Monthly Archives: January 2015

dysdiadochokinesia

This word names a condition that makes it difficult to say this word.

OK, sure, fine, most people find it difficult to say this word, especially at first while your eyes and mind are still untangling it. Really, it’s like last year’s strands of Christmas lights pulled out of the closet, isn’t it? But once you pull apart the bits, you can string it out and trip it off your tongue. Here are the parts, all from Greek: δυς dus ‘bad’; διάδοχος diadokhos ‘succeeding, alternating’ (from διά dia ‘through’ plus δοχή dokhé ‘receptacle’); κίνησις kinésis ‘movement’; with the ia ending that we use to indicate a state. So dys, dia, docho, kinesia. Almost looks like a magic spell, doesn’t it?

Well, if it is, it’s an evil one. Dysdiadochokinesia is difficulty making repeating movements, such as tapping a foot, finger, or tongue tip. If you have it, when you try to say something such as “da da da” you vary the pronunciation and/or say it with excess volume and/or don’t move your tongue and mouth as one normally would in doing so. There are quite a few conditions that can cause dysdiadochokinesia, involving lesions on the cerebellum or frontal lobe or other nervous system damage (as in multiple sclerosis and Friedreich’s ataxia).

So, clearly, this word would be a challenge: /dɪs daɪ ə dɒ ko kɪ ni ʒə/. It taps the tongue tip three times in rapid succession – one on the stressed beat of each of the first three metrical feet – (/d sd d/), then the back of the tongue twice – both on off-beats, so faster – (/k k/), then two more different sounds with the tip (/n ʒ/). It does, admittedly, have an admirable alternation of vowels; between the consonants it makes a bit of a tour of the mouth. But the consonants beat like a drumstick, or the repeating note in flamenco guitar, as for instance in “Asturias” by Isaac Albeniz. Which dysdiadochokinesia – or any of several other kinds of dyskinesia – would render prohibitively difficult to play.

Of course, flamenco guitar is prohibitively difficult for most people anyway, because they haven’t developed the skill. Just like reading dysdiadochokinesia isn’t going to be easy for anyone on first try. (Man to doctor before surgery on his hands: “Will I be able to play the piano?” Doctor: “Oh, yes, not to worry.” Man: “That’s fantastic! I’ve never been able to play the piano before.”) The difference with this disorder is that it makes it difficult even if you know how and would otherwise be able to do it. Even the common abbreviation – DDK – would present a little challenge. How cruelly ironic.

Thanks to docsterx, commenting on my post on sputum, for suggesting this word and a few others I may yet get to.

jink

Is this the singular of jinx? It is not. Jinx comes from the Greek name for a bird. Jink is sound symbolism, expressive language. A jink is a zig or a zag; in Canadian terms, it is a deke. (Deke has a certain expressive something, but to my knowledge it is originally shortened from decoy, whereas jink is – by the evidence – not shortened from anything.)

A jink is an instance of jinking. Jink, the verb, means ‘dart jerkily’ or ‘make a quick, evasive turn’ – so as to elude capture or attack, particularly in rugby or aeronautics. Both verb and noun have been around since at least the 1700s. The origin, as I said, seems to be sound symbolism.

Sound symbolism? You know, that thing we do whereby we associate certain sounds with real-world things or actions, even if there is no actual resemblance of sound. Surely you have a sense of the difference between actions described with, say, tek versus pek versus kek, and jek and chek and then shek and so on. The different onsets have different senses of action: light, firm, hard, supported, strong, sliding… not that any one word would describe the difference with full accuracy. Likewise, everything can turn abruptly with a new vowel and with a new coda (final consonant or combination of consonants). Compare jek with jenk, jeshk, jesh, jet (which has other associations too, of course), jev, and so on; now change to jank, junk (strong semantic effect there), jonk, jink. Only one of those would really do for a strong, sudden action that covers some space quickly before slotting neatly into a new position.

Of course, echoes of words with semantic associations will always have an important effect. Jink? How about junk, Jenkins, jonquil, jangle, jingle, drink, chink, juke, Jenga?

Or how about hijinks? Or should I write that high jinks? It turns out I should – if I want to go with the origins (which are of no matter to most English speakers, because they don’t know them, but once you know them…). As I said, the word starts with a reference to deking out in rugby or similar sport. From that comes dancing, and tricking, and winning a game of cards (of a certain kind – spoil-five or forty-five – according to Oxford). And a drinking game, whereby the person who got the high roll of the dice – the high jink – would have to do “some ludicrous task” (Oxford) or drink a large bowl of some alcoholic beverage or, failing at the one, do the other. Hence high jinks for rowdy revelry and miscellaneous mischief.

I do prefer the spelling hijinks, as it happens, because of the iji with its nice symmetry and its three dots. But I recognize that the fun of the spelling has hijacked (not high jacked) the original form. Well, so be it. I’d rather hijinks put me in hiding than have low jinks in my lodgings.

