Monthly Archives: September 2014


My wife and I spent the weekend knocking around a mall and its environs. We had a ball.

By “a mall” I mean the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

For those who don’t know, the National Mall is not a shopping mall. It is a mall in the older – but not oldest – sense: it is a large open walk bordered by trees (and buildings). In fact, it’s quite broad.

And just as capital is the heart of a shopping mall, the National Mall is the heart of the American capital. You can knock around it pell-mell, from gallery to museum to monument to capitol. The gavels of law and justice knock down at one end; along its side various buildings – mostly neoclassical – have been knocked up; in the middle is the obelisk memorializing the city’s eponymous general and president (a giant number one, easy to look out for); at the far end Abraham Lincoln is seated at the top of a large set of heavily populated steps. And however exalted and vaunted and even “sacred” the building or place is, with the exception of the monuments themselves they all have gift shops. Just in case you were afraid there could be no shopping on the Mall.

Well, fair enough. America is, in its eyes (and the eyes of many others), the apotheosis of a capitalist democracy. Power to the people – may they all learn the great lessons their great hero presidents have taught them, especially George Washington, who chose to be a president and to represent the will of the people, rather than to be an emperor. These are the messages that the texts and guides and placards tell you. America is the land of the free – and, indeed, all of the museums and monuments and great buildings (except for the privately owned ones) are free to enter, as long as you don’t consider having your bag inspected a cost, and as long as you don’t factor in the taxes every American pays that support them. Instead of paying money for goods, you pay attention and pay your respects to culture and history. You can spend all day there without spending a dime.

Unless, of course, you like buying souvenirs, such as a capitol dome in chocolate or a pencil printed with all the presidents. It is your free choice to buy such things, but if you do, you pay: currency, the free (as in unrestricted) symbolic exchange of value, is the heart of capitalism, in the capital as elsewhere. Free enterprise is the American way, and by “free” we mean “free to charge people as much as you can get them to pay.” But we also mean that other people are free to compete with you (usually).

As it happens, my only souvenir was a Jackson Pollock tie from the National Gallery. Plus a large number of photos and memories. (See the photos in my flickr album.) Oh, and – least lasting of all – a blister on the ball of my left middle toe. Because we walked a lot. A mall is a place you go on foot, whether it’s a shopping mall or the old kind of mall. Or the original kind of mall.

What is the original kind of mall? An alley or similar long narrow space wherein the game of pall mall is played. By pall mall I obviously do not mean cigarettes. (Nor do I mean the candy taste that Pall Mall brings to me because it was the brand printed on packs of candy cigarettes I devoured as a child.) It is a game, sort of like croquet, only the balls are a foot in diameter. The mallets are correspondingly larger too. The name comes via French from Latin roots cognate with ball and mallet. The aim is to get the ball through an elevated hoop at one end in as few strokes as possible.

I wonder how many strokes it would take to get from one end of the National Mall to the other. It’s a bit of a walk, as it happens, nearly 2 miles from one end to the other. But that’s nothing for us. On one day, we walked from Foggy Bottom to Georgetown, through there and over the Key Bridge to Rosslyn, past the Marine Monument and into Arlington Cemetery, around there a little and then across the bridge to the Lincoln Monument, and then along the National Mall… and beyond, northward to dinner. A total of about 15 kilometres.

Oops, sorry, about 9 miles. Americans do love traditions, and one of them is the almost Harry-Potter-esque system of weights and measures that everywhere else (except Liberia and Myanmar) has been replaced by the tidier metric system. (I grew up with Imperial in Canada, then we switched. I still use it for a few things because I am of that age. Anyway, it’s good for cooking because it does fractions well. But when I go to the mall, I buy everything in metric… but not in an American mall.)

The National Mall is of course not the original Mall. In London there is Pall Mall and there is The Mall; in Paris there is a rue du Mail, and in Hamburg a Palmaille. These were all originally places (or near places) where pall mall was played. Then the balls and hammers were pushed to the sides and the name retained as each place became a long public stroll. A pall mall is a nice, orderly place, nothing pell mell; indeed, pell mell has a separate etymology (perhaps with a little cross influence) and an unrelated meaning.

The National Mall was never a place to play pall mall; its name is just another part of the USA’s British heritage. The Americans didn’t throw out British invaders, after all; they were British invaders and their descendants, and they just decided to go it alone without paying taxes to a distant figurehead. They’d rather spend their money their way, and look up to their own heroes and create their own mythos – a mythos available around the National Mall in the form of a lot of free masonry.

