Monthly Archives: November 2014

tarmac

It is somewhere around 1980. In a house at the end of a gravel road on an Indian Reserve in southern Alberta, I am looking through my father’s collection of LPs. It is not a vast collection, unlike his collection of books, but there are some I do not know. One album presents a mystical eruption on its cover: a seated figure in a chthonic submergence, flanked by a newborn and a skull in the hues of an old stone jungle temple, but from the head of the figure pushes up a jetof light that sprays up to a human figure bursting forth in sunlike splendor, breaking through a crust of eldritch lettering, IN SEARCH OF THE LOST CHORD. And radiating as an orange nimbus or celestial petals from the head of the glorious figure are the letters of THE MOODY BLUES.

I open the album. The interior fold displays, full before me on the recto, in stark black lines that beg unrequited for a crayon, a yantra – a mandala of sorts, a visual mantra, as the text above it explains.

Clearly this is a religious record of some sort. It bespeaks mystical awakening, resurgence, recrudescence. The seed of the soul emerging from its bed in the body and splitting the hard shell of the material world, to enter – or create – heaven, nirvana, whatever transcendence you may discover, so far beyond words.

In fact, my father subsequently tells me, it is simply a rock record that my cousin Sharon – only four years my father’s junior, and like a sister to him in their youth – gave to him some years earlier. He didn’t really fancy it, so he had simply buried it in his collection.

I fancied it.

When I first put it on the record player, I heard an arpeggio, a crash, and then the sounds of a synthesizer emulating the take-off of an airplane or something far more advanced, over which were spoken a poem. Graeme Edge’s “Departure,” with segue into “Ride My See-Saw.” In the poem, one line stuck in my memory: “The wonder of flowers to be covered and then to burst up, through tarmac, to the sun again.” The first time I remember hearing tarmac.

In that sound context, what struck me first was “to burst up through tarmac”: once I knew that tarmac was a British word for pavement or a runway, I imagined an airplane, passing down the tarmac – through it as one goes through a stretch of road – and off up to the sun. But of course the tarmac is not simply a surface you can launch yourself from. No. It is the shell, the cocoon, the hard pavement through which flowers break nonetheless. Buried but life will out.

This happens everywhere. It happened in the cracked sidewalks of the towns and cities of my youth, in the underused pavements of playgrounds and parking lots, and at the edges of highways. And hopes, fears, anxieties, loves, joys, yearnings, the things we learn to contain and repress and hide within: we pave them over, we run a crust of tar and gravel on top of them so that we can drive our lives over them, but at some time they may still push their tender stems through and embarrass the dusty dark hard surface with a spray of vulnerable joy.

But I will not scorn tarmac too glibly. I grew up in a place where many roads are gravel. In rural southern Alberta, every windshield has its cracks. Even on the car mat under your feet there will be little stones. If we went for an evening into the city, my slumber in the back of the car would at last be disturbed by the sound announcing our impending arrival home: we had turned off the highway and onto the growl spit and clatter of sharp little rocks. You can hear cars coming a long way away on gravel; you can see their dust clouds at a distance. Paved roads permit much more speed, much less noise, far fewer cracks in the glass. Paved roads are not an acquired taste; they are something you almost certainly like immediately if you know the alternative.

Which is why tarmac took off so quickly when it was invented. This mixture of tar and macadam, paving and sealing the surface. Such a smooth trip.

We know what tar is. What is macadam? In its own time, an improvement, too: a road surface made of crushed stone, but properly assembled, smaller on top of larger. A well-made gravel road – better, certainly, than many of the gravel roads in rural Alberta. Invented by John Loudon McAdam. You will see that there is an extra a inserted like a sweet little nut in the word: McAdammacadam. This John McAdam is thus not the John Macadam after whom macadamia nuts were named.

Civilization has its sweets. The aroma of roads being paved smelled like dark cunning candy to the youthful me. But you can have too much of a good thing. London is now experiencing worse floods because so many Englishmen have paved their gardens over, and the rain goes straight to gutter rather than soaking into soil. Toronto seems to have something of the same problem. If you ask people for their vision of paradise, it is unlikely they will see it as paved. And yet this is what we do a bit too much.

