Monthly Archives: November 2013

terpsichorean

I first heard this word in an episode of the CBC comedy radio show Doctor Bundolo’s Pandemonium Medicine Show – a couple of pretentious types were making love talk and one of them referred to “the terpsichorean twilight.” I didn’t really know what it meant, and the context was utterly unhelpful.

Also, they pronounced it with the stress on the chor. Which is probably how most literate Anglophones would say it on seeing it for the first time: “terp-si-cor-ee-an.” But that’s not the approved pronunciation.

Nope, it dances around some. What you need to know first is that this word is an adjective formed on Terpsichore. Does that look like it should be “terp-si-cor”? Nuh-uh. In the original Greek, it was Τερψιχόρη, “ter-psi-kho-ré.” But in the great (awful) English classicist custom of putting the accent on the antepenultimate in all Greek words, it came to be “terp-sickery.”

And since in English we usually try to avoid putting primary stress on the preantepenultimate syllable, especially when there would be no secondary stress after it, for terpsichorean we move the stress to the penultimate syllable because we can’t have it on the syllable before that because that one is utterly reduced and unstressed and it would be just so wrong to have it get full value after being reduced to zilch (even though it was the long syllable in the Greek original). So it’s “terp-sicka-ree-an.” As I said, it dances.

And dance is where the back half of it comes from: χορός khoros ‘dance’, root of choreography but also of chorus (because choruses in Greek dramas dance). The first half is from τέρπειν terpein, verb, ‘delight’. Together they made the name of the muse of dance: Terpsichore.

That’s a nice, light-footed word, isn’t it? Tapping as it does on the tip of the tongue, the lips, the tip, the back and tip again. It’s often used to refer to dance in general: “Do you fancy a bit of Terpsichore?” But it has a bit of hidden ill in it. Right in the middle is “sick”; in terpsichorean the end has an uncomfortable echo of diarrhea. And I can’t remember when or where, but I remember seeing twerpsichore. Which I guess is douchebag dancing.

Or maybe it’s a term for my efforts in undergraduate dance classes. I bet you didn’t know I took introductory classes in modern dance, ballet, and jazz dance. I got something in the order of a C in modern dance. My worst mark ever. Obviously it was a course I needed to take, because I knew nothing of it at all! And I was very tense and uptight. All my muscles were tight, everything was jerky. I showed a bit of what I had learned to one of my roommate’s friends, a dancer, and she burst into laughter.

In ballet, that kind of tension can pretend to be self-control. Sure. I got a B+, which was an A for effort and a B– for technique. In jazz dance I think I got a B or B–. Those courses destroyed my GPA (well, OK, not destroyed; they just kept me off the Dean’s List). And I’m really glad I took them. I’m still not a great dancer, but I’m better than I was, and I learned a lot more appreciation for it. And I love to watch dance.

So does my wife, who has a BA and MA in dance. In fact, dance is how we met. Not actually dancing – I don’t think my twerpsichore would have charmed her. We were just ushering a dance festival. And now we can usher ourselves out to a nearby theatre in the terpsichorean twilight to watch dance performances.

Thanks to Dawn Loewen for suggesting today’s word.

drecky

Ah, sleep: the nightly frontier. To boldly, or at least relaxedly, go where one has gone before, and yet every night a new hypnagogy, every morning a new hypnopomp leading to brekky. Dreams are when your brain takes out the trash, and every day’s dump brings new junk for the dogs of dreamland to strew over the lawn of your subjunct consciousness. Sometimes dropping into the nightly trek to Never-Never Land is as easy as splitting an infinitive. Sometimes it is rather more tricky. Last night was one of the latter for me. And today I felt drecky.

Drecky? Like junk. Like crap. Rubbishy. As though my hypnagog got run over by a dumptruck, and instead of hypnopomp I had an unappealing circumstance, washing back and forth over the limen while trying in repeated dreams to remember the Chinese character for ‘play’.

