Monthly Archives: March 2014


The game farm house was at the foot of a mountain with a large cliff at the top. I spent my adolescence with that face hanging above and behind me.

If you’ve ever driven to Banff from Calgary you will have seen it. It’s the first mountain on the north side of the valley. The cliff face across the top is vaguely reminiscent of a yam that has been – not cut, rather broken in half. Here is a photo of it.

Climbers call the mountain “the Yam.” But they don’t call it “the Yam” because it looks like a yam. They call it “the Yam” because it’s Mount Yamnuska.

There are a few things in the area called Yamnuska: touring companies, a summer camp, such like. They are all named after the mountain. It cuts quite a figure. It is very popular with rock climbers; there are hundreds of routes up that cliff face. My dad bought a book detailing many of the routes. I found it fascinating. I loved looking through it, imagining climbing up.

I have never actually done any rock climbing. (My father most certainly hasn’t either.)

But you can climb up to the top of Yamnuska without ropes or risk of falling. You just go up the trail up through the trees on the lower front and, when you get to the part where the cliff is, go around the back way. Only the front is a cliff, you see; the back is quite accessible. Don’t take the mountain just at face value.

I have hiked Mount Yamnuska. But I have never gotten all the way to the very top, just because the group I was with didn’t want to or didn’t have the time. I should go back and do it. Unlike many of the things from my childhood, the mountain is still there. And probably isn’t going anywhere for a while.

So what is this word Yamnuska? Let’s start with how it’s said. It follows English spelling. English spelling can be weird at times, but at least we know it doesn’t do things like, say, put “m” and “n” sounds together at the start of the same syllable. The Yam is easy. The ka is also easy. The nus rhymes with plus. I’ve heard some people say it “yam-noose-ka,” presumably because they think they shouldn’t say it as though it’s an English word, although the spelling is as it is to match English spelling. People leap to conclusions, and sometimes the conclusion is at the bottom of a cliff. But wherever the fault may be, there’s no sense in assigning blame; it’s something we’re conditioned to as English speakers: favour the marked. Don’t take things at face value.

But where did this word come from? The local language: Nakoda, also called Stoney. The Stoneys were the people for whom my parents worked and on whose reserve (“Indian Reservation”) I spent much of my childhood. Now, if you’re a language person, you will be aware that the sounds that make up one language are often not exact matches to the sounds that make up another one. So you may expect that our English pronunciation of Yamnuska is not quite the way it’s said in Stoney. And this is true.

Actually, it’s not even spelled that way in Stoney. In Stoney (Nakoda – do you see the resemblance to Dakota and Lakota?), it’s Îyâ Mnathka. The circumflexes indicate nasalization. The a represents a low-central vowel, like the a in bar. Stoney has two apical voiceless fricatives, spelled th and s, but they’re really in the spaces between English th, s, and sh, so Stoney s sounds sort of like “sh” and Stoney th is less toothy than English th. Also, while Yamnuska has three syllables with the stress in the middle, Îyâ Mnathka has four, with the stresses on the first and last. So what you think you see at first is actually quite different from what really is there. But the real not-face-value of Yamnuska is quite different from the jumped-to-a-conclusion not-face-value.

The name Îyâ Mnathka, by the way, means ‘flat-faced rock’. Which is pretty much right on, although actually there’s a mountain across the valley that has a similar cliff that’s flatter in the face, Barrier Mountain. (But that one is less spectacular; frankly, it’s more distinctive in the side view from Exshaw: it looks like a nose.)

But Mount Yamnuska is not the official name, nor is Îyâ Mnathka. Of course that’s the name that the people who have been there longer gave it, but the invading Europeans saw fit to give it a different name: Mount John Laurie.

If you’re from Calgary, you’ll recognize John Laurie. There is a boulevard running around the base of the nose of Nose Hill called John Laurie Boulevard. Now guess how it’s pronounced.

If you said “Like ‘John’ and like ‘Laurie’,” you’re right. But some students I knew at the University of Calgary – and who knows how many other people in Calgary – said the Laurie as like Laurier or Laurié, i.e., like “Laurie, eh.” Because apparently, being a Name and all, it couldn’t be said just like you’d normally say it; it must not be English, the John notwithstanding. Favour the marked; don’t take it at face value. Another bit of conclusion-jumping to add to the scree pile at the bottom of the cliff.

