Monthly Archives: January 2014

winningest

Today’s word tasting note is a guest post by Vancouver editorial genius Iva Cheung.

“Oh yeah? Well you guys may have won this time, but my team’s still the winningest!”

That’s how I imagine the first utterance of winningest, and the fact that the speaker, in my mind, could just as well have been a four-year-old as a drunken sports fan in a pub is telling. Winningest has a decidedly juvenile and unsophisticated ring to it, and, judging by the comments on Merriam-Webster’s entry for the word, a lot of people hate it, calling it a “made-up word” and a “lazy degradation of modern language.”

So why is it so objectionable?

Well, first, It hasn’t been around for all that long. Although the Online Etymology Dictionary claims winningest appeared in the written record by 1804, without seeing a reliable example, I’m more inclined to believe the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster, which both trace the word back to the early 1970s. According to Webster’s in 1974 it appeared in The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, which described the Maryland-Eastern Shore as the “winningest college basketball team in the nation.” Since the word was coined, it’s been used almost exclusively in (North) American sports pages.

Newness alone isn’t a good reason to find a word immature, though; after all, plenty of much newer words have seamlessly slipped into everyday usage. The resistance to accepting winningest as a “real word” probably comes from its weird morphology and incongruous semantics. We don’t usually slap the superlative -est morpheme onto the -ing morpheme—it seems like a mistake a young child might make—and winningest may be the only English word to feature this odd combination. Sure, present participle forms can serve beautifully as adjectives, but even words like charming and stunning—which we probably use more often as adjectives than as verbs—are compared using more and most rather than the -er and -est suffixes.

And speaking of which, if winningest exists, why doesn’t winninger? This lack of a comparative counterpart to winningest contributes to its oddness. What’s more, you could easily argue that the superlative doesn’t even make sense. We tend to think of winning as half of a dichotomy, not the end of a spectrum. Winning isn’t really a gradable adjective; if you’re not winning, you’re losing.

Yet this semantic mismatch is why winningest has found a niche as a functional word, despite the many reasons it shouldn’t exist. It doesn’t actually mean “most winning,” does it? To be the winningest means to have the most wins or victories, or to have the most success, typically in a sports context. And in that context, it’s unambiguous, succinct. You may wrinkle your nose at a phrase like “the winningest team in the league,” but you’re unlikely to be confused by it, and any other way of expressing the same concept would simply take more syllables.

Despite the objections to this “non-word,” it seems to be slowly seeping out from its sports confines into the rest of the world; even law firms are seizing the opportunity to declare themselves “the winningest.” The question is whether it’ll remain a one-off anomaly or spawn a new, productive way of affixing. Will we one day read about the eatingest competitor at the hot dog contest or the flyingest pilot in the air force?

tiny, perfect

In one small corner of Word Country is a tiny, perfect garden. Yes, if good things come in small packages, it seems natural, doesn’t it, that tiny things may be perfect. This is a carefully pruned garden, each leaf just so, every frond so simply fond, everything so beautifully and precisely arrayed like a small jewel in the most exquisite setting on a little pendant hanging over the finest clavicle your eyes will ever merely glimpse. It is as neat as a pin, a pin with an infinity of angels dancing delicate quadrilles on its head simply to capture your interest.

And in this garden the flowers are passages, pieces from books and articles, and every one of them contains “tiny, perfect” or “tiny perfect” – comma or no comma; one is tinier and one is more perfect, but together they are homozygotic twins, between them tiny and perfect, the only difference a beauty spot.

Such an interesting pair of words, tiny and perfect. We know what perfect is and has been: it comes to us ultimately from Latin perfectus, ‘thoroughly made, entirely realized’; a thing is perfect if it has reached its pinnacle of… well, of perfection, of course. And grammatically the perfective aspect is an action that has been entirely completed: present perfect, “I have done it”; past perfect, “I had done it.” But tiny we are not so sure of. It may be related to a Scots word, tine; some people would trace it to plausible French or Latin etymons, but there is no trail of evidence. So perfect is fully formed and we know how it came to be, while tiny seems to have sprung into the world fully realized from the forehead of a faerie.

