Monthly Archives: March 2015


Limn? Damn! How are we to say this word? And why does it have that formn? It looks all folded up, like a stack of sheets turned on its side, or perhaps a shelf of library books. Can we illuminate this a bit? Has it been milled down to minimal elements from some larger animal, or has it grown an extra limb? Are we seeing a liminal word, or is this lexical sediment?

To start with: You don’t say the n. It’s just there for looks. This word is pronounced the same as limb, which may be one reason it’s not used much anymore.

Is it related to limen and liminal, those words relating to thresholds (threshold, by the way, is a word that compensates for silent letters by having a sound that is not written in – the phantom second h, eliminated or illuminated in the limen)? No, it is not, even though it has so many sounds in common. And eliminate? That’s another threshold word – the e means ‘out’ or ‘from’; thus, ‘toss over the threshold’.

Is it related to limb? No, and they come to their parsley consonants from opposite directions (meeting on the threshold, perhaps?). The word limb meaning ‘arm, leg, tree branch’ comes from an old Germanic word lim. It just happened that there was also a Latin word limbus meaning ‘rim’ that wore down to limb meaning ‘edge of a disc (e.g., moon, sun, planet)’ or ‘expanded part of a leaf, petal, or sepal’ (as per Collins). Most likely this second limb led to the grafting of the b onto lim, because we are drawn to unphonetic orthography as moths are drawn to light.

Which is not to say that these odd spellings illuminate! No, but the n and b are in their way like illuminations: ornamental illustrations added to manuscripts, as for instance ornate capital letters. One might even call them visual hymns. It just happens that they don’t cast much light. But in the case of limn there is a dimn – sorry, dim – glow. When you lit up a manuscript with these illuminations, you could be said (in former usage) to lumine it. You make it luminous! But as candles burn down, so too do pronunciations wear down, and the spelling is trimned. I mean trimmed. So lumine became limn. And it carried the illustrative sense, coming to mean ‘depict, paint a picture, portray’.

Given the sound, one may imagine that it has to do with drawing lines or with laminating. But those words, too, are unrelated. It is simply a word for ‘light’ that has been lightened.

Its semantic emanations are dimned; it is now mainly a word used vaguely by pretentious scribblers to mean ‘drawn, painted, depicted’. It may be a light word, but it carries the weightiness of that excrescent consonant, so those who fancy their own scribery are drawn as a moth to the inevitable luminescent silent n.

Thanks to Ron Callahan for suggesting this word.


Kathryn Schulz, @kathrynschulz, tweeted on March 10, “Making up a word because I need it: lapsonym — a word whose meaning you forget no matter how many times you look it up.” She added that her lapsonym is nugatory. It is amusingly ironic that one of the meanings of nugatory is ‘useless, futile’. (The more common meaning, inasmuch as there is one, is ‘of little or no value or importance; trifling’ – and this is how I remember it: nugatory sounds like nougat, which, like trifle, is a dessert – but it’s a rather little one generally, just a nugget. Don’t confuse it with negatory, which is army jargon for ‘no’.)

Is the word well formed?

Well, we know that the -onym is an acceptable and productive combining form for a word, as in eponym, toponym, pseudonym, synonym, antonym, and so on. It has the same Greek root ὄνομα as onomastics and traces to a Proto-Indo-European root *nomn-, which has descendants in pretty much every Indo-European language, from Gaelic ainm to Czech jméno and, of course, all those words that sound more or less like name.

And the lapso- part? I will not make irrelevant mention of Lhasa apso, a breed of dog. No, lapso- is from the Latin noun lapsus, ‘slip, fall’, which shows up in lapse, as in mental lapse. If a word keeps slipping your mind, then of course it’s a lapsonym. Do you object to mixing Latin and Greek? It’s actually quite common in English; such words may be called macaronic, though they make me think as much of mixing meats in meatballs, which can produce very good results. (Also, macaroni these days in Anglo culture doesn’t have a huge mix of different ingredients, as it did in an earlier time and place.)

