Monthly Archives: August 2014


The Oxford English Dictionary defines episcotister as “An apparatus for admitting light into a darkened room by means of adjustable discs.” Merriam-Webster ( defines it as “a device for reducing the intensity of light in known ratio by means of rapidly rotating opaque and transparent sectors.” defines it as “a disk with a sector removed that when rotated in front of a light source allows the periodic passage of flashes of light: used in studying the motion of a body.” The Wikipedia article on perceptual transparency defines it in passing as “a rotating disk that alternates open and solid sectors.”

With each successive pass it becomes a bit clearer. Take a metal disk. Cut out half of it at the diameter, or cut out a pie-piece-shaped quarter of it and, diametrically opposing, cut out another quarter, so you have two quarters solid and two quarters cut away. Maybe leave a little bit of rim to hold it together. You now have something that can be used as an episcotister if you spin it in front of a light source, with its axis to one side of the light source (especially with a lens) so it alternatingly blocks and reveals the light. Spin it fast enough and you get the fan effect: it becomes transparent, although dimmer.

This makes me think of the sound of the word: /ɛ ˌpɪ skə ˈtɪs tɹ̩/. Notice how your lips and tongue move to block and open the passage of air and sound: the vowels and syllabic liquid /ɛ ɪ ə ɪ ɹ̩/ let it through, like light; the consonants /p sk t st/ block it. Easy to hear where it’s vowel and where consonant. But speed it up (repeating) so that the stops are passing by a few hundred times a second and it will all blur together. Indeed, that’s how you can make musical tones: percussions repeated rapidly enough that they blend all together.

And this is where episcotisters really make their difference. I’ll quote Nick Burlett, who suggested I taste this word: “The human visual system can perceive flicker below about 50–60 Hz (or 50–60 on-off transitions per second), but above that rate the light source appears constant (the flicker “fuses” into a continuous experience). Modern movies are shot (nearly universally) at 24 frames per second, which is below the threshold of flicker fusion, meaning that we would perceive a flickering image were it not for the episcotister in the projector. Rather than displaying 24 images per second, the projector displays 48 or 72… flashing each frame of the movie onto the screen two or three times before advancing.”

That’s right. If you were watching a movie at just 24 flashes of the light per second, you would see it as 24 flashes of the light, just as you would hear 24 “t”s a second as a succession of “t t t t t” et cetera. If you watch a fan pass across a light slowly, you can see the blade. But speed it up and you hear not “t t t t t” but a note; you see not a blade again and again and again but a steady transparent slight dimness. Drive across a cattleguard slowly and you feel every bump; do it quickly and it’s just a quick vibration like a pass of a back massager.

The fascinating thing here, of course, is that the frame actually only changes once every 1/24 of a second, the movement only moves 24 times a second, but because you’re seeing it twice or three times for each frame, somehow the jerkiness of the movement is elided. Our brain and eyes establish perceptual continuity with the light, and the motion is inferred by the mind as continuous and so seen as such. (There’s a lot of “this must be this” in the brain’s visual processing.)

The other term for this device, as it’s used in movie projectors, is rotary disk shutter. But episcotister is more fun. It comes on strong with a taste of Episcopalian, though it has no particular relation to English bishopric, and a contrary Scot, though it is no more Presbyterian; it also gives you some pisco, that South American grappa, again irrelevant but beyond control. There is also a bit of an echo of taster and of twister. But it comes (as you may have guessed) from Greek. The source is ἐπισκοτίζειν episkotizein ‘throw darkness or shadow’ (note from the accents that the long syllables were the first and second-last syllables in the Greek); that comes from ἐπί epi ‘upon’ and σκότος skotos ‘darkness’, which we see also in scotomata.

We always think we need to cast light on a subject in order to see it more clearly. Perhaps, perhaps. But sometimes we need to cast a bit of darkness on a subject in order to make more sense of it.


