Monthly Archives: December 2013


My legs are bagged. Bagged like groceries. They’re wrecked like the Edmund Fitzgerald. They’re so sore I need to help myself with my arms when sitting down and getting up, and I grunt when doing either.

Don’t worry. It’s not permanent. It’s just the effects of exercise. I dealt the first blow to them at my niece’s wedding reception, dancing Russian-style to “Rasputin.” Then today I went skiing, and of course along with everything else I had to ski the high steep mogul runs: Memorial Bowl. The Lone Pine. Because bragging rights. And after that, my leg muscles were in pain.

Well, not all of my leg muscles. Mainly my quads. You know, quadriceps. Musculus quadriceps femoris. The muscle on the top of your upper leg, the big flat muscle that other people sit on if you let them.

Actually, the quadriceps isn’t one muscle. It’s four. Hence the name: quadriceps, Latin for ‘four-head’. The full name means it’s the four-headed muscle of the femur. And by four-headed, they mean there are actually four muscles. The one on the top is the rectus femoris; the other three beneath it are the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.

Tell you what, if you’re not entirely sure where your quads are, or what they might be feeling like for me right now, do this: plant your feet about a half a metre in front of a wall, and – without a chair – assume a sitting position against the wall, using just the force of your legs to hold your back against it, with your knee and hip joints at or near 90-degree angles. Hold that position for a while. When your legs start to shake, keep holding it. Eventually – within a minute or three, probably – you will have to stop. Congratulations: you are now feeling your quadriceps. Both of them. Or all eight of them.

So that’s why it’s called quadriceps rather than quadricep? Nope. Quadriceps is not a plural form, actually. In the Latin it modifies a singular noun, musculus. In Latin the plural would be quadricipites, but in English we just use quadriceps for one or more than one – although, as with biceps, people sometimes backform an s-less singular.

So we get the short form, quads, which has strong tastes of squad and squat (and squatting uses the quads!). And we have the fuller word, quadriceps, which will quite reasonably remind you of biceps, and which counterbalances the thick and broad quad with the sharp snipping ceps, joined by a ri bridge. The added length also changes the visual balance: from the rotational quasi-symmetry of quads to a mirror-style quasi-symmetry with quadriceps. Both of them have the little snake of an s on the end.

But snakes bite. Quads don’t bite, not exactly. They burn. But not spontaneously. Just as a bit of quad-pro-quo.

I wonder if having the right person sitting on them would help.


I’m back in Alberta for a few days, driving around through my memories. This evening we drove west on the Trans-Canada Highway. About 80 km west of the city, we passed a significant sight from my childhood: the sign on the Trans-Canada Highway that says North ↗ Morley Road. That was where we would turn off the highway on the way home from Calgary. Up the off-ramp, turn right, then two sounds: “krrrrchung” and then “khrkhrkhr” – the sound of a cattleguard followed by the sound of a gravel road.

What is a cattleguard? You may know it by some other name – cattle grid, stock grid, stock gap, cattle stop, or Texas gate (which is what some signs in Alberta also call it; I’ve never cottoned to that – we’re not in Texas, we’re in Alberta). Or, if you don’t live anywhere near where ungulate animals need to be kept on one side of a fence through which a road must pass, you may not know what it is at all. Here is what it is: At the point where a road passes through a fence, in place of the road is a stretch a couple metres long of metal bars over a trench. The bars are far enough apart that a hoof could slip through, but close enough together that a car can drive over it without too much trouble. It’s a brief bumpy stretch; the sound you hear as your tires rumble over it sounds something like “cattleguard” if you drive at just the right speed.

A cattleguard is the sound of being in ranch country. It’s an Alberta sound for me, and a piece of my childhood. I sure don’t hear that sound in Toronto. When I hear it, I know I’m driving back into a landscape of memories, memories that roam freely like grazing beasts. They could cross the road of my mental journey at any time. Sometimes I have to slam on the brakes for them.

But memories are memories; the past is the past. When, returning to your present, you drive back across the cattleguard, the animals of your past cannot follow you. Some of the places of the past persist to the present, but the memories of what happened there are forever in the past, forever just echoes. And some of the places of the past are simply gone. At the Morley Road exit, there used to be a restaurant, the Chief Chiniki; my brother worked there for a while. It’s not there anymore – it burned down a few years ago. So, several years ago, did the house I lived in 30 years ago as a teenager, a bit farther west at the foot of a mountain.

