Monthly Archives: July 2014


Yes, this is going to be one of my periodic photography rants. But if you ever plan to buy or even think about digital cameras, you’ll want to read this.

Megapixels is a word that sells cameras. “How many megapixels is your camera?” “Mine’s 10.” “Mine’s 12.” “Mine’s 18!” “Wow, that little pocket auto-zoom camera has 18 megapixels! Ossum possum!”

Listen to it for a moment. It would be too much of a stretch to say “mega” sounds like a lens focusing (it doesn’t) and “pixels” like a shutter clicking (it sorta does). But the mega has a soft, muddy sound, and the pixels has a crisp, sharp, keen sound – sort of like the different image qualities due to other effects that can make the actual pixel count irrelevant, as I will tell you about below.

Mega, of course, is a morpheme about big that sounds big and sells big. It’s from Greek for ‘large’ and is used as the metric prefix to mean ‘million’. It reeks of lotteries: megabucks! Yeah! And yes, I’m going to tell you that there’s more than a little bit of the lottery in megapixels on cameras.

Pixel is a word invented just under a half century ago that refers to the smallest bit of a digital picture: pix from picture and el short for element. Reality is always more detailed than a picture, of course; ever micrometre contains not just a book but a whole library of information if you can but read it, but to our naked eyes several micrometres are only the visual equivalent of a single letter, and a photograph may condense even more than that into the equivalent of the dot of an i. Given that i, you have no means of extracting even a full word from it, let alone libraries of information. And so, contrary to what many TV crime shows would have you think, there is no way to “enhance!” a blob of 12 pixels into a detailed face or parking sticker on a windshield. “Enhancing” photos just means smoothing and heightening the contrast of what is there so our brains can parse it more easily (I have another article where you can find out about sharpening and how it’s like language). You simply can’t get more than a pixel out of a pixel.

But never mind that. In many – perhaps most – digital photos, each of those 10 or 12 or 18 million pixels contains not even a whole pixel’s worth of information, actually. The truth is that when dealing with the pixelated (rendered in pixels), you may often find yourself pixilated with an i – a fine old word that means pixie-led, bamboozled, drunk (in this case with fatuous information).

Let’s start, though, with how many pixels you actually need – how many will even make a difference. If you’re printing a photo on 4 by 6 paper, 300 pixels per inch is really the upper limit of what your eyes can generally discern in sharpness (and the printer can output effectively). So 1200 by 1800 pixels. This is 2.16 megapixels. Print it out large, at 8 by 12, and you need up to 8.64 megapixels. You are very unlikely to have a digital display that will come close to that. HDTV gives you 2.1 megapixels; a high-end 4K monitor gives you 8.3 megapixels. So unless you’re cropping tight or printing posters, you will never actually need more than 10 megapixels in your camera. Even 8 will do fine, but almost every current camera does more than that. For most non-pro purposes, even the camera in your phone has enough. (My iPhone 4 has 5 megapixels.)

But then there are the factors that can limit the resolving power of your camera, so that each pixel really is only worth a fraction of what a pixel is worth in a truly sharp picture:

Lens sharpness. Not all lenses are equally sharp. Some produce pictures that are pretty “soft” even to the naked eye.

ISO. We used to call this ASA. It’s the “film speed” – the light sensitivity. The higher the ISO (as required when the camera is getting less light into it), the less sharp the picture, because it’s having to pool light from multiple pixels and fill in as best it can.

Sensor size. I mean the physical size. This of course makes a difference in regard to lens sharpness; a lens that can resolve 3000 lines per inch will resolve 1/4 as many actual lines on a sensor that’s 1/4 the dimensions. But usually the cameras with smaller sensors also have crappier lenses, so you get even less final sharpness. It also can relate to ISO performance: a smaller sensor size with the same number of pixels has smaller pixel sensors that individually gather less light, so they can start getting dodgy at lower ISO numbers. (Sensor technology is improving, though.)

Aperture. A lens has an opening in it that can be wider or tighter, like the pupils of your eyes. This is expressed in f-stops, which are the ratio of the focal length to the opening (aperture): f/4 means the aperture is 1/4 the focal length. Why this affects sharpness is the same reason that we squint to see better, and the same reason it’s harder to see sharply in low light (when your pupils are dilated): the smaller the aperture, the sharper the image and the more of it that’s in acceptable focus: this is called depth of field, because it’s how deep the in-focus area is. But when the aperture gets too small, you lose sharpness due to what’s called diffraction effect. I’ll spare you the details; they’re Google-able.

