Monthly Archives: June 2014

Pineapples, butterflies, and etymology

The words for ‘pineapple’ and ‘butterfly’ have a little thing in common in English – and a striking difference in other languages. Read about it in my latest article for

The curious linguistic history of pineapples and butterflies



Eyes. Blue eyes. Eyes like pools. Eyes like pools you can dive into. No. Eyes like pools that dive into you. Eyes, blue eyes, deep, hypnotic. You can see to the bottom. No. You can see that there is no bottom. Look in these eyes and you are seven leagues deep and in the gathering darkness as the surface slips behind. So much. To see. You are impelled.

Is it clear? We know what things are limpid. Pools are limpid. And eyes are like limpid pools. Wide eyes are like limpid Olympic pools. But what does that mean?

Do they limp? Are they limp? Are they lambent? Impish? Implied? Dimpled? Simply liquid? A Spanish speaker will know that limpiar means to clean. But limpido means limpid. Or, as in Italian, clear. Right from Latin limpidus. Pellucid, free from turbidity.

But limpid is a word of turbulence: the emotions of poetry. It is a word that says “I want to look into your eyes, I want you to feel that I want to look into your eyes, and I am a poet.” It says this even when it is being used to describe something other than eyes.

Limpid is the feel of a blink held just a moment longer, springing then back open to reveal orbs with a hint of outward ripples as of a pool with a simple drop in the middle. It is a word that makes you the more turbid within as you use it and read it. Here, here are quotations from poems; see if after them you can even come to the surface.

He has no need to steal a sip
From Hafiz’ bowl, or bathe his lip
In honey pressed from Pindar’s comb,
Or taste of Bacchus’ philtered foam,
Or filch from Chaucer’s bounteous grace
Some liquid, limpid, purling phrase.
—“The Brook,” William Bull Wright

Ray’d in the limpid yellow slanting sundown,
Music, Italian music in Dakota.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
From the deep cool bed of the river;
The limpid water turbidly ran,
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
Ere he brought it out of the river.
—“A Musical Instrument,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning

O little shells, so curious-convolute! so limpid-cold and voiceless!
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
—“The Buried Life,” Matthew Arnold

Ebb stung by the flow, and flow stung by the ebb—love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching;
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice;
Bridegroom night of love, working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn;
Undulating into the willing and yielding day,
Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day.
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

and each, as soon as it felt the antennæ, immediately lifted up its abdomen and excreted a limpid drop of sweet juice, which was eagerly devoured by the ant.
The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

Limpid. All that is limpid is pure poetry and ecstasy and clarity. It is a lamp, but a lamp filled with the late-night oil of the quill-pen wielder. It infects. It sweetens.

All who say limpid thirst for clarity, the clarity that says nothing is clear. The word is shaped like a dream bed by a stream, l and d the posts, and i and i candles or heads; the m is a pillow or a pair of legs, and the p is an arm dipping into the stream. Dipping into the dream. Not dreamy eyes: eyes that you dream about. Not eyes that you see through: eyes that see through you. Limpid like the night sky when you see stars, millions of miles away and thousands of years ago: you see clearly that all is dark and unreachable, and all that you see is past. And you thirst for it and it enters you and breaks you. You limp into limpid eternity. And the eyes never stop looking, so cool and blue.


If you’re not from Britain, this term may not be all that familiar to you. Allow me to quote the synonyms given in Visual Thesaurus: dolt, stupid person, stupid, stupe, pudding head, pudden-head, poor fish, dullard. To these I think I could reasonably add a common term from Canada: dickhead.

I think that’s a viable synonym not just because of the resentfully abusive way in which the word pillock tends to be used – it carries implications of not just dullness but obnoxiousness too – but also because of its literal reference.

Oh, you don’t know what part of the body the pillock is? Would you care to make a guess? The Oxford English Dictionary reckons that it’s probably shortened from pillicock. The pill is Scots and northern English dialect, probably taken from Scandinavian influences (the Danes used to run that part of the country); it refers not to, say, a little blue pill such as Viagra but rather to that part of the body that the little blue pill is meant to affect. The rest of the word pillicock should be sufficiently obvious. As to the aphetic form pillock, I have to wonder whether it may not have been affected by bollock, a word usually seen in the plural (like its referent).