And this is what we are a bit too much, too. The railroad in its time came and pushed through the green, dark forest that was too silent to be real, but in our days the highway does that, and more, and we are the highway, our cars and our markets are the tarmac that lay the hard crust over what was there before.

Ask a Stoney.

The Stoney Indian Reserve is the reserve I grew up on, at Morley. I am not Stoney, I am not fresh earth, I am not gravel, I am tarmac. My culture is the culture that steamrolls the world, even as individuals in it may feel steamrolled too. I may feel the need for my own personal flowers to burst up through the tarmac. But ask a Stoney about not just small things but all things being covered, about wanting to burst up to the sun again. Ask Thomas Snow, who will tell you about the strength in bursting up through and then putting roots in and growing higher.

We do not all experience that. But we all experience our efflorescences. We all have memories that send tendrils forth through the forgetting; we all have records that are drawn out again from time to time.

I’ve pulled one out now. It’s resting, leaning, next to the plush chair in which I sit as I write this. It’s the same album I pulled off the shelf those many years ago, the figure erupting in a spiritual sun-geyser on the cover. On the back cover, photos of The Moody Blues, a listing of songs and, on the upper left corner, a sticker bearing my father’s name and our mailing address as it was more than 40 years ago.

WHY HULK SMASH PUNY GRAMMAR BITS?

My latest article for The Week is on Hulkspeak, an idiom that has proven popular in some quarters, based on the locutionary style of The Incredible Hulk:

A linguist’s guide to HULK SMASH

 

scurrilous

Oh, this is a word to make a person squirrelly: the sound of the scurrying, lustful claws of something not so much scary as carelessly scandalous, curious for secrets and ludicrously lurid excoriations. What things do we call scurrilous? Attacks, charges, remarks, allegations, rumours, all in a scurrilous campaign of careless whispers. The verbal scrawls of such shady commentary are sucrose to craven ears, currying favour with the callous and giving succour to the discourteous.

What is scurrilous? The gross or obscene, yes, and typically the defamatory. That which makes the tongue coil and the lips curl. What is scurrilous is scandalous, or faux-scandalous – rumours about certain personages, especially political ones. If someone accuses you of something particular seedy, whether the accusation is true or not you are expected to characterize it as scurrilous.

But scurrilous can also be simply vulgar, juicy, delectably louche. Vile, darlings, simply vile, what was that again? Such scurrilous murmurings, oh, do say them closer to my ear so I don’t miss any. Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorne both used scurrilous to characterize jesting. Lewd, bawdy, uncouth, scurrilous jesting. A furtive upskirt kind of turn.

Which leads us more towards the origin of this word. Scurrilous comes from scurrile, meaning about the same thing; it came, via French, from Latin scurrilis, which came from scurra, ‘buffoon’. So to be scurrilous was first to be buffoonish, ludicrous, and in particular coarse or indecent. Which means it hasn’t scurried far from its source.

Which is fitting. When you say “scurrilous,” your tongue barely curls as it rolls across your palate, making a soft hiss to start, then catching at the back and rolling to front again for a soft press and a final hiss. It’s like a gentle caressing motion, almost. But perhaps that’s not quite what it is really… Let me tell you what I heard…

wonk

This is the sound of someone being knocked on the head with a stack of accumulated knowledge, knocked so hard that they are dizzied and off-kilter. It is also the sound of the person doing the knocking, who is probably pretending that the assault is really banging on the door to greater knowledge – most of all, though, they want (wonk?) you to know that they know. They know this stuff backwards.

Know, backwards: wonk.

No.

No, that is not where wonk comes from, or at least there is no evidence for it beyond the form coincidence (which in itself is never enough). But I wouldn’t be surprised if it has played a little role in the semantic evolution of the word.