Camera shake. If you’re taking pictures at too slow a shutter speed – because the light is low and/or your aperture is small (to improve sharpness) and/or your ISO is low (ditto) – the motion of your hand, such as you get when pressing something like, say, a camera shutter, will cause the camera to move perceptibly during the time of exposure, which of course will blur the image a bit.

There are other things you really should consider more carefully than pixels and sharpness:

Colour. Different lenses convey colour and contrast differently, and differently well. Some lenses really wash it out; some make it vivid and contrasty; some are better for some colours than others. This is also true for different cameras.

Lens speed. The “faster” the lens, the lower the minimum f-stop, which means the wider the aperture. Given that lower f-stops make a photo less sharp, why would you want this? Because they let you blur out the background more (see bokeh), focusing in on the subject – a shallow depth of field is quite desirable for many kinds of photos. If it’s a good lens, the subject will still be sharp enough, even at a low f-stop.

Sensor size (again). This also relates to depth of field: the in-focus distance is a portion of the distance between the camera and its effective “infinity,” and its effective “infinity” is determined by the actual focal length of the lens. The smaller the sensor, the smaller the focal length for the same field of view. A 25 mm lens on my Olympus has the same field of view as a 50 mm on a full-frame camera (full-frame means the sensor is the same size as a frame of 35 mm film: 24 mm by 36 mm) and as about a 9 mm lens on a 1/2.33” sensor such as many pocket cameras have, but its infinity is half as far away as on the full-frame and almost 3 times as far away as on the pocket camera. Meaning you get much less depth-of-field effect on the really small sensors. This is also why everything is always in focus on your camera phone: its sensor is less than half the size of your little fingernail, so its focal length is about 1/8 of an inch, so its “infinity” is closer than almost anything you’ll photograph with it.

Ease of use. The camera you have with you will always take better pictures than the one you left at home because it’s too much of a nuisance to carry around, as my dad regularly says. And if you miss the moment because you’re futzing around with the controls, well, that’s not a good picture either. So balance the desire for a large sensor with the effect that will have on your equipment size (see my rant on zoom lens) and consider what you really want and need. I use an Olympus E-PL3, which I can fit in a jacket pocket; its sensor is half the size of a full-frame sensor, but that’s just fine for me.

Because you’re my friend, I took a little time to take a few pictures out my window of the Cathedral Church of St. James here in Toronto, using three cameras, the third of which with three different lenses. These will help you to see why, for most people, with even the cheapest cameras giving at least 8 megapixels, the megapixel count in your camera doesn’t matter; it just leaves you mega-pixilated.

This is the zoomed-in version taken with a cheap little Nikon Coolpix L21, reduced to 500 pixels wide, which is as wide as this blog will display.

This is taken with a cheap little Nikon Coolpix L21 8 megapixel pocket camera, with the lens zoomed in; I’ve reduced the image to 500 pixels wide, which is as wide as this blog will display.

This is the actual full-size image of the steeple at screen resolution (72 pixels per inch) from the Coolpix, zoomed in.

This is the actual full-size image of the steeple at screen resolution (72 pixels per inch) from the Coolpix, zoomed in. Not so sharp, eh? How many pixels in one usable bit of photographic information?

The is the Coolpix, zoomed out. The f-stop is higher because the focal length is longer.

The is the Coolpix, zoomed out to widest. The f-stop is higher because the focal length is longer.

This is the pixel-for-pixel view of the above.

This is the pixel-for-pixel view of the above. The lens is sharper at this length, but still not so great.

This is what my iPhone 4 sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is what my iPhone 4 sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is the same photo, cropped to the church and shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is the same photo, cropped to the church, which is also pixel-for-pixel size at 72 pixels per inch.

This is my Olympus E-PL3 with an old manual Canon 50 mm lens at f/1.4, shrunk to 500 pixels.

