Monthly Archives: May 2013


Purse your lips, as if to blow. But instead suck in. Not with your lungs. Put the back of your tongue at the back of your palate and make a [kw]. Do it quickly, like you are drawing into your mouth the magical smoke of an ancient peace pipe, or the perfumed breath of a lover carried on a breeze. Pull your mouth full open, quickly. Keep doing it, quickly, sharply, until the intake of air produces a short dripping whistle of a sound.

You are drawing in dry air. Once you were an infant, drawing milk with this gesture. Now it quests, it thirsts, it seeks to suck in nourishment but it gets none. A fish feeding this way might catch a morsel floating past, but in this empty atmosphere you are merely saying “Quoi?” “What?” You are not simply requesting, you are demanding, you are gasping, for… what?

And when you see, or when you realize what there is to see, when you fully assess your position, its implications, it rewards, you make a sharp intake of breath. “Sst!” Your tongue controls it, then stops it. The breath is held in suspension as you are held in suspense.

The “what” is first felt, then appreciated: [kw], then [st].

So follows the query of existence, the question, the questing. Not for this the release and dismissal of the [ts] in quits. Here we stay true to the Latin root, quaerere, ‘seek’: quesita ‘sought’ became quest (and that was not quaesitus; what was sought was female), and quaestio ‘a thing sought’ became question. What we require, and what we inquire. The request, and the inquest.

A quest is a monumental thing, epic, legend. We quest for gold, sometimes. But mostly when we speak of a quest it is deeper: it is a spiritual quest, a personal quest, and we quest for truth, knowledge, vision, justice. The quest is what we truly seek, the eternal question. We ask “what” and then we realize the magnitude of what we are asking. For a brief moment the lips push forward to kiss – what? And then it subsides as the question goes enacted but unasked. But if we quest, if we seek without laxing, do we need to ask? Or does our quest embody the question?

And do I need to ask?

Allow me to append a poem I wrote some time ago. It deals with this quest, this question:

The damp flowers

The damp flowers in the bicycle basket
Lie splayed in the dawn as if to say
“If you know the question, I don’t need to ask it.”

The sun crawls out; the fresh mists mask it –
The night leaves blooms to rebuke the day,
The damp flowers in the bicycle basket.

The handlebars and bell in brass kit,
The wheels and seat, came late this way
To seed a question, and not to ask it;

Bereft of box and bows and flask, it
Makes its simple one act play:
The damp, flowers, and a bicycle basket.

But be it barque or be it casket,
It needs the word you won’t betray.
You know. The question. Must I dare ask it?

And so my tulips have one task: it
It is a drawn breath, this bouquet,
The damp flowers in the bicycle basket.
You know the question. I don’t need to ask it.

I thank Eric Démoré for raising this question and for writing about it.


My article on teenage noises has become fairly popular and been talked about a little, and has no doubt inspired a few teens to react to it in ways suitable for inclusion in it, eye rolls and all. One little boon that has come out of this is something I picked up from a Metafilter thread discussing the article’s topic. One commenter mentioned a word for a typical teenage female attitude, a word I’d not seen or heard before: bershon.

Specifically, commenter Lou Stuells declared “This post is so bershon,” and linked bershon to the article “Would It Kill You To Smile?” by Michael Bierut in The Observatory. Bierut in turn cites the prime vector for such widespread use of bershon as there may be: a post on Sarah Brown’s blog Que Sera Sera with the name “Stream of consciousness post that makes no apologies yet comes full circle because I am magic.” And there we find the definition:

the spirit of bershon is pretty much how you feel when you’re 13 and your parents make you wear a Christmas sweatshirt and then pose for a family picture, and you could not possibly summon one more ounce of disgust, but you’re also way too cool to really even DEAL with it, so you just make this face like you smelled something bad and sort of roll your eyes and seethe in a put-out manner.

Now you know exactly what bershon is, don’t you? You’ll recognize it in the photos of the I’m So Bershon flickr group, inactive for the past few years, no doubt due to a glut of ennui and weltschmerz. The archetypal face of bershon, depending on who you ask, may be this, or this. There are rules of what’s not bershon.

So fine. The meaning of bershon has been amply covered. Yay. Where does this word come from. As if I care.

Not really sure. Look, you read Sarah Brown’s blog, didn’t you? Sarah and her friend Erin grew up in two different cities and both had heard it in their youth. So there it is. It came from somewhere. Do you have to keep asking me? It’s someone’s family name. I don’t know why. Maybe it didn’t come from that. Why do you expect teenage girls to know or care about etymology. Is that even the right word. Can I go now?