So where does this word come from? I know you’re looking at me to find out, since I’m a word wonk. Well, I will wonk this word. I will wonk you with this word. I will wonk out on this word. Actually, the use of wonk as a verb is not well established (the only definition I’ve seen that includes it as a verb form is in Urban Dictionary), so why don’t I do all three.

Wonk has been around for a few decades, but it really hit its stride in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton came into office with a staff of smart nerdy guys, who came to be called policy wonks – still by a long chalk the most common collocation for wonk.

Before that, starting by 1962 (when it appeared in Sports Illustrated), wonk was a term for an overly studious person. Sort of like a nerd or a geek (I’ll leave the shades of meaning between those two for another time). About as awkward sounding as dork. Somehow the exact opposite of punk. Who’da thunk it? Ha. The wonk woulda. He woulda dropped his books on the table, “thunk,” and there you’d have it. (I say he because wonks have long been stereotypically male. A counterexample to that – but the suffix proves the default – is the snarky smart policy-and-politics blogger who goes by Wonkette.)

So where did that wonk come from? The data is (are) inconclusive. Could be from British naval slang for ‘midshipman’. But yyyeeaaahhhh probablynot. Could be from wonky meaning ‘unstable, off-kilter, unreliable’, but how it got from that to a swot is unclear. Or it could be from wanker. Which strikes me as semantically most plausible, what with wanker meaning ‘onanist’ (if you do not know either of those words, well, um, Google). But phonetically it’s a bit off because the vowel shift is unaccounted for. It could be ablaut: wank, wonk, wunk – I wank today, I wonk yesterday, I have wunk. But there is no wunk. Well, except for this Urban Dictionary definition, which was probably made up by the submitter and is clearly derived from wink.

Urban Dictionary is actually not a bad source for wonk, as it happens. Some wonk posted a summary of the Oxford English Dictionary data for a definition; true to Urban Dictionary form, it’s been voted into fourth place, right behind the definition “The sound a goose makes when hit over the head with a shovel.” Wonks are still ostracized. Better to give a nice clear definition without too much tl;dr, like the top-voted definition:

(1) Noun – An expert in a field, typically someone who is fairly young and very intelligent.

(2) Verb – To use ones mastery of a specific subject to perform some type of work.

Oh – there is one more meaning of wonk, even older than the others. No one seems to think it’s related. It means ‘dog’ or, more specifically, ‘yellow dog’, in particular ‘Chinese yellow dog’, and was often used in the term wonk dog. It appears to come from Mandarin huang gou (which sounds rather like “whonk-o”) and was used only in contexts related to China. The OED quotations for it point up its assonance with a racist term for Chinese people that also ended in nk. No one seems to use wonk dog now. It has become unknown. Which is the opposite of wonked.

glögg, grog

Today Aina and I went to the annual Swedish Christmas fair at Harbourfront in Toronto. We go there mainly to do three things: 1) buy some Swedish packaged foods that are hard to get at other times (notably round tins of Nyåkers pepparkakor, which are gingerbread-like round wafers, and a 1.5 litre tub of lingon-sylt, which is lingonberry sauce, and which will be empty by this time next week); 2) buy some tickets in their tombola, which means you reach into a revolving drum and pull out the appropriate number of rolled-up slips of paper, and for each one that has a number in it, you can choose a prize according to what range the number is in (this year I won two, and chose a 5-DVD set of Attenborough’s Planet Earth – hey, these are all things donated by Swedes who live in Canada – and a copy of Den fantastiske Walt Disney, Från Musse Pigg till Disneyland, a Swedish version of a book my dad has in English that I read and looked at in my youth); 3) drink glögg. Two or three three-dollar cups each.

The first time I saw the word glögg, many years ago, I assumed it was a made-up fake-Swedish word. It just looked too much like a cross between grog and glug (as in glug, glug, glug, the sound of drinking a lot) with an exotic Teutonic umlaut thrown in for good measure. But no. It’s actually from the Swedish verb glödga, ‘make hot, mull’; in Norwegian and Danish, it’s spelled gløgg, because they use ø instead of ö (this is a super easy tip for telling Swedish apart from those other two: Swedish uses umlauts and the other two don’t. Icelandic does, but Icelandic sticks out because it has þ and ð. Finnish uses umlauts but Finnish looks completely different, a double-letter festival – though it does have a borrowed word for glögg, glögi).