This is my Olympus E-PL3 (10 megapixels, micro 4/3 format) with an old manual Canon 50 mm lens at f/1.4, shrunk to 500 pixels. This is my favourite lens. Sharp and good colour; notice the slightly dreamy effect it has, though.

The Canon 50 mm at f/1.4, pixel-for-pixel.

The Canon 50 mm at f/1.4, pixel-for-pixel.

For comparison, the same lens at f/8, necessitating higher ISO.

For comparison, the same lens at f/8, necessitating higher ISO.

See the difference the ISO makes?

See the difference the higher f-stop but higher ISO makes?

Here's with a Panasonic 20 mm lens on the Olympus: what it actually sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s with a Panasonic 20 mm lens on the Olympus: what it actually sees, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's that cropped to just the church and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s that cropped to just the church, at pixel-for-pixel.

Using the zoom lens that came with the Olympus, here's what I get at the widest, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Using the zoom lens that came with the Olympus, here’s what I get at 42 mm focal length, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's cropped and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here’s cropped and shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's pixel-for-pixel on that.

Here’s pixel-for-pixel on that.

And here's the 14 mm view, shrunk to 500 pixels.

And here’s the 14 mm view from the same lens, shrunk to 500 pixels.

Here's that, cropped down to the church and visible pixel-for-pixel.

Here’s that, cropped down to the church and at pixel-for-pixel resolution.

Scroll up and down and look at them a few times. Which do you like, really? What stands out most? If you’re still thinking mostly about sharpness, here’s a tip: look at the copper-green part of the church roof, to the left of the steeple. Some are mega-muddy, some pixel-sharp. But what about colour and feel? And what really matters when you see it at 500 pixels wide?

Get the point? Ignore all the megapixel stuff on your camera (unless you’re actually a pro or serious large-photo geek, in which case you know all this already). There are much better things to worry about.

But if you want to see what kind of resolution you really can go for if that’s your thing, a while back I scanned in two medium-format negatives at high resolution (they’re 56 mm square – that’s 2¼” on a side). They’re not of the church; sorry. One’s a forest scene in fall, and the other is a city scene at night. Here are the links to the full-resolution images on Flickr. Warning: these will take a minute to load, eat up a lot of memory, and will not fit on your screen (but there are links above the pictures to smaller versions).

Trinity Square at 28 megapixels

Leaves at 28 megapixels


I was still rather young, I remember, when I pointed to a percent sign and asked my mother, “What’s that called?”

“Kerof,” she said. Or maybe it was “kerrof.” Or “kerif”? I decided on “kerof.”

OK, sure, things have odd names. After all, & is called ampersand. (This turns out to be from and per se and, apparently, but how many people know that?) People can’t even agree on what # should be called. Why not kerof for %?

Look at it. Its line cuts through between the two circles like a kerf. It has an ornamental quality to it and is typographic, like a serif. It can seem as official as a sheriff or a seraph.

Not that I was fully aware of all these words at the time. I was, on the other hand, aware of the word carafe, so I knew when I saw carafe that it wasn’t a fancy spelling for kerof because I knew the stress was on the other syllable. Anyway, % looks more like two cups than one carafe.

I didn’t mind carafes. I took a dislike to the word decanter, though. Also to the word onus – actually I still don’t like onus, which seems like an average of anus and penis and would therefore be an apt name for the perineum (that’s the taint, for you plain folks). I decided that one of the most irritating sentences in English would be The onus is on the decanter.

And – here is where we come back to kerof – I discovered the word schwa (yes, I knew what it meant, and at first it seemed awfully self-important and prissy) and decided that Kerof Schwa would be a name for the sort of band that would sing annoying songs of all the things your teachers condescendingly tell you to do, and all those irritating phrases grown-ups say. Like “The onus is on the decanter.” With an instructional smile and over-gesturing finger. (If the phrase teachable moment had been around at the time, I would have determined it was the name of Kerof Schwa’s number one hit. Or maybe even a whole album.)

None of this told me, at the time, what the point of this oogly symbol was. All I knew was that my mother told me it was a kerof. And my mother was a teacher (one of the good ones, of course), so she knew.

Thing was, it wasn’t a percent sign actually that I was looking at. I realized a few years later that it had been a c/o on an envelope address.

My mom had said “Care of.”