So this is a word that seems intuitively as well as etymologically to match its sense reasonably well, and it’s a word that’s been needed. (There’s a word for ‘a word that’s been needed’ – I’m trying to remember what it is. Speaking of which, we also need a word for a word you can remember the meaning of but can’t remember the actual word for. I hereby appoint myself neologist for that: I dub it lethonym, from the Greek root λήθη ‘forgetfulness’. Schulz has also invented one for a word that you can’t remember how to spell: orthonym. I think its etymological appropriateness is less secure; it seems to be a clipping from orthography, but ortho– normally means ‘right, correct’.)

And what is my personal lapsonym? My personal lapsonym is also, at least at this moment, a lethonym. That is to say, I am with @JosephHucks, who replied to Kathryn Schulz, “I can’t remember mine.”


I grew up in bucolic surroundings. But until sometime in my adolescence, I wouldn’t have thought so. Not because I didn’t think where I lived was rural, pastoral, etc. – no, that much was obvious. It was just that before I learned what the word bucolic meant, it would not have seemed to me to mean what it meant.

Just look at it: does it really seem so pastoral? I mean, I suppose you might think of Buford, a stereotypical rural hick name, or a calf with colic, or some young buck, or a cow lick, or something like that. But you could as easily think of a baby with colic, or something abusive or belligerent, or for that matter osso buco, or a belt buckle, or a back alley, or even Lauren Bacall

As @wettbutt on Twitter put it, “bucolic is the most thesaurus outing adjective ever. it doesnt sound like what it is at’s a bullshit trap word crafted by pranksters.” In response, @GalaxyDogg said, “it always makes me think of uncontrollable vomiting for some reason”; @Austin_H2O said, “sounds like a disease for rich babies”; and @Krinkle8 caught another overtone with “bucolic plague.” Not everyone agreed, of course. But you can see the problem.

The big problem is that when you encounter an uncommon word, you probably hope it will at least sound appropriate to the sense. You may like the crispness of crepuscular, but it hardly sounds like twilight, does it? You may hesitate to use pulchritude because it sounds more appropriate to ugliness than to beauty. Dazzling, brilliant things may be called fulgurant or coruscating, but those words, gah, hardly produce the best effect! And so on. There’s a sort of phonetic “You don’t belong around here.”

So why do we have this word? Well, we got it from the Romans, and the Romans got it from the Greeks. The Greeks had a word for ‘cow’, βοῦς bous, which comes through Latin to us in words such as bovine. They also had a word for ‘watcher’ or ‘keeper’, κολος kolos. From those they got βουκόλος, ‘cowherd’, and the adjectival form of that was βουκολικός, which became Latin bucolicus. I’m sure it all sounded perfectly reasonable to them.

In fact, if we called a cowboy a bucolos, I doubt too many people would find that a phonetically inappropriate word. The sounds are pretty similar between cowboy and bucolos (more so with the plural bucoloi – though if we went with the Latinized version it would be bucolus and bucoli), and cowboys do often wear belt buckles, after all.

But bucolic has not transferred to the cowherders in English. Nope, it’s transferred to the rural setting. Places where cows are herded. The opposite of urbanity. And it partakes in our stereotypes and ideals: these rural places are sleepy, quiet, calm, laconic (there’s another sound match), maybe a bit backwards (hmm… back, buc). Happily isolated. People used to write bucolic poetry, even.

Well, if you go somewhere bucolic right now, in the early spring, you may hear a quiet countryscape, the wind, some tractors, a few cows, and some tweeting. But the tweeting may not agree with your choice of adjective…


This word has a sharp smell for me. A smell of sharpness, in fact.

Isopropyl alcohol isn’t the only isopropyl, but it’s the one I know. It’s common enough. We keep a squirt bottle of it in the kitchen for disinfecting surfaces: to disinfect blood and formica on the counter, or the same for fat and wood on the cutting board. My wife uses it more often than I do. When she’s used it, I can smell it quite a distance away.

