Monthly Archives: May 2015


There is a certain class of odd ducks one will quickly have one’s fill of: the philodoxes. They are easily found, especially these days: Twitter, Facebook, and especially comments sections of news websites and YouTube. For some reason, some of them are even paid to appear on television or radio.

We may readily discount any etymological association with phallus or dicks, but it’s quite a coincidence of sense, as phallic imagery is readily used in unkind descriptions of philodoxes. In actuality, the philo is the same as we see in philosophy, philomath, and such like, as well as in Philadelphia (with an a in place of the o), and the dox is the same as in orthodox and paradox. But a philodox is not some mere orthodox philosopher – well, he or she may be, but usually not – and is unlikely to be a paradox from Philadelphia. (Phlox won’t come into it at all unless the person is a philodox on the topic of horticulture.)

What, then, is a philodox? Allow me to pillage a couple of quotations from the Oxford English Dictionary. Here is a line from the Eagle of Berkshire, Massachusetts, in 1958: “One grows weary of the sickening sophomoric twaddle of our local pansophic philodox.” And here’s from the 1609 Poetical Recreations of Alexander Craig: “No greater fools then Philodoxes fond, And such as loue opinions of their own.”

Yes, philo, from ϕιλεῖν filein ‘love’ and δόξα doxa ‘opinion, glory’: one who loves opinion, glories in opinion, loves the glory of his or her own opinion. In short, a person who is dogmatic (or at least inflexible) and argumentative. The word sounds like it could name an ox from Philadelphia, but the reality is all ox and never mind Philadelphia, unless that’s the subject of conversation. It’s someone most people would agree is full o’… well, not ducks or docks. It is often said that opinions are like assholes – everyone has one. In the case of the philodox, you have an asshole who has opinions.

So now you have a word as crisp, clean, and starchy as white table linen, dedicated to naming a sort of people for whom you and others typically use much earthier descriptors. It has a related adjective, philodoxical, which is how I came to be aware of it: a little while ago, Erin McKean (@emckean) tweeted about its wordnik entry. I’m sure you will want to use these words on occasion. I know you will have occasion to.


I like learning languages, even if they’re not likely to be useful to me specifically. I may not visit the country, but if the language is fun, why not enjoy picking it up? I mean, I go running even though nothing I do for money requires running. It just makes me feel better and makes my body work better. I think that’s useful. Likewise, I think learning languages is useful, even if I don’t learn very much of a given language.

But what is a good way of learning a language? What things are useful? Different people will tell you different things and offer different approaches. It is likely to vary from person to person and depending on how the person intends to use the language. For instance, some people swear by audio-based acquisition methods – learn just by listening. However, if you’re in another country, my experience is that you will need the language most for reading signs and other instructions; spoken communication is both more flexible and longer in development. And if you have a strongly visual memory, having written forms to hang the words on may be a big plus.

I have found that getting used to the sounds of the language helps a lot – listen to it in videos, music, et cetera. In fact, learning songs in the language can be very useful and memorable… but for some languages, the sung version departs notably from the spoken version. If I’m going to actually use the language in another country soon (as for instance Portuguese on my recent vacation), it is best to learn things first that I am most likely to use: buying drinks, buying tickets, finding bathrooms, getting through airports… But if I just want to learn the language for literary purposes, and to get to know the culture, well, it makes sense to learn the standard cultural literary background, doesn’t it? Or at least selected highlights? A chrestomathy?

Chrestomathy. There’s a word you won’t see often; it is unlikely to show up in a chrestomathy of English. It is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable (and with the ch said as /k/). It means, per Oxford, “A collection of choice passages from an author or authors, esp. one compiled to assist in the acquirement of a language.” It has tastes for me of chrysalis, that intermediate form leading to a butterfly, and crest, a ridge point one must pass over, and stoma, which is basically a hole or a tube, and math, although this is more about language (still, why not be a polymath too if you can be a polyglot?), and more distantly of mastery and stretch and a few less pertinent things such as matches and Chester and torch.