The word seems like what you get when you expect a pillow and get a rock. It has a taste of someone who gets in a mixed-up pickle, someone who brings ill luck. And at the same time the /p/ and /k/ with a liquid and /ɪ/ between have a bit of a taste of prick as well as bilk and a bit of an echo of kill.

Although the word has been in at least some versions of English since the 1500s, it hasn’t been very evident in print until the last third of the 20th century, when it started being used as a term of abuse. I can’t say whether there was one particular work that served as a primary vector for this, but the word evidently caught on like wildfire.

I like this definition of pillock from 1978 in Approach: The naval aviation safety review: “An idiot who, having gotten himself into the wrong lane, then expects everyone else to give way so that he can get to where only he knows he wants to go, with or without use of flashing indicators or consideration for traffic flow.” You can see where, with such images in mind, the word might have proven quite appealing for general use. And might seem a nearly exact synonym for dickhead.


My friend Michelle wondered aloud to me, “Why is the word meatball so funny?”

I’m inclined to think the answer lies in large part in its combination of two words often used in humour, especially rather impolite humour, and sometimes in terms of abuse – meathead is a well-known example of the latter. As well, meat and ball are both basic things, learned early in life, free of any veneer of politeness (except in alternative usages, e.g., society balls, ballrooms, etc., which are etymologically unrelated – but even there the simple basic image and sense lurk in the background, as we see in the comedy shows done to benefit Amnesty International, The Secret Policeman’s Ball and The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball).

Meat gives an image of a dense, red lump of muscle, or perhaps of an equally dense brown bit of cooked food, not brain food but brawn food. Actually, the word meat originally referred to pretty much any food, and its sense narrowed over the centuries to the main attraction of the meal, that bit of insensate but strangely desirable dead animal that all the other bits attend on (does this sound like your workplace?). It also shows up places such as meathook (slang for hand), meat market (slang for that bar across the street from us, you know who you are), meathead, meat-eater, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, bush meat, red meat

Ball can be a simple sphere, used for playing games, or it can be a conglomerate of items packed densely and probably messily together, or some formerly flat thing rolled or crumpled in a not-necessarily-tidy approximation of a sphere, or any of a number of things that happen to resemble spheres in some way, I’m sure a few come to mind. Balls are blunt things, projectiles, insensate objects. You’ll see ball in such combos as ball boy, ball handler, ball of wax, ball peen, be on the ball, play ball, keep your eye on the ball, blackball, butterball, cannonball, disco ball, eyeball, highball, pinball, snowball, spitball, the names of several sports, and various expressions referring figuratively to the testes.

So all of that is balled up, complete with seasoning and filler, into meatball. The seasoning includes a few popular culture references, chief among which the 1979 summer camp movie Meatballs, which was the first movie starring Bill Murray, and the popular children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The flavour also includes the sound: coming in on /m/ with the lips together like a pitcher reader to throw, adding the quick /i/ like a windup, cocking at /t/ and percussively releasing with /b/, and flying through the air and trailing off with /ɑl/. It’s a word just made to be shouted by a sports announcer through a PA – or by a boy on a playground.

Meatballs, the real things, are not (especially not under that name) thought of as highbrow cuisine. Take a bunch of thoroughly ravaged ex-animal and wad it up as you would something undesirable? No, this isn’t fancy cuisine, it’s just cuisine that people practically everywhere love to eat. In world cuisine, there are many kinds of meatballs, with many flavours and sizes, and having many different names in the various languages.

In the US, the dominant image is of the meatballs that one gets with spaghetti: large-ish ones with Italian herbs and spices – probably a jar mix – floating in tomato sauce – probably from a jar or can – and sometimes shoved into long bread in possibly the single most awkward sub sandwich idea ever.