Let us lift some of these delicate leaves in our tiny, perfect garden and reveal the tiny, perfect blossoms that shelter beneath them. They come from many places and many times. There is a strong collection from Toronto, where there was a mayor in the 1970s, David Crombie, who was called the “tiny, perfect mayor”; the seeds of that plant have spread locally. But we see tiny, perfect in all sorts of places. I cannot begin to display all the little blossoms in this garden; the closer you look the more of them there are. But let us look at a tidy triad of recent appearances:

a quavering New York voice with little range singing songs of alienation and despair, with flashes of impossible hope and of those tiny, perfect days and nights we want to last for ever, important because they are so finite and so few
—Neil Gaiman on Lou Reed, The Guardian, October 28, 2013

We praise the tiny perfect Moles
That garden underground;
The Ant, the Worm, the Nematode,
Wherever they are found
—Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood

Order quail and you receive exactly half the bird: one tiny, perfect breast, cooked swiftly in foie gras butter, and one tiny, perfect leg, simmered in stock and deep-fried.
—Ligaya Mishan, review of The Musket Room, New York Times, December 12, 2013

We have the sense, perhaps, that tiny is somehow not enough and tiny little is just too little and not perfect enough. Food reviewers seem to particularly like tiny, perfect, as in “tiny, perfect tea sandwiches,” “tiny, perfect canelé,” “tiny, perfect strawberries,” “tiny, perfect vegetarian hamburgers,” “tiny, perfect pizzas,” “tiny, perfect Melba toast rolls,” and on. I think food reviewers simply love to listen to themselves write; they want to write reviews as delicious as the food they fantasize of eating. But their reviews are often as self-conscious as a tiny, perfect dollop of the most exquisite finger-whipped cream scented with just a breath of lavender and perched delicately on top of your locally raised organic tempeh cheeseburger.

I do not wish to be too hard on food reviewers, although their reviews often leave me feeling as crusty as the slabs of perfectly golden toast on which they are forever munching. Art reviewers also like tiny, perfect, and anyone speaking of gardens and flowers runs a considerable chance of using the phrase. Certain other delicate things such as small birds can likewise be “tiny, perfect.” But really quite anyone wishing to call forth an air of the sensitive and exquisite and lexically sapid may be tempted by this saffron tendril of literary seasoning. Even when writing a eulogy of Lou Reed.

Let us wander into the oldest corner of the garden. I have been trying to find a mother plant, one whose seeds have blossomed into all these others, but I have not found a certain source, a tall poppy of tiny, perfect dispersing its tiny, perfect seeds over this tiny, perfect plot. All I can say with some certainty is that this collocation shows up first in my searches in the middle 1800s, and its usage has grown unevenly over the years but is now higher than ever before. Here is a gift set of three of the most time-tempered stock:

her tiny, perfect figure looks quite fairy-like when contrasted with his six feet of stature.
—Virginia De Forrest, “How Effie Hamilton Spent Christmas,” Godey’s Magazine, volume 55, 1857

As the bold Lomonds, bold to a Southern, and the little secluded den, and each tiny perfect leaf and flower and dim floating fleecy cloud were to Janet’s bodily vision, so was Shakespeare to her mental regard
—Henrietta Keddie, “Lady Strathmore’s Daughter,” Family Herald, volume 15, 1857

This last one I am fondest of. It recounts a plumber’s dream:

He is – so his fancy paints him to himself – crawling about upon a church roof, about to solder up a defect in it, when, by one of those unaccountable incidents which we take very quietly when they come to us in dreams, down goes the ladle of boiling metal into a pool in the street below. “Try again,” says old Honesty; and he descends to get his ladle and his lead. The former is there sure enough, but the latter is represented by a myriad of tiny, perfect spheres. With real material lead, and his eyes wide open, he goes through next morning the exact process he has noticed in his dream, and – inaugurates the manufacture of lead-shot!
—J. Coryton, “Accidental Inventions,” Macmillan’s Magazine, volume 4, 1861

Tiny, perfect spheres of lead, to load into your less-than-tiny gun. Perfect for massacring tiny, perfect birds and making confetti of tiny, perfect flowers. Even tiny, perfect things may be perfectly bad, and the angels dancing on the pinhead may after all be angels of death.