Such a kerfuffle because I wasn’t kerof-ful…


What is a plash? These days, it’s a rather precious splash: a pleasant plop, a pretty slap into the water; a word made for prose and poetry that is perused in plush places. I do not think an author could use it without seeming self-conscious. What, simply strip that sloppy starting /s/ from splash to make it a bit less conventionalized – or a bit more archaic-seeming? It may not please as planned.

But plash was not formed by taking the s off splash. No, in fact, quite the opposite: splash was formed in the late 1600s by adding the s to plash, which had already been around at least since the early 1500s. And somehow the sloppier, wetter spl version has prevailed, to make the set with splat, splatter, splodge, splotch, splutter, and the similarly sloppy splay and splurge. It is true that when you slap the surface of a pool of water, or drop a single thing into it, what you hear may be more like “plash” or “plook,” but we seem now to prefer our wetness less tidy and contemplative and more slap-dash. Or at least more conforming to other wet words.

There is actually an even older word plash, a noun meaning (according to Oxford) ‘area of shallow standing water’ or ‘marshy pool’. It’s been in the English language since before there was an English language for it to be in. It’s only used in certain regions of England now (Yorkshire, for instance). It has cognates in other Germanic languages; it may have an onomatopoeic origin – hardly surprising if it does. It may or may not have been the source of plash meaning ‘splash (but not so messily)’, or they may or may not have come from the same root. But really, when we have all these crashing, dashing, smashing -ash words and all these plopping or plucking pl- words, it really is an inevitable formation, isn’t it?

The more interesting thing, indeed, is just how splash has taken over by force of analogy, and plash has acquired a bit of a precious air in consequence. The sound symbolism may be the initial splash into the plash, but the splattered spots of mud and marsh will sometimes drain or dry in unpredictable ways and become more a part of the paint than mere fluid dynamics.


Would you rather be a chameleon? A little master of chamo— er, I mean camouflage? A lizard that comes with a million colours, and slips into whatever hue and pattern the situation demands? A smooth or rough operator, as needed? Crawling through the fruit garden of society, matching each lemon and each melon, sometimes a meh clone and sometimes taking a helm once and again, aiming to claim a meal and not become one?

A chameleon is not truly a master of disguise, I should say. The true master of disguise is the octopus, feeling its way through the marine environment, shifting to match coral, rocks, seaweed, by texture and pattern, or suddenly changing to startle – eight legs, thousands of sensitive suckers, tasting and tickling as it goes: smart. (Also delicious, just by the way.) See this and believe.

The chameleon, by contrast, does not shift shape, does not shift texture, and has a limited set of hues – though they can be vivid and vibrant. It changes colour as much by mood as by surrounding, and the changes take a little time, not a fraction of a second like an octopus. It shifts not to be invisible but to be appropriate or inappropriate, as the occasion demands, or just to suit its mood and never mind what’s around it.

And the chameleon always know what’s around it. Its eyes can see 360 degrees and rotate independently, ever on the lookout for what interests or threatens it, ready to focus accurately on a subject of interest. It can grasp and tickle with not only its feet but its tail, that famous curl. And its tongue! No other animal has such a tongue, capable of darting out twice the length of its body, capturing prey in an instant and retracting again. The only thing the chameleon is not so good at is listening.

So a chameleon can be the life of the party or a dark horse, a person who can be put into a place, scope it out, grasp the surroundings, snare prey with the tongue, catch the interest of others or pass relatively unnoticed as desired. Not necessarily an éminence grise; quite possibly a Boy George, a Karma Chameleon. Appropriate or appropriately inappropriate. Sometimes ambiguous and difficult, too, like the ch at the beginning of chameleon: you need to learn that in this case, as in chimera, it is hard and kicking as “k” and not catching as “ch” or soft and quiet as “sh.”

But a chameleon is not the dominant force anywhere it goes. It may be what the Greeks called a ‘dwarf lion’ or ‘ground lion’ – χαμαί khamai ‘on the ground’ or ‘dwarf’ plus λέων leon ‘lion’ – but the largest of them are not more than a foot, and the smallest can cling to your fingertip. A chameleon is not meant to be the leader, certainly not, but it is also not meant to be a minister or myrmidon. No, a chameleon is better suited to be a fine ornament of something – or someone – beautiful and captivating: like a flower, but much more fascinating.