A favourite place in my childhood was the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. It is a full-on history museum, with rooms covering many different times and places. It was always worth the money to visit (well, my parents paid, but at least for a time a visit there was one available weekly reward for cleaning my room).

There was a room full of suits of armor, for instance. There was, in a recreation of an early 20th century store awaiting customers, an old machine that you could put a nickel in and crank the handle to watch a flip-frame of a buxom lady in a Victorian one-piece dancing a shimmy. And there was the dark-walled, dimly lit room labeled Numismatics.

Numismatics! Such a heavy, impressive word. Four syllables, with twin m’s in the heart and an n to start (echoes of museum?), and then the scientific, esoteric atic, smacking of charismatic and automatic and mathematic and perhaps just a little lunatic. It was a dark, heavy word for a dark room, a complex word like the name of some secret society or the password they use as a token for entry.

Of course, they could have just labelled the room Coins, with its two coin-shaped letters no less (c and o, I mean), and had done with it. But that is a light and common word. Numismatics is a word that has the fug and pong of alchemy; it feels almost as though it has been discovered in a pharaoh’s tomb. Coins, after all, are things you dig out of your pocket in daylight and use as parsley to the main dish of your banknotes or drop into slots with the hope of unjust return. Numismatics are stamped slugs of metal resting in velvet under glass and spot lighting. Or, anyway, numismatics is the branch of study that involves such displays.

In numismatics you will hear the influence of the Latin for ‘coin’, nummus. This may seem a soft word for hard metal clinking things, but if you listen to “In terra summus rex” from the original (not Orff’s) Carmina Burana, you can hear it shouted as though striking coins – it lacks the clang but it has the heft and punch. Which fits the attitude: the song is a critical piece about venality and the money-centred customs of the church and other segments of society.

And customs is a good word here, because the Greek word that is the true root of numismatics is νόμισμα nomisma, ‘money, coinage’, which comes from νόμος nomos ‘usage, custom’, a root that also shows up in places such as autonomous. I’m sure it’s almost coincidence that you may have to pay coin at customs (an organ of an autonomous political entity) to bring in any of a number of nummy things. And, for that matter, things numismatic too, if they are ancient and of value.

What good fortune that the coin of my realm is words. There is no barrier to their importation. On the other hand, they are not so remunerative either, as they are easily replicable. But we may nonetheless view them in velvet under carefully controlled conditions.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting today’s word.


What does this word go with?

You might well say dark. Or basement, room, cold, air, or smell. These are all commonly seen with dank. But for me, first of all, dank means vacation.

It’s not that I like to vacation in dank places. I don’t really fancy dankness any more than the average person: that cool moisture clinging to the walls and to your skin as you walk into it, and the slightly rank stink of mould or mildew or what have you. When we found it was a fixed characteristic of our hotel room in Cuba last fall, we were not overwhelmingly charmed by it, but we survived. Better that than cigarette smoke, anyway.

But the thing is, I grew up in Alberta. Alberta is not a place for dankness. It is a dry and dusty place. Even the basements smell just of cement dust. My childhood vacations were to places like Vancouver and western New York, places where things got dank. If we explored a basement, it had that unmistakeable smell: the smell that meant I wasn’t in Alberta anymore, I was somewhere humid and old, somewhere where even buildings put down roots and drank water from the soil.

So dank has a pleasant tinge for me, similar to how the smell of French farmhouse cheese does. That soft, ripe cheese, which is really a crusty glob of spoiled milk, smells rather like Charmin in its least charming state. It smells more like the back end than the business end of a cow. And yet that smell is a harbinger or index of an enjoyable experience. So too, for me, the dank smell.

Notice how I speak of it as a smell. This is how many of us tend to think of it now. Why not? Many dank things do have that rank reek, the stink of damp. And the word has such nose-holding echoes with that unthanking ank. But the word originally referred to wetness or humidity, to soaking ground as in fens and marshes, and even simply to rain, clouds, wetness.