But it comes from χρηστός khréstos ‘useful’ and μαθεια matheia ‘learning’. There is a related word, chrestomathic, which means (again per Oxford) “devoted to the learning of useful matters.” It’s a bit presumptuous to hold choice literary passages to be the epitome of useful learning, more than songs, say, or “Excuse me, where are the washrooms?” This is a basis not in the business of life – perhaps this is a vision for thelemites, who have servants to see to such little things – but in the standard references of culture. Famous scenes from movies? Snippets of children’s books? Apparently we should think more of scenes from Shakespeare and lines by John Donne and Alexander Pope and (if there is any justice at all) Edna St. Vincent Millay. Or even a single-author chrestomathy (perhaps Hemingway for the introductory readers, Nabokov for the more advanced, and Joyce or Faulkner or Pynchon for the exceptionally odd).

Well, whatever. If I were to christen my own chrestomathy for English, my choice of passages certainly would include music (“There are places I remember…”), children’s books (“The night Max wore his wolf suit…”), movie clips (“…We’ll always have Paris…”), comic strips (“…Tyrannosaurs in F-14s!!”), and perhaps even an ad or two (“Where’s the beef?”), to go alongside “To be or not to be…” and “No man is an island…” and “A little learning is a dangerous thing…” and “I burn the candle at both ends…” (and perhaps “…yes I said yes I will Yes” and “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins…” and “A screaming comes across the sky…”).

Or, you know, just some paragraphs from my blog.


Is it wrong to want more money? To accumulate wealth? To use money to get money? To stand passing along wealth and, with each stack of bills you hand over, taking one as a transaction fee?

Different people have, and have had, different views on this. Aristotle opposed the accumulation of wealth for its own sake; he viewed usury, brokerage, and even retailing as reprehensible. The Catholic Church opposed it for a long time too (even during eras when it was notably good at it). But having more money is very appealing, and those who have found ways of making their pies higher can also find ways of justifying doing so. It is a sign of skill! It motivates! It helps stimulate the economy! It provides necessary services! Et cetera.

And it is a short step from that to the idea that accumulation of wealth is a sign of virtue, even evidence of blessing. If you have found a way to divert some of the stream of money to your own pocket, and you thereby rise to the top – of the heap, of the opportunity ladder, of the luxury availability scale – you must be the cream.

Which makes chrematistics the math and statistics of the crema, the crème, the cream. Chrematistics is the “art of getting rich” (per Thales of Miletus), and chrematistic means (per Oxford) “Of, pertaining to, or engaged in the acquisition of wealth.” James Frederick Ferrier, in Lectures on Greek Philosophy, wrote of “The chrematistic class, from χρήματα, the Greek for money or wealth, this being the end which they aim at.”

To be more exact, the term traces back to χρῆμα khréma, which my Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary defines as “a thing, matter, business; piece, copy; fact; enterprise; amount, money; pl [χρήματα] goods, money, power.” It in turn belongs to a set of verbs and nouns relating to necessity; χρή khré, for instance, means “it is necessary.”

So riches are needful things. Goods, money, power: all these are wealth. The necessities – bare or otherwise. It is necessarily so, in this view. You can’t butter your bread without cream to make the butter! (The word cream does not come from this, though – it comes, by way of French, from chrism, the oil that is used for anointing, which Latin took from Greek; it is a coincidence, happy or otherwise, that if you are chrematistically endowed or fortunate, you may seem to be among the anointed.)

We may wonder whether, in fact, it is necessarily so, and may protest that it ain’t – that diverting the flow of value into accumulated deposits is like building up fat. True, every body has some fat. But too great a buildup can have negative consequences, and at any rate it’s energy that’s not being used.

For most of us, though, the philosophy and ethics of chrematistics are matters of abstract argument but not likely to change much in real life. We really want to know how. How do you get more money, anyway? Will charm be the right match-maker? Connections? Luck, wiles, sociopathy? It can’t hurt to be charismatic. We know that it has at best a loose connection with level of effort; a person may slave away twelve hours a day at a menial and exhausting job and make in a year what another person makes in half a minute with a stroke of a pen. This contest seems to have unfair handicaps, and you can’t blame many people for wanting a rematch.

The outcomes of experiments in communism at various scales have indicated that you can’t eliminate chrematistics from society altogether. Anyway, nearly everyone has some chrematistic bent, because having money is a very agreeable thing. The question is more whether there isn’t some point at which is becomes truly disordered, even morbid – and, if so, where that point is and how to keep societal chrematistics within functional bounds.

At the very least, though, we could recognize chrematistic skill as a skill like many others (musical, intellectual, et cetera), not intrinsically more virtuous, just more remunerative. Your magnetism for chremata doesn’t make you crema. It just makes you richer in what we think of as the necessities – and the luxuries.

langoustine, langostino

When I was a kid growing up in Alberta, there were two kinds of long insect-looking shellfish: lobsters and shrimp. (The round kind were of course crabs.) Shrimp were small and lobsters were large.