And you know the ladies will love a chameleon, while few want to find themselves on a date with an octopus.

La Dame aux Chameleons

A passive aggressive quiz

Many people who like to give writing advice – or just pick at other people’s writing – like to hate on the passive voice. But quite a lot of those who do don’t actually know what they’re talking about. How about you? Try my latest salvo in The Week:

Grammar quiz: Do you know the passive voice?



I’m listening to Trouble in Paradise, the new album by La Roux, and it has motivated me to pull off the shelf the large clothbound hardcover book inscribed to me by my parents for my 14th birthday. On page 782 I find only what I knew already:

ROUX – Mixture of butter or other fatty substance and flour, cooked together for varying periods of time depending on its final use.

The roux is the thickening element in sauces.

There are three kinds of roux: white roux, blond roux, and brown roux.

It goes on to explain the differences, which consist mainly in the means and degree of cooking: the flour browns variously much.

The book, I should explain, is The New Larousse Gastronomique.

My copy is in English, but I think it would read better in French. I say this because in French the three types of roux would be roux blanc, roux blond, et roux brun. Which mean, respectively, reddish-white, reddish-blond, and reddish-brown. Which are three appealing hair colours but are also three varyingly sensible descriptions of the colours of the flour-and-butter mixtures. As The Oxford Companion to Food explains, the first roux must have been roux brun: “These early roux were made by cooking flour and butter together until a reddish tint was obtained then using this to thicken a sauce or broth.” By “early” they mean in the 1600s; before that, various other things, including bread crumbs, were used to thicken sauces.

The great glory of French haute cuisine is its sauces; to make a proper sauce, you spend days roasting bones, boiling them, reducing them, making a roux, adding the stock, adding fried onions and vegetables and wine, and so on. At the end you have, stored in your fridge or freezer, sauce espagnole, which is the basis for sauce demi-glace, and both are the bases for a myriad of others. A white sauce (béchamel) is more quickly done but also uses a roux and is also a base for many others. (I find simply reading the brief recipes for these sauces in the Larousse therapeutic: “Cook 2 tablespoons chopped onion in butter. Stir in 5 dl. red wine, season, add a bouquet garni (q.v.) and boil down by two-thirds. Add 3 dl. Espagnole sauce, boil down by half and strain. Before serving, add 50 g. butter.” Violà, sauce bourguignonne – version I.)

I cheated on the days’ work of sauce making. I just used liquid OXO plus wine and herbs and the roux – different, I know, but quicker and easier and it pleased my parents well enough. These days I don’t cook French style much. But if I’m going to, I still know that a proper French sauce is made with a proper roux. The roux is at the heart of French cookery.

Which was an epiphany for me as an adolescent. I learned to make gravy from my mother, and she taught me the technique I still use for thickening pan drippings: put flour, cold water, and salt in a plastic container with a lid and shake; add some pan drippings and stir, and then stir the flour and water into the pan drippings. Not nearly as fancy as a roux and not at all buttery, but gravy with a roast is home-style cookin’. (Years later, volunteering in a soup kitchen in Harvard Square, I learned another fun trick: make a roux with flour and oil and, when it’s good and brown, instead of gradually whisking the liquid in so it wouldn’t lump, just splash in the whole lot of water cold and start stirring. Works shockingly well.)

None of this seems to have much to do with electronic dance music about affairs of the heart, which is what La Roux does, but words have the flavour they have and you cook with them as you will. And La Roux cooks, musically. La Roux is really Elly Jackson, who has red hair. Those who know French will know that roux is actually the masculine form, while la is the feminine article; this works with Jackson’s androgynous look.

And what would the feminine form of roux, ‘reddish’, be? Rousse. The proper French family name meaning ‘the red’ is embossed on the burgundy-coloured cover of my copy of the paper heart of French gastronomy: Larousse.


Obviously, if yesterday was nook, today must be cranny.

I think it’s safe to say you’ve said or written cranny. But have you ever used it without nook and before? And, for that matter, without every nook and before?

Can you even tell me the difference in meaning between nook and cranny?

