Monthly Archives: February 2014


“What does nephelibate mean?”

Aina was reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s In Praise of the Stepmother, translated by Helen Lane. On page 95 of that festival of sensual words she found this: “And he remembered José María Eguren, the slender nephelibate poet who, regarding the Spanish word nariz as being phonetically vulgar, gallicized it and called it nez in his poems.”

I had to admit I didn’t know what nephelibate meant. In fact, I didn’t think I’d even ever seen or heard the word before.

As it happens, nephelibate isn’t on either, or, or even in the Oxford English Dictionary. But I turned to the great cloud mind of Google and found a page in French that gave a definition. The word also exists in Spanish and Portuguese, spelling differing as appropriate. A bit of an infraction, don’t you think, for a translator to use word that’s a direct borrowing from another language and doesn’t have a dictionary entry in the language you’re translating into?

But of course this is English. That’s a thing we do.

But what did this word mean? Did it have to do with nephews, or kidneys (that root is nephr as in nephritis), or a nefarious Nefertiti, with some kind of philia, with celibate or libation, with phlebotomy or something flabby, infallible, or inflatable? Given the title of the book, could it be some converse to novercal (‘of or relating to a stepmother’)? It starts soft with the /n/ and becomes softer with the /f/ (puffed with a classical breath by the ph spelling) but then hardens with /b/ and comes to a point at /t/. It’s like a down pillow with a hard cube in the middle. Or a cloud that will send down ice.

The obliging web page I found that first gave me the definition in French was on the blog Le Lorgnon mélancolique, and here is a translation of what it says (you will find this same definition also in wiktionary in Portuguese for nefelibata): “Nephelibate: who lives in the clouds; said of an excessively idealistic person, who flees reality, also of a writer who doesn’t follow literary rules. From Greek nephelê (‘cloud’) and batein (‘walk’), the term seems to have been invented by Rabelais in the fourth book of Pantagruel.”

Ah, François Rabelais, the 16th-century French author who gave us gargantuan, agelast, and thelemite, among others. He used the word Nephelibate just to name a particular fictitious nation. But its roots made it handy and it persisted. A cloud-liver! Sky-walker! Someone whose head is in cloudcuckooland, who simply can’t be brought down to earth! A fantastic rule-breaking poet or prose writer! Perhaps someone who invents new words, or borrows words whole-cloth from other languages without so much as explaining them. Or, of course, someone who insists on using a French word because he does not like the word available in his own language.

The image that comes to me is of The Beatles’ fool on the hill: “Well on the way, head in a cloud, the man of a thousand voices talking perfectly loud, but nobody ever hears him or the sound he appears to make, and he never seems to notice, but the fool on the hill sees the sun going down, and the eyes in his head see the world spinning ’round.” Oddly, that also seems to describe life in a high-rise apartment such as the one I’m sitting in right now…


I wore my Toulouse-Lautrec tie today, with its picture of La Goulue doing the cancan. Why? Because I can. And my wife asked me to.

I am going to tie that together with this:

Several years ago, on a web forum, a commenter responded to a posted picture with “What is this I don’t even.” It represented tidily the complete failure of words in the face of something so…

Anyway, it became a common phrase in comments on things; sometimes you would see strings of several of them in response to each other (the obvious spoor of adolescent males). Over time it morphed to “I can’t even.”

But wait, there’s more. One thing that many on teh interwebz glory in is breaking English. Why not have fun with language by committing grammatical infractions? Bending syntax the wrong way, disfiguring morphology? The categorical requirements of verbs just beg to be tweaked on the nose. Because fun! Very amuse. And one of those sets of rules that have long been waiting to be given a wedgie is the one that applies to modal auxiliaries. You know, can, may, shall, and so on. They attach to an infinitive verb without using to and you can’t use them as main verbs, infinitives, or participles. There is no “I want to may” or “I shall English” or “I have canned it” (well, that last one will be taken to refer to putting something in a cylindrical metal container).

So. “I can’t even”? How about “I have lost all ability to can even”? Hee hee. An article that covers this rather nicely is “Your Ability to Can Even: A Defense of Internet Linguistics.”