Have a look at some photos from our sojourn in DC if you so desire.

For unlawful carnal knowledge? Basically useless language lies.

My latest article for The Week takes aim at popular stories that this or that word (including some rather rude ones) comes from an acronym. It’s guaranteed to be a wet blanket for party-trick etymologies. I do so love snuffing out rubbish!

Don’t buy into nonsensical etymologies of the F-word

Or any other imagineered claims that common words were derived from winking acronyms


The focus. It burns.

Focus a magnifying glass on a piece of paper and let the sun make a little image of itself. So bright, so hot. Smoke soon rises.

Focus a camera lens on a subject. With the iris wide open, the subject is sharp, striking home, blazing itself into the film or sensor, and all else around it is softening into the balls and blurs of bokeh. It is like the word focus: soft at the peripheries (/f/, /s/) and sharp in the centre (/k/).

With the iris tighter, more appears in focus; you get more picture, more context, but more distraction too – more in focus makes it less focused.

With the iris too tight, nothing is quite sharp but everything is equally in focus and equally diffracted. You see all equally clearly and nothing quite clearly enough.

I have a lifelong ambivalence about focus. I like seeing things clearly and sharply. I have worn glasses since I was twelve, and I have a desire to make out small details in the same way I have a desire to understand motivations: I yearn because I am not good enough at it. But too much focus traps me, imprisons me. I cannot sustain single-point focus on a thing for too long without bursting into flame. I need to be elliptical…

An ellipse, as you may know, is a geometric figure with two foci; it is defined as a line such that the sum of the distances to the two foci is always equal. Stick two nails into a board and tie a piece of string to them, one end to each, that is somewhat longer than the distance between them. You can then use a pencil to draw an ellipse simply by keeping the string taut as you move the pencil: always the same sum of distances, the length of the string. Not one focus, two foci – the two nails. Other figures also have two foci: a parabola is an ellipse with one of the foci at infinity; a hyperbola is a curve such that the difference between the distances to the foci is always the same. A circle is an ellipse where the two foci are in the same place. It has a singular focus. It is perfect, contained, cold. But hot in the centre.

When I take photographs, I like to have something in sharp focus most of the time, and other things out of focus.

Sometimes I like to look at something very small and see just the smallest part of it in focus, a still moment of the eye and mind on the edge of dreamland and release. And the closer it is the less of it is in focus.

But I like to shift focus. Sometimes I like to have many things in sharp focus so that I can move my own focus around as I look at the picture. Keep things at a distance and you can focus on them without being threatened by the intensity of so much intimate detail.

Sometimes I like to shift focus in the act of taking the pictures, from one picture to the next.

Sometimes I like to let the focus go a bit. Erase the wrinkles of life. Soften the colour, add to the mystery. The seeing eye sees a little less.

Let it go even more. Like a dream. Let the burning ease. Abstract.

Sometimes I like to focus on something peripheral and let the real object of interest remain an obscure object of desire, lest it gorgonize me.

The geometry of attention and re-presentation. The circle of attention. Ellipses. Parables. Hyperboles. Through what lens – or what lenses – do you focus?

The first person to use focus in geometry was Johannes Kepler, a man familiar with optics. It had already been in use to refer to the point where a lens makes an image of the sun on a surface. That hot little point. The place where it strikes home, the heart, the furnace.

Focus: Latin for ‘hearth, fireplace, home’. Its modern Italian descendant fuoco means ‘fire’.

It burns, the focus.


There’s something vaguely Celtic or mythic to the sound of this word. The /kl/ and the /θr/, with their voiceless-liquid combinations – one crisp, the other soft – are reminiscent of Tolkien’s elvish tongues. It has such odd old echoes: cloth and clash, threat and thread and maybe threnody, lath and rate. Is it a ruling council? A clan of druids and mages? Perhaps a prison, an ancient cage holding a noxious thing awaiting its release after millennia to issue forth as a destructive vaporous spirit once the bars melt away?

That last one, yeah.

Well, it’s more than that. A clathrate, generally, is a molecular cage: the crystalline lattice of one molecule traps within it another molecule. The word clathrate comes via Latin clathri ‘lattice’ from Greek κλεῖθρα kleithra ‘bars’. There are many molecules that can cage and many that can be caged. But perhaps the best known and most feared clathrate is a cage made of water – the hard expansive lattice of ice, like microscopic geodesic cages, less dense than the liquid – containing as its prisoners, one in each cell, molecules of methane.