Not all changes are bad: the gravel road into Morley was long ago paved into a nice, smooth, safe two-lane road. The cattleguard is still there, of course. But we didn’t drive over it, because we didn’t turn off at the Morley Road; we continued west to the Highway 1X exit, south onto a snow-covered gravel road, over a different cattleguard and in to the Rafter Six Ranch, a guest ranch owned by friends of ours, full of memories for me. I worked there one summer; my family spent a Christmas there in one of their cabins after we had to move out of one house and were not yet moved into another; we’ve eaten in their restaurant I don’t know how many times…

The lodge at the Rafter Six is unchanged since I was a preteen. Everything looks the same. The log walls, the hand-carved signs, the wooden tables, the gift shop. The restaurant booth where I made a stupid comment about a co-worker’s weight. The spot in the hallway where I referred to a prospective employee as “scruffy,” not realizing he was right behind me. The table where I got a tongue-lashing from someone who thought I was a racist because he took literally a sarcastic remark I made about a news item. The place where I had a breakfast buffet of greasy food while afflicted with a horrible hangover induced by ouzo. Up the hill a bit, the place where I drank all that ouzo the previous night. It’s all still there.

For two more days.

After nearly 40 years, the Rafter Six is closing. Not because they don’t have enough business. No, because they made a deal with a resort company to expand and build more guest rooms, and then the resort company hit a rough patch because it was overextended in the economic downturn, and when it went under it it dragged the Rafter Six with it. Now the ranch is closing at the end of the last day of 2013. So we went there and had one last dinner in their dining room, chatting with Stan and Gloria, our friends, the owners. One more piece of my childhood and youth, disappearing.

After dinner and conversation we stepped out into the great cold country darkness, the glow of the lodge behind us, the stars up above and the black nothingness of the woods surrounding. Like the land of memory, where your piece of history is lit up with night lights while its context is gone from view. A threatening, consuming darkness. I never liked being in the country at night. But I did like the warm welcome of the Rafter Six.

Then we drove away, over the cattleguard and onto the highway.


If you’re concerned about something, you may well want to have something to say about it. But before you can say something about it, you really should be able to give a detailed account or description of it. In order to do that, you need to be able to perceive it thoroughly. And in order to do that, you need to be able to perceive it at all.

Usually the order of things is thought to follow smoothly enough: first you notice it, then you see it in detail, then you are able to describe it, then you can give your opinion of it, good or bad. But sometimes it goes the other way: first you start by shouting about something, then you learn more and are able to give a detailed account of it, and then you pull back further and are just looking at it, and at length you find you are only just able to make it out… and maybe at the end it’s gone altogether.

Language can be like that. Decry, descrive, descry, scry…

And thereby hangs a tail. I mean a tale. A tale of two words that came from Old French, one descrier from des plus crier, making ‘cry out’; the other descrivre, cognate with describe and having the same meaning. Descrier became English descry, meaning first ‘cry out, proclaim’ and then ‘denounce’, but the alternate form decry has taken on that sense. Descrivre became English descrive, which got worn down a little bit and merged in form with descry, but by the time that had happened the sense had shifted from ‘describe’ to just ‘make out’ or ‘perceive’. And descry has been further worn down in occasional use to scry.

So it’s not just that one’s awareness of language in general tends to take the backwards route, from loud opinion to observation to having more and more trouble even making out the object. It’s also that certain words move in that direction, and this one most appositely so. At the end you’ll be squinting and craning your neck just to scry the word as it gets scrawnier… it the sort of thing that makes a person cry; it’s almost scary. But it’s a normal course for words.

Sci-fi/fantasy name? Or prescription drug?

My latest article for is a quiz. It’s a really hard quiz (but also fun):

Quiz: Drug brand or sci-fi name?

But after the quiz I explain just why it’s so hard to tell them apart. So do it… and live long and fill that prescription!

adventure, misadventure

Originally published in The Spanner, issue 0010.

“I will take you by a dear dirty back way, Miss Honeychurch, and if you bring me luck, we shall have an adventure.” —Eleanor Lavish, in A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster.

Thus was the devotchka invited by the diva to an adventure, a diversion. To venture forth to the invention of novelty, voler au vent… But they were overcome and when they came to, they were not in Florence but in Villa Verba, city of words, and their dear dirty back ways had happened to take a different cast.

For what is an adventure? Not a vision of a nun and a novena, no; it is a tour or turn of sorts; but how does it happen to be as it is? Nature or nurture? Does it simply arrive or is it sought? Or do we seek its arrival?

Miss Lavish ventured to find its advent. But what she came to was to come: venire. She sought an uncertain future, quod futurus est, ‘which is about to be’ – is becoming. And she wished ‘to come to’ it: advenire. And what it will ‘have come to’: adventus.

Such is her Vedanta, her path to self-realization in ultimate reality. She has a vendetta against stasis. But now she is looking down this alley of words, and although she has bundled the Baedeker away in her bag, she may be wishing that she had Roget – or at least Bartlett, Miss Lucy Honeychurch’s chaperone. For when etymology turns anfractuous, one may be heading for an accident.