So if I am able to be able, can I say “I can can”? Ah! To some people that desecration of grammar would be scandalous! Like exposing its undergarments publicly! They would get very exercised about it. Even though it’s really a canard.

A canard? Quack quack – canard is French for ‘duck’. And a word that seems to have been derived from that is the childish reduplication cancan, a French word for a scandal. A fast and energetic quadrille with leaps and leg kicks and whirls came to get this name, because it was shocking and really not proper. It’s not that people were exposing their undergarments – not at first, anyway; indeed, it was sometimes done by individual males. But it was quite improper.

Which meant if you got women to do it, and do it so that they were exposing their many layers of frilly underwear, you could get men to pay to watch it. You could could. They would dance it to such pieces as the galope infernal from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underwear. I mean Underworld. It became popular at places such as the Moulin Rouge, danced by chorus lines and by star performers such as La Goulue, who would flip up her skirt and show an embroidered heart on her can.

Of course, the prudes of the era couldn’t even. They were fit to be tied. It was too loose, Lautrec! But the dancers wouldwould and diddid, and even today, you maymay go to the Moulin Rouge and they willwill. Because they cancan.


Imagine speech as a continuous stream of variegated colours flowing past uninterrupted, one sound into another. Now imagine written (or printed) language as a bunch of pieces of fabric of individual colours sewn together in an attempt to approximate the flow of colour that you hear from the spoken.

Yes, the written word is a quilt, a fabric mosaic approximation of reality sewn together from bits. And you are the sewer.

Or should I say the sewist.

Sewist? That’s not a word you will find in a dictionary. No, for a long time the standard agentive suffix for deriving nouns from verbs was er: doer, thinker, walker, worker… a joke my brother came up with is that since I live, and I am (infinitive be), I must be a liver and a beer. But this derivation becomes a problem with someone who sews.

The issue is that the verb spelled sew represents a word now said /so/. This is illustrated by the pun sew-and-sew referring to someone who sews (it only works if you know the derogatory epithet so-and-so). So what would be written soer (itself a little problematic) if the word were spelled so (obviously also an ambiguity risk) is instead spelled sewer, which happens to be the same as the word for a cloaca. An underground gutter. An artificial watercourse for drainage.

So aren’t we lucky that the suffix ist has become a fadfix? It’s the hot new agentive! Word quilters take note: no need to have those bland er panels when you can add a bit of spice with ist. And, in some cases, avoid an unpleasant ambiguity.

Because really, why have two words spelled the same way that have different sounds and meanings, especially if one of them refers to something unpleasant? And especially if you could use a different form for one of them?

We can’t use a different form for sewer meaning artificial water channel; it’s not formed with sew plus er – in fact, it’s a digested-and-excreted form related to Latin exaquatorium. But sew plus er meaning ‘someone who sews’? Why not use something clearer?

Sewist is, in fact, as Jim Taylor has told me, a current term in the world of sewing. It’s a new twist, a bit of a swizzle in the drink. It may annoy those people who prefer the old established forms, problematic though they may be. Such people tend to cover for their mental inflexibility with invective against the intellects of the more practical and forward-thinking people who would dare pour troublesome old forms in the sewer.

Think of sewist as a new patch on a problem, a deft bit of sewing that takes a little different fabric to sew a new representation together. Expect to see it in dictionaries before too long; eventually it will be the standard term, simply for better communication. Which is, after all, what language is really for. Not just needling.


As I mentioned yesterday, I like coriander, and the word coriander, and the word cilantro, but cilantro itself not as much.

And yes, I know that coriander and cilantro are the same plant. Here in North America among Anglophones, it is usual for cilantro to refer to the leaves and coriander to the seeds.

So you would think that, coming from the same plant, they would taste about the same, right? Well. You would think that, coming from the same Latin (and Greek) root, coriander and cilantro would be about the same word, wouldn’t you, but they’re as different as the things they name: there’s a resemblance, but there are obvious differences.