But not everyone likes the moist. Not everyone likes the sharp, pungent, clinging, pervasive pong that is the life partner of dankness. Most people will not say to it “vielen dank” – German for ‘many thanks’ (a cheap pun, given that it’s said like “feelin donk,” but so what). Damp can be OK; dank cannot.

But if you’re from someplace dry, at least it will tell you you are not at home. You are somewhere the air actually has aroma. And, what’s best, you’re not the one who’s going to have to worry about the effects of all the moisture in that basement.

Vielen dank to Laurie Miller for suggesting today’s word.


This is a mighty western word, I reckon. It names a thing you get in places like the sere dirtscapes of the American Southwest, sure, but that’s not all: it names it with a sound that is a staple of the soundtrack of stereotypical life in the cowboy world, the top item in a Foley artist’s bag of sound tricks for western movies, a sound that follows people like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood around.

Listen: The cowboy jumps off his horse; his feet land on the dirt and gravel: “Gulch!” He spits into the dirt. “Gulch.” He puts a feed bag onto his horse and it munches philosophically, “gulch gulch gulch.” He heaves the saddle off the horse and drops it onto a wooden rack, “Gul-ching.” Then he hears a rustle from the chaparral, just offscreen: “Gulch. Gulchgulch.” He takes a cautious step in the rough turf: “Gulch…” He swallows quietly, “gulch,” and a drop of sweat crawls down his forehead. He draws his gun quietly, cocks it slowly, “k-klik…” (Not everything sounds like “gulch,” come on.)

Yep, that sure sounds like a gulcher culture. But what is a gulch really? A narrow ravine with steep sides, created by erosion from runoff and perhaps flash floods. It may or may not have a stream in the bottom. It’s a sort of place where gold panners may be found if there’s gold in them thar hills. An arroyo is a kind of gulch. A wadi may be a gulch. So may a coulee.

Where did the word come from? Well, that’s a whole nother thing. If the form of a word is like a gulch carved into the lexscape, where it came from is like the water that made the gulch. But that stream may not still be running through it. We’re not entirely sure how gulch came to be gulch, but there are other words gulch that have some likely relation. There’s a noun used in the early 1600s for a glutton or drunkard (someone who gulps too much, you may say). There’s another noun used from the later 1600s through the early 1800s for a heavy fall. There’s a verb from the early 1800s meaning ‘fall heavily’. And, most signally, there’s a verb that’s been around since at least the 1200s and seems to relate to other Germanic words with a gulk- root, meaning ‘swallow or devour greedily’.

So if that’s the source, it compares a gaping gully to a gulping gullet. What we know is that the word shows up in the ‘steep ravine’ sense in the early-mid 1800s. And it sounds so earthy and evocative that simply using the term in a place name – especially if it’s in a movie – plunks down a backdrop of tawny dust and squinty-eyed cowboys with guns and spurs, and maybe some gold panners or other denizens of the big dry dusty dangerous empty.

The lord, the bishop, and the harlot: an etymological fallacy

This article was written as a guest post for the Merriam-Webster Unabridged blog,

“I literally decimated my bank account, but it was so unique, I just had to get it! It’s fantastic!”

There are many in whom such a sentence would provoke an attack of bruxism. “To the letter,” they might say as they gnashed their teeth, “you reduced your bank account by one tenth? For something that is mere fantasy? Reaallllyyyy. I would expect no more from someone who doesn’t seem to know that ‘unique’ is not gradable – it means there is only one: un.”

Ah, the etymological fallacy: the idea that the true meaning of a word is whatever it “originally” meant – or its source parts meant. Its adherents may protest, for example, that we cannot use transpire to mean ‘happen’ because the Latin for transpire means ‘breathe across’. If adherents of the etymological fallacy were set loose on chemistry, they would declare table salt to be a combustible metal (sodium) and a poison gas (chlorine), and say that since water is two highly flammable gases (hydrogen and oxygen) it should be kept far from a fire.