OK, so have you never seen this word drecky before? If you search it on the web you will find a few definitions, among which the Urban Dictionary one stands out – the others will tell you it means ‘trashy’ in a literal sense, but Urban Dictionary hews to the derogatory sense of trashy as applied to young women. Given that most of Urban Dictionary appears to have been written by adolescent boys, this is not so surprising.

But obviously drecky is an adjectival form of dreck. And dreck is what? A word I first learned long ago from MAD Magazine (which writer I can’t remember, but it may have been Mort Drucker). It’s a word we got from Yiddish (often spelled drek there; in German it’s Dreck). It’s normally used to mean ‘junk, garbage, trash’. Actually in Yiddish it literally means ‘excrement’ or ‘dregs’. It appears to have a common Indo-European etymon with Greek σκατός skatos as in scatological.

It’s a good word for derision. The /d/ grinds into an affricate and the lips round as it growls into the /r/ and the sound of a “wreck.” The tongue pulls back and crashes at the velum; the lips widen apart. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the motion of trash being swept into a dustpan.

And today I felt like a dustpan that hadn’t been dumped. My mental trunk was full of junk. The porcelain bowl of my mind had not flushed clear. I felt like dreck. I felt drecky. Fortunately, like Dracula, I come to life after dark no matter what. And the taste of a word will always do the trick for me.

lumbago

“Oh, my lumbago!”

You know, I used to see that line in cartoons and other fictional things fairly frequently. When? A lumberjack’s years ago… back in the time when Winnebagos were a big thing. But who talks about lumbago now? There’s a whole generation that probably doesn’t even know what it is.

So what is it? Just what’s now commonly referred to as lower back pain. Picture a person stooping forward a bit, hand on their lumbar region, little cartoon stars popping away from it like fireworks. When afflicted by lumbago, you lumber around, bagged, glum and stooped as Gollum, barely ambulatory and most unlikely to gambol. You are like one of those marionettes that are miraculously cured by the oh-so-crisp-sounding Robaxacet (a product of a time when no one says lumbago, though).

But what is the etiology? (Not the etymology – I’ll get to that in a moment.) According to the dusty definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s “A rheumatic affection in the lumbar region of the body.” But if you ask the newer entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Lumbago is considered by health professionals to be an antiquated term that designates nothing more than lower back pain caused by any of a number of underlying conditions.” Muscle strain, herniated disk, sciatica, scoliosis, even some osteoporotic kyphosis… all fall into this catch-all. No wonder it’s not used much anymore.

Well, it really is not a new term. It’s been in English since the 1600s, coming from Latin unaltered in form or sense (except that we say “lum bay go” rather than “loom bah go” as Latin would have it). The root is Latin lumbus ‘loin’. Which provides a good opportunity to remind everyone that although we often use loins to refer to the pubic area, it really in the main is the part of the torso between the hips and the ribs (on comestible quadrupeds too: this is where loin chops come from). The loins are the part you gird – for example, with a weightlifter’s belt. The vertebrae of this stretch are called the lumbar vertebrae. If the lumbar region is in good order, you are limber; if it is as stiff as timber lumber, you may have lumbago.

Except no one really uses that word anymore.

lingonberry

“KVALITETSGARANTI: Denna produkt är utvald och kvalitetstestad. Skulle du ändå inte vara nöjd med dess kvalitet, ber vig dig höra av dig till oss.”

What’s the lingo? What’s going on? It’s just the quality guarantee on the lingon.

Lingon? Do I perhaps mean Klingon? Not at all. Although the contents of the package are a gory colour, they are altogether vegetable. Or, more precisely, berry. The front of the plastic tub bears the legend LINGON SYLT and then, below a picture of the eponymous berries, 1,5 kg.