And when I smell it, the inside of my elbow prickles. Or, well, I have a memory of sharp sensations on the inside of my elbow.

Isopropyl alcohol, for me, has its strongest association as the disinfectant used on an area of skin about to be punctured with a needle. I don’t know if it’s what is always used now, but I do believe it was when I was young.

But is isopropyl really a sharp word, memories aside?

Its crispest sounds are /p/ and /p/, which are more flat-blade consonants to my mind, not acute like /t/. It starts with /s/, which may seem cold like alcohol, or hiss like a snake with needle fangs, but is not really sharp per se. The other two consonants are liquids, /l/ and /r/. The blood flowing out to fill the syringe or sample bottle, or the isopropyl alcohol? Maybe a bit of a stretch. And the echoes of the word are more like ice (cold like alcohol) and propeller and perhaps even eyes and popular.

And the etymology? It’s the same for fat and wood.

What? Is that all Greek to you? Well, it is all Greek.

The same: iso, from ἴσος ‘equal’. Chemically it has two of the same CH3 group.

For fat: pro, from προ ‘for’, and pion, from πίων ‘fat’, but the latter trimmed down in this form to just p, just as we trim the fat off the meat. Propionic acid is the first in the fatty acid series, and gives its name to isopropyl.

Wood: yl, from ὕλη ‘wood, material’ (see ylem). In chemical names it denotes a basic chemical formed of two or three elements.

So, etymologically, this word has less to do with the sharp feeling I experienced due to needles in the arm, and more to do with the sharp sensation the meat on the cutting board probably doesn’t feel, but would if it could. And the sharp smell that comes after, if my wife decides the cutting board needs it. (I just use soap and water.)

And chemically? Isopropyl alcohol is C3H7OH, or CH3CHOHCH3 – which looks a bit like an ancient Aztec word. Or perhaps the sound I made when I was a child having a needle stuck in my arm.


This is an adjective. Just looking at it by itself, do you have a sense of what it means?

Don’t bother looking in your dictionary. It’s not in Oxford, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage,… Too recent. But people use it. More often than many words that are in those dictionaries.

What does it have a taste of? Sick, quick, squeaky, squawk, slick, ick

Let’s have some context: “I can’t look at dermatology journals. The pictures make me squicky.” “Ted Cruz’s smile is, um, squicky.”

How about a bit of etymology?

Yes, there is etymology for this. The bad news is that it’s just that squicky comes from the word squick, which can be a verb or a noun: “That picture gives me squick.” “That picture is a squick.” “That picture squicks me.” “I squick at that picture.” As you can see, both causative and resultative senses are in use.

The exact sources of squick are subject to some speculation. A sound effect? A portmanteau of squeamish and ick? Perhaps just a word that sounded right for the situation and was used in a context where it caught on among a small group and gradually spread farther?

Either or both of the first two may be true, but that last one is pretty reliable. The word squick first showed up in some Usenet news groups around 1994 – possibly, or possibly fanfiction, depending on whom you ask.

The word seems like a fairly impressionistic sound slap to express, in some self-consciously inventive way, the concept of ‘disgusting’ or ‘sickening’. But this is one instance of an impressionistic word where an explanation of the definition helps, because there is an important distinction between “that disgusts me” – or “that makes me sick” – and “I have an automatic queasy or repelled physical response to that”: the latter implies no moral judgment on the object.

And that’s the thing. If something squicks you, if it’s a squick, if it’s squicky and makes you feel squicky, if – in brief – it participates in a squickening, that means simply that it engenders a reflex. Imagine watching someone perform dental surgery: cutting and peeling away the gums, drilling into the – Stop? Yes. If you’re like me, dental surgery is a horrible squick. Writing that made me shudder. But it’s not morally repellant. Likewise, there are many activities and foods and so forth that some people enjoy that others find utterly squicky. But that doesn’t mean those others condemn it, or that the foods or activities are in any particular way worthy of condemnation. (They may be, but that’s a separate issue.)