What are low jinks? I would have thought they would be as boring as hijinks are exciting, but according to dictionary.com, low jinks are “merrymaking or horseplay that is less than tasteful.” Which actually sounds just like hijinks to me – if hijinks were tasteful, they wouldn’t be hijinks, would they? It seems as though low jinks has somehow made an unexpected sharp turn in sense.

yogurt

Everyone knows: if you want to trim your girth, it won’t hurt to do some yoga and eat some yogurt (maybe in a yurt, just for the experience). Now, I’m more of a jogger (or runner) than a yogi (I can hardly bear it – instructors who assume that everyone can flop forward, and who treat downward dog as a resting position – but my wife does it with astonishing ease), but I do like yogurt.

But please, none of that low-fat over-sweetened rubbish. What a fraud. They take away something essential that makes it better tasting and more satisfying, and in compensation double up on something that is rather worse for your health. When I eat yogurt, I eat the full-fat kind. The kind I only need two spoonfuls of and I’m good.

I have said before that every word is one of Proust’s madeleines, a key to memories, and yogurt is certainly that for me. There are two particular things it brings to my mind. The first is visiting the University of Calgary campus when I was still in school and one of my parents (can’t remember which one at the time) was working on a graduate degree there. Yogurt was fairly newly faddish, its fame fed by tales of Balkan and Caucasian centenarians subsisting on it, and it seems to me that I was having it almost for the first time from this cafeteria in the Social Sciences building. Or was it the one in Science A that let out into the internal courtyard garden? Either way, I do still remember the flavour, tangier than it often is now, but also a bit rounder. Novel. I liked it. It seemed, as the university did, a harbinger of the future.

The other memory is of sitting at a sidewalk café in Brighton (the one in England) with Aina (my wife) and some of her friends from her time skating with Holiday on Ice. Our party happened to get chatting with some people at a neighbouring table, and I do recall that they were grumbling about the illiteracy of youth etc. One thing they couldn’t abide was mispronunciation of yogurt. But it became apparent that while people in our party and people in their party agreed it was terrible how it was mispronounced, in fact they differed on the proper pronunciation. “Yo-grt?” “Yog-rt?”

Well, as it happens, if you’re going to be fussy about it, they’re both wrong. I may say “yo-grt” and Oxford may lean to “yog-rt,” but really, it should always have been “yo-urt.”

Here’s the thing. Our source word is the Turkish yoğurt. Do you see that breve on the g, that half-halo that looks like a little bowl to put some dairy product in? In Turkish, that means that the g is basically not pronounced. Compare Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister of Turkey: his last name is pronounced like “air-doe-on.” In order to convey this, some spellings of yogurt have used gh, as in dough: yoghurt.

The problem is that because this is not an English word, we assume that a gh we see is not to be treated as we would in English. So either way, g or gh, we lose the essential diacritical mark, and in its place we have an unnecessary extra sound, /g/, adding weight to it. Of course, without that sound we would quickly make it one syllable, if a long one, but at least it would be trim and smooth.

Not that the word was borrowed to English as recently as Turkish has been written in Roman letters, of course. It first showed up in English in the 1600s, at which time Turkish was written with an ill-fitting adaption of the Arabic alphabet. Yogurt then was exotic, a thing Levantines ate, not Englishmen. But by the 1930s – the decade after Turkey had officially switched to Roman writing – it was an accepted thing for domestic consumption in England, as mentioned, for example, by novelist Evelyn Waugh: “Mrs. Beaver stood with her back to the fire, eating her morning yoghourt.”

It is a lovely thing to have around the house, and delicious, especially if you get the kind that is made as it should be, without the fat decreased and the sweetener increased. But do spare me the ukulele-scored TV ads that push the idea that (a) yogurt is for young women and (b) young women must always want to eat things with low fat (and compensating sweetener added) because otherwise they can never feel good about themselves. Yogurt is too good to be a tool in the clutches of such abusive monsters. It’s even actually healthy, if you don’t try too hard to make it “healthy.”

sputum

Got on the bus. Got a nice seat at the front of the raised section at the back. Nice and warm there.

Someone else got on and sat behind me. Then coughed. And coughed. And then coughed again.

I got up and moved to the back of the back, so no one could be coughing on my neck.

By the time we got to the subway station, there were three people in front of me all coughing. And one over to the right. All coughing forwards, at least, but coughing and coughing and also coughing and occasionally coughing.

Covering their mouths? No. All adults and yet somehow they felt that it was just fine to decorate the ambient atmosphere with their sputum.

Sputum. This is a wet winter word. It’s as medical (and indelicate-sounding) as scrotum, and as phonaesthetically expressive as spit and sputter and spatter and spurt and spew and perhaps spoor (which doesn’t have to do with expectoration but boy does it sound like it). It makes me think of Aquascutum, which is a British luxury clothing brand well known for their rain coats. The name means ‘water shield’: scutum is Latin for ‘shield’, and I sure wish I could have a sputum scutum to protect me from the expectorated phlegm of my fellow travellers. (Did you know, by the way, that Sputnik is Russian for ‘fellow traveller’? Did you also know that I wish these open coughers could be sent up into orbit just like Sputnik? Except of course then these sputumniks would be showering us with their space phlegm.)

In case you’re not quite disgusted enough yet, I think I really must quote the Oxford English Dictionary definition of sputum: “Saliva or spittle mixed with mucus or purulent matter, and expectorated in certain diseased states of the lungs, chest, or throat; a mass or quantity of this.” Oh, sorry, has that put you off your nightcap or your morning toast and eggs? If not, should I point out that sputum can be anagrammed to upmust and put sum and tum’s up? I can ease the tum a bit by mentioning that sputum is taken straight across from Latin for spittle, and is derived from spuere ‘spit’. Or, OK, I guess that may not help either.

Look, sputum is disgusting. It should have a disgusting word for it. I mean, OK, sputum is a reasonably crisp word, no worse phonetically than teaspoon or stooping; it gets its grossness by association. And yes, sure, splutum would be even grosser, because messier. But splutum is not to be found, alas. Well, not so much alas. If it were to be found, it would probably be found on the back of my neck on the bus.

Skoki

This is a word that, for me, brings hiking, a backcountry lodge, a classmate, a cookbook, Will and Kate, a suburb of Chicago, and a figure skater.

I grew up in and near Banff, so for me Skoki is first of all a valley and a lodge. I knew of it and had read about it for years before we ever went there. You can’t get there by driving, oh no. You go to the trailhead, which is at Lake Louise ski area (the most scenic ski area in Canada, loaded with excellent and challenging terrain, and also the place I broke my leg when I was 12 – in one of the flattest and least scenic parts of the whole place). Then you hike almost 15 kilometres through the back country, over Boulder Pass, past Ptarmigan Lake, up and over Deception Pass and on down into Skoki Valley.

I love hiking. I really love hiking in the mountains. I love the scenery, the nature. I love seeing the pikas and the lichen and kinnikinnick and the great peaks and valleys. I love walking up and down. I need to have things well above sightline in order to be happy where I live, which is one reason I live in a downtown high-rise now. We went hiking many times when I was a kid, picnicking on Shake ’n’ Bake in Larch Valley and having strawberry tea at Lake Agnes. My high school grad class went on a weekend hike to Shadow Lake in the fall of our last year (thereby hang some tales! but I won’t digress now). Get me hiking and I’m happy.

But I hate camping. In my childhood and youth I spent many disgusting cold damp uncomfortable smoky mosquito-bitten wildlife-haunted nights in tents. Yuck. If I never sleep in a tent again I won’t mind.

Skoki Valley is a beautiful place, and a beautiful place to hike to. You shouldn’t try to do it there and back in one day; it will take you about five hours each way. You’re staying overnight.

But did I mention there’s a lodge?

Skoki Lodge is a beautiful log lodge. It’s two storeys and who knows how many stories – it holds an important place in the history of Banff National Park. It opened in 1931 and has expanded a little since then. It has no electricity or running water, but it has heat and they give you heated water and nice food and lamp light and all that. We finally went there when I was a teen. I enjoyed it very much.

It is now being run by one of my high school classmates, Leo Mitzel. Leo is from Lake Louise and has always been a backcountry kind of guy. (If you’re wondering what he looks like now, here’s a picture from our 30th reunion last fall. If I ever go into much detail about that reunion here, it will deserve its own post. It was every bit as hilarious as the hike, which I don’t think I will ever talk about in much detail on this blog.) It is also being run by Leo’s wife, Katie, who he met at Skoki. She has produced a lovely cookbook. I was very happy to receive it from my parents this past Christmas. It includes the menu they served to Will and Kate (i.e., the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge), who stayed there in 2011. I am also happy to report that they did not miss a chance to use Skoki in the name of a kind of cookie – not Skoki cookies, which would have been a perfect sound, but anyway Skoki warden cookies.

By the way, you don’t have to visit Skoki in the summer. It’s also open in the winter. It’s OK to ski there!

It happens that Skoki is an anagram of OK ski. That’s not where it comes from, of course. On the other hand, it’s clearly not an Anglo-Saxon word. It would probably be spelled scokie or scokey if it were. It’s the odd one out in its surrounds: Skoki Mountain, which sits above the valley, has neighbours named Fossil, Jericho, Ptarmigan, Brachiopod, Anthozoan, Redoubt, Richardson, and Pika. It has that nice crisp mix of voiceless fricative and stops that sound so, ah, “authentic” (I think of Kananaskis, and of Nakiska, a ski area with a name that was basically made up to sound authentic). It ends with an open i that’s pronounced /i/ (“ee”). And in fact (although it’s coincidentally a place name from Poland) it’s modified from a word for ‘marsh’ from a Native American language.