Such people – like most people, really – seem to have a basic idea of language as a fixed thing, with timeless fixed rules (that just happen to coincide with whatever they remember their grade school English teacher telling them), and if people in a previous era used English differently, either they were wrong or we are. Every change observed is an aberration, and it follows from this that whatever a word or its constituents once meant is the true meaning. This also provides a handy trump card for interpersonal competition, and a tool for group exclusion: “You didn’t know that accident really means just ‘a thing that happened’ – in fact, ‘a thing that fell into place’? Idiot.”

But look, I’m preaching to the choir here. If you’re reading this, you know as well as I do that language changes, and meanings shift. Why don’t we have a little fun and run with the etymological fallacy? Here’s a story that uses words with their “true” meanings:

Our local lord – I mean the baker, of course – is a silly man, though lewd, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awful and egregious man, and among the most enthusiastic spellers you could ever find – came to town on a holiday to have a thing with the local priests. He came to the lord to get a loaf, but the lord was not there, so his queen gave him a special one she had thrown around.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a harlot. “Can you help me and my girls?” said the harlot, gesturing towards several knaves around him.

“My whore,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not pretty.”

“No,” said the harlot, “I am just a nice pastor, but I cannot win.”

As the bishop extracted his meat, the lord came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I pray, do not give that loaf to the harlot and his girls, it’s sophisticated!”

The lord was a crafty man, but not always a clever one, and as he neared the bishop he offended and warped the loaves. The bishop attended to the loaves, but he too offended, killed his head on a cute peter, and was astounded.

At first the lord and the harlot thought the bishop had starved, but a small deer – a hound – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a crafty man, and full of animosity, and he declared that the accident had been a small enormity and nothing noisome. He gave some bread to the harlot, saying “May you be silly and no longer nice,” and went on with the gaudy lord to join the priests in their thing.

Oh, do you need a key to the “true” meanings? Not familiar with all of them? Tsk. Well, here is a translation into the words people would usually use now, “wrong” though they may be:

Our local loaf-keeper – I mean the baker, of course – is a blessèd man, though a layman, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awe-inspiring and outstanding man, and among the most divinely inspired preachers you could ever find – came to town on a holy day to have a conference with the local priests. He came to the loaf-keeper to get a loaf, but the loaf-keeper was not there, so his wife gave him a particular one she had twisted in a ring.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a beggar. “Can you help me and my children?” said the beggar, gesturing towards several boys around him.

“My dear,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not cunning.”

“No,” said the beggar, “I am just an ignorant shepherd, but I cannot work.”

As the bishop pulled out his food, the loaf-keeper came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I ask you, do not give that loaf to the beggar and his children, it’s impure!”

The loaf-keeper was a strong man, but not always a nimble-handed one, and as he neared the bishop he stumbled and threw the loaves. The bishop reached for the loaves, but he too stumbled, struck his head on a sharp rock, and was rendered unconscious.

At first the loaf-keeper and the beggar thought the bishop had died, but a small animal – a dog – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a strong man, and full of lively courage, and he declared that the fall had been a small irregularity and nothing harmful. He gave some bread to the beggar, saying “May you be blessed and no longer ignorant,” and went on with the joyous loaf-keeper to join the priests in their conference.

Well, yes, there is some entertainment potential in the etymological fallacy. But I still say that those who hold to it are very silly and not at all nice. And I mean that in the modern sense.


What kind of a lousy word is this? It bugs the eyes! It’ll have you pulling your hair out! It starts with such a cluster of consonants, and then it has a small infestation of dots. You can see as is at the end, but do you want to take it as is?

You don’t want to take what it names as is, I assure you of that. Here’s the Encyclopædia Britannica definition from the 1768 edition, courtesy of the Twitter feed @Britannica1768: “PHTHIRIASIS, in medicine, the pedicularis morbus, or lousy disease, is most incident in children, though adults are not wholly exempt.”