How, if this word is not in the standard dictionaries, can I have all this information about it? It’s not because I did a lot of in-depth primary-source research. It’s because there are a couple of dictionaries that have it: Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary. They are crowd-sourced and much more responsive. They are not utterly reliable, of course. But you can get useful information and confirmation.

In particular, the most upvoted definition at Urban Dictionary for squick is a well-written one posted in 2004 by Ian Osmond. He notes the following: “Stating that something is ‘disgusting’ implies a judgement that it is bad or wrong. Stating that something ‘squicks you’ is merely an observation of your reaction to it, but does not imply a judgement that such a thing is universally wrong.” And he adds, “In general, distinguishing between ‘squick’ and ‘disgust’ is an important part of living in a tolerant society.” Many people, he contends, mistake squick for disgust and thereby condemn things as wrong on the basis of distaste.

Either ironically or appositely, people who mistake distaste for infallible moral judgement squick me a bit. But mainly they just irritate me. The most recent true intense squick reflex I’ve felt was when I made the mistake of doing a Google image search on impetigo. (Don’t. Just don’t. You know they always show the worst cases.)

English language time machine

Hop into a time machine to travel back in the history of the English language! How do you think it will go? Step out and talk with people from olden times who use quaint words and a bit of thou and –eth? Heh heh. Find out what’s really waiting for you as you travel back through the history of England in my latest article for The Week:

What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like

Complete with video clips!

(And yes, before you say it, “the English of King Arthur” is, shall we say, a trick question.)

numpty, nudnik

For once and for all, let’s stop using the term grammar Nazi.

The Nazis were not just people who got all up in your face about small things. Do I even need to tell you about them? Are you really OK with using Nazi as a synonym for meanie or taskmaster or martinet or pedant?

Sure, we need a term for people who can’t seem to resist being dicks about other people’s grammar. But I don’t think we need to call them grammar genocidal megalomaniacs. There’s a better term, much better, that was drawn to my attention by one of the language gang on Twitter, @mededitor, who tweeted a flow chart made by David Bradley: “A simple flowchart to avoid becoming a grammar numpty.”

Ah, yes, grammar numpty. As @mededitor explained, “‘Numpty’ is a UK pejorative, meaning chowderhead.” It’s actually a fairly new word; it seems to have started showing up in the last 30 years. It’s likely derived from numps, a much older word (around since the time of Shakespeare) also referring to a stupid, silly, foolish, or ineffectual person, and possibly formed from the name Humphrey; numpty is quite possibly modelled on Humpty-Dumpty (which may also come from Humphrey – way to Bogart that name), gaining effect from echoes of numbskull and dumb and the effect of the dull “uh” vowel and the soft nasal consonant. And, for the grammar pickers, an echo of “harrumph.” It can be a noun or an adjective.

I should say that David Bradley (who, by the way, is British) is not the first person to use grammar numpty. I found a tweet from last November, for instance, directed at the Twitter account of a company that sells grammar-checking software (a company that also published an appallingly stupid article supposedly “correcting” “mistakes” in a popular novel series – mainly presenting style choices as rules, and making some truly cack-handed recommendations – so I won’t be naming them); they picked on a headline with what was probably an intentional error for the sake of humour, and @onekind (who is Australian) tweeted at them, “IT’S A JOKE YOU GRAMMAR NUMPTIES”.

Now, admittedly, people who I may want to call grammar numpties (because they’re needlessly prickish about other people’s usage) might well feel inclined to call their targets grammar numpties, because it is somewhat subjective just who is a numpty. Therefore, I do have an alternate available for those who would like one: grammar nudnik.