Which Native American language? Potawatomi.

A few of you may know where the Potawatomi live. I’ll tell the rest of you: in the central United States, west of the Great Lakes.

One of the first white people to visit the valley, in 1911, was James Foster Porter, who was from Illinois. The valley apparently reminded him of an area north of Chicago, the Skokie marsh, on which the town of Niles Center was built. He and his companions discussed names for the place and liked Skokie, and it stuck. The Banff version was later respelled as Skoki, probably because it seemed more appropriately non-English, but I don’t know really.

The people in Niles Center also liked the name Skokie. They liked it enough that in 1940 they voted to rename their town Skokie. Skokie is officially a village, although it has a population of 65,000. It’s right on the northern border of Chicago. North of it are the Skokie Lagoons. Near them is the Winnetka Ice Arena, which is the home rink of the Skokie Valley Skating Club.

That’s where Jason Brown is officially from. Who is Jason Brown? One of the best figure skaters in the US today (update: and 2015 US men’s figure skating champion). He grew up in Highland Park (another northern Chicago suburb, and coincidentally the name of a good brand of Scotch whisky). He lives in Colorado now, but his official home club is the Skokie Valley Skating Club. He’s why I thought of Skoki tonight: we were watching the US national championships.

But I have now put my wife on notice that we will be visiting Skoki Lodge some time in the future. She rolls her eyes at the lack of electricity and running water, but it was good enough for royalty, so I say it’s good enough for us. Plus the food looks delicious.

Whom do you believe?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, blog.editors.ca

First of all: If you can avoid using whom, you should. Any but the most formal texts are better off without it; it’s a foreign word for most users, as evidenced by the general inability of even many language professionals to use it quite correctly all the time.

Sometimes, however, you have to use it. The text demands it. When you do, you may be faced with a choice between two voices in your head – the one who says what you would say without thinking too hard about, and the one who says what you would say if you did think too hard about it. Whom do you believe? More to the point, who do you believe is right?

As a general rule, believe the first one. That’s the one that won’t tell you to use “Whom do you believe is right?”

Is that whom wrong? You bet it is. It’s also an error many people make. Here’s what’s wrong and how to avoid it – and similar misadventures.

The key is this: Always look for a subject for every conjugated verb.

We know (I hope) that whom is for the object and who is for the subject (and, if you don’t use whom, who is for the object too). We also know that when we ask a question or make a relative clause, the subject or object of the verb is at the start of the clause:

She is right.

Who is right?

She tickled him.

Whom did she tickle?

A woman knows her grammar.

She’s a woman who knows her grammar.

She tickles him.

He’s a man whom she tickles.

In each of the above sentences, all subjects are in small caps, all conjugated verbs are underlined, and all objects are in bold. Not all verbs have objects, but they all have subjects. In some sentence a single subject has two verbs – “He baked a cake and iced it nicely.” But unless the verb is an imperative, there has to be an explicit subject. And if that subject is the interrogative or relative pronoun, it has to be who, not whom. So:

Who do you believe is right?

Who is the subject of is. And you is the subject of do (which is the auxiliary for the infinitive believe). If you make who into whom, you don’t have a subject for is.

This throws people off because they see “do you believe” and think, well, it has to have an object. “Whom do you believe” is correct, after all.

But when it’s “…believe is right,” it’s not the same. You say “I believe him” but not “I believe him is right” because the clause “he is right” is the object of believe, and within it he is the subject of is. We get tripped up because the subject and object raise to the same position (I’ve added brackets to separate the clauses):

I believe [she tickled him].

[Who] do I believe [tickled him]?

[Whom] do I believe [she tickled]?

The key, as I said, is to make sure you have a subject for every verb. Or avoid using whom altogether. And when you are faced with those voices, ask yourself: Whom do you believe? And [who] do you believe [is right]?

The geniorum octopodes

We know how some people insist on using borrowed plurals (heck, one of my first articles for The Week, a couple of years ago, was on that). But here’s the thing: they just borrow the nominative plural and think they’re covered. That works fine with languages such as French and Italian, but it’s just a token effort when you come to a fully inflecting language such as Latin. If you want to insist on genii instead of geniuses because it’s truer to the Latin, you really ought to know that genii’s is, by the same token, just plain wrong. It should be geniorum. Find out this and much more in my latest:

Octopus, octopi… octopodem? A guide to humiliating grammar nerds with Latin inflections

(Am I being dead serious with this? …Really, what do you think?)