So, if you’ve mulled all that over, you’ve probably concluded that glögg is mulled wine. This is true. It’s what the Germans call Glühwein. It’s something I was familiar with long before ever seeing the word glögg. When I was a youth, on Christmas Eve after going to the church service in Banff we would go to the house of a member of the congregation who was German and we would all eat snacks and drink Glühwein. I didn’t think at the time about what the glüh meant; we just called it “glue wine” and knew it was hot and sticky (cheap jug wine, spices, lots of sugar). But the glüh is… not another version of the same word as glögg. Surprise! It’s from a German word meaning ‘glow’. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some connection, but there are practical limits to my Teutonic etymological spelunking just here and now.

So anyway. Glögg. Pronounced not like “glog” but with a mid front rounded vowel that we don’t have in English; the closest we get within the confines of our phonemes would be “glurg.” Which sounds a bit like gurgle, which goes with glug, and also reminds us of giggle which leads us to jigger and jiggle and on the other hand there’s glee and by the way glow and glass and jug and Yule log and chug and I’ll have another mug, please, of glögg, thank you, oops, guess I’m wearing that on my scarf, whatever, where were we?

After a few slugs of glögg you may feel a bit groggy. But while glögg is spicy and alcoholic and so is grog (well, maybe citrusy and alcoholic), there is no etymological connection. Grog, which is (or originally was – it can refer to a lot of things now) a mixture of rum with water or weak beer and lemon or lime juice, was introduced into the Royal Navy (in place of straight rum) by Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who was called Old Grog, or Old Grogram, because he wore a grogram coat. Grogram is an English version of the French gros-grain, which means ‘large grain’ and names a kind of cloth that has a ribbed pattern, the sort of thing often used on ribbons for medals these days. Anyway, groggy meaning ‘sleepy, dazed, intoxicated’ comes from grog because obviously if you’ve had a lot you are. Or, if you’ve had glögg, you could be glöggy, I guess.

So glögg. Grog. Glug. Don’t forget eggnog. Which is seasoned with nutmeg. Beer is beer but comes in a keg or jug. There seems to be a theme of g words sticking when it comes to naming beverages. Given the spirits of the season, I think the Irish word for Christmas may be most in tune: Nollaig (pronounced “nollig”). But in Swedish Christmas is Jul and you get the g at the start when you give the greeting: God Jul! (Said like “Go Yule!”)

Anyway, the Swedish Christmas fair starts off the Christmas season for us, a sort of prologue to Advent – pro-glögg, I should say. It’s emblematic: crowded, hot, kind of expensive, more than a little pagan around the edges, we do it once a year, and if all else fails have another drink. God Jul!

tony

“They live in a tony part of town.” “It’s quite a tony crowd.” “A rather tony little restaurant.” “One tony relative in every family.”

We know what tony means here, don’t we? It’s another way the bon ton would say smart – not as in intelligent but as in, you know, cultivated and sweating money. Liberal in spending, but more of a Tory set. What lower sorts might term swanky (but doesn’t that word have such vulgar overtones, dears). The word has been with us since the later 1800s.

But who is tony? Who is Tony? Why is tony tony? What is tony is often not tiny; it is noteworthy. The name seems somewhat equivocal: there are so many people named Tony, after all. There’s Tony Soprano. There’s Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino in Scarface). There an auto mechanic named Tony hidden in every Fiat logo: FIAT = Fix It Again, Tony. And a Fiat is not the toniest car you can get!

But there’s also the Tony Award, named after Antoinette Perry. There’s Tony Blair, formerly prime minister of England (not exactly a toff – a bit more blaring than all that – but he did move in some tony circles). There’s Tony Aspler, Canada’s top wine critic – who often drinks and eats at some pretty tony places, though he’s an entirely unpretentious fellow (disclosure: I edit his website).