But how does this word feel to say, what are its resonances? Does it feel like you have a mouth full of braces? Is the opening “ber” reminiscent of the bilabial puff of air let out in resigned protest by a girl who simply can’t avoid having to endure something odious for an extra few seconds? Or do you find that the word as a whole seems instead like something else, maybe the brand name of the sweater that the girl is wearing under protest? Maybe it’s the brush-on makeup she’s wearing. Maybe it’s her mixed-up snobbery, leaving you to wonder “Where was she born?” Maybe it’s sombre with syllables transposed and a little changed. It could be something from Hebrew, by the sound (there seems to be a notable Jewish-American influence), but I don’t find a Hebrew word בּרשון.

So fine. Maybe we’re not meant to get it. Maybe we’re just too stupid and time-consuming. There are so many better things. Fine. Go.

Prepositions, ductape, and beer coasters

My latest article for takes a look at prepositions – their many and often somewhat arbitrary uses.

Prepositions: The super-handy and horribly confusing widgets of language

To, from, of, by: The little linguistic bits that we use to fit in gaps and hold things together or keep them apart. But it’s all rather arbitrary.


This is a pretty little word for a pretty little bird.

Well, yes, not all macaws are that little. Macaws range from about a foot to about a metre in size; the hyacinth macaw has a wingspan of 4 feet. So all are bigger than some birds, and some are pretty big, but there are many bigger birds, and all macaws are smaller than, say, I am. So there.

But they are pretty: their feathers are the kinds of colours that have long been used to advertise cameras, film, and TV sets. I associate them especially with Kodachrome, not so much because of specific ads but because they are well suited to the colour profile of the late great slide film, and vice versa. The feathers shine brightly.

But do you find macaw a pretty little word? Well, it is pretty little: it’s only 5 letters long. But it’s also just pretty. You may not like the sound, if it reminds you too much of the crow’s call “caw!” But you may like it well enough if you think it starts with a warm “mm” and then knocks off the back with a “k” as in call and kiss. And of course if you like Scottish names, it does sound a bit like one – ironically, since macaws are certainly not indigenous to Scotland.

But beyond the sound, look at the word. The m and w are, in their basic shape, rotations of each other, like wings pointing up and down. The vowels are both a, which has a shape that in some type faces can be reminiscent of a parrot’s head (you may think that a bit of a stretch, but I’ve always thought Roman type a’s look like perching birds). The c is crisp and clean, an incomplete circle. The word as a whole is nicely balanced, and there really is a partial rotational symmetry to it. In fact, you can write it turned 180˚ using IPA symbols: [ʍɐɔɐɯ] or [ʍɒɔɒɯ]. But except for the [ʍ], which is a voiceless [w], all the others are vowels, mostly in the back of the mouth; if you say either version you will make a sound as though someone were working in your mouth.

On the other hand, you could probably teach a macaw to make the sound too. Macaws are among the birds that can imitate human speech. They’re playful, intelligent, and social. You could certainly teach one to say “macaw” – though the name isn’t necessarily onomatopoeic. Actually, we get it from Portuguese macau (not related to the island Macao), which seems to have come from a Tupi word (the Tupi are a Brazilian indigenous group).

Where will you find macaws? In the wild they are in South and Central America. In zoos and private homes, all over the world. Where will you find macaw? Flying from the paper through your eyes, off your tongue, through your lips, and into the bright air.


Look at all the ascenders in this word: three tall l’s, a b, two dots on i’s – like a tongue reaching up in the mouth, perhaps. And just one descender, on the g. It has those three liquids on tongue tip; in between them you have the tongue touching at the back once, and the lips meeting once. It has a nice balance: six consonants and six vowel letters – you might say the uo is really a diphthong, though you probably won’t say ai as a diphthong. And it’s three of each for each half of the word. What’s more, the two morphemes that make this word meet at exactly the halfway point. It’s like a sound that’s, say, half tongue and half lip.

Which is what linguolabial refers to. The labial refers to the lips, as you likely know. The linguo refers to the tongue – it’s a root that gets around: linguistics is the study of languages, and even language traces back to that tongue root. It is not your vocal cords or even your lips that make the speech, nor is it in this presentation your brain; it is your tongue, that most lithe and lively little muscle, that is the heart and soul of language.

But how often does tongue meet lips? In speech in English and many other languages, while we require the lips to set the boundary of the resonating space in the mouth and the tongue to configure the resonances within that space, we keep them working indpendently, like distant colleagues in separate offices. But a few languages (some in the Pacific islands and some in Africa, for instance) bring them together, in close contact, to make consonants.