An accident: something that has simply happened. So, too, is – was – an adventure. Simply a thing that happened; it came to pass. Chance, fortune, luck. If Miss Honeychurch brings luck, they shall have luck. But o, Fortuna, velut Luna (not Lucy): Miss Lavish seeks fortune, and it shall tell out as it will – lavishly or not. When you seek chance, if you find it, you shall indeed have adventure.

“Lost! lost! My dear Miss Lucy, during our political diatribes we have taken a wrong turning. How those horrid Conservatives would jeer at us! What are we to do? Two lone females in an unknown town. Now, this is what I call an adventure.”

In the back alleys of Villa Verba, the inversions will put in you a trance position. You seek adventure but you find it in broken parts: a turn, beyond which lurks a raven duet; if you evade it you will slip into the never; if you think your sense of direction is trued you will see it denature at a v in the road; in a fit of vertigo, you find yourself due in a tavern, and if you are naïve and invade further you will be mastered and can only hope that you will, through the stirring mist, find a rudiment to save you, but your number is up, a sum inverted… for you have drunk over your draft, and your fortune is misfortune: when the pieces come back together you have met your match through a misadventure.

Thus is the reality of our ventures revealed. We think adventure is something that we do: we go forth and happen to the world. But when the world happens to us, we are absolved of responsibility; there is no misconduct, no miscreant, no negligence. Simply death by misadventure.

Then something did happen.

Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. “Cinque lire,” they had cried, “cinque lire!” They sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.

Miss Honeychurch recalls later on how the spot came to her dress. It was no fault of her own. There was a young man, yes. So she says. But oh, where is the clever lady and her lavish words? Did she find her adventure? Miss Honeychurch remembers how she was misled by Miss Lavish, hoping for a happening but being happened to unhappily in the alleys and vialetti. Words were getting to her and yet had gotten away from her. So she made her choice: she stole a space so she could find her honey and a church, and when she came to, Miss Adventure had seen her end by misadventure as the word closed in on her.

The city of words is a casually acausally cruel place.


Sometimes you just see a cute little word wandering around on the street and you pick it up and take it home. And you pet it for a little while, and then you use it in a sentence.

And then someone says “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

I have the habit of looking up any word that is new to me. But I didn’t always. And one word that just seemed so cute – and its meaning so guessable – that I picked it up without checking it for fleas was squiffy. Oh, look, doesn’t it just have that squee factor? It’s like a little mouse called Sniffy. It’s squeezable and soft. The ff takes away any clear echo of squid, and most people won’t think of spliff right away. (The hair-conscious may think of quiff.) And that squ that seems ironically so un-square can draw your attention away from the rather iffy aspect of it.

So the 24-year-old me was working away in a bookstore and I came face to face with some unforeseen and undesirable eventuality (there are many of those in the quotidian existence of a bookstore), and I said “That’s just squiffy.” And my manager, Dean Thorup, a fellow who (like at least one other I knew in the book biz) demonstrated by his existence that you could have an unspectactular education but still be quite sharp, said “That word doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

So what does it mean? Let me just say that it’s an adjective that many people will have cause to use during the recycled Saturnalia of late December. To be less coy about it: it means ‘intoxicated’.

But of course there are so many levels of intoxication. To draw a parallel, it’s an old (and not really accurate) idea that the Inuit (also called Eskimos by people who are not them) have some huge number of words for ‘snow’. The idea is that if you have a lot of exposure to something and a lot of reasons to make distinctions between different specific types of that thing, you will have a lot of words for that thing. This idea may have some basis (but do think of the number of things we encounter all the time in many varieties and still have just one or two words for), but another factor that can come into play is that things that are socially outré or taboo but nonetheless desirable tend to accumulate a lot of euphemisms and rakish synonyms.

One or the other of those factors will account for something I noticed in an Irish Gaelic phrase book: Irish has a goodly number of words for different levels of drunkenness. Well, that just plays to stereotypes, doesn’t it? But if you’re going down that road, you cannot ignore the amazing number of words we have in English for different levels of drunkenness – easily enough to make a whole year’s worth of word-a-day. And one of those words is squiffy.

So where does squiffy fall on the scale? Generally on the lighter side: what you may get from a snifter or two, just a sniff of the stuff, a couple of quick quaffs and that’s all. But you do well to check context. You surely know that some people like to downplay the level of intoxication, and others to exaggerate it. The lines between semantic categories are not even as tidy as if they had been drawn by someone who was rather more than squiffy.

Oh, and where does the word come from? It dates from the mid-1800s. The Oxford English Dictionary helpfully says “Of fanciful formation.” Go figure.