So who was John Laurie? John Lee Laurie was born in Ontario and moved west as an adult to teach in Calgary. He became familiar with the Stoney people and volunteered to work as secretary for the Indian Association of Alberta. He put a lot of time in as an advocate for the causes and rights of Indians (we now often say First Nations), and later compiled history of the Stoneys for the Glenbow Foundation. He died in 1959 and the mountain was officially named after him in 1961.

So it wasn’t really the invading Europeans trampling over the people who were there before, not quite. It was more of a way of honouring someone who did something meaningful, and quite recently at that. Again, the real story is not the face value and is also not the not-face-value you might assume. But anyway, everyone still calls the mountain Yamnuska; I’d wager that not five percent of people who know Yamnuska know its “official” name.

Here’s another nice picture of the mountain, a painting by Roland Rollinmud, a really excellent artist and old friend of my family: (you will see that it’s featured in a column written by my dad). Have another look at it, try to get a grip on where I’m coming from. Have you stopped to wonder about the geology of the mountain?

We know that, as a general rule, rocks on top are newer than rocks underneath because, well, that’s how things pile up. But what caused the cliff face to be there? A thing called the McConnell Thrust Fault. The shifting that happened because of this fault brought the rock on one side from a ways farther up the valley (I doubt it happened just one morning, but I do like the image that brings; here’s a more useful image: The fault is right at the base of the cliff. The cliff is made of Cambrian limestone, hard, prone to forming cliffs, 500 million years old. The rock at the base of the cliff is Cretaceous, sedimentary, soft, 80 million years old.

Yup, the upper part – the cliff part – is older, way older. Again, things are not always what they may seem on the face of it. The older prevails, though you need to get over the younger part to get to it. No need to assign blame… but the fault remains.


Life with language is a parlous proposition. Every foray into a parlour for a parley with those present can be a precarious parlay. You have come out ahead so far in the competition of conversation, but one quick trick from a crafty, unscrupulous, captious interlocutor can upset the applecart.

Confidences in particular are prey to the parlour parlous: a joke, or a little bit of venting, can be taken at face value. In gambling parlours the risk of gambling with fake money is that it will be recognized as fake money. In conversation the risk is the opposite: of its being treated as real currency. All of a sudden you have made a bet that you have to pay out on, or your twitch or tie tug has become a bid at an auction.

But it can be simpler than that. The right word to the right ears and you have been trumped. There are some words that, among those who know them, are like the most expensive jeans: to you they look like ordinary jeans, but those who recognize the brand or cut know that they bespeak a higher socioeconomic status. Sometimes a word is like furniture with a craquelure finish. I remember seeing such things in the ’90s in a fancy furniture store in lower Manhattan. Why on earth would anyone want this scabby old vanity, I thought. I had grown up in the country and recognized cracked paint as a sign of something abandoned and on its way back to the dust from whence it came. But rich New Yorkers liked this finish, especially when it was fake. Turn up your nose at it? They will turn up their noses at you. And they have more money.

So, now, let us take a word as an example. Start with Latin periculosus, ‘causing fear’. Run it through French and into English back in medieval times. You get perilous. Very good: you can picture a trip on the Caminito del Rey, perhaps, or a ship on the high seas.

But now run that through lazy and relaxed mouths. Drop the i. Loll the tongue on the first vowel as though you’re some creaky-phonating young-adult girl doing the latest drawl despised by the older generations. Make it sound lower-class, like varmint instead of vermin. You get parlous.

But oops. Did you think parlous is a low-grade word? Oh, how can it be, when it sounds like parlour and parliament and French parler? And when it partakes of the same vowel shift as in parson, Darby, and Clark? No, no, no. This is a word that consciously erudite writers like to use when writing jeremiads about politics and finances: the parlous state of… or these are parlous times or or or. This is a word that writers who enjoy being eloquently unpleasant like to keep in their travel bags next to their tooth powder. Read enough A.A. Gill and you will be sure to see it.

Perhaps, then, it is apposite that parlous means not just ‘dangerous, uncertain, precarious’ but also ‘keen, cunning, clever, malicious’. What in Irish English is termed cute. But there is one more usage as well: ‘extreme, marvellous’ (or ‘extremely, marvellously, very’) – available as a positive intensifier too: “You’re parlous pretty.”