It seems to fall into those double-barrelled-shotgun phrases: search every nook and cranny; in this day and age; every jot and tittle; this is your last and final boarding call

What cranny really means is, as Oxford puts it, ‘A small narrow opening or hole; a chink, crevice, crack, fissure.’ It seems to come from French cran. So it’s not a nook per se, but it’s a similar thing on a smaller and perhaps more accidental scale. It is the tittle to nook’s jot.

But what if it meant something quite different? What if it meant ‘cranberry’ or ‘granny’? What about ‘narc’ or ‘cramp’ or ‘crane’? Look, if you Google “every nook and granny” (exact phrase) you get more than 25,000 hits. “Every nook and cranberry” gets more than 22,000 results. Even “every nook and crane” gets 29,000 hits, most of which appear not to be “every nook and crane-y” puns. Imagine! Imagine searching corners, alcoves, and grandmothers, or corners, alcoves, and cranberries, or corners, alcoves, and, for heaven’s sake, construction cranes (or the birds called cranes)!

Well, there it is. Cranny was once a word that people knew how to use, but it became just an attachment, a trailer, a little linguistic cranny in the wall of words. And you know what we do with those: fill them with available materials. Fill them full – don’t let them go half-caulked. Stuff them with your cranberries and grandmothers and little origami cranes. And you’ll spend all your time searching those berries and babushkas and birds for meaning, when in fact they’re what’s in the way of it.

Welcome to language!


If you took a look in a nook, what would you see? And where would you be? Would it be a breakfast nook in a kitchen, or a book nook? Or some other nook and cranny? Or would it be an e-reader? I suppose you could read a cookbook on a Nook in a kitchen nook. Or you could look at a book that had every word ending in ook: book, brook, cook, chook, crook, forsook, hook, look, shook, took, kook… uh-oh, that last word doesn’t rhyme with the others.

Actually, neither did nook, originally. Until not much more than a century ago, the standard pronunciation rhymed it with Luke. And before that it had a long o: nok. But it finally nuked that and fell in line with the others; it didn’t want to be a kook.

What is a nook? It’s easy enough to picture, at least sketchily, in your mind’s eye. It’s a cozy little corner, an architectural diverticulum perhaps – a secluded place where you can escape from the madding crowds, even as they flow by (like trains rushing past in a tunnel where our heroine has flattened herself into the merest nook in the wall). A corner to wedge into when cornered by life. A quaint and curious dead-end byway in the village or countryside. A nook that is by a chimney or fire is an inglenook. A nook is to a person – especially a bookish introvert – as a small cardboard box is to a cat: it contains you comfortably in its hard but open embrace. It is a place where you can hide from a shnook or shelter from a Chinook or just hook up with a good book, a place where you can simply say to the world, “No, OK?”

If that seems bearish, well, think of Nanook: an English rendering of nanuq, the polar bear. But are there nooks in the Arctic? The great barren landscape, open and windswept, pimpled by pingos and reflected by frozen lakes, and at least formerly dotted by igloos, which, being circular, are apparently lacking in nooks… No, but there are always corners and nestling spots in everything, and just by the way some of those Arctic islands are exceptionally mountainous.

Where did nook come from? It’s uncertain – some long-forgotten historical nook, or nok anyway; it’s probably Norse. It has meant an assortment of things, but first and foremost a corner, seen and taken separately from the rest of the object, edifice, or lot. There is often a connotation of out-of-the-way-ness. It can be a triangle of land, too, and sometimes has even named a triangle jutting into the sea. And aside from being a corner of a yard, a nook has been a quarter of a yard, too: a yard being a standard measure of 50 acres, a nook was 12½ – or, elsewhere and at other time, 20.

It serves well, though, this word, wherever it came from. It is short and presses like a pillow into a corner: the soft /n/, the retreat to the back of the mouth /ʊ/, the abrupt stop against the hard wall at the back /k/; the shape of the book in hand n, the eyes (with glasses?) looking at it oo, the corner itself k. Kindle a fire and kindle some interest: this secluded nook is a portal to a world of imagination and escape; it is the corner of the mind’s eye.


What is a flautist? A flutist, but perhaps a little snootier. Fowler wrote, “Flutist is more than 350 years old; flautist (from Italian flautista) dates only from the middle of the 19th c., and there seems no good reason why it should have prevailed. … But it has.” Well, it has in England and perhaps in Canada, rather less so in the United States.

