’s much more than that. And its significance has to do with heat.

Glaciers are dirty. Dust and soot and volcanic ash and so forth blows onto them from all over and settles. It is not distributed in a perfectly even pattern, of course; that would not be random (if all particles were evenly distributed, the distances between them would be highly consistent, not random at all). So there are little clumps here and there. And this dust and soot and so on is dark. So it absorbs heat from light. Which means that when the sun shines in the warmer weather, the ice under this dust melts, and soon the dust is sitting in a little pool of water. Which, being an indentation, draws more water and dust to it, and so it enlarges. Imagine a game of crokinole with the board slanted down towards the hole in the middle, and no pegs to bounce the little quoits out. Thus you have a cryoconite hole, which is a cylindrical hole with a diameter anywhere from less than a centimetre to more than a metre, filled with water (often deeper than the diameter) and with a layer of cryoconite on the bottom. Large areas of glaciers, especially closer to their leading edges, are a Swiss cheese of these holes, dotting them like the circles in the word cryconite.

So the cold dust creates warm tears as the glaciers melt into these little feedback cylinders. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… But even if these holes are places where the glacier is dying, they are places where other things are living. Cryoconite is not dead and inert. It has bacteria in it, and sometimes algae too, and even insects, worms, crustaceans. Glaciers have whole ecosystems. They have millions of small ecosystems, each cryoconite its own little aquatic environment with pelagic and benthic zones, but taken all together they make up an ecosystem on the glacier that communicates from one part to another. In a delicious passage from “Possible interactions between bacterial diversity, microbial activity and supraglacial hydrology of cryoconite holes in Svalbard,” Arwyn Edwards et al. speak of findings that challenge “previous assumptions that glacial ecosystems are heterotrophic and dependent on an Aeolian flux of allochthonous organic matter” – in other words, previous assumptions that they rely on stuff blown in on the wind. Indeed, Edwards and colleagues find that there are complex contained ecosystems on glaciers, existing in these myriad cryoconite holes and communicating through melting and drainage.

So even as the glaciers disappear, we cannot simply sing “Dust in the Wind.” The fluid nature of existence means that as one thing goes another grows. As the glacier is less whole it is more hole, but those holes grow life, even as they further heat and kill the glacier. Once the glacier under and around them is gone, of course, the cryoconite will wash away too, the “cold dust” now a warm mud full of life on an ever-warming planet.