Daily Archives: December 12, 2013

guillemet, guillemot

When you read the sea of black on white that is a text, it is as diverse and full of different life forms as the sea itself. It boils with the fantastic fish of words, all their different shapes, and the plankton and krill of periods and commas, and the catching bird claws of apostrophes and quotation marks, and on and on. But just as different seas have different kinds of life, so different languages have different forms of life in their textual waters. Some languages – French in particular – have birds that dive into their waters and swim after the fish: « these ». You see the wings angle as they push through and catch the text they enclose. They are all cupidity, hunger, desire in the head.

Desire in the head? How about a helmet of desire? There’s a name for that: will plus helm becomes Wilhelm or William or Guillaume or or or. And Guillaume has its diminutives and derivatives, two of which being Guillemet and Guillemot.

A French printer of the 1500s, Guillaume Le Bé (“Billy the B” in English, I suppose), invented handy little marks for enclosing quotations, and so those marks, « », came to be named for him, guillemets. The name might have you thinking of gulls, but these marks are not like any gull I’ve met; they are smaller, and black. They are like black birds that dive into the water and chase fish for their dinner. Black (sometimes black-and-white) birds that are called guillemots, not because they have helmets of desire (though they desire fish and chase them with their heads that sometimes look helmeted), but simply because they are named after the French name Guillemot, about which see above. They might look like gills for your bons mots, but they aren’t to help the words breathe; they’re to devour them in the open air.

But, oh, a note of warning. Guillemet is still entirely a French word, occasionally lent to English, and we say it like the French – the English approximation is “gee a meh” (with a g as in guy). Guillemot, on the other hand, has been comfortably in English for centuries, quite long enough to gain a spelling pronunciation: “gill a mot.” It has that French look but sounds more comfortable with the dipping claws “ and ”.

Meanwhile, the real textual guillemots, the guillemets, continue their dives into the chill waters of the text, never coming out empty-mouthed. « Bon appétit ».

Thanks to John Eerkes-Medrano for inspiring this note.

cakehole, piehole

“Shut your piehole.”

“Shut your cakehole.”

OK, which is ruder?

Obviously, both are rude. Even “shut your bouche” would be rude, though also confused. But there’s something particulary nasty about piehole and cakehole. If we see them in a context other than shut your, it’s likely to involve a word such as cram or stuff: “He gobbled down as much as he could cram into his cakehole.” “He stuffed it quickly into his piehole.” Want further evidence that these are low, rude words? Compare this: “The queen took the most delicate forkful of camembert soufflé and placed it delicately in her cakehole.” Did you laugh? Proof: the contrast is absurd.

It’s fairly plain to see that hole is a rude word when applied to a mouth. A hole, after all, is a simple, round, inarticulate thing; other holes we have on the body are the earholes and the nostrils (which have a non-hole name) and one other hole, an especially vulgar one. The resonance is clear. Hole is, after all, a plain old Anglo-Saxon word, of the stock that for a few hundred years was associated with the ruder folk while the court preferred French and the scholars used Latin.

So is cake. It has cognates throughout Western European languages, especially Germanic and Balto-Slavic ones. Of course, cake is delicious – everyone loves cake, and some people gobble it greedily, cramming it in their cakeholes. But cake is also a verb that is not always pleasant. What sort of thing gets caked on? Exactly.

Pie, on the other hand, while having been in English since medieval times (think of Simon the pie man, from the nursery rhyme), is not an Anglo-Saxon word in origin. In fact, it appears to come from Latin originally, by way of a bird. A bird? Not four-and-twenty blackbirds, no; a bird that is famous for collecting all sorts of odd things: the magpie, formerly called just the pie, from Latin pica by way of some later Romance languages. It seems that a pie was conceived of as a sort of omnium gatherum dish (mincemeat comes to mind).

Pie has long been a popular dessert, of course, and in many ways a demotic one: there’s the old story of a royal visiting a small town in western Canada and being told, after the main course, “Keep your fork, Duke, there’s pie.” Not “Keep your fork, Duke, there’s cake,” though that would give a more consistent sound. No, cake is a more elevated thing: remember, Marie Antoinette was supposed to have said, in an oblivious insult, that peasants without bread could eat cake (actually brioche in the original). (This line had earlier been attributed to others, and most likely no one ever said it as such.) “Let them eat cake”? How rude. But “Let them eat pie”? Mmm, delicious. It’s true that royals have eaten lamprey pie (and many other kinds), but the associations are established: cake is a loftier dessert, but the word also has more unpleasant overtones, which lend further to cakehole. (There is also possible effect from K-hole, a bad trip caused by a particular party drug colloquially referred to as special K, but that’s in more limited circulation.) Cake is also a harder word, with those /k/ and /k/ stops kicking at front and back. Pie starts with a pop and then fades out.

In any event, cakehole is somewhat older – it dates from at least the early 1900s, while piehole only starts showing up in the 1960s and then more in the 1980s and on – and cakehole is by a long measure the more used of the two. I would say it’s also the ruder. If you disagree, just cram something in your piehole and shut your cakehole.