Anyone who lives near an IKEA (including, of course, the entire population of Sweden, along with all the other places that look like Sweden, notably Canada) may be more likely to think of the smaller, differently spiced Swedish variety, often served with a cream sauce and/or lingonberry sauce, and potatoes rather than pasta. (See for a genuine southern Swedish smörgåsbord, already more than half eaten. You will notice that the meatballs were made in greater quantity than anything else.)

Still other people may think first of one of the many variations of kofta/kofteh/etc. eaten in the periphery of the Mediterranean and parts eastward. But it might seem vulgar to call those meatballs. It’s too familiar a word and suggests that this exotic discovery you are eating at the charming restaurant in that strip mall you usually don’t venture near is really something quite homey. Which, of course, for the people for whom it is not exotic, it is.

What meatballs are best? What are the most authentic? What kind should you eat? Is it OK to find meatball funny? An answer to these questions and more is provided by the film Meatballs:



Name a tree that has all five vowels in it.

Well, I kind of gave that one away, didn’t I? It’s the title of this word tasting note – today’s word to taste. It’s a seven-letter word, and the only two letters in it that aren’t vowel letters are s and q. Seven letters makes it a possible bonus word in Scrabble – but it’s not really all that long a word given that it names a very, very tall tree. (A longer word for a larger tree, also having all five vowel letters, is Indo-European… but of course that’s a language tree, i.e., a family, not an actual physical tree.)

Still, it’s fairly comprehensive: its consonant sounds involve the tip of the tongue [s], back of the tongue [k], blade of the tongue [j] (that’s a “y” sound; I’m using the International Phonetic Alphabet), and lips [w]. And the vowel sounds are one in the front, one in the back, one in the middle.

So did you notice how I just listed four consonant sounds and three vowel sounds? And yet this word has five vowels and two consonants.

No it doesn’t. It has five vowel letters and two consonant letters. The u and i are standing for glide consonants, which are pretty much vowels acting like consonants or consonants that sound like vowels…

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have all five English vowels. Actually, it can’t have all five English vowels, because English has more than five vowels. The six letters that can stand for vowels – don’t forget y – stand for, depending on your dialect, ten to twelve different individual vowel phonemes (monophthongs), plus several two-vowel combos (diphthongs) (some of the monophthongs tend to be said with some movement, making them really diphthongs, but I won’t go into that now). So my opening sentence was not accurate. Always remember: vowels and consonants are sounds, not letters. The letters just represent the sounds. The language exists without its written representation; the written form can have a feedback effect on the spoken language, but it is not primary.

And, in the case of English, it’s rather difficult and not all that transparent. It has some relation to sound, but it’s inconsistent and capricious. If you want to know how it got that way, read “What’s up with English spelling?” The point, anyway, is that while it’s a fun game for those who are good at it, it really fights the learner.

Consider the case of the Cherokee nation in the southern US in the early 1800s. They did not have a written form for their language. But one of the Cherokee, a clever and somewhat driven fellow, decided that it would be very helpful to them to have one. They were trading with white English speakers, so there was an example of a written language – albeit one that the particular Cherokee in question did not speak or read. He tried at first to come up with a written form that would have a different symbol for every word, but this took too long and would require too much memorization, and anyway his wife burned his efforts because they were keeping him from working. So he tried again, this time creating a syllabary, borrowing some forms he had seen in use in English (but with no relation between their English use and the Cherokee use) and inventing a number of others, for a total of 86.

Cherokee syllabics were not systematic like the Korean or Amharic syllabic forms; they were an arbitrary-looking set. But they represented the language quite tidily, and once a Cherokee learned them, he or she was fully literate: there were no booby-traps in the spelling, and they all knew how to speak the language (and no fools had taken it upon themselves to publish works declaring that they were all speaking it incorrectly). So once the Cherokees adopted this syllabary officially – because they could see how useful it was – they had higher literacy rates than the whites in neighbouring communities, who were afflicted with the perverse English orthography.

The Cherokee who invented this syllabary – which you can see at Wikipedia and various other places – was named Sequoyah.