Yeah, baby. It’s a 1.5 kg tub of lingonberry sauce. And only $10 at the annual Swedish Christmas Fair (just $1 more than three styrofoam cups of glögg)! It may be the only cheap food item ever to come out of Sweden (and yes, although the brand is Eldorado, it is made in Sweden). But when 1.5 kg is probably about a week’s supply for a typical Swedish household, you have to price it to move…

Oh, the lingon is the hot centre of Swedish cuisine, its pulsing red lingam. OK, maybe that’s a slight overstatement, but think of the role of ketchup in American cuisine. Lingonberries are something in that line for the Swedes. You’d think that they kept them healthy. And maybe they do.

I first heard of lingonberries in the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook my mom had when I was growing up. In the instructions for our single most-used recipe in the book, Swedish pancakes, was the final admonition, “Pass lingonberry jam.” Which, however, we never did. Look, we were in Alberta in the ’70s, OK? Also we weren’t Swedish. Sorry. Reg and I just buttered the pancakes, poured quarter-cups of white sugar on them (you think I’m exaggerating but I’m not), rolled them up and ate them. So it was years before I discovered the wonder that is lingonberry. Discovered that it’s really pretty much a small cranberry.

Indeed, lingonberries are also called mountain cranberries, and they are a related species to cranberries. But they’re also called csejka berry, foxberry, qualiberry, beaver berry, red whortleberry, bearberry (though I’m pretty sure what we called bearberries in Alberta were another thing… hmmm…), cougarberry, mountain bilberry, partridgeberry, and cowberry. It’s that last one that reveals its link to cranberries.

You see, the Latin word for ‘cow’ is vacca, and the related adjective is vaccinium. Yes, as in vaccine – the first vaccine was cowpox virus used to stimulate antibodies against the related smallpox virus. And the name of the genus of both the lingonberry and the cranberry is Vaccinium. It does make them sound like health food, doesn’t it? But it’s just because apparently cows liked them.

I gotta say, though, if cows can eat these berries straight off the bush, they have a pretty good tolerance for tartness. These things need quite a lot of sugar before they’re palatable to human tongues – though once they are, they’re wonderful. (And who doesn’t want a little tart tongue from time to time?)

The word lingonberry doesn’t really capture the crisp, fresh tartness quite as cranberry does; cran has a crisp start, but lingon is soft – think about the Chinese fruit called longan: much more suited to its name. But lingon does have that sticky, bouncy ng in the middle, which is good for a Swedish sound. And if you’re speaking Swedish, you don’t need that berry bit; it is indeed lingon just by itself. It’s related to ljung ‘heather’.

But enough linguistics. It’s time for some lingonguistics. We still have probably 1200 grams left to eat (we bought it on Saturday)… Jag behöver en sked! (I need a spoon!)

shallow

Fill a shallow pan with water, not too deep at all. Tap your fingertip lightly on the surface: it will send concentric ripples out, and a little droplet will fall off your digit. For no particularly good reason, this little gesture is what the sound (and saying) of the word shallow makes me think of, and vice versa.

There is much to this word, though. It hushes “sh” to start with, and its parallel ripples ll that come with the soft tap of the tongue tip could at any time harden just a little to reduce the thin to no thickness at all and make the shallow a shadow. And at the end the tongue recedes to the depths of the mouth, pulling back as the lips round to make as deep an articulation as we have in English. And yet the word’s sense is some level as low as you can allow.

Well, it all goes to show… actually, when all goes into show, we get shallow again. We do not get something hollow, but we do get hallows a bit out of place. And in the middle, the lloh! walls? How shall we account for all this? The word’s form is so deep in colour, even as its object seems sallow.

Its history goes straight back into the Germanic roots, and it seems to be cognate with shoal. As Laurie Miller has reminded me in suggesting this word, you won’t find an equivalent word for this in French. Whereas in English we have a scale with two directions, deep and shallow, in French there is only one direction, profond (deep); something that is not very deep is… well, not very deep: peu profond. So the existence of our word shallow adds a bit more depth to our tongue.