You may have deduced that I find this cute little collocation to be a bit twee at times. But I do like tiny, perfect things, mistake me not. Indeed, it is easier for things to be perfect if they are tiny; greatness leads to grossness, and in Brobdingnagian close-up one can see all sorts of defects. When we follow the florets of fractals down, we know that the small ones are simply the same as the larger, but in their tininess it is easier to see perfection, because the frayed ends are simply too small for our eyes to resolve. Kittens are more perfect than cats, even though they are less fully formed, just because they are tiny, and they fill our needs in just the right way – their downy hair and their wondering eyes, but also their innocuous but biting teeth and their little pin claws that hurt only just enough and not too much.

Go, vocatives! Go invocations!

A reader of Sesquiotica emailed me to ask about which is correct if you’re cheering someone on: “Go, Veronica!” or “Go Veronica!” (If the person isn’t Veronica, substitute the correct name, obviously.)

My answer is that it depends somewhat on context. If I’m addressing Veronica directly, I’d include the comma, as “Go” is a complete imperative (command) by itself and the “Veronica” is a vocative – her name used just to indicate I’m addressing her. If I addressed her and then said “go” it would also have a comma: “Veronica, go!”

If, on the other hand, I’m cheering for her at some event where she can’t necessarily hear me and I’m really not addressing her directly, just invoking her, I might more likely use “Go Veronica!” because in that case “Go” is not really a direct imperative, it’s an expression of support like “Up with Veronica” or “Long live Veronica,” and the “Veronica” is part of the same expression to indicate who I’m cheering for.

A lot of people don’t put a comma in for the first case either, but if you want to be formally correct, add it in.

There are also cases where a comma will help even if it’s an invocation – for instance, if your team are called The Nuts, “Go Nuts!” can mean something different from “Go, Nuts!” And fans of Minnesota’s hockey team may or may not be sensitive to the difference between “Go, Wild!” and “Go Wild!” (I’m inclined to think in this case that the effect would be the same, however.)

gummy

Could you chew gummy things if you were entirely gummy?

Elephants go through several sets of teeth in their lifetimes, and when the last ones are gone, they may starve to death, as they’re not able to chew the plants they eat on their gums. Would they be able to chew gum, I wonder?

Gums and gum may seem to have some things in common: they’re both soft, after all, and both are thought of as involved somehow in chewing. The word gummy is itself rather gummy: a voiced stop /g/ is softer than a voiceless one /k/ – somewhat as gums are to teeth – and the mm is surely soft and looks more than a little like teeth or gums. Granted, sticky has a certain sticky something that gummy doesn’t capture but that gum has, but gummy is gummier in every way than viscid, which is nonetheless a term one may apply to gum, though not to the gums.

But is the relation between gum and gums a gimme? Not at all. Although both are gummy, the etymology is gummed up. From Greek comes the word κόμμι kommi referring to the secretion of certain trees – sticky, chewy perhaps, and soluble, unlike resin. It moved into Latin as cummi and gummi, which became Italian gomma and French gomme. Meanwhile, from Germanic roots came the Old English góma to refer to soft tissues inside the mouth, and particularly the ones at the base of the teeth. So the two have gum together, I mean come together, in form in English since the Middle English period.

You may be interested to know that gummy referring to toothlessness has been in use in English for little over a century, as far as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, but gummy meaning chewy and sticky like gum from a tree has been in use in English since the 1300s at least. I must admit I wonder, though, whether both kinds of gummy aren’t intended in this quotation from 1520: “Her lewde lyppes twayne They slauer, men sayne, Lyke a ropye rayne, A gummy glayre.”

Speaking of lewd and lurid things, there is another sense of gummy, meaning ‘gummatous’. What does that mean? Of the nature of, or resembling, a gumma. What is a gumma? A syphilitic tumour so named due to the gummy nature of its contents. In other words, this gummy has gotten chewed up and blown into a bubble that, come full circle, pops.