I like the word nudnik because it’s more specific. It’s not like numpty, which just means that you think the person is obtuse. Nudnik refers to a pest. A person who is boring, a person who buttonholes you and tells you inane details at length, a person who picks at you incessantly. A person who is like slimy celery leaves clinging to your finger. It’s less goofy-sounding than numpty; it has that sharp prick of ik at the end, suitable for dickish behaviour. The u is as in noodle, not as in dump, so it’s more focused and tense (like a lurking version of needy), but at the same time it has the lowest resonances of any vowel (if you want to know more about those resonances, read “The world speaks in harmony”).

Where does nudnik come from? Yiddish. (And I do think I’d rather have a word from Yiddish than one – Nazi – naming the people who murdered millions of Yiddish speakers.) It comes from the verb nudyen ‘bore’ and traces ultimately to Proto-Slavic. Although it has (for us) an echo of rude, it doesn’t automatically connote rudeness, though it allows it. Mainly it just means the sort of person who soon has you thinking, “Will. You. Shut. Up.”

So you have a choice of two. When some twit starts picking at others on small points of grammar that he or she may or may not even be right about, you can call the twit a grammar numpty or a grammar nudnik. And you don’t need to use that other word at all.


I first became aware of this word in conjunction with car wax.

Advertisers and marketers know that if you can add in a little extra detail about something, it makes it sound special, even if that detail is trivially true. I sometimes eat breakfast in a restaurant that makes sure to say that certain egg dishes are served with “off-the-bone baked ham.” Well, I sure don’t expect to see a big ham bone in the middle of my plate with the eggs, but it somehow makes it more vividly appetizing to paint the picture. Likewise, when my dad used to take the car to get washed, we would be given the option of adding carnauba wax to the drying. Not just wax, eh, but carnauba wax. Because that sounds like something special.

It also planted in my youthful mind an association between carnauba and car. Well, why not? In fact, I wondered if carnauba might just be an elaborated form of car, like super-duper is of super. It has a hint of carnival and nubile and maybe jubilee, and it has that soft rhythm of a word like gazonga.

Anyway, one thing was sure: carnauba was the name of a wax you put on cars.

A few years later I was looking at a box of Smarties. (For the Americans here: everywhere but the US, Smarties are like chocolate M&Ms, but flatter like Reese’s Pieces. For non-Americans: in the US, the brand Smarties is used on little coloured sugar pills in a roll. I’m not talking about those. We call those Rockets in Canada.) I looked at the ingredients, because that’s what there is to read and I was curious (you get to be a little smartie by reading what’s in your Smarties). I noticed, at the end, “carnauba wax.”

What the heck! I was eating car wax? Was it balling up in my stomach?

Well, it hadn’t hurt me so far. Let’s polish off the rest of the box and see.

Nope, seems OK. Better have some more to make sure.

In fact, carnauba wax is used for quite a few things. It’s a hard, glossy polishing wax, sometimes mixed with softer waxes to make it more manageable; it adds a shine to quite a few things, and it’s burned in some candles too (use it in the hard wax around the outside that helps cup the softer wax in the middle so it burns up rather than running down). Many pills have it on them to give them a glossy shine. But it’s only a hundredth of a percent of the weight of the pill – or the Smartie. So in a 40-gram box, you have about 4 mg of wax. The sugar will get to you long before the wax does. They put carnauba wax on some fruits, too, to make them shine.

Where does this word carnauba come from, then? From the name of the tree that the wax comes from, the carnauba palm. It grows in northeastern Brazil, and the Portuguese word carnauba appears to come from the Tupi word karana’iwa. The leaves are the source of the wax. Apparently the fruit is edible. I doubt they bother putting wax on it, though.

Anyway, it has nothing etymologically to do with cars and, in spite of being from Brazil, nothing to do with carnival either. But carnauba wax still sounds like it’s worth more than just plain wax.


I’ve turned again to Robert Macfarlane’s article on landscape words. Here is one that is worth a peer, a word that truly purrs:

Shetlandic has a word, pirr, meaning “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water”.