But what gust of linguistic afflatus would lead us to flout standard sensible English derivational morphology and the usual rules of English pronunciation just to flaunt a foreign word as the preferred form? Here’s a little thought experiment: Let’s say that you met someone who played the bassoon, or even just someone who seemed to know a fair bit about music, and he said not “bassoonist” but “bassenist.” Would you think, “Wow, that’s weirdly wrong,” or would you think something more like, “Huh, I guess bassenist must be the more cultured way of saying it, because it’s not the simple predictable way and there’s no reason for this knowledgeable person to say it unless it’s the more correct way, just like all those other weird exceptions we have in English”?

Linguistic insecurity is very common in English and tends to cause us to prefer what linguists call the “marked” form — our lexicon is a flock of odd ducks chosen for their oddness. We learn as small children that there are many words where the seemingly logical form is the “grossly uneducated and illiterate” one. We must learn to play the instrument of our language as carefully as a delicate and fickle fipple flute.

It also doesn’t surprise me that we would go for flautist more in Canada; Americans lean a little more towards the straightforward, dropping silent letters willy-nilly. We also retain greater ties to Britain in Canada. But there’s also the little matter of pronunciation. Oxford gives the pronunciation just as /ˈflɔːtɪst/ – as in “flawtist.” But the preferred pronunciation among North Americans who are “in the know” is the one modeled on Italian: /ˈflaʊtɪst/, the main vowel like “ow” rather than “aw.”

And why shouldn’t we take the word from Italian? That’s where we got flute, after all, isn’t it? Hmm, no, actually. Italian got its word flauta from Old Provençal or Old French, which didn’t get it from Latin. Now, yes, the form at that time was flaute. But it moved up through French to English and in so doing the vowel changed a little. Modern French is flute and flûtiste. We rather likely borrowed flautist from Italian later on because we borrow all sorts of musical terms from Italian. But we didn’t borrow it intact, flautista; we clipped the a off the end, making it not so much a borrowing as an affectation… and a mark of linguistic insecurity: we think it highfalutin’, but others may think it flat-out flawed.

Thanks to several of my colleagues in the Editors’ Association of Canada for discussing this word today on the email list.


I like sparklers.

I don’t often buy the coated metal rods that, when ignited, burn down quickly, throwing off forks of sparks as they go, like a sprinkler of light. One time, for my brother’s bachelor party, I accidentally bought incense sticks instead, thereby giving my brother much more time to down a bottle of Coke than I had intended. He ignored me anyway.

But I do like sparkle-sticks. And things that are like them. Things that sparkle. Other things that are called sparklers.

Sparkling wines, for instance. Prosecco, cava, crémant, champagne: my kind of fizzy-o-therapy. Mixed with orange juice or Campari or taken straight and frothing, dotting my spectacles with picolitres of effervescence. Tasting stars? Tasting the evanescent asterisms of a sparkle-stick.

Sparkling eyes, too, green or grey or blue or onyx black, not staring but starring and sparring, promising solemnly that they are up to no good: a little mischief adds spice to life. Winking and twinkling, and more: literally glittering, sparkling with larkishness. And sparkling teeth below, white and smiling and sharp, inclined to bite just a bit. And sparkling wit. A mind that shoots soft little knives and bright feathers all in a flickering mix.

The first definition of sparkler in the Oxford English Dictionary is “One who sparkles or shines in respect of beauty or accomplishments; esp. a vivacious, witty, or pretty young woman.” That dates from the early 1700s. Also listed: a sparkling eye, a sparkling gem, a sparkling insect, a sparkling wine, a sparkling firework.

Sparkler of course comes from sparkle. Sparkle is spark plus the frequentative –le suffix, seen also on nestle, crackle, and quite a few others. Spark has been around as a word longer than English has been its own language, and it has always meant what it means. Sparkle dates back more than 800 years.

We have not always had sparkling wine, but we have always had sparklers, though we did not always name them thus. The word is so suited; it seems like an oral performance of what it names, with the crisp stops and just a bit of fluid. Even the shape of it helps, in particular the k, which shoots off a fork like the little sparks on a sparkle-stick. More complete still is sparkly, with the y for added shape.

And most complete is life when it includes sparklers, of all sorts.