The origin of these two words is Greek κορίαννον koriannon, which became Latin coriandrum. But then, just as one part of a plant becomes a leaf and another a seed, the word became two words – because of dissimilation: since there’s another /r/ later in the word, the first /r/ became (for some speakers) /l/. So we got a variant word, coliandrum. And that changed a bit more when taken into Spanish: the /um/ into /o/, which is the standard development from Latin into Spanish and Italian, and the /d/ into /t/, the /o/ into /u/, and the /i/ dropped – probably for ease of articulation. Thus culantro. And that further changed, through processes unclear to me, into cilantro.

So you have on the one hand coriander, with a hard /k/ at the start and hollow /ɔ/ and /ri/ rolling in the middle, and a /dr/ on the end (because French converted drum into dre and we got it from them and changed it a little), and on the other hand cilantro, with soft /s/ and narrow /ɪ/ (or narrower /i/ in Spanish) and liquid /l/ and final /tro/. The /æn/ at the heart stays the same. So cilantro is soft at the start like a leaf, but crisper and rolling at the end, while coriander is harder at the start and then rolls all through like a seed on the tongue. And cilantro gives us resonances of silly and cilia and supercilious and slant and Elantra and entropy and el centro. It’s a more Spanish sound.

Is it a more Spanish taste? Certainly fresh cilantro is a central salsa savoury. And I don’t mind it so much in that context as long as it’s not overdone. But cook it into a soup and it becomes soapy. I do like a nice bowl of pho, that Vietnamese specialty, but when I hit a soggy limp cilantro leaf in it, well, that’s never the high point. But different people have different tastes.

Anyway, unlike coriander, cilantro does not open a door in the hall of memories for me. And nothing gives a word flavour like your own personal memories.


I like coriander, and I like the word coriander. I’m fine with the word cilantro too, although I’m not too keen on cilantro.

Yes, I know that coriander and cilantro are the same plant. Here in North America among Anglophones, it is usual for cilantro to refer to the leaves and coriander to the seeds. And it is the seeds that I generally fancy more. The flavour is nice enough, and it brings back memories.

Coriander was the name of a natural food store in the Sundance Mall in Banff – on the upper floor, which you had to take an elevator or an unprepossessing staircase to get to. It smelled like a natural food store. Like all natural food stores smell: an impossibly complex olfactory mud of hundreds of spices and whole grains and sprouted grains and nuts and beans and seeds and leaves and things you only eat because they’re good for you and some things you’d eat anyway. You could get a peanut butter and banana sandwich at Coriander made with thick-cut whole-grain bread, chunks of banana, and dense peanut butter that had been made right there and was no so much spread on the bread as impressed upon it a centimetre or two thick. You could also buy any of quite a few Celestial Seasonings teas – that was where I first met the brand (I still have at least one bag of something of theirs most days of the week, although it has been years since I had any of their famous Sleepytime tea, their big breakthrough blend). You could also have soup and all those other things that natural food places make. To be perfectly honest, I am not at all sure that I ever had anything there that had coriander in it. But coriander was undoubtedly one of the myriad components of that smell that wrapped the premises.

That store is the first place and thing I associate with coriander. I may well have encountered the spice by name before, though. I certainly used it in cooking every so often once I was cooking every so often. It was one of the ingredients I used in the nasi goreng I used to like to make. I still have a jar of it on my spice rack, but I must confess I don’t use as much of it as I used to.

The other thing that coriander makes me think of is Calvin and Hobbes, which to my mind is the best comic strip ever, and I’m generally not a person who chooses single bests or favourites. The connection is that Calvin’s favourite book was Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie, and its sequel was Commander Coriander Salamander and ’er Singlehander Bellylander.

Coriander has some interesting flavours as a word: all those words starting with cori or similar such as coryphaeus, coryza, and anyone you know named Corey; there’s also a core of cor words, though chorus, corpus, and court are as faint as the hint of carob in the smell at Coriander; there are also ander words such as Alexander, salamander, philander, commander, and so on; and I find a variable echo of words that hinge on ri such as variant, orient, euphoria, aerial, teriyaki, and so on. It’s all there, but you may not pick out invidual subtle smells behind a few dominant ones.