But so what if English has one word for ‘shallow’ and French has none? It’s not that France lacks shallow waters or shallow people. Not everyone there is Jean-Paul Sartre. This is a country that has given us as many foppish courtiers as scheming Richelieus. Their famous studied insouciance and carefully carefree fashions present many a person as deeply shallow, but in the end they’re just people after all. And they live in the world and use the language they have. Languages are variously deep in their various ways, and the store of words is not a solid guide to the store of reality they have to represent; the world is always deeper than the word.

So we learn our words, we learn about our words, we learn to use our words, we learn the relations of our words to our worlds. And in all this we should remember what Alexander Pope told us:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Capital Letters: WHY? And how?

My latest article for TheWeek.com is on capital letters, one of the great plagues of the average Anglophone. When do you and don’t you use them? And WHY DO WE EVEN HAVE THEM? These Questions Will Be Answered… in

Capital letters: FTW or WTF?

 

squinch, sanpaku

A while ago a friend let me in on a secret of looking good in photos: raise your lower eyelids. Don’t squint, not exactly; just tighten the eyes, especially from the bottom. It oozes confidence and looks maybe a little mischievous. Which, of course, is attractive.

Just today I saw an article on Gizmodo (with a video embedded) giving a word to this: squinch.

OK, yeah, like squint and pinch together, with tastes of squeeze and some other squ words (squirt, maybe squat, squelch) with their pucker and pressure release, and of crunch (and scrunch) and cinch and maybe even munch to add nch effect: the tongue tip presses close and then has just a little release at the end. A double dose of compressive effect. It seems like a reasonable confection to denote something that’s not full-on squinting but is a pinching with the same part of the face that does the squinting.

But it’s not a new word.

Nope, it’s been around since the mid-1800s. I do wonder whether every use of it between now and then was aware of previous uses; it does seem like the sort of word that could be made up again and again on the basis of the same phonaesthemes (those starts and finishes I just mentioned in the previous paragraph, not actual morphemes but bits that have connotations because of their sound and what other words they may make you think of). But anyway, the dictionary definition of it is more on the line of ‘screw up or distort the face’ – or of ‘crouch down or otherwise compress onself to take up less space’. So what we have here is a new variation of the meaning: ‘lightly squint the eyes, especially with the lower lids’.

A new, useful sense. We needed a word; this word presented itself. We have become aware of the value of looking not wide-eyed afraid in photos, and certainly not ill-starred sanpaku; we know that we look better if we have the eyes a little tighter. (Also bring the jaw forward a bit and perhaps leave the lips slightly open. The whole effect is almost predatory, and people like that.) So it’s nice to have a word for it. “OK, great, that’s great, but maybe can you squinch a little? Can you squinch for me a little, darling? Great, that’s fabulous, great.”

Did I say sanpaku back there? Oh, yes, that. Sanpaku is when you have eyes that show the white between the pupil and the lower lid. It doesn’t necessarily look fearful, but it can look tired or debauched or… well, perhaps even ill-fated. That’s the line George Ohsawa pressed in his book You Are All Sanpaku: showing those lower whites indicates a grave state of physical and spiritual imbalance, and may conduce to not just ill health but disaster. (Ohsawa’s solution to this was a macrobiotic diet.) To be fair, he didn’t originate this general idea; it’s from Chinese medicine – and Japanese too; after all, the word is Japanese: san ‘three’ plus haku ‘white’ (because the eye is three-quarters white) comes together to make sanpaku. (The same would be sanbai in Mandarin – which sounds almost like “stand by…”)

If the word sounds familiar to you from some bit of music, I suspect it’s from the 1983 new wave song “San Paku” by the Canadian group Darkroom. It shows up in a couple of other songs, but I doubt they’d stick. It has a good sound for a song like Darkroom’s: the almost electronic first two [æ] vowels (the first with a nasal on it) between the hiss and the two crisp stops, and then that final hollow [u]. It is in some ways a very opposite word to squinch. And actually, although squinching eyes are clearly more attractive than sanpaku eyes (and go better with new wave music), I’d have to say the word sanpaku seems way cooler and more attractive (and new wave) to me.

sanctimonious

You can see the sanct in this, as in sanctuary and sanctify and so on, the etymon of saint. And in the noun sanctimony you can see more clearly the Latin-derived abstract noun ending mony, as in matrimony, alimony, parsimony, testimony, and so on. And of course there’s the adjectival ous. So this word would, by its origin, seem to mean ‘holy’, ‘saintly’, that sort of thing.