We had an ice storm in Toronto last night and today. If you’ve ever lived through one, you know what follows: a lot of crashing, as the ice clinging to high things comes loose and falls off – or breaks those high things under its weight and falls down with them. It’s one thing if you’re in an area with a lot of trees: the ice falling off branches sounds like people dropping champagne flutes onto a hard floor. It’s another thing if you’re an urban cliff-dweller, listening from your high windows to the adventitious cornices breaking free from their holds 30, 40, and 50 storeys above the shiny pavement and clattering into the chasm. It sounds more like the fall of an icy archangel through the thousand glass floors of heaven and hell.

Surely there must be a word for this, the aftermath of an ice storm? Of course. Etymology buffs can confect it from roots and they won’t be wrong: when things break down, or break and fall down, your Greek parts are κατα kata ‘down’ and κλάσμα klasma ‘breaking’ (from κλᾶν klan ‘break’), translated into the English modular bits cata (as in cataclysm and catastrophe) and clasm (as in iconoclasm), making cataclasm. And since clasm is related to clastic (as in iconoclastic, pyroclastic, etc.), the adjectival form of cataclasm is cataclastic, which, if you say it loudly, sharply, rapidly, and repeatedly in an echoey place, sounds rather like a big chunk of ice breaking free from the top of a building and disintegrating as it knocks against widow ledges all the way down.

But cataclasm is not just or even primarily for the breaking and falling of ice from on high. Indeed, anything that is inelastic can be cataclastic. Well, the only real current use of cataclastic is geological, to refer to a structural character caused by intense crushing. But it’s a suitable adjectival form for cataclasm, and cataclasm means ‘break or disruption’. Which characterizes not just what happens to the ice falling off buildings, but what happens to life in the aftermath of an ice storm: transit is cut off, power is cut off, the normal run of things is cut off. Things break down, and the system breaks down, at least temporarily.

It’s not necessarily accurate to call an ice storm a cataclysm with a y – that really refers to a catastrophic (‘down-stroking’) deluge, or something suitably like one – but it’s quite reasonable to call it a cataclasm… one that leads to thousands of smaller cataclasms.

More Poetry Minute and a Half

I’ve created four more episodes of Poetry Minute and a Half: “Out of the Business” by The Tubes (by request), “Taking Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, and one I’m particularly proud of, Rammstein’s “Mein Teil” in English translation.

Do send in requests. I’m thinking of branching out to other genres of music.


Sometimes, halfway through the forest path of a sentence, where did it go? There was a flow of syntax that – something ate it. But what? An anaconda? A python? Worse: it is that most uncouth lexical reptile – the anacoluthon. It slips into a syntactic constituent and devours the tail of it, and in its place leaves the tail of another constituent to be grafted on.

But what a word, a snake in its own right, eleven letters, crawling into the modern era little changed from ancient times, like a coelecanth in the net of your page. Yet it is not such an ugly fish as that; indeed, it has a soft, liquid sound with just a single hard stop. It would do well as a word from a Celtic language – or, more to the point, an invented language from fantasy fiction. It would fit right into Tolkien’s Sindarin: “Fanuilos, le linnathon, nef aear, anacoluthon” – though it would break the rhythm of that poem, since the stress is on the /u/, as in Lúthien.

In fact, it comes from Greek: ἀν an ‘not, without’ and ἀκόλουθος akolouthos ‘following’ (do you notice how yet again we’ve shifted the stress from its placement in the Greek, which would be more natural to us?). The word is for something that does not follow what came before. To use the Latin equivalent, it is a syntactic non sequitur. You all know people who speak like this: the sentence flow they started, it’s changed halfway through – bang, you know? It can be used for topic fronting: “That cake you gave me, the dog ate it”; it can be used for rhetorical or poetical effect: “If only I could have – how could that have been?”; it can be used just because the train of thought went through a tunnel and when it came out everyone had changed cabins: “I brought that fruitcake that she made it with the raisins and the rum is so tasty.”

It is sneaky and slippery, this anacoluthon. The one thing you can be sure of is that it retains the element of surprise. You do not see it coming. And if you look behind you, you will not see it there either. Yes, it is invisible. But you did not see it behind you because it was not there in the first place – it does not follow.

Poetry Minute and a Half

Just because the idea amused me, I’ve started a series called “Poetry Minute and a Half” in which I read (erm, excuse me, the somewhat posh Godfrey St. John-Burns reads) heavy metal lyrics as poetry. In the interests of focusing on the sound quality, I’ve made them just the sound rather than a video of the reading, but since YouTube is the best place for sharing such things around, I’ve made the sound files into videos with just the title as the image.

These will likely be more amusing if you know the songs, but I’m sure they will have some entertainment value either way.

Requests for further poem readings are welcome.

Here are the first four: