Monthly Archives: December 2014


It’s the start of winter and the end of the year. We’re in the heart of the holiday season, halfway through the twelve days of Christmas. A party is in the offing. There was one a week ago, and those who celebrate Epiphany (or, better, Twelfth Night) will have one in a week, but right now it’s time for New Year’s. Time to get wound up to wind up the year, whether it was a winner or loser, and to wander forth from the waning hours of this year to the fresh wonders of the next. I’ll wyndre myself: I’ll put on my smart new watch – a winder – and a winsome tie, and a jacket to match, and I’ll wend my way to merry-making with my wife or perhaps just wine and dine her at home.

Isn’t that a pleasant word, wyndre? A shiny little trinket for your lexis to carry into the new year. It appears to be made from a blend of parts, perhaps new and dry – one thing the year will be, and another it most likely won’t be. It’s a verb for getting decked out: wyndre yourself, wyndre your face, wyndre your clothing. Wyndre the halls!

Such a quaint and curious little word, isn’t it? With those accordion folds at the beginning, that y for a vowel, that re ending… this word has surely been passed down to us from an earlier version of English.

Well, passed down or found in an ancient curio store or dusty attic trunk. Or, to be more exact, the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary is like a Christmas tree or curio shelf that has been in place for a very long time collecting ornaments, trinkets, geegaws, knick-knacks, tchotchkes. The approach to its contents has varied a little over the years, too, as have the resources it has had to draw on. Today there are squillions of words of content available from all over the world. But in its original edition it had to rely on the available printed literature from the course of centuries, and the efforts of individuals, including such as the prodigious W.C. Minor, who did all his work from his room at Broadmoor Asylum, where he had plenty of time (and where, as his mental state deteriorated, he ultimately divested himself of his family decorations… if you know what I mean).

A result of this is that the OED has, along with all its other treasures, some particularly rare and curious gems sparkling off mostly hidden in nooks. Words marked with obelisks as obsolete. Word that were found in centuries-old books. Perhaps found only once. For example, someone – I don’t know if it was W.C. Minor – looked in the Romaunt of the Rose, a translation by Chaucer in the 1360s of an older French work, and saw this: “Fetys she was…; No wyntred browis had she Ne popped hir for it neded nought To wyndre hir or to peynte hir ought.” And then he wrote up the entry for wyndre, verb, obsolete, rare, transitive, “To trim, deck, or embellish (oneself, the brows, etc.).” Its source: Old French guingnier, guignier, etc., “to deck, trick out.”

That’s its only citation in the OED. Six hundred fifty years ago. Still there, winking at you from the shadows.

Well, what the heck. Pull it out of the old jewel box and wear it. Just for tonight. And maybe peek at it fondly now and again over the course of the coming year.


“Just me,” @IvaCheung mused on Twitter, “or does ‘lambaste’ not sound remotely threatening?” To which she added, “To me it just sounds delicious.”

And how could it not, at least to carnivores? Some lovely lamb-based dish, perhaps basted lamb, lambent in its bestial sapidity, the best braised meat you’ve had in ages? The very sound of the word fills my mouth’s imagination with a taste of rosemary and a hint of Madeira in the shimmering juices. Or perhaps, if we are more shellfish, it is an underpronounced clambake, slurred out by someone who has imbibed a bit much?

Is this word in any way semblant to the beating – physical (the older sense) or verbal – that it refers to? Can you imagine the “lam” as the wind-up, and the “baste” as the blow of the fist? It’s odd, though, to have a “long” vowel as the nucleus for something percussive. “Bust,” sure, and even “best” and “bossed” have a bit of punch, but “baste” is like “boast”: blow-hardy but a bit wide-swinging. And when you add the “lam” it’s more ambling, almost amiable. Sure, “lam” is the end of slam, and has something of a short, hard, firm sound, but not that hard, really; it’s resonant.

So where did we get this appetizing word for an unappetizing experience? It’s actually two words put together. I won’t say it’s a slapdash compound, but it’s a compound like slapdash: two words with very similar meaning glued together, wham-bam (thank you, ma’am).

The first part is lam. Does that make you think of go on the lam, meaning ‘beat it’? Guess what. It’s the same word. Lam first meant ‘beat’ (and is related to lame), but just as beat it means ‘leave’ (as we see in the long form beat a hasty retreat), so does go on the lam; Allan Pinkerton (of the detective agency) gives what is the OED’s first related citation, from 1886: “After he [a pickpocket] has secured the wallet he will … utter the word ‘lam!’ This means to let the man go, and to get out of the way as soon as possible.”

The second part is baste. Does that make you think of basting the lamb? Guess what. Yes, the two may be related. It’s not a sure thing! The baste may be related to beat. But even if it is it may be related to brushing or pouring those delicious savoury meat juices and fat onto the roasting meat… Not because the meat was brutally murdered before its cooking, of course. Just for some reason perhaps involving the laying on of the brush. Look, I don’t know, I can hardly think straight, I’m getting so hungry I’ve just ripped open a bag of all dressed chips. Don’t lay into me about it.


How does this word taste? Is it something succulent, even Lucullan, or is it more reminiscent of an occult octopus (or even Cthulhu)? Is it something from a deep and dark past? Or is it a messenger from the future, shining a light – or a beam of darkness?

It gives us so much to work with. Three syllables and only six letters, but look: in the heart, ulu, a word for a curved knife, shaped like a blade with a cup on either side; flanking that, c and s, one curve and two, related letters, passing through the ulu like an occult transformation; at the start, o, like an eye. This word seems made from Masonic symbolism like that pyramid on the US dollar bill. You know, the one with an all-seeing eye on it. Latin oculus omni.

That’s what oculus is: ‘eye’. If you have glasses, your prescription has lines for OD and OS. That stands for oculus dexter – ‘right eye’ – and oculus sinister – ‘left eye’. Hmm, dexter and sinister. Like the good and bad side of oculus. (Except lately people hear “Dexter” and think “serial killer.” Thanks, TV.)

What you may think of when you hear oculus will depend on the spheres you travel in. (Get it? Spheres? Eyeballs are… never mind, moving on.) If you geek out on virtual reality, you’ll immediately think of Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headset for gaming. If you’re in it, everything is awesome. But to outside observers, you look like a complete dork. So it’s all in where you see it from.

The same is probably true for the movie Oculus, which is a horror film made in 2013. Some people seem to have liked it; others found it… ridoculus.

If you’re into wine, particularly fairly good Okanagan wine, Oculus is the name of a line of Bordeaux-style blends from Mission Hill, a very nice looking winery set high above the lake with a full line of reliable wines and a heckuva tour. They named their pricy red blend Oculus after the architectural feature that lets light into their cellars.

Architectural feature. Yes, that’s really where you’ll see oculus. The circular skylight (if there is one) in the middle of a dome is an oculus. Similar round skylights in other parts of roofs are also called oculus (the plural would be oculi, but it’s not common to have more than one).

And then there’s the World Trade Centre. The new transportation hub, designed by Santiago Calatrava, has a feature they call an oculus. It is indeed a skylight. But it’s not exactly a hole in a dome. It’s the whole thing that’s there in place of a dome: a large humped ridge with wings, or spines; some have called it dinosaur bones. It may be seen to resemble a closed – or barely-open – eye with long eyelashes. There are a few other analogies also available. What it does not resemble is a round skylight. Or anything small. (The ulus ending suggests smallness. Compare loculus, ‘little place’, from locus, ‘place’; a loculus is a niche, for instance for bodies in a mortuary or catacombs.)

Well, so be it. It’s a bit of a crisp, arch word, with tastes bright and dark. I find it succulent like coquilles. But what I wonder most is: Is there a locus with an oculus in Ucluelet?

Joe Neanderthal

In my tasting of cartoon, I mentioned that I had other cartoons that I wanted to dig up.

Well, I dug up the one I most wanted to dig up.

It’s not really all that great. Especially the artwork, if you can even call it that. But I find it amusing. It’s an embellished version of an origin-of-theatre story one of my theatre production professors used in a lecture. (He was a great dude; owned a propeller beanie and introduced us to the acronym WAFWOT*.)

It has a couple of swearwords in it. I’m telling you that just in case you prefer to avoid seeing swearwords. (I have nothing against people who don’t like swearwords. They’re the people who maintain the potency of taboo language.)

joe-1 joe-2 joe-3 joe-4 joe-5 joe-6

*WAFWOT = what a fucking waste of time


Welp, it’s time we was discussin’ cussin’. It’s a cussed subject an’ some folks can get mighty cussed about it. Use a cuss with the wrong person an’ you might get a cuff on yer head. Or yer hands! Or at least a stern discussion. Or some kinda repercussion.

Funny thing ’bout cuss. It jus’ has that percussive sound. Like a concussion. It has a hard stop at the start an’ then paffs off into a soft hiss passin’. Sorta like a box hittin’ the floor an’ slidin’. An’ the heart of it is just the most neutral an’ central vowel you kin get. So it sorta fits with the sound o’ the kinda word it describes, with that sound o’ hittin’ or a tire burstin’. I’m sure you kin think o’ some o’ them cuss words, with their percussive sounds, an’ maybe it won’t be too bad if I point out that “cuss” said backwards is “suck.” But if you wanna know more an’ you don’t mind readin’ a whole lotta cusswords, there’s an article on it on Strong Language, which is a whole blog on the topic. If y’don’t like the sweary stuff, yer better decussin’ that site. (That’s a fancy way of sayin’ “X it out.”)

Why do people cuss anyways? Seems like breakin’ a rule breaks a bit o’ tension too, relieves stress, accordin’ to some science (same blog, so watch out). Makes ya feel better, right up to the moment yer ma washes yer mouth out.

So this word cuss, it comes from curse. American dialect. Jus’ drop the r an’ y’get somethin’ much more percussive. No curlin’ or growlin’ like a scurvy cur, just a quick back o’ the hand. Loses the literal sense of callin’ down divine wrath, just becomes words workin’ like a hit to the head.

Heck, some people would say you kin give someone a cussin’ out without usin’ any actual cusswords. An’ a person can be cussed without ever bein’ cussed at, because cussed – that’s two syllables there – means ‘stubborn, pigheaded’. But cusswords, well, now, those are cross words, an’ words you don’t use in crosswords.

How about all those other cuss words, like discuss, concuss, percussion, an’ so on? All from the same Latin root, the cuss comin’ ultimately from quatere ‘strike, shake, dash’. The exception is decuss, which we usually say decussate (when we say it at all), which comes from decussis, which means the number ten, which was written X, which is what you make if you decussate. So you decussate to make a cross, but if someone makes you cross, well, then, you jus’ cuss.


It’s Christmas. It’s winter. It’s dark now as I write this, and the streets and roads are sparkling with starlight or decorations, with snow or rain. I feel sentimental, and am sent to my mental cabinet to retrieve some memories.

Here: a little cabin, glowing in the cold windy dark. A small space of light encased by night, a warmth to cross a frozen yard towards. Cold and dark, night, and beckoning light from a small wooden refuge, warm enough for the time: this, to me, is a Christmas picture, and one I have walked through more than once.

When I was an infant we lived for some duration in a cabin, though I don’t remember it. But we moved several times in my childhood and youth, and on two occasions we were in mid-move at Christmas and spent it in guest cabins, once at a motel in Canmore, once at the Rafter Six Ranch.

I can recall passing a jolly Christmas Eve in the main lodge at the ranch, with light and warmth and people and songs and food and beverage, and then stepping out into the cold dark, just by myself; my parents had already headed over to the cabin. The contrast was stark: light, warmth, sound; then the door shut, and none of the three remained, just me alone at night outdoors in winter at the edge of the Rockies. It was no Thomas Kinkade painting. The snow was windswept, crusted and gravelly, bare patches of dead grass peeking through. The sound was just my feet and the rustling of my jacket, and perhaps the buffeting of the wind. It was a familiar enough scene; I’d grown up around there. But this time I was heading not to a large warm home fully inhabited with stuff, so many rooms owned and furnished and worn easily like personal clothing. This time I was heading to a small cabin, not quite as warm, with just our suitcases’ capacity of effects, the rest packed up somewhere else to be delivered to a new place hundreds of kilometres to the north. We were moving away from where I had grown up, and this cabin was the last warm light at the edge of the woods.

I was already at university at the time, I should say. I was just home for Christmas. But this time there was no home to come to. Well, so be it. Many people spend Christmas at beach resorts, padding to cabanas in the sun to change into swimwear and refresh their beverages. They will end up back home, and all will return to its wonted ways. For me this time, home had stopped being one place and had not yet started being another. We were at a limen, in a temporary shelter, a glowing light across the cold empty snowy and stony night.

This was not a Wenceslas moment; the distance from lodge to cabin was much less than a league. I crossed the barren easily in a couple minutes’ walk and went in. It was not spacious; it was not as well heated as a home; the shower produced a stream less warm and strong than a horse’s relief. But it was there, a light across the frigid silent empty night, with the woods behind.

To me, that is the pattern of a cabin: a cozy remote space of transience, a refuge of light in the great surrounding dark.

I have spent other Christmas Eves in other cabins: the motel cabin in Canmore, similar but less isolated, and the passenger cabin of an airplane – a metal container of light flying through the windy night. I have been in other cabins not at Christmas – our cabin on a cruise ship, for instance: another transient box of light, from which you can look out at the vast darkness of the sea. And I have taken many a cab in the night. We also have our cultural images: little cabin in the woods, Lincoln’s log cabin, perhaps Uncle Tom’s cabin (no snow there, though); in Quebec, the cabane à sucre, a sugar shack in the maple forest.

Some people have lived permanently in cabins. My family lived in one, as I have said, when I was an infant. But originally a cabin was a temporary structure made of light materials, perhaps even a tent – something more resembling a beach cabana. Of course cabana comes from the same source, late Latin capanna. In English the term shifted over to refer to a more permanent structure made of rough materials. They are typically small, and it is from that that we get the ship and airplane sense (on the other hand, taxi cab is from taximeter cabriolet, not related). But the log cabin type can expand: the international airport terminal for Mont-Tremblant is a log cabin, but a very comfortable two-storey one. You do still have to walk across an open space outdoors to get to it, though – there are no jetways.

And a cabinet? A small cabin, originally. Our storage-space sense draws on Italian gabinetto, which comes also from capanna but more altered. Your cabinet is not a light in the dark but a dark space from which you draw things to bring them to light and use. Your memory is a cabinet, and you keep – among other things – the images of your past cabins in it. What better time to bring them out than Christmas?


We just watched The Theory of Everything. I noticed that the editor was named Jinx Godfrey.

Hmm. Jinx. Haven’t done that one yet. Until now.

Jinx Godfrey’s given name is actually Jessica (of course I dug up her info online; easily found, she’s a well respected film editor), but Jinx is much more catchy, don’t you think? I associate it with one other person in the movies: Jinx Johnson, a Bond girl played by Halle Berry in Die Another Day.

Jinx is also a name (I find) for a female supervillain from Wonder Woman comics and for a female soldier from GI Joe. The lead singer of the American metal band Coven is named Jinx Dawson – her given name from birth (after a family name, Jinks). There’s a line of clothing called J!NX.

Now tell me why Jinx would seem like a name more for a woman than for a man.

No doubt there are elements of traditional masculinist prejudices: women being bad luck and all that. The usual pain-in-the-neck prejudices.

But what else? Its rhyme with minx, perhaps? How about some desired hijinks? Any recollection of the Sphinx or perhaps of Syrinx, both female? Or of wry little winks? The final x has that promissory kiss of sex and just happens to show up on various words for female versions of persons: aviatrix, editrix, executrix… Such multifarious links.

Originally, of course, a jinx could be anyone or anything. The OED gives Jonah as an epitome of the type: the ship he was on was doomed to sink until he was tossed overboard. Even today, we have many jinxes not at all associated with women. If two people say something at the same time, a tradition is to say “Jinx! You owe me a beer” – whoever does so first supposedly collects the beer (although my ledger of beers owed and owing through this claim surely totals in the dozens and yet none has ever been paid).

Also, if a person makes a forward-looking statement that seems to presuppose a positive outcome of an uncertain endeavour, that may be thought to jinx it. Any time some Olympic commentator says something like “The only question is what colour {his|her} medal will be,” that is a jinx; I can’t even tell you how many times (but at least several in my hearing), after that has been said, some disaster has befallen the athlete in question, putting him or her out of the medals. I wish those bloody sportscasters would owe me a beer after doing that, and the athlete too, and pay up. A complete pain the neck – just torture to hear it. I have a bird every time they do.

A bird? How about a wryneck – the bird that shares its name with a condition also known as torticollis that is indeed a big pain in the neck? This wryneck, a kind of woodpecker, has a sinuous neck that allows it to turn its head nearly 180 degrees back, and they use this twisting along with hissing as a threat display. You could consider them Linda Blairs (of The Exorcist) of the bird world, minus the projectile emesis. They also have a history – no doubt related – of being used in witchcraft.

The Greek name of the wryneck is ἴυγξ iugx (pronounced “iunx”), which was Latinized as iynx, which in modern Latin – which differentiates j from i – is jynx. This jynx is the etymon of jinx; the word for the ill-fated person or thing is taken directly from the word for the bird, and respelled.

Actually I like the y spelling better. It’s true that the i spelling has the two dots, but the y spelling has the two tails (and how many tales!), and y is a less common letter, and anyway, maybe a bit of XY would balance out the sexes for this word.

Mind how thou conjugatest

My latest article for The Week is a pocket guide to archaic pronouns and conjugations, which are encountered with greater frequency around Christmas: ye, thee, thou, –est, –eth

‘Tis the season for archaic English



When I was a kid, I noted a dirty heavy metal implement with a wooden handle in the basement. I recognized it from cartoons, movies, and so forth: it was a pick. Too heavy for me to wield well, if at all, and I was not so reckless as to try anyway.

Only I was wrong.

Not about wielding it, oh no. It was one of those truly obvious someone-could-get-hurt things. I was wrong about what it was. I learned a few years later its true name.

A mattock.

A mattock?

To this day, that word just doesn’t seem right for the thing. A mattock is like a pick but with an adze on one side of the head rather than points on both sides. It’s heavy and hard and sharp and dirty and seems just like the sort of thing some hapless miner would be found with buried in his head by a vanished enemy. I mean, any mattock I’ve seen looks like its apotheosis involves great gobs of drying, crusted blood all over it. And even in its daily use it is for hacking into earth and rocks and being covered in rust and/or dirt. Sure, the sound of its use might come across something like “ttock” (or more likely “thud” and perhaps “arrgggghhhh” after that). And sure, the trajectory of the word in the mouth goes past the soft /m/ at the lips, through a harder /t/ on the tongue-tip, to a sticking /k/ at the back, like a mattock burying into something (or someone). But the word mattock has completely different tastes and overtones for me.



Two of the world’s soft, comfortable things.

Other such matt matters as matting and matte do not much harden it.

How about the ttock? Taken by itself it would seem to be the exact sound of that pointy end as it meets the unhelmeted skull of the grizzled gold-digger. But it shows up in other words that may not flavour it strongly for most speakers but don’t really reinforce the hardness: bittock, ‘little bit’; brattock, ‘little brat’ (hmm, I was one of those once); dattock, a West African fruit tree; futtock, a middle timber in a ship; hattock, ‘little hat’; kittock, a disrespectful diminutive for a girl or young woman; puttock, a bird of prey; rittock, a tern or small gull; and scuttock, a guillemot. (I thank the Oxford English Dictionary for those.)

Then there are name associations slightly farther afield. Matlock, a TV detective played by Andy Griffith (a favourite of my mother); Ford Madox Ford, born Ford Hermann Hueffer, a British novelist; Ford Madox Brown, a pre-Raphaelite painter and the grandfather of the novelist; Béla Bartók, a Hungarian composer. Indeed, Ford Madox Brown often painted rural folks and workmen, the sorts of people who might use mattocks (though I was unable to find a painting by him in which one is actually represented), and Béla Bartók loved and was strongly influenced by folk music, the music of such working people as also might use such earthworking implements. So perhaps if we crossed the painter with the composer we would get affordable brown mattocks.

Where did we get mattocks? Oh, heck, they’ve been around since time immemorial. As has this word. Actually, it’s a bit of a problem: there is a limit to the memory of where this word came from. We know that it was present in Old English (in various spellings). But we don’t know where Old English got it. Cognates in neighbouring Celtic languages are known to have been borrowed from English, not vice versa. The best we can do, though there’s an attestation gap between the one and the other, is a conjectural connection to Vulgar Latin matteuca ‘club’.

Perhaps with enough digging the attestation gap will be closed. Someone will need to spend the necessary time on their buttocks looking. Alas, it interferes with the necessary time on mattress sleeping. Right now, I know which one I’ll pick.


This word takes a lexical game of noughts and crosses to the nth degree. Indeed, looking at it, your eyes may be o o or x x; it looks as artificial as nylon, like something from sci-fi or fantasy. It reveals itself gradually, perhaps acrimoniously. Tell me how it’s even pronounced.

When I look at it, in a little moment I see xantho – from a Greek root meaning ‘yellow’ – and xylon – which might look similar to, for instance, xylophone, and rightly so, because they share a root – meaning ‘wood’. So ‘yellow wood’ – which is correct, that’s where it comes from – and because in English we have this idea you can’t start a syllable with /ks/, we say “zantho” for xantho and “zylon” for xylon. Which is how it strikes my eyes: “zanthozylon.”

But when the two parts are put together and read by people less familiar with Greek etymological elements, you get a single word that comes out as “zanthoksilon,” the dictionary pronunciation. Which kind of gives me a toothache. It sounds like a cross between an ocelot, an ox, and a Cylon (from Battlestar Galactica), from Xanth (a fantasy world created by Piers Anthony; most of the 38 books in the series have puns in their titles – I like Crewel Lye, subtitle A caustic yarn).

This word leads not into fantasy, however, but into botany. Which can be even more absorbing. Read this description of the plant:

Shrub 5 to 10 feet high, branches alternate, with scattered prickles, sharp, strong and straight. Leaves alternate, oddly pinnate, petiole round, often inerme, folioles 9 or 11 opposite, nearly sessile, ovate very sharp, with slight glandular serratures, somewhat downy beneath. Flowers in small sessile umbels, near the origin of young shoots, small and greenish. Diclinous polygamous, some shrubs bearing pistillate flowers, and others two kinds, both staminate and complete or perfect. These last have a 5 parted calyx with segments erect, oblong obtuse. Five stamens on the base of the gynophore, filaments subulate, anthers sagittate, 4 celled. Central gynophore divided into the stipes of the pistils, which are 3 or 4, oval, with a converging terete style and obtuse, stigma. Staminate flowers with an oval trifid abortive gynophore. Pistillate flowers with a smaller calyx. Capsules stipitate, elliptical punctate, reddish green, two valved, with one seed, oval and blackish.

That is from an 1830 book by C.S. Rafinesque, nicely quoted at Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. Such welters of technical descriptions have a curiously relaxing effect on me. I suppose they may cause some people to tense up.

Anyway, it’s a shrub with fairly standard-shaped leaves. It is noted for some medicinal qualities. It is used for, among other things, digestion and relief of rheumatism. It has a citrusy smell and taste, but is astringent.

The acrimony is not felt at first, when the bark or liquid is taken in the mouth, but unfolds itself gradually by a burning sensation on the tongue and palate.

Its stems may have a numbing effect, and it has a common name of Toothache bush:

In toothache, it is only a palliative, as I have ascertained on myself, the burning sensation which it produces on the mouth, merely mitigating the other pain, which returns afterwards.

But at least while you’re reading the botanist’s notes, the pain disappears. Or else, depending on your leaning, the pain appears, to disappear when you are done reading.

You will not find this word exactly as such in Wikipedia. The English pronunciation has trumped the etymology, and Latinate endings have trumped the Greek; it’s in there as Zanthoxylum.

The plant comes in a few different kinds. I will allow one more observation from our 1830 botanist – an observation that presents an acrimony that unfolds gradually:

This genus, whose name means yellow wood, and which many botanists write Zanthoxylum by mistake, has many anomalies, because accuracy appears of very little moment to the Linnaean botanists.