Which, originally, it did. But it came soon enough to shift in sense, from religion to religiosity, from holiness to hypocrisy. Now we see that the sancti is only for the money; this is the trade of the Tartuffe, the devourer of widows’ houses, perhaps the poseurs who sank Timon with IOU’s (a Shakespearean reference there). The po-faced people with hands folded, eyebrows arched, eyes cast heavenward, who are mainly concerned with making you feel inferior. And, by extension, the concerned ones. Those who pretend not, perhaps, to piety, but anyway to purity or caring, but really seem only to care about taking others down a notch. It’s a common character type in novels and movies.

Fortunately, the type is rarely encountered in so pure a form in our normal lives. Sanctimonious is for the most part not what someone is as a person, but just something someone is being at a given time. And few indeed are those among us who haven’t been at least a bit sanctimonious on occasion, condescending, acting holier-than-thou, if not for the money than to score some other kind of point. Of course, some people are more practiced at it than others.

It’s a nice word, sanctimonious, a word long enough that it can really express the exasperation one feels when one applies the label. Every one of its five syllables has its little jab. Sanc is no thanks but rather the sound of a sunk ship; ti is, unstressed, a homophone of to, making it like thanks to but not – rather more like sank to as in new lows; the mo is a moo with a condeming moue of o, asking not for mo’ but for no more; nious is not nice but rather a sound like knee us, as in in the groin, which is what those sanctimonious people are doing with their pretentious piety. Oh, no, we’re not good enough, we don’t understand, we’re just rambunctious unholy thoughtless guttersnipes.

Isn’t it nice that there are sanctimonious people, so we have someone to look down on for looking down on us?

lamprey

Think of what this word could be a name for. If we keep bells in a belfry, could not the lamp part of a lighthouse be a lamprey? Or perhaps it could be a smaller lit tabernacle whereat one may pray before the rays of a lambent flame… The tongue licks so softly at the start of saying it, and in the middle the lips make a little kiss (try it; it’s hard not do it – the lips meet for the [mp] and then have to round forward for the [ɹ]). So sweet, whether you say the final vowel as [i] (the dictionary’s official way) or [eɪ] (a spelling pronunciation).

But the actual thing it names… the actual creature named by this word… is the stuff of nightmares. Oh, sure, it’s basically an eel, a kind of sucker-fish, yeah, like a large marine leech. Sure. Have you seen a picture of this thing?

I’m not going to include a picture here, for one thing because I don’t have the rights to one and for another because I don’t want to ambush people with something like that. Never mind that it’s ugly, ugly, ugly (tubular, mottled, and scaleless). Its mouth is a ring with rows of teeth. It’s like a small version of the sandworms from Dune or the mouth of the sarlacc from Return of the Jedi. Or, more sensibly, they’re probably inspired by it. If your nerves are strong, Google it. Honestly, it’s a kind of Freudian nightmare, a phallus with a vagina dentata at the end. Gurkh.

It’s also a plague in the Great Lakes. Sea lampreys are native to the Atlantic coast but have invaded inland waters, and they can deplete native fish stocks quite rapidly. These things are basically aquatic vampires: they latch onto fish and suck the blood out of them. It is a fitting coincidence that Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler, and lamprey anagrams to ympaler – so close. But of course they don’t impale. They puncture and suck.