So there is nothing elevated or lovely or lofty about gummy, then, is there? Hmmm. Poets and authors of literature have not always seemed to agree. Here is perhaps a bit more of gummy than you can bear:

Time the slant lightning, whose thwart flame, driven down,
Kindles the gummy bark of fir or pine
—John Milton, Paradise Lost

Sing on! sing on! and Bacchus will be here
Astride upon his gorgeous Indian throne,
And over whimpering tigers shake the spear
With yellow ivy crowned and gummy cone,
While at his side the wanton Bassarid
Will throw the lion by the mane and catch the mountain kid!
—Oscar Wilde, “The Burden of Itys”

Now while the earth was drinking it, and while
Bay leaves were crackling in the fragrant pile,
And gummy frankincense was sparkling bright
’Neath smothering parsley, and a hazy light
Spread greyly eastward, thus a chorus sang
—John Keats, Endymion

They were both in the prime of youth, or even in that season which precedes the prime of youth, the season before the smooth pink folds of the flower have burst their gummy case, when the wings of the butterfly, though fully grown, are motionless in the sun.
—Virginia Woolf, Monday or Tuesday

And whenever he emptied his tumbler of punch
He ’d not rest till he fill’d it full again.
The boozing, bruising Irishman,
The ’toxicated Irishman—
The whiskey, frisky, rummy, gummy, brandy, no dandy Irishman.
—William Maginn, “The Irishman and the Lady”

Hmm, well, yes, that last one is not so lofty, now, is it? Gummy may be vivid and viscid, thick and sticky and in a particular way poetic, but in the end it is, after all, gummy, with all that comes with that. It sticks to its origins.

stenosis

I would not say I had a narrow childhood, but, like everyone’s, it was bound to its particular time and place, and as I get older the memories thin out some too, to a sort of Reader’s Digest version or less. So the details, especially those of younger years, feature some things rather more prominently than others. I do not remember the record player that I apparently figured out the basic principles of when I was a toddler, nor the wastebasket I landed headfirst in around the same time, but I do remember the pushbutton light switches in the manse in the centre of Morley, and my dad’s mimeograph machine (including the smell), and snatches of cartoons I watched, and the word Watergate on the TV, and the metallic taste in the back of my mouth I got after sticking a piece of metal into an electric socket. Also the feeling I got from same.

I remember crawling into a cooler that was sitting open in the driveway and letting the lid close over me, and discovering that it wasn’t going to open again, and thumping until someone opened it. I remember dreaming of large spiders one afternoon napping on my parents’ bed, and running in circles through the rooms in the teacherage in Exshaw, and the taste of soap in my mouth after trying new words out on my parents. I remember the smell of the bathroom, and the sight of Reader’s Digests piled on a shelf near the toilet.

Before a certain age the memories are fewer and fewer. A balloon let go of and floating up in the air – was that in Ixmiquilpan or Grand Forks? I may have been three years old or so. And there is one memory that might be my earliest, or it might have been a later dream. I prefer to think it’s a real memory.

It goes like this: I am in a hallway, sitting on something. It’s moving, being pushed by people. They are wearing masks over their noses and mouths. One of them, a woman, leans over and asks me if I would like to wear a mask too. Then she puts the mask on me, and we go through a door.

That’s all I remember of that.

The thing is, there is only one real thing that happened to me that that could be a memory of. And at that time, I was less than a month old.

I developed, about a couple of weeks after being born, a nasty habit of projectile vomiting. Not good. Whatever I took in was just going right back out. My parents, naturally, were concerned. My mother recalls, “At the time, Dr. Spock’s paperback book was very popular with young parents. The word was that his liberal ideas on parenting weren’t the best, but that his medical advice was good. So we looked up projectile vomiting and found ‘pyloric stenosis.’” They took me to the nearest hospital, 70 miles away in Rocky Mountain House, and I was operated on. Yes, pyloric stenosis. I have the scar on my belly to this day.

So I owe my life to Dr. Spock. That’s Benjamin Spock. Not Mister Spock from Star Trek. Though that would be cool.

What is pyloric stenosis? It’s a stenosis of the pylorus. Which means it’s a narrowing (stenosis) of the passage between the stomach and the small intestine. How does that narrowing occur? When I was a kid, I thought it was a tumour. I subsequently got the idea that the walls of the pylorus were too thick and needed to be roto-rootered. But no, it’s a hypertrophy – overgrowth – of the muscle surrounding the pylorus. When the stomach tries to empty, the muscle spasms and forces everything back the other way.