Since then, I’ve encountered a variety of names for a variety of sizes and types of what my wife calls “disgusting sea insects” and generally refuses to eat (“I’ll have yours, then,” I say): prawns (which seems to an Albertan boy to be a word British people use for shrimp because shrimp doesn’t sound insufferable enough), crayfish, crawfish, crawdaddy (are these just three degrees of folksiness for the same thing?), scampi (sometimes seen on a menu as shrimp scampi, suggesting that it’s a way of preparing the things, and yet at other times in a phrase such as scampi alla this or that, so what are we about here?), and, perhaps most recently for me, langostino and langoustine.

It’s been a few years since I first saw langostino and langoustine, but I think when I saw langoustine on a menu for the first time I wasn’t really expecting a sea insect. I mean, with a name like that, it could be anything, you know? Fungus, fish, leg muscle of lamb, opera singer, tongue sausage? Is it a defunct life form or a way of preparing defunct life forms? Or is it a region of southern France (Langoustine like Languedoc?) or Italy (“My dear, have you not had the scampi in Langostino? Oh, you poor deprived thing, you must go there”)? If you approach it agnostic, it is a linguistic guessing game.

In fact, even if you know that a langoustine is a medium-large sea insect, bigger than a shrimp but smaller than a lobster, you’re still not guaranteed certainty. The word means different things in different places. It helps if you know that langosta is Spanish for ‘lobster’, coming from Latin locusta, meaning ‘lobster’ or (obviously) ‘locust’ (sea insects!), and that the –ino ending is a diminutive: ‘little lobster’. But depending on where you are, langostino can refer to squat lobster (really related to crabs), crayfish, a kind of big shrimp, or a kind of small lobster. Langoustine (obviously a French word, a diminutive of langouste, which means langosto, see above) has a more formal definition – it’s a synonym for Norway lobster, Dublin Bay prawn, and scampi, which are all names for the same thing: a kind of small lobster. But you can see langoustine applied to langostino on occasion, I reckon.

Whatever. Stick it on my plate well prepared and I’ll eat it. Yes, shrimp and lobster do taste a bit different and all that. I’ll take them all, and of course my wife’s too. But do you mind serving it to me already extracted from its carapace? I grew up in Alberta, where lobster is served as tail meat set on top of the shell. This idea of ripping the lobster open and dealing with all the guts (“That’s called the tomalley. It’s considered a delicacy”) is an eastern thing. I don’t have to disembowel anything else I eat, so I can skip doing it to sea insects too. I may be glad to dissect the word langostino, but I’ll pay someone else to dissect the thing it names.

Fortunately, I have never had to eviscerate a langoustine. And I have had some perfectly delicious langoustine, including twice on my recent trip, both at lovely high-end restaurants. The first time it was langoustine carpaccio, crunchy langoustine, and champagne sauce at the Yeatman Hotel in Porto; see the menu and a picture of the actual thing. It was delicate, beautiful, and delicious. The second time it was langoustines from Galicia in Spanish bread at Alabaster in Madrid; see the menu – I didn’t take a picture of it, but I seem to recall it was delicious.

But I didn’t get to have my wife’s. Oh, it didn’t languish uneaten; indeed, its gustatory delight was such that, insect or not, she relished it and finished hers.


Things to know about the word Douro and the river and region it names:

1. It’s not “door-o,” even if it is the gateway to some stunning wines and scenery.

2. It’s not “do row,” though you can boat on it. Port merchants used to use it to ship port. Now it’s dammed, so they use trucks. You can take a boat to drink and sing and look at the hills. I recommend it.

3. Don’t even think about it being dour. It’s the home of port. You know, one of the most posh ways of getting sick drunk ever invented. Dour is not it.

4. The Spanish version of the name, Duero, is also not “do row.”

5. But Portuguese is not pronounced like Spanish anyway. If you pronounce Portuguese as though it were Spanish, you can count on being wrong, and someone’s probably going to get hurt.

6. Douro, the Portuguese name, is said like English “dough roo.” You may or may not rue the dough you spend visiting this region and trying 90 wines. I don’t rue it.

7. Duero, the Spanish name, is pronounced the way it’s spelled, provided you know how to pronounce Spanish. Like “dwair-o,” for those who don’t.