But what’s tony is not named after a Tony. It’s just that adjectival –y tacked onto tone. There are, of course, several kinds of tone. There’s muscle tone, skin tone, your tone of voice or the tone of what you’re saying – if you strike the wrong tone, you may be detonated! – and any smooth and steady note. Or even a rising or falling – or falling and rising – tone, as you might hear in a language such as Mandarin Chinese.

What we have in mind in this case, of course, is high tone. As in a high-toned affair. Attended by the bon ton. Perhaps like the one in the video for La Roux’s “I’m Not Your Toy.” Loaded with the toys of the rich, but the people there are not ones to toy with. Tony could be a melting of no toy; ignore that at your peril. If you try to crash a tony reception and you are no one of note, your reception will be stony.

Thanks to a reader who signs as Snowbird of Paradise for suggesting tony.

sphygmomanometer

I loved this word the first time I saw it. It was somewhere in my pre-teen years, I remember, maybe around the time I learned the word dimethylpolysiloxane (an ingredient in a chewable tablet we took so we would fart less). How can an developing boy not be charmed with such gassy words? So long (sesquipedalian was a word I learned a few years later), so interestingly shaped, such a well-assembled sound set.

The word immediately made me think of my mother, just because of the mom right in the middle of it. (Hi, Mom!) But that whole sequence of nasals… Would you animate an abominable homonym for hominy or enumerate an anemometer? Or merely nominate the Mahna Mahna from the Muppets? That momanom is almost numinous; for word tasters, it’s nummy – om nom nom! And the sphyg. Tight and mysterious, like a sphinx’s sphincter, or asphyxiation by sphagnum… or a mercury spy (spy + Hg). So the word starts with a hiss, then moves on with a murmur, and finally taps off the tip of the tongue and goes.

What is it really, a sphygmomanometer? It’s a device for measuring blood pressure, typically used by a physician with a stethoscope. If you have had your blood pressure measured it was surely with one of these. An inflatable cuff is wrapped around your arm and inflated until it stops the blood flow, and then the pressure (the gas, I mean the air) is let off gradually while the doctor listens with the stethoscope for the blood in your brachial artery. The pressure is gauged by the mercury (like a thermometer) or aneroid dial; it is measured in mm Hg, which may make you think “Mmm! Hug!” but actually means ‘millimetres of mercury’. It’s a mercury spy on your blood pressure.

The doctor is listening for Korotkoff sounds: the sound of your blood pulsing through your veins. When the beat starts pushing through, it’s the systolic pressure, the upper number; when the pressure is low enough that blood is flowing through all the time, it’s the diastolic pressure, the lower number. Here’s a video (a bit quiet, though) on the Korotkoff sounds. Here’s another, shorter one that you can test yourself with. The sound might make you tense: quiet, with a beating heart. It might raise your blood pressure — also known as your arterial tension. High blood pressure is called hypertension.

I’m not going to say that the Korotkoff sounds add up to something like “sphygmomanometer.” That would be pushing it a bit much. But I should be kind and tell you that the main stress in the word is on the nom. The parts, all from Greek by way of more recent European medical scientists, are sphygmo, from sfugmos σϕυγμός ‘pulse’; mano, from manos μανός ‘loose, open, rare, sparse’; and meter, from metron μέτρον ‘measure’. A manometer is for measuring pressure in a liquid or gas; a sphygmomanometer is a manometer put to use for helping to measure the pressure of the pulse.

Blood pressure readings are typically done by doctors. For some people, having a test done by a doctor can induce what’s called white coat syndrome, and in particular white coat hypertension: the sight of the doctor’s white coat – or just your presence in the clinical setting – makes you tense and gives a misleadingly high reading. But I don’t know if there’s a special term for having your blood pressure go up at the sight of a long word. I wonder how many extra millimetres of mercury have been measured on pulses over the years simply due to the effect of seeing SPHYGMOMANOMETER on the device that’s measuring…

Thanks to Daniel Trujillo for suggesting this word back in April. I finally got to it.