In short, this word has craquelure on it. The expensive kind. You would do well not to treat it or its speaker too lightly.

And, in sum, it can be parlous parlous to partake in a parlour parley with a parlous person.

nictate, nictitate

What’s the difference between these two words? What dictates – or dictitates – the inclusion or exclusion of it?

You know, it – that intrusion, that blink in the middle of the word? It’s as though your eyes are seeing it as you are struggling to stay awake, and the sideways skipping saccades result in a double vision. Or perhaps it’s the other way around – you know how they say “Blink and you’ll miss it”? Well, perhaps in nictate you blinked and you missed it. And yet somehow, you’re still left with something intact, even if you don’t have something to tie it together.

I’ll give away the game: the two words are synonyms. But this isn’t an aluminum/aluminium or orient/orientate kind of thing; it’s not American/British. No, it’s just because there were two possible suffixes. The word comes from Latin, the verbal root being nict-; you can have the -are ending, a simple infinitive, or you can have the –itare ending, implying iteration: a frequentative… doing it over and over again.

So that would seem to mean the two words aren’t synonyms, right? Like, if you blink once, that’s not the same as fluttering your eyes, blinking repeatedly, right? And yet in modern English, both nictate and nictitate mean ‘wink, blink’ (but not ‘nod’). Well, experience says that if you blink once, you’ll probably blink again… and if your consciousness is going on the blink, after a series of blinks increasing in frequency you will end up with a blink that stops at the closed position, and consciousness will be a blank. Good nict, sleep tict!

Oh, yes, you do say it the way it’s spelled, and not like “nightate.” The nict is not related to night (which is a Germanic word, not Latin). But there is another word that it has fed into – one that refers to two parties winking at something together: com plus nictare somehow became connivere… which we have as connive.

Well, my two eyes are conniving to wink together, and that means sleep is heading my way. I am not like a Calabar angwantibo, either – the only primate to have a functioning nictating membrane (or should I say nictitating membrane), which is a third translucent eyelid under the regular two that allows a creature to wet the eye without closing out the light. Nope, my two eyelids per eye are intact, and nictating with increasing frequency. No need to intinct my eyes with any eye drops. A better tactic is simply to let the eyes drop and the lids fall as they may.

Crimean wardrobe

Things are heating up in Crimea now, which cues us to look back 160 years to the Crimean war. What did we get from that? Three bits of clothing and some misquotations… Find out what in my second article for The Week this week:

The fascinating linguistic legacy of the Crimean War


Fancy beauty product ingredients

My latest article for looks at Salvia officinalis, Thymus vulgaris, Butyrospermum parkii, methylchloroisothiazolinone, and more… and why you’re putting them on your head:

How to read your shampoo bottle



We’ve sorted out what semolina is. So we know the semolina pilchard of which John Lennon sang in “I Am the Walrus” was not a girl (contrary to my youthful first impression). But I didn’t go into what a pilchard is.

I’m inclined to think it might be the sort of thing one filches. Who would filch it? Not a milch-cow – they prefer mulch. Perhaps a crabalocker fishwife. Who found it in a gulch. But if she eats it, will she belch? Or squelch it? (I’ll tell you this: whatever it is, lch notwithstanding, it doesn’t involve alchemy in a sepulchre. That would just sound wrong.)

So it’s an edible. No, it’s not chard that comes in a pill. Actually, it’s a sardine. You can buy these in cans and feed them to cats (or to yourself). Do pilchard and sardine mean the same thing? Depends on whom you ask. Some use sardine to mean ‘young pilchard’. Others divide them by species. Whatever, there’s a lot of overlap.

This word used to be pilcher or pylcher, and ended up with an ard ending by analogy with wizard, buzzard, laggard, etc. It was not pilcher because it wears a pilch (an outer garment made of animal skin, with the fur on the inside) – ew, it sure doesn’t – or a pilcher (in Oz and NZ, a flannel overcloth for diapers) – double ew – or because it is related to romance novelist Rosamunde Pilcher (a genetic connection has not been proven). No, etymologists have ruled out the red herrings. Unfortunately, what they have left to go on is… zilch. Hmm. Fishy.


This is a word from my childhood.

Not because we ate semolina pudding, or couscous made from semolina, or because I was aware of the spaghetti we ate having been made from semolina. No, it’s because I grew up listening to The Beatles, and the first Beatles album I owned myself (as opposed to belonging to my brother or parents) was Magical Mystery Tour. On that album is “I Am the Walrus.” If you give it a listen (you really should, and watch the video), you will hear, at about 2:53, “Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower.”

When I, less then ten years of age, heard that, I assumed Semolina Pilchard was the name of a girl. Why not? Serena Pritchard or Selma Pilcher would be. I had never heard of semolina, nor of pilchards. Come on, I was growing up in the Alberta foothills in the 1970s! Semolina Pilchard seemed to me to be a name to go with Semilema Tina. You know, from “Ferrajocka.” That actually turned out to be “sonnez la matine” from “Frère Jacques.” But for a while it made sense to me, and from the same song I also had the idea there was a word “donlayvoo,” which seemed to be something like an escalator and/or vaccum cleaner.

But hey. Songs often come through the ear to the mind like grains of wheat halfway through the grinding process. Which is what semolina is. And that’s why I assumed for some time that semolina was formed from Latin semi ‘half’ and molina ‘mill’. Doesn’t that make sense? Why grind your way through all the etymology if you can take some nice bits and make a pleasing porridge of them?

Actually semolina comes from Italian semolino, diminutive of semola ‘bran’, which in turn comes from Latin simila ‘flour’. There do seem to be some similar words out there, yes, but similis ‘like’ is a different root. Well, grind them down and they may start to assimilate. I just now told my wife I was writing on semolina and she said, “The flower?” And I said, “No, the – oh, yes,” and realized she had actually said “The flour?” Which would have been the logical thing for me to hear in the first place.

John Lennon wrote “I Am the Walrus” with the express purpose of confounding literary analysis. A student had written to him that his teacher was having the class analyze the lyrics of Beatles songs. So he went out of his way to make it impenetrable. My experience suggests he needn’t have tried so hard.


A colleague noted a sentence from a book her son the veterinarian was reading:

This suggests that one of the functions of burying faeces is to minimise the likelihood that the olfactory information they contain will be detected by another cat, although hygiene may provide a more parsimonious explanation.

She wondered what word they meant to use that they had mistakenly confused with parsimonious. After all, parsimonious is a rather prodigal way of saying ‘stingy’ or ‘miserly’. And what on earth would a penny-pinching or mean-spirited explanation be?

But a more parsimonious explanation for the choice would be that the word has a proper technical use in that context. That is also the correct explanation. In science, the law (or principle) of parsimony is just that you shouldn’t invoke any more causes or forces than you need to in explaining something. You might say “parsimonious” is the sound of someone shaving with Occam’s razor.

Think of explanatory factors as like money and be sparing in your spending. A parsimonious explanation is one that is pared down, has minimal parsley, needs minimal parsing. If you see hoofprints in the snow, think horses, not zebras; if you see a butterfly, do not assume it is a Parnassius simonius visiting from the Pamir Mountains.

Parsimonious – and its source noun parsimony – did not, after all, originally have a negative tone. It referred simply to frugality, thrift, economy. It comes ultimately from Latin parcere ‘save, spare’. It just happens that while people like money saved by them, they don’t so much like money saved on them. No one wants to have to say, “Please – some more?”

So we have a justification for calling something parsimonious if it’s simple clean and free of unnecessary parts. Another word used for equations and algorithms that are uncluttered is elegant. An explanation that is elegant is also parsimonious. Compare that to everyday life, where furnishings, clothing, or catering can be parsimonious or elegant but, in most people’s eyes, certainly not both!

How do we explain this? Well, elegant comes from Latin meaning ‘carefully selected’. In machines and alogrithms, that means an efficient and direct use of as few pieces as possible to maximum effect. In everyday life, that means simply the best, the finest. The one values mental mastery; the other, socioeconomic mastery. One privileges the parsing, and the other privileges the purse. So be particular when picking your parsimony.


Ah, the chirping and chirking of pretty birds. (Hooray! It’s spring! The birds are on the wing! – But that’s absurd. The wings are on the bird.) Who doesn’t like a bit of birdsong? Just think of waking up to the fresh country air, the lively twittering of some bright avian greeting the sun outside your window.

Now think of waking up after having been up partying until, say, 3 or 4. Planning to sleep until, say, 10 or noon. But outside your window is the tree. That tree. The tree all the birds love. And the sun has risen. It’s almost 6! And the birds have a lot to say about it. All at once. Kinda loses its charm, dunnit?

Charm? Yeah, no. Chirm. So many chirps they almost combine to a hum. But not really a hum… more like the dozens of voices all singing different lines in different tempi in Ligeti’s famous Kyrie. Only more strident and with greater tonal range. Or like the warm rumbling hubbub of the many voices of people lolling in the Banff Hot Springs on a winter day, a rumbling rhubarb… if you up the pitch several octaves and give yourself a truly fearful headache with it.

Oh, you can use chirm to describe the rhubarb of a crowd, too. Or the babble of school children, or the din of a field or hive full of insects. Especially as a noun. As a verb – “they were chirming” – its use seems more focused on those freaking birds. At least according to Oxford.

Yes, I didn’t invent this word. And it doesn’t come from chirp (or hum); it traces to Old English cirman ‘cry out, make a noise’, which has some cognates in other Germanic languages. But its sources are obscured beyond that by the noise of history.

Chirm has lots of resonances. Chum, charm, germ, worm, squirm, smirch, Sherman, shirred, chrism, church, sperm, chert, churn… Such a blend of different tones and tastes, all together in a muddy brown sense and sound. Like one of those photos where they take a whole bunch of different faces and superimpose them and you get a sorty of very fuzzy blurry average. Like the chirm of thousands of voices.

This word doesn’t get used very much anymore. Not sure why not. Frankly, I think when the deep freeze finally clears (if it does) and all the birds are making their ruckus – much more than a murmur, to be sure, and not quite as graceful and shaped as a murmuration – or, for that matter, any time when you’re hearing the indistinct but slightly spiky roar of a group of folk, beasts, or bugs, this is a word you should have ready to use. Along with the other less polite ones you’ll be muttering if you’re reaching for the earplugs.

Not that anyone would hear you saying it, of course. Over that noise?


My friend Selena had a moment of nostalgia today. One of her friends’ parents, she learned, had just been house hunting, and they had looked at the house Selena grew up in. Selena’s parents had sold it a few years ago and the buyers had just put it up for sale. A memory walks across unbidden, like a cat across your blanket as you doze.

What would that be like, to go back to a house you used to live in? A house you grew up in? A place where there are so many memories, so many ghosts?

For some of us, this is easy: it’s still there, still in the family, go back and see it. For some of us, the house is there, in different hands; perhaps we have seen it since we left, or perhaps it is inhabited by strangers now, living their stories and building their memories in our quiet personal spaces, their children playing with strange toys on strange rugs where once the monsters lived under our beds. And for some of us, the house is simply gone.

But you know you always want to go home, want to return to the mold that shaped you, the intimate geography of fantasy and food, books and brothers or sisters and sleep, games and fights and countless hours of television, guests and thefts and pets and plants.The secret gnosis, the nous and nostrums, the pride and pain. It is all stored in the cabinet of your mind, all indexed like library books; surely you can simply go to the shelf, pull out the book, open it and step back in?

Literary works conclude tidily with a return home, as Homer had his Odysseus head homeward: the return journey, νόστος nostos. So fitting, for home is what is ours, Latin noster (nostra, nostrum). Between now and the dénouement of our stories, we will always carry a yearning for it, a pain, ἄλγος algos: the source of –algia, as in myalgia, neuralgia, and also analgesic. The Germans call nostalgia Heimweh: ‘home pain’.

But songs and plays remind us: You can never go home again.

Your childhood will not be where you left it. The very places you lived it may be revised or erased. It lives now in your memories, in the memories of those you worked it with, and in the history of the universe, its innumerable rearrangements.

I do not recall exactly how many places I lived as a child. We moved quite a few times, perhaps a dozen by the time I finished high school. I think some of those houses are still there. Some I have not seen in decades. But the house of my strongest memories is the one we lived in from 1980 to 1985, through the heart of my adolescence: grade 8 into my second year of university. It was a large house, two storeys plus basement, 1500 square feet on each level. It had belonged to Mickey Bailey, a TV producer who opened a game farm at the edge of the Stoney Indian Reserve. The game farm failed to thrive, and Bailey left; the house was bought up by the Stoneys, who rented it to my parents, who worked for them. It was at the foot of Yamnuska, the big flat-faced mountain at the beginning of the Rockies in the Bow Valley.