Chemists say that the methane is the “guest” of the water clathrate. This is rather like calling General Zod a guest of the Phantom Zone in the Superman movies. The methane is a gas, but when it is caged in the icy clathrate it is frozen in place, like suspended animation or consignment to another dimension. Waiting.

Where do you find such clathrates? Under the seabed and in the permafrost. And if and when these long-frozen beds thaw, the methane is released. It can build up pressure and explode, as happened recently on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, making a big hole in the earth, as though some ancient beast had broken free. Or it can simply, insidiously, bubble up. And when it is loose, where does it go? Into the atmosphere. Where it can be a potent agent for further warming the planet… to release more of its friends…

But a cage of suspended animation does not always contain an enemy. Han Solo was kept in suspended animation, a masculine Sleeping Beauty. And our own minds are clathrates of memories, thoughts and images and feelings long locked up in the permafrost of passed years. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that clathrate sounds a bit like classmate and I was at a high school reunion this past weekend, seeing some people for the first time in 30 years. Ah, memories. And we had a gas!

The Grammarist interviews me

The language-oriented website has published an interview with me about my views on words, blogging, et cetera. If you would like to read it, it is at . Previous interviewees include Constance Hale and Mignon Fogarty.

Explaining the exploitation of explicit expletives

Do words have “bad apple” effects on other words by sound resemblance? Mmmmmaybe. If they do, one possible case is the subject of my latest article on The Week:

How did ‘expletive,’ ‘explicit,’ and ‘exploit’ become such sleazy words?



Iva Cheung, walking through the quad at Simon Fraser University, asked herself why the open yards of universities are called quads. Yes, yes, of course it’s short for quadrangle, but we don’t speak of Times Quadrangle, do we? Are university quadrangles notably other than square or at least rectangular? Can other parallelogram or even rhomboid college quads be found?

Mm-hmm, yes. It takes some looking, but in fact they can.

Most North American universities that have grassy areas called quads do indeed have rectilinear borders, although there are some notable exceptions – have a look at the Freshman Quad at Johns Hopkins University. A quad is, originally and tout court, a yard bordered by buildings at an educational institution, but these days we may be inclined to reserve the term for those actually so named, such as the residential and academic quads at my graduate alma mater, Tufts University (the academic quad is shaped rather more like a flattened stuffed duffle bag). However, those are more loosely quads in another sense: they are not actually fully walled in by buildings, as was originally the case – quads were first of all courtyards. They have buildings around them, yes, but gaps too, just as Harvard Yard does.

One good place to find odd quads is Oxford University. One of the oldest quads is at Merton College, Oxford; it is a bit of turf that was over time enclosed by student residential buildings. The grass came later, as did the now-common name for it, Mob Quad. But there are quite a few quads at Oxford. And, thanks to the non-rectilinear street layout, some of them are a bit off-kilter. Have a look at Oriel College, for instance.

So, again, why quad? Well, given that a square is a town meeting place (so the name is a bit common) and a square formally must have equal sides, and given that a rectangle must be perfectly rectilinear, and given that a university is a high-toned place where one at least used to study Latin and even study in Latin – study the great avenues of the trivium and quadrivium – quadrangle seems entirely apposite. It’s a technically correct architectural term, so there.

And given that the toffs who have long been the key denizens of Oxford and its sister Cambridge have had a habit of jauntily truncating Latin words (e.g., mob for mobile vulgus) – but only inasmuch as it would not be infra dig, you know – quad is very much to be expected.

But the truncating toffee-noses are not the only ones to trim a Latin term, and the open-topped parallelepipeds of Oxbridge are not the only things called quads. There’s a whole squad of quads, in fact. In typesetting (and don’t say “what’s that,” even if almost no one does it literally anymore), a quad is a quadrat, a square block of metal used for filling space; in telecommunications it’s a quadruplex, a set of four wires twisted together; obviously in housing it’s also a quadruplex; in some British colloquialism it’s a horse, because a quadruped; in boat racing it’s a large four-sided jib; it’s also the quadriceps muscle, which are those massive things that make up the tops of your thighs (I run, so my quads are my best muscles; you can also build your quads by doing squats); a quad is also a quadruplet or a quadriplegic. Which means that the quadriceps of a quadriplegic quadruplet who lives in a quadruplex on a quadrangle are a quad quad’s quads in a quad on a quad.

Oh. My. Quad.

But now here’s one for you. What is a quad when viewed from the other way?

Why, it’s a panb, of course. Turn it around and you’ll see.