Coincidence? Or is the tree sequoia named after the man Sequoyah? It’s debated. In fact, the Wikipedia article on the tree declares it very likely that Stephan Endlicher, the botanist – and linguist – who named the tree in 1847, did it in honour of Sequoyah, using a Latinized version of the name, and considers alternatives with some thought and detail, while the Wikipedia article on the man Sequoyah declares flatly that “this hypothesis has long been questioned and has now been rejected” – yet another illustration of why you should not take a Wikipedia article as final authority on anything, useful though it may be.

Whatever the case, I think this word sequoia is a good word for talking about language and spelling, and the vagaries and variations available therein. But since I like finding extra layers of meaning and levels of communication in language, I have an inclination to lengthen this word by half, to make it a bit more sesquipedialian – literally ‘foot-and-a-half long’. It has seven letters, so we’ll round up and add four more. Which four? I’ll say s, i, t, and c, and I’ll interleave them in the word, one after se, one after qu, one on either side of i. And what do I get?

Sesquiotica, of course.


Thanks to my brother, Reg, who brought up the link between sequoia and Sesquiotica. In case you’re wondering, sesquiotics is actually a pun on semiotics, and Sesquiotica a pun on the international journal of semiotics, Semiotica. In which, incidentally, I once published an article.

Words that didn’t break at the glue line

My latest article for is about words that were put together one way and then broken apart another way. They’re words you know, too…

10 words that are badly broken


There’s no way to truly split an infinitive

This article was first published on The Editors’ Weekly

You can’t split an infinitive.

I don’t mean I don’t want you to. I don’t mean it’s not proper to. I mean it’s not possible to. This is for the same reason that I haven’t just broken one off three times, at the ends of the three preceding sentences.

The English infinitive is one word. Not two. The to is not part of it. It’s just the infinitive’s trusty butler, and sometimes the infinitive doesn’t need the butler. When it does need the butler, it doesn’t need it right next to it all the time. And sometimes the butler stands in its place.

It seems rather posh, doesn’t it, for an infinitive to even have a butler? It wasn’t always thus. In Old English — that Germanic language that was taking root as of the AD 600s, brought over by the Angles and Saxons — the standard infinitive was one word, for instance etan (eat).

But there were cases where the infinitive functioned more like a noun and would be inflected like a noun in the dative case, and it would have the appropriate preposition before it, to. Here’s a clip from the Bible:

Ða geseah ðæt wif ðæt ðæt treow wæs god to etenne

“Then the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.” That is, good for eating. Generally the inflected infinitive was used in places where a noun (e.g., gerund) construction was equally usable: begin to work could also be begin workingthe power to kill could also be the power of killingto speak is a sin could also be speaking is a sin.

Obviously those instances have persisted, since my examples are in modern English. Something happened in-between the Old English period and now, though: English lost almost all of its inflectional affixes. The spelling and pronunciation changed some, too. So instead of ic ete, þu etst, he eteð, we etað, ge etað, hie etað, infinitive etan, subjunctive ete and eten, imperative ete and inflected infinitive (to) etenne, we now have I eat, (thou eatest), he eats, we eat, you eat, they eat, infinitive eat, subjunctive eat, imperative eat and (no longer inflected) to-infinitive (to) eat. All the affixes got eaten and just a little is left.

One result is that the to-infinitive is now used a bit more widely than it was in Old English, since there are places where it wouldn’t be clear if it were just plain old eat. But the pattern is largely similar: we use to when the infinitive is the focus of purpose or necessity (want to eat, need to eat), completes the sense of a verb or noun (begin to eat, the power to eat), or is the subject or object of a sentence (to eat would be nice). We use the bare infinitive when it follows certain auxiliaries of mood and tense (you must eat), verbs of causing (I’ll make you eat), verbs of perception (I want to see you eat) and a few others in that general vein.

And we can snap off the infinitive and leave it implied; we don’t have to say it if we don’t want to. (Want to what? Say it, of course.) In fact, the to generally tends to stay more readily with what’s before it than with the infinitive it’s serving.

Well, that is how a butler treats guests. He has to watch them to make sure they don’t get lost or steal the silver.