8. The name comes from Latin Durius, which in turn most likely comes from a Celtic word meaning (you’ll love this, it’s so intensely descriptive) ‘water’ or ‘river’. The Proto-Indo-European root is dor.

9. Water is what you can end up drinking wine like in this area if you’re not careful. You need to be durable. You should drink lots of water before bed.

10. You can’t fully taste the word without tasting a lot of wines. Not just port, which is what the Douro region is known for; dry reds and whites too. I can’t do that for you here, so you’ll just have to go about it yourself like I did. By Tony Aspler’s count, he, I, and the rest of our group tasted about 90 (69 in Portugal and 21 in the Duero region of Spain, upstream).

11. If you just visit the Douro DOC wine region in Portugal, you can be forgiven for thinking maybe Douro really means ‘the opposite of flat, straight, and wide’, because that’s what everything around there is: the opposite. The roads are a lane and a half wide and don’t go the length of a tour bus without curving. The tour bus is what you may be sitting in, peering out the windows thinking about how close you are to tumbling hundreds of metres down over terraces, as the driver somehow pours it around the bends like a cross between a boa and a Maserati. Just remember that they regularly drive tanker trucks to and from the quintas that are pasted to the sides of these hills, on the same narrow roads your fat bus is on, is that one oh please no I don’t want to die oh no it was just a little pickup that apparently teleported from the front of our bus to the back unscathed.

12. If you just visit the Ribera del Duero region in Spain, nearer the source of the river, or the Toro region a little farther downstream towards Portugal, you may more likely think it means ‘strong’ or ‘expensive’, as most of the wines around there are one, the other, or both.

13. Put it this way. On two successive days we had lunch near the Duero. On one day we had full-flavoured wines that retailed for under €20 a bottle, some under €10. Strong, rich, but nice. We bought two bottles. On the next day we had four finely crafted wines made at the most beautiful and clean winery I have ever seen. They were all marvellous. They retailed at €30, €40, €100, and €220 a bottle. I would have bought the €40 one but I didn’t have the chance. Just as well. I’d just end up drinking it.

14. Have you poured yourself a glass of wine yet? Get training!

15. I’m not saying you’re going to do insane things like my tour group did, such as tasting 30 wines in three hours. (You sniff, swirl, and spit. You do not swallow a lot. But your tongue is ready to run down the hill.) But be prepared.

14. Those were dry wines, by the way. Mostly red. Tasting 30 ports could kill you. Even if you didn’t swallow. It’s a lot of sugar.

15. The Duero starts in Spain. For a stretch it is the Douro on one side and the Duero on the other, as it forms the border between Portugal and Spain. It runs through scenery that is breathtaking or terrifying depending on where in it you are. It empties into the Atlantic at Porto, where the big port companies have their headquarters. Actually they’re on the south side of the river, in Gaia. It’s a lot of warehouses for storing port. It has more alcohol per square metre than anywhere else in the world.

16. At this point I think you really do need to start tasting Douro and Duero wines if you are to get a good finish on the tasting of this name. I can’t give you that. But I can give you photos. They will give a little bit of the experience. Here they are. If you click on them they will take you to larger versions in the context of my Flickr albums, which include many other photos as well.

You think scenery like this exists only in ads and movies. Nope, this is exactly what the Douro near Pinhão looks like.

If the scenery looks like this, raise your head some more.

There we go. Wicked scenic, eh?

For some reason, people on freeways apparently do not want to have to drive hugging the bends down into the valley and then back up again. But if you are going to visit a quinta, where they make port, you will get to take the little non-freeway roads. Oh yes you will.

Imagine this is the view from your bus window. You took this picture with your iPhone as the bus sailed around a bend on a road much like the ones you see down below. How much wine do you think you will need to anaesthetize you enough that your back muscles don’t spasm because you are tightly gripping anything near you and you know it won’t help because whatever you’re gripping is going to roll down that hill any second now too?

You may think that port can teach you how to fly. Or you may think that it can teach you how not to give a flying f—. You will be right about one of those two things. Hint: the second one. Do not think about whether your bus driver can teach you how to fly.

If you have acrophobia or weak knees, you are automatically disqualified from working for a quinta in the Douro DOC. Or really even from visiting it.

Here is a hotel you can stay in. It does not require driving on cliffs to get to. Much. OK, just a little.