I think coriander is a good word for the spice. The spice seems suited to the air of the natural food store, and the natural food store seemed suited to the word, with its late-blooming flower child sensibility and its whole-spice and grainy or seedlike image. Of course the word is much older than flower children. It comes from Latin coriandrum, from Greek κορίαννον koriannon (where Greek got it from is a conundrum). English has had the word since the 1300s at least.

The word cilantro also comes from the same root, as of course does what it names. But I’ll leave that for tomorrow.


I’d like you all to meet Miss Chievous.
She’s got a lot of fun to give us.
With eyes so wiley and mouth so devious,
She’ll trick you to thinking she’s Miss Chievious
(She isn’t now, though you should know
She had that name centuries ago).
She’s a little imp, a sylph, a sprite,
A naughty mistress of delight;
When it comes to fun that could end in grief,
She’s the boss-girl – she’s Miss Chief.
It’s Friday evening and you’re bored stiff?
Just wave a little handkerchief,
Put on your tail coat and your waistcoat –
Or kevlar vest, and grab your mess kit –
Her boat to fun’s docked at the quay.
She’ll teach you to be wild and free!
She’ll have you dangling on a gunwale
Quaffing Cognac with a funnel,
Held inverted by a boatswain
Mostly naked till half frozen;
Sneaking peaks and stealing victuals –
Blancmanges and peanut brittles,
Caesars spiked with sauce from Worcester –
Then she’ll say, “Come meet my sister.”
If your tongue is free from injury,
Just wait till she comes out in… lingerie!
For that’s how she breeds fascination:
She ever foils your expectation.
If you make your chief Miss Chief,
You’ll end up hanging from a cliff
And see Miss Chievous just above it…
But mark my words, boy, you will love it.

I encourage you to read this through for yourself first. But you may thereafter watch this video of me reading it, if you wish:


Sound is a thread, a string, a cord, pulling you along or pulling time out of you. The individual vowels and consonants are knots. Tie them together in this pattern and that and soon you have a recognizable word, a set of words, a pattern of thought expressed, a meaning. Perhaps a memory.

A memory, say, of a house full of plants, and forest-pattern wallpaper, and brown ceramics and bubbling orange and white glass. And hemp, plenty of hemp. Ropes, cords, strings, knotted, hanging, decorated with wooden beads. Plants hanging in pots made of knots. Wall decorations in brown rope and green wooden beads. Perhaps a purse or other bag made of naught but knotted knots in abstract patterns. Maybe a belt or two. A hammock? Perhaps not. Not thin strings knotted, not tatting or knitting, nothing micro; this is macro: macramé.

Yes, it was a thing of its time, macramé. Not that it was a never-before-seen craze in the 1970s and early ’80s. Indeed, it had been big in Victorian times, and has been around much longer than that, on the fringes. But the cord of my memory does not pull nearly so far back. For me, this knotty pattern of four consonants and three vowels speaks clearly of my early adolescence.

And it is a word with a certain mouthfeel. Twice soft on the lips, and in between textured by the /kr/, and afterwards simply gliding away. Somehow it tastes of granola, although at that age I ate Mini-Wheats. Is it macrobiotic? It sounds like macaroon or macaroni, but with that French-like é on the end. I do not get a real Scottish flavour in spite of the mac. Indeed, I sooner taste caramel. Or perhaps a blend of tumeric and cumin?

If this somehow seems Arabic, you have gotten to the spool of this cord. The source is migramah, ‘striped cloth’; it was borrowed to Turkish makrama ‘towel, napkin’. It happens that woven cloths would often have the loose strings knotted into tasselled fringes, and in Italian this knotted fringe came to be called macramè. The knotting craft itself came to be what we called macramé in English, reversing the direction of the written accent to follow our more accustomed practice.

We also called it macramé lace more fully. Sailors did this handicraft, making belts and hammocks, and – through a rearrangement of the knots of this word – sometimes called it McNamara’s lace.

Yes, rough and hardy sailors, so different from my sweet, crafting mother. I’m sure the taste of this word would be different for me if I knew it first from the navy. But that is not where these knots are tied for me. The plant of this memory is suspended from the ceiling of my mind in the macramé planter holder of this word, and the plant is a house, a time, a place, a feel, a mother, and a lot of brown cord, tied and, once tied, not undone.