Say “mmmm.” Your lips are closed and your tongue is relaxed. Now say “nnnn.” Your lips are open and your tongue is touching the roof of your mouth. Now put your tongue against your upper lip, all the way across, and say whatever version of “mmmm” or “nnnn” it will allow. And what version is that? What is that sound? Even the International Phonetic Alphabet has two ways of writing it. The symbol for “linguolabial” is a little double-humped thing, like a pair of wings or a top lip, that is put below the consonant symbol. But which consonant? Is what you’ve just made a linguolabial [m] or [n]? Well, yes. Both and neither. So either may be used, with the linguolabial diacritic (the symbol I just mentioned). The same goes for voiced and voiceless stops and fricatives and liquids.

I’m actually not sure if any language uses a linguolabial liquid, which would be [l] with the tongue against the upper lip rather than the roof of the mouth. But you can make one: just lick your tongue across your upper lip and, when it’s in the middle, stop and just make a sound with your voice.

Of course, even speakers of languages that don’t have linguolabials do put their tongues to their lips – just not for making sounds that go into words. The colleagues from different offices (tongue and lip) may not work directly together for their jobs, but they get together recreationally.

But speaking of getting together recreationally, here’s a thing to try if you have the opportunity. The sounds we make are affected by the shape of the articulatory space as determined by the tongue position. Wouldn’t you like to know what difference it would make if the tongue were coming from the opposite angle? Find someone with whom you are on kissing-on-the-lips terms, or are about to be. You know what a linguolabial sounds like when you make it with your tongue and lip. See what sound you get if you use your tongue on the other person’s lip, or vice versa. You won’t be able to do a stop or a nasal, because you can’t block the other person’s airflow (with bilabial-bilabial you can, but that’s not in the IPA because it requires two-person articulation and what language would require that?). But you can try a liquid, that linguolabial [l]. Try it a few times. What do you hear?

Annoying teenage noises

Annoying teenage noises

My latest article for looks at annoying noises that callow adolescents make. I give a detailed phonological analysis of each of them – and I reproduce all of them in a video.

A linguistic dissection of 7 annoying teenage sounds


For lunch today I had a dish called escovitch fish.

Interesting word, escovitch. It starts with that esco, which looks vaguely Spanish and also reminds me of Escoffier, the name of a great French chef. But then there’s the vitch, which seems kind of Slavic, except that would usually be spelled vich without the t.

So I wondered where this fish was from. The thing was, the menu at my workplace cafeteria is a Caribbean theme this week. So I knew the dish was not Russian or anything of that sort. Perhaps it was made with a kind of fish with a distinctly non-Caribbean name?

The tall, bright young woman at the cash register was helpful, especially since she’s quite evidently from Jamaica herself. She told me and my colleague that escovitch fish is very popular in Jamaica, often bought from shacks right on the beach; people will go to the beach just to get the fish, and never go in the water. Escovitch, she explained, was a way of preparing fish, sort of like ceviche. You can do it to any fish – the actual fish I was about to eat was pollock.

So OK. This word, looking like a mix of Romance and Slavic with an English spelling, is a kind of popular thing in Jamaica. Well, Jamaica is full of people whose roots trace to somewhere else a long time ago – the young lady at the cash may well be descended from West Africans who were brought over a couple of centuries ago to work on plantations, though I didn’t ask. Jamaica has a version of English that is (in some dialects especially) influenced by West African languages. It has at the same time a colonial English history. And it has a lot of Spanish history and influence too, and some input fro all the other people who came through the Caribbean when it was still a developing colonial place with lots of trade and pirates and so forth. So this word came from… where?

Spanish, which got it from Arabic, which got it from Persian.

Nope, escovitch is not a Spanish word. Escabeche is. Escovitch is a Jamaican variation on escabeche. And the dish is, too. Escabeche is poached or fried fish, pickled in something acidic after cooking. Escovitch adds onions, chayote, carrots, and Scotch bonnet peppers. The Jamaicans gave the word its own local flavour just as they gave the dish. It just happens that escovitch is not a word that you would likely expect from Jamaica. But as an English respelling of a slightly phonetically altered escabeche, it’s not really implausible at all. It is also rendered as escoveitch and escoveech. The word has shown up in other altered forms elsewhere – for instance, scabetche in North Africa.

And Spanish got escabeche from Arabic sikbaj, which is a marinated sweet-and-sour meat dish. Arabic in turn got the word from Persian sik ‘vinegar’ and ba ‘broth’. So each language and culture in turn took the dish and its name and gave them its own rendition. Incidentally, ceviche may be another version of the same dish and word – although it has dropped the cooking step.

This is why I snort when I hear talk of purity in language… or authenticity in food. Please. I prefer to enjoy the flavour as I get it when I get it. It’s all the richer for all its changes, impurities, inauthenticities.

By the way, that fish was one of the best things I’ve had from that cafeteria in quite a while.