This is the part of Spain the Duero (Douro) comes from. Nothing heart-stopping here. Except for the wine prices.

This is where it ends up just before emptying into the Atlantic: Porto (as seen from Gaia). Hmm. There seems to be something missing.

Oh, yes. That.

The future of American accents

I’ve been interviewed a second time about that article I did for The Week on what Americans will sound like in 2050. This time it was with a National Public Radio station in New Hampshire, and it was pre-recorded and edited rather than live and on the spot. It’s about 11 minutes. They’ve put it up on their website:

What Americans Will Sound Like in the Future

(You have to scroll down a bit to get to it, as it’s one of several segments in the show.)


Do you like quaxing? I like quaxing. I quax all the time. Well, to be precise, I quax regularly every Friday at around 6:30 pm, and I may also quax on other days of the week.

What is quaxing? By context, you may guess it is not related to sounds ducks or Aristophanic frogs make (brekekekex, quax, quax?). No, this word is an eponym. Or perhaps I should call it a contreponym or perhaps a spitonym, because its sense is pointedly in spite of the person whose name it uses.

I don’t know if this word will take off and last. Its sound is sharp and exceptional and suggests things unrelated to its referent. But right now it’s a fun little flash in the pan. And I bet at least one of my regular Sesquiotica readers (hello, Janet!) will know it already, since she’s from New Zealand, which is where this word started.

New Zealand, I should say, is one of only four countries in the world where I have driven a car. When we plan trips, we will plan with trains if possible, buses or planes if necessary, but cars only if unavoidable. Well, to see New Zealand close up we needed to rent a car. But if we were living in a place such as Auckland and needed to go shopping, well, we wouldn’t need a car to do that.

But Dick Quax disagrees.

Dick Quax is an Auckland councillor. And Dick Quax, in a Twitter exchange sparked by a suggestion that a shopping centre ought to have better transit options, declared “no one in the entire western world uses the train for their shopping trips” and followed that with “the very idea that people lug home their weekly supermarket shopping on the train is fanciful.” He was subsequently skeptical about declarations by some that they get their groceries on their bikes.

I live in Toronto. Toronto has a large ring of suburbs full of people who are used to having to drive to get anywhere and do anything. I remember that life: I lived out in the country when I was a kid. I lived in Calgary for a year in grade 5. When we lived in Calgary, even out in the sprawling northwestern suburbs, I would take the bus and walk quite regularly, though not all the time. Now I live in Toronto, I don’t even own a car. I rent when I have to. I seldom have to. Every Friday, after work, I go to the St. Lawrence Market and buy my groceries and carry them home. It’s enough for two people for a week (not including lunches). Many people in central Toronto do the same.

This, according to By the Motorway, is what quaxing is: “to shop, in the western world, by means of walking, cycling or public transit.”

Could you carry home enough for a family or four or more? One person might have trouble, but two might do it more easily. Shopping more than once a week is also an option. The thing is, where I live, the nearest parking to the shopping is also the nearest parking to my residence. Even if I were to shop farther away, I would still have a lot of bag carrying to do to and from the car.

So I’m lucky, right? Because I live two blocks from where I shop? Lucky only in that I can afford my residence here (which did not cost more than a house in drive-to-shop-land). I didn’t roll the dice; we chose to live here. Also, there are many families with children and teens living in the building I live in. Living far from shopping is a choice many people make, and they have their reasons. It’s just not a choice everyone makes. Some of us prefer to quax. I’m not going to be a dick about people driving to shop when they live too far from the store to walk; I know the exigencies of life for many. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for people who drive to shop not to be dicks to those of us who quax. We’re keeping the streets and air that much clearer. I have to tell you, it’s all that it’s quaxed up to be. It’s quick, too.

Who, by the way, is Dick Quax? Aside from being an Auckland councillor, I mean? He’s an Olympic silver medallist from 1976. In what? The 5000 metres. Running. You know, going places on foot. Physical fitness, et cetera.

Well, he may have won silver in 1976, but I think he’s won irony in 2015.

(By the way, in case you’re curious, Quax is a Dutch name, as are many that end in x. He was born in the Netherlands – where quaxing is the usual way to go shopping – but moved to New Zealand in his childhood.)

Thanks to Tweeters @leoniedoyle and @ladyfleur and to Kirsty Johnston of the NZ Herald for bringing my attention to quaxing.


The forms of apatite are many, diverse and colourful. Apatites are bred in the bone and borne out