Daily Archives: November 7, 2013


The mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, recently made the news pretty much everywhere by admitting that he had smoked crack, but excusing it as having been “in one of my drunken stupors.”

The question that’s on everyone’s mind now is, of course, “Is stupor related to stupid or is that just a sweet coincidence?” An additional question that is apparently on the minds of many Canadians is “Shouldn’t that be stupour in Canada?”

Yes and no. I mean yes, it’s related, and no, it shouldn’t be stupour. The etymology answers both questions. The words stupor and stupid originate in the Latin verb stupere, ‘be stunned or benumbed’. (Incidentally, in some parts of Canada, and perhaps elsewhere, stunned is also a common colloqual word for ‘stupid’.) That became, still in Latin, the past tense form stupidus ‘stunned, numb’ and the noun stupor. So stupid is to stupor as torpid is to torpor (and, originally, horrid was to horror). And I suppose you could say stupid is as stupor does…

You will see that the noun has not changed spelling from its Latin original. Some other words that have come from Latin -or words (such as color) have passed through a French influence long ago and come out with an added u (subsequently lost in American English). But stupor never did. Well, not never – up to the 1600s (it was borrowed in the 1300s) it was sometimes also spelled stupour. But that was finally dropped. Perhaps it seemed stupid.

Good word, stupid. It’s well formed for describing and decrying a disdained mental insufficiency. It starts with a combination that pretty much spits, [st], and has an additional puff of disdain in the middle with [p], then ends with the [ɪd] that also starts idiot. The stressed vowel adds something extra special: your choice between the pinched, almost hissing [ju] diphthong (which, in [stju], practically forces the face into a moue of disdain as though sniffing a turd) and the stripped-down (Canadian-style) plain [u], which, aside from sounding duller, is itself disdained as stupid by snobs with palatalized pronunciations.

Stupor has most of the same characteristics (plus – in a British accent – the sound of a Buddhist monument (stupa) around which one may circumambulate), but it is not usually used for insults. Not that it is used with approbation; a stupor is not a thing one generally wants to be in. And yet somehow it is a thing people get themselves into. And usually the same way: you drink yourself into a stupor; you are then in a drunken stupor. Most modern uses of stupor refer to being stupid drunk. You know, like someone you see stopped and stooped over on a stoop, unable to take another step, stumbling and mumbling, perhaps trying to circumambulate their residence in search of a door (or their forsaken sobriety). The language has many, many terms for various states of inebriation, and this expresses one of the most severe.

How severe? Severe enough that you might get your letters mixed up, perhaps, and go looking for a p for support (or vice versa), or drop an r and get upsot, or, more likely, become like Proust and find yourself À la recherche du temps perdu – not, as the English title of the book would suggest, remembering things past (as if!), but actually in search of lost time. Ha, good luck with that. If you’re anything like Rob Ford, you’ll discover what you did when someone releases a video of it.

omphalos, omphaloskepsis

Today’s tasting is a guest tasting by Anthony Shore, who writes about brand naming at operativewords.com.

Contemplate the navel: The locus of life, button of our underbellies. The place from which every placental mammal was nourished in utero. Students of meditation, enrollees of the navel academy, look within themselves and contemplate their navels to gain an introspective perspective.

Taking shape as innies and outies, the omphalos – ὀμφαλός to the Hellenically-incined, and umbilicus to the medically-inclined –  is our most visible (and sexy!) scar: the belly button.  Ambient squealing peals are the soundtrack as our umbilical cord is cut, leaving us with a resounding, adorable mark. And despite being a marker of life itself, 90% of navels are depressed. The other 10% are happy outies.

Is it any wonder navels are centers of attention? They lie at the very center of our bodies – and, some say, the center of the world. The Vitruvian Man pinpoints the center of human geometry at the tummy button, equidistant from the periphery of the great circle formed by da Vinci’s sepia-toned, spread-eagle snow angel.

Considering the body further, the Latin word for a place of observation was templum, and so when we contemplate our navels, our bedimpled bodies are a temple, etymologically speaking.

Among the erudites, navel-gazing is called omphaloskepsis, a mouthful of chewy consonant clusters cooked up by classical Greek phonology.

Inspecting skeptics might wonder, how is it that this is even a word, this omphaloskepsis? The first syllable is a chomp and an exclamation: oomph! They do not belong together, these zounds, but somehow, like a flounder genetically entwined with a tomato, it kinda works. Other Greek-derived words that begin with this kind of -mph– include amphetamine, amphitheater and emphatic. As far as Greek goes, MPH must stand for More Phonetic Hutzpah.

The latter and more familiar half of omphaloskepsis looks like skeptic, one who inquires or doubts. The philosophical school of skeptics was founded by Pyrrho of Ellis, who himself was schooled by the gymnosophists, those naked lovers of wisdom native to India. Early followers pursued a special brand of skepticism called Pyrrhonism, which, though bearing resemblance to Pyrrhus (known for qualified victory), actually shares no common etymon. Only Greek, which has taken so many hubristic liberties with phonology – sphere, pterodactyl, mnemonic, acne, iatric, phthisis, pyknic – binds Pyrrho and Pyrrhic by origin.

Omphaloskepsis takes us on a long, strange trip through sonority. We set out with our mouths agape, saying “aaah,” as if to afford an attentive physician a better view of our tonsils. Next comes the nasal-fricative [mf] like a one-two punch. It is guttural and visceral and entirely satisfying. We flow into a liquid [l], smooth and fluid, but then are greeted with a skidding, stoccatic fricative-stop-stop-fricative-fricative washboarded stretch of heavy, beclustered syllables.

Omphalos and omphaloskepsis offer what any great vacation should offer: Something exotic, adventurous, and an opportunity, in looking outside of ourselves, to learn more about what lies within.