If that doesn’t make clear sense, I should amplify: although nowadays we use lousy always to mean simple ‘bad, of poor quality’, it actually first – and still literally, for those who know – means ‘infested with lice’. That’s what pedicularis morbus means. But why use straightforward English if you can use a peculiar – or particularly ridiculous – term?

I won’t say that phthiriasis is somehow reminiscent of scratching or of the sound of shears and razor clearing the hair from your head (the best way to rid yourself of lice, although many people so dread shaving their heads they would rather apply highly toxic treatments instead). To me it actually seems more like psoriasis (another skin problem, but not contagious) mixed with the sound you make when trying to get a hair or seed off your tongue, “fth.” And yes, if you’re wondering about how it’s said, it’s /θᵻˈraɪəsəs/ or /θaɪˈraɪəsəs/ (“thi-RYE-a-sis”) or, if you want to be truly nitpicky about it, the same with /f/ before the /θ/.

And whence comes this word? Via Latin from Greek, derived from ϕθείρ ftheir ‘louse’. That in turn is most likely from ϕθείρειν ftheirein ‘destroy’ – not because having lice destroys your life (it can make rather a mess of it) but because lice were believed to be generated spontaneously in decaying flesh.

It’s a long word for such a small beastie: one big foot of four syllables – extra ironic because the Latin name for one genus of lice (the one you’ll most likely find in your hair) is Pediculus, which comes from Latin for ‘little foot’. Well, you’ll have lots of little feet, anyway.


One building at the Canadian National Exhibition – bearing the name Better Living Centre, thanks to its past contents but somehow still appropriately titled – is in recent years where to go to see all the cute (and slightly less cute) farm animals. Come in the front door and look to your left and you will see a small paddock of alpacas. A sign on the fence informs you that a baby alpaca is called a cría.

Or just cria, of course, because we normally don’t go for that fancy accented character stuff in English. Why even pretend our spelling represents the speech sounds? Might as well try to spell animal sounds, our alphabet is so mismatched to our language.

No, though, if you think that’s where I’m going, baby alpacas don’t make a noise like “cría.” Their cri de cœur is rather more adorable. Look, here’s a 30-minute-old one wobbling around and making its little noises as it does:

Here’s another one, even more adorable, but you have to block out the much less adorable sheep noise in the background:

Seriously, is that a squee or what? I don’t mean the noise they make, I mean the “squee” you may make at the sight. Who doesn’t like petting charming little things? These wee beasties are so adorbs they’ll adsorb you: put your hand on their fur and you will simply be sucked into animal bliss. Unless, of course, they dislike your touch (as they well may), in which case they might just spit at you. You do not want that to happen. It is not like being spat upon by a human.

Not only baby alpacas are called crías. So are baby llamas, vicuñas, and guanacos – in short, all those Andean camelids. The word is Spanish; more generally it’s the Spanish word for ‘suckling’ or ‘litter’, from criar ‘suckle, rear’. That’s from Latin creare, which is also the source of English create and creature. And while I won’t say these are the cutest creatures in all creation – I reserve that spot for kittens – spending quality time with them can be a recreation lending to better living.

Does this word cría seem a little crisp, not quite fluffy and curly enough for these ultra-cute beastlings? Well, that is as it may be… different people find different tastes in words; crisp comes from the Latin crispus, meaning ‘curly’, so it seemed to suit the Latins well enough. I’m sure if you wanted to call crías hmm hmm hmms, you could for yourself and among friends you had informed of your choice.

And I won’t deny that I find the word cría capable of being cute on the one hand but harsh on the other. It may work well enough with its four letters for a little four-legged thing, but it can also take a decidedly Arctic turn. Or should I say Arctic tern: kría is the Icelandic word (sometimes borrowed into English) for the Arctic tern, a loud grey bird that makes a noise not unlike – yes – “kría!” And I bet if you pet it it’s rather less pleasant than a fluffy baby alpaca.