A cat’s paw. A purring cat’s paw, to be sure. It’s not enough to rrip the surface; it’s just as much as may be exhaled after the /p/ in /pɪr/ or /pʌr/. How much is that? Take a saucer of water – or milk if you wish; you can give it to your cat after – and hold it up to your chin. Then say pirr. It will make a little wave just after the puff on the /p/ – not as much as if a cat’s paw had swatted it, unless it’s the paw of a cat you had as a child and that still follows you around in spirit, purring in your mind, though long out of its body. Just the ripples of tiny feet, which will quickly dis-a-pirr. I am put in mind of e.e. cummings’s “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond,” which concludes,

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

And as rain has small hands, so a pirr has small feet. Paws that refresh. And pirr the written word has the little paw waves of the rr, perhaps caused by the little paw of the p.

Is pirr in the dictionary? It is, if you have a really good one. It seems that our word pirr – which can also mean ‘a state of agitation or excitement’ – comes from pirrie, which can mean the same thing or can mean ‘a squall, a sudden blast of wind, a storm’. Either way, its origin seems to be imitative. There is also a verb pirr, which means ‘flow swiftly’ or ‘blow gently’. Again there is an opposition of sense. Perhaps to unwind these turns we need a pirr review.

There is another word pirr, by the way: it is an onomatopoeia for the cry of the tern, and is also used to name the tern itself. If the word has a tern in its sense, then it’s no wonder it has turns in sense.

skeevy, skeezy

Neither of these words is used very often. Nonetheless, even if you haven’t seen either at all, I suspect you’ll have a sense of the meaning. And yes, they both mean largely the same thing. If I give you a sentence context you’ll understand the general intent. Here are a couple of quotations, obligingly supplied by the Oxford English Dictionary:

Zevon has built a career on well-crafted pop songs that tend to be either smartass and sensitive or smartass and skeevy. (Newsday, 1991)

He has the requisite erotic credentials—drugstore musk cologne, underarm sweat rings, skeezy tattoo, outer-boroughs grammar. (Los Angeles Times 1995)

Words like this are conditioned by phonetic profiling: what else they sound like. And what do they sound like? They both start with the /sk/ that is found on extensive and/or displeasing two-dimensional things: sky, skin, sketch, scum, scab, skank; they also have elements of sleazy, peeve, skivvies, skive, wheeze, sketchy, cheesy, easy, skeeter, and – for comic strip fans – Skeezix, a character supposedly named with a word for a lost calf, but it seems that the word skeezicks (the closest real-world spelling) was actually generally used to mean ‘rascal, rogue’.

So these words fall in line with sketchy and sleazy and skanky, with that thin wheedling /i/ vowel (which works well with pulling your mouth wide and the corners a bit down in revulsion), the fuzzy buzzing /v/ or /z/, and that hard, flat /sk/ onset. Were they just made up out of thin air because they sounded right?

Not quite. It starts with Italian (Tuscan) schifare ‘loathe’ and schifo ‘disgust’. Note that sch in Italian is pronounced /sk/, and in some versions of the language an f between vowels is said /v/ (a common transformation that, a millennium ago, was also the rule in English). These, at least in South Philadelphia, were borrowed over to English – quite possibly abetted by the sound resemblance to words of similar sense – to become skeevy, which was attested in print by the mid-1970s. Once that word became widely known, it was expectable that it would be modified to match the sleazy echo, especially since /izi/ endings are more common than /ivi/ ones in English. And, after all, this is an expressive word, with a sound-sense relation that is not seen as altogether arbitrary, so it’s more natural to change the sound to match what you feel. So by the early 1990s, we had skeezy, which is also a bit easier to say: you just take the tongue back to the tip, no need to involve the lips.

Is there a real difference between skeevy and skeezy? Aside from the one sounding closer to, say, evil and the other sounding closer to, say, easy? Well, Oxford adds “disreputable or immoral, esp. sexually” to – can you guess which? – skeezy. But specifies “not respectable; immoral” on… skeevy. Both agree that skeezy is sleazy, but Oxford says skeevy is too. Frankly, the whole thing seems a bit too… nebulous… you know… um, shady.