Enough of that. How did this nasty sea vampire come to have such a pleasant name? It traces back through Old French to medieval Latin lampreda, which appears to have been a mutation of the synonymous lampetra, from lambere ‘lick’ and petra ‘stone’ – because they attached themselves to rocks. It happens that this is also the source of limpet. It’s not a hundred percent sure that it’s the true source for this word, though.

So what do you do with lampreys? In the Great Lakes, they’ve reduced them by 90% (the state regulating successful entrepreneurs out of business! Lampreys just happen to have a good business model! It’s shameful to interfere with the wisdom of the free market! err…). I’m not sure what the preferred method of catching and killing them is, but I do know what is a popular thing to do with them once they’re dead: eat them.

Yep. Especially in England (perhaps more in the past than now), lamprey pie is quite a thing. (Also in Game of Thrones.) A big one was served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and another at her golden jubilee. King Henry I was said to have died of eating a surfeit of lampreys. They have, apparently, a deliciously meaty flavour. I suppose a diet of blood will do that. Mmm, sea vampire pie. Well, I’d try it. After all, it has such a lovely name…

taikonaut

A taikonaut, we are told, is a Chinese astronaut.

Do you know what we call a Chinese baker? A baker. Do you know what we call a Chinese pilot? A pilot. Do you know what we call a Chinese physicist? A physicist. Do you know why? Because we’re speaking English. Of course if we were speaking Chinese we could call them mianbao shifu, linggangyuan, and wulixuejia.

And if we were speaking Chinese, we would call an astronaut yuhangyuan or hangtianyuan or, if we were from Taiwan or Hong Kong, perhaps taikongren.

So where the heck is this taikonaut from?

Well, in taikongren, ren means ‘person’ and taikong means ‘outer space’, from tai ‘greatest, farthest’ and kong ‘empty space’. Take taikong and add the Greek naut ‘sailor’ suffix by analogy with astronaut and cosmonaut, dropping the ng for ease of pronunciation and to make the ending onaut like the others, and you get taikonaut. The Xinhua News Agency has, since China started sending astronauts up, used this modified term (not invented by them but seen on the web variously since at least the late ’90s).

So why wouldn’t they use astronaut?

Well, why wouldn’t they use cosmonaut, for that matter?

You know the difference between an astronaut and a cosmonaut, right? One is American (or at least is with the American space program) and the other is Russian (or at least is with the Russian space program). Both words come from Greek roots – ‘star sailor’ and ‘universe sailor’ respectively; astronaut is the older of the two, around since at least the 1930s. But the Russians were the first to send a person actually into space, and a space program is a big thing to have – only the greatest world powers have them, and the space race was a big big thing – so they went with their own branding, космонавт kosmonavt, anglicized as cosmonaut.

So a pattern was established. Each different space program has to have its own naut! Otherwise you’re sending out your product, your pride, with someone else’s branding! Your marketing would be all for naught! Better for it to be for naut.

Or not?

Frankly, I can’t make myself not see it as silly. But, yes, there are historical political reasons for the difference in word choice. Obviously we make an exception to the usual “call someone what you call them regardless of where they’re from” rule here, a rule usually infringed only by job roles that are culture-specific (e.g., chai wallah for a tea delivery person in India). And the naut suffix has become a handy identifier. If some other country develops its own space program, their astronauts will get their own naut word too, I guess. India’s astronauts, for instance, will apparently (as per the Indian Space Research Organization) be called vyomanauts, from a Sanskrit root for ‘space’ plus the naut (although the echo of vomit presents an uncomfortable overtone).

So the Chinese march to the beat of their own drum. Cue pun on taiko drummers. Oh, wait, taiko drummers are Japanese. Well, if we want to go with Mandarin, taiko really sounds like tai ‘too much’ and kou ‘mouth’ to me. Or, on the brighter side, it could make me think of Tycho as in Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer of the 16th century (they’re all astronomers no matter where they’re from) who made some good steps forward in understanding the planets and their motions (and their non-fixity), steps towards having a space program in the first place.