Sort of like how some people react to perfectly normal linguistic features and processes. New words, or even words that aren’t new but they think are new. Or practically any real linguistic nourishment at all that would help them grow as people. They have a mental spasm and reject it. The readers fail to digest. But whereas a narrow pylorus is recognized as life threatening, many people try to present a narrow mind as a virtue. And somehow when these people projectile vomit linguistic changes, many others think it should be heeded. When what is really needed is a mental pyloromyotomy.

Oh, yeah, that’s the word for the operation whereby the pyloric muscle is cut so as to relieve the stenosis: pyloromyotomy. Just look at that beauty. Four o’s like cross-sections of the pylorus. Three y’s like the bottom of the stomach and the top of the intestine. Two m’s to make my my. Rhythmically two amphibrachs with an extra at the end.

But back to stenosis. Pyloric stenosis is not the only kind of stenosis. The body is full of tubes and valves and so on that can be narrowed. A common heart problem is mitral valve stenosis – narrowing of the mitral valve (which lets blood into the left ventricle of the heart) due to thickening of the tissue. Your airways, the channel your spinal cord passes through, everything that has any kind of fluid passing through it – all possibly subject to stenosis. In short, if it can be narrowed, it can have stenosis, though of course some kinds are more common.

And what effect can that have? Think of the passage of air through your mouth. Open your mouth and exhale. Now narrow that a little with the tip of your tongue. Narrow it some more. At a certain point you’ll be saying “ssss.” The sound you hear is caused by turbulence and speed, but you’ll notice that even with the increased pressure and speed of the air, much less passes through. And at a certain point that “sss” becomes a “t” – just like at the start of “stenosis.” Flow stops. Now, if there’s an alternate passageway, it’s like “n”; the air or whatever goes around and out another way. But generally that’s not so common in bodily channels. It’s one possible solution to a stenosis – but the better way is what follows the “n”: an “o” – a nice, open passage.

Where does this word come from? Greek, ultimately: στενός stenos ‘narrow’. People of older generations may recall hearing of stenographers (big offices would have a “steno pool,” i.e., a whole bunch of stenographers ready for use). What did they do? Take shorthand notes – dictation of letters, meeting notes, and so on. Since the 1600s, stenography has been a word for shorthand writing – because such writing is narrower, i.e., less space consuming. Coincidentally, Pitman shorthand – one of the two main types used in the 20th century – used the thickness of the stroke as a distinguishing feature between letter forms, adding another dimension of stenosis to the stenography.

Shorthand is little used these days. But I think people may still understand if I speak of memories as a shorthand of life – narrowed down, data compressed, but somehow not always decompressed very well thereafter. And old notes get discarded. I have no memory of what happened right after the operation for pyloric stenosis. But I know the short version: we want back to the Big Horn Stoney Indian Reserve, where we were living. From stenosis to Stoneys. From narrow digestive tract to big mountains and wide sky. And growing, and gradually building more memories. But nothing is still retained from that time so early in my life. Except that one scar.

phase

Since Maury became the spokesperson for the Bee Spokes tailoring outfit, he has been almost unrecognizable. It’s not that he never paid attention to his appearance before; it’s just that he formerly kept his own counsel, which was not always the same counsel others would give. But the transformation from rumply bowtied bookish Don Juanna-be to dapper man-about-town has been so striking that it’s hard not to wonder if it’s just a phase he’s going through.

Now, Maury is generally more prone to going through phrases than phases, but he has certainly gone through something of a phase shift – or, more to the point, many women (and some so-inclined men) have gone through a phase shift in his regard, from frozen to liquid… and sometimes heading towards steamy. Maury has always been out of phase with the fashion of the times, but somehow instead of being a half-cycle behind and cancelling out, he is now ahead slightly, which produces some interesting results.

Take, for instance, his effect on Margot, the ever-prickly. Normally the presence of nearly any potential object of attraction leaves her quite unfazed. (By the way, fazed comes from feeze, a Germanic word meaning ‘disturb’, and is not related to phase.) And she has never been affected much one way or the other by Maury. But when he swanned into the room and she saw his transformation for the first time, she was left speechless – as Jess put it, “I think it’s aphasia going through.” Daryl added drily, “She looks like he set his phaser to stun.”

We could say that in one archaic sense he is no longer in Phase: Phase is a now-unused word for Passover (taken from a Latin adaptation of Hebrew pesah), and Maury used to be regularly passed over, but not so much now. Which is a bit of an irony for him, since just as all these objects of attraction are taken with him, he is himself taken – he has a steady love interest, he assures us, and he is not available. I’m sure he’ll introduce us to his new warm fuzzy sometime.