It was lonely, four of us rattling around in that place, especially if three of the four were out. On windy nights when I was alone, and the hot water baseboard heating creaked and pinged, and the trees howled outside the window, it was a place to make the adolescent flesh crawl. I could not stand to play the soundtrack from 2001: A Space Odyssey in there after dark, especially the hundreds of swirling voices of the Ligeti Kyrie. So many spaces for nightmares to lurk, a dark ground floor and basement below and empty bedrooms down the hall.

But it was also where we lived, and played games and watched TV and hosted guests, and saw dozens of kittens through to adolescence and adoption (watching them learng to commute to and from the balcony via the closest tree). Where I read the encyclopedia. Where sometimes my brother and I and visiting friends would walk down the driveway to the abandoned empty game farm and just look around at where the animals had been. Where we would put empty Lysol cans in the trash burning barrel and watch from a safe distance as they burst with a “Pung!” and a fireball. Where one of our several sequential dogs chewed the right arms off our living room furniture. Where I watched World’s Worst Film Festival on Saturdays after midnight, after the earlier evening was destroyed by the imposition of Hockey Night in Canada. Where I once stayed up until 5 in the morning playing Avalon Hill’s Caesar: Epic Battle of Alesia against myself, the radio playing quietly.

After we moved out, we moved north, to Edmonton, and later my parents moved back down to farther east in the Bow Valley. But I did go back by the game farm house, as we called it, a few times. The house was on the highway 1A, a detour if you wanted to go past it on your way from Calgary to Banff, but worth a passing glance on occasion. On my last visit to it, home from university in Boston, it was easy to go in and see it.

You just stepped through the broken sliding glass door on the ground floor. Or through the broken front door.

The house had been left unoccupied for a few years, and had been vandalized. The house was associated with a particular chief, and the spray paint on the walls was clear about who that chief was and what the writers thought of him. I walked across bits of broken glass on the green carpet that had given me rug burns years before from having my face dragged across it by my brother. I looked at the walls where my father’s hundred-score books had sat on block-and-board shelves. I climbed the spiral staircase, walked past the corner where at age 14 I had given my forehead the scar it shows to this day. Walked down the hall, looked into the bedroom where I had slept. There was a hole in the wall.

I smiled. I remembered putting that hole there. And covering it with a poster after. I kept the poster when we moved. I left the hole.

There were other holes too. The place was less and less whole, more and more hole. It was becoming a place-shaped absence. It was filled with silence. Its placeness was blowing away with the Bow Valley winds. It gave cues to my memories, but my growing years were not there. The pride, the warmth, the loneliness, the night fears were not there. I had brought them with me and would take them when I left. It was like visiting a grandparent who, through the ravages of time, was nearly gone, so little of the personality you had known before.

The next time I came back, I brought my girlfriend – who is now my wife – to show her where I came from. (I see where she came from whenever I take the bus to or from Coxwell, Woodbine, or Main stations here in Toronto.) We were on our way to Banff. We stopped by. Got out of the car.

Walked across the flat gravel where the house had been.

It had burned down the previous year. Been burned down. It was not an accident.

Memories accumulate in your mind like algae on a pond, but what they recall is lost with the turning wheel of time. Lost. Algae. Time is a thread and memories are knots, knots that get tighter and tighter or that undo like shoelaces as you walk. Knots algia.

You head to your dénouement – your unknotting – but you want to go backwards to what was knot but is not. You try to retie the undone past, you try to return by the way you came and put it all back in order. No. Lost again. Nostalgia.

Odysseys don’t truly return. Arthur C. Clarke knew that. At the end of 2001, Dave Bowman is not at home. He is on a planet far away. And alone, watching himself watching himself.

Nostalgia. A pain for returning. And a pain from returning. Pain because you cannot feel the warmth you felt as strongly as you felt it then. Pain because you can still feel the pain at least a little, maybe more than a little.

Pain because real stories do not tie up tidily with a return home. Life is lived forwards.

But then joy. Because life is lived forwards. To new things, always new things. Creation, which requires things to stop being what they were.

Enjoy your nostalgia. You could not have that, either, without the loss of the past.