So Maury the schlemiel has become Maury who bespeaks the pompetus of love (though he stops short of becoming Maurice). I trust you can understand, then, that any momentary discomfiture on his part might give rise to a brief bit of schadenfreude on our part. I thus relate with some enjoyment the recent proof that this must be a phase for Maury.

Allow me first to explain that phase comes via French phase via Latin phasis from Greek ϕάσις phasis, which referred to an aspect of the moon, as we still refer to phases of the moon. That is the basis for all other uses of phase, which refer to cyclic things (allowing the idea that the states of matter – solid, liquid, gas, plasma – are cyclic).

So, now, picture Maury wearing a spiffy suit and riding a cycle – I mean a bicycle, on the one day recently when it was even close to zero Celsius. He pulls up and hops off his bike and bends over to chain it up. And that is when I see it: he has a rip in the seat of his pants – the seam has pulled apart.

Thus revealing the full moon.

A phase indeed.

Thanks to Hal Davis for suggesting phase.

tercel

This word has a certain taste of celerity and accelerator, but’s it’s terser. It almost seems a more select word, but it has a sound of a brand name that’s made to sell… After all, it is the name of a car.

That’s not all it’s the name of, mind you, and not the first thing it was the name of, either. Before it was used for hawking cars, it was – as it still is – a name for a male goshawk or falcon. It comes via French, somewhat changed from the Latin tertiolus, diminutive of tertius ‘third’. The bird word is also spelled tiercel.

Oh, and in either spelling, the accent is on the first syllable: tercel is “terse’ll” and tiercel is “tier s’ll.” Funny thing in English: we used to leave final -el syllables unstressed, sometimes even spelling them -ell as in names such as Winchell, Twitchell, Meynell, but nowadays we tend by default to stress them, repronouncing names – and restressing tercel in the brand name as “ter-sell”… good for selling, of course.

So why was a male falcon a third? There are two lines of thought: it’s either because the male is a third smaller than the female, or because about one in three falcon eggs is a male.

So why was a Toyota Tercel so named? Because, like the male falcon, it’s smaller than its counterpart. What is the corollary counterpart? The Toyota Corolla – so named because corolla is Latin for ‘small crown’ or ‘chaplet’ and it is modelled on the larger Toyota Crown. (There’s also the Toyota Corona – corona is Latin for ‘crown’ – and the Toyota Camry, which gets its name from Japanese kanmuri, ‘little crown’.)

So it wasn’t named for the flash and dash of the raptor? Its celerity, perhaps? Well, a Toyota Tercel’s speedometer tops out at 185 km/h (about 115 mph), and I have seen a YouTube video of someone’s dashboard as they manage to get one up to that on a flat straightaway. The top speed of a falcon in a dive, on the other hand, is about 320 km/h (200 mph).

So, um, advantage bird. Unless you can show me that a Toyota Tercel dropped from a great height achieves a higher terminal velocity. But even if it does, the bird still wins – because it survives.

Thanks to Roberto de Vido for suggesting today’s word.

ethereal

Is this a dream? Has he drunk a draught of absinthe or inhaled a breath of ether? Nothing is either/or; everything is always already other than itself, the ever-changing static of television ghosts.

The fog giveth, the fog taketh ere all can be seen. His eyes tell him he may pass in, go there; the reality is that he may be there already; but when he looks again it is something passing, other, ethereal, ready to shift sense in the interstices of the senses. He does not know if he has seen an angel or a sylph or a simple wisp of phantasy. It is sketchy, but it draws him. It is a theory: not solid but so persuasive.

He has entered the highest realm, above the clouds: the empyrean, above the realm of the empirical, where there is ether. And he sees what he could not have expected to meet here: a lady, on a stairway. What runs in this figure’s veins is surely not blood but plasma. But this figure runs in his veins. It is a thrill to be held in its thrall.

Who is this pale, wispy, beautiful, delicate creature, this shimmering figure? Something sidereal or a serial killer? A witch, a Wiccan, a wick for the flame that will immolate him? Is this a form of Morpheus, or is he Orpheus and this Eurydice? It is light and fantastic, sliding between the blinds of the scene like cold felid smoke.

He follows. He hears celestial hymns now from this siren siffling through the heather of the heavens, Poe’s poetry:

And all my days are trances
And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy dark eye glances
And where thy footstep gleams—
In what ethereal dances
By what eternal streams.

She leads him hither and thither, far from hearth and home, and by misdirection to the margin of the river Alethea. She is a soft dream of mist and gossamer hair and lace. And yet when he looks away and looks back, he is confused: Does he see leather? How does he feel this sting?

How can he relate this? Does he hear telegnostically? He senses her only through ESP, and often sees her only with averted vision, like a distant star not to be looked at directly. He has crossed the celestial pons asinorum to find what Oxford describes: “A substance of great elasticity and subtilty, formerly believed to permeate the whole of planetary and stellar space, not only filling the interplanetary spaces, but also the interstices between the particles of air and other matter on the earth; the medium through which the waves of light are propagated.” And he realizes now that this is no light matter; this is dark matter.

But she fills him so completely, although there is nothing there he can find. She holds him together, and he yearns to hold her, ungraspable though she is. If she will slide in and out of his eyes and seduce as a siren this sailor at sea, let her. She has touched the softest part of his heart elementally, and once more all is in order. If this is a pale, beautiful dream, he will sleep softly so as not to wake the real.

Gross words for fine wines

As you probably know, I’m a bit of a wine lover, a swirl-and-sniff kind of a guy. So I’m fairly familiar with the sometimes surprising terminology used to describe the smell and taste of wines. My latest article for TheWeek.com looks at some of the more off-putting terms that somehow mean something delicious:

17 disgusting descriptions for delicious wines

galosh

I may have grown up with Canadian winters, but I’m not going to gush about sloshy, splashy mess that is Toronto sidewalks in the sloppy season. All that water that in summer makes the region so lush, in winter turns to slush. If it happens to freeze, it is assaulted with salt and turns into a shoe-staining muck, and the gutters are galling gulches of sole destruction.

What to do, though? Either trudge in heavy boots – which you may have to keep on inside too unless you carry a spare pair of lighter shoes – or wear comfortable shoes that will soon be soaked through and thereafter caked with baleful salt stains. You’re stuck between a marsh and a wet place. With every step you push through the slush and ask if there is a better way.

And as you swish through it it answers, “Galosh. Galosh. Galosh. Galosh.”

But are you listening? Do you have galoshes? Have you ever had galoshes? Do you know where to get galoshes? Or are you at a losh? I mean a loss?

Surely you’ve heard of them. The word galosh is, granted, also used at times as a simple synonym for a rubber boot. But really galoshes are boots made to go over shoes. They were originally strap-on clogs that could elevate the feet above the muck. The word may come ultimately via Latin from Greek κᾱλόπους kalopous ‘wooden foot’, or perhaps from Latin gallicae ‘Gaulish shoes’, shoes with wooden soles and leather uppers. We’re not sure; we only know we got it from French galoche. But we do know that the wood was put aside once vulcanized rubber was available and Goodyear made the wet season a betterseason.

What we don’t know now – I don’t, anyway – is where we can get galoshes now. You can’t get them at Canadian Tire. You can’t get them at the Hudson’s Bay Company. You can’t get them at Mark’s Work Wearhouse. You can’t get them at Sears. You can’t get them at Holt Renfrew. I’m at a bit of a loss. My mother, who suggested this word (no doubt in hopes that I am keeping my feet warm and dry), says she’s heard you can get them somewhere. But they’re no longer a common item.

Maybe this is because leather shoes are not such a universal thing anymore. Those who do wear them generally have the means to keep their shoes dry: along with better sidewalk drainage and paved streets, we have built a society where it can be possible to spend nearly all your time inside if you want – inside buildings, inside parking garages, inside your car. Canadians, who like to make much of their hardiness, are really mostly urban cave dwellers. You can get across downtown Toronto – or downtown Calgary or Edmonton or Montreal – without stepping outside.

But of course many of us still do step outside. I walk four blocks to catch the streetcar every morning, and cross badly drained corners on my way in to work, and I walk around the city on weekends too, trudging through the salty sludge and gutter pools of slush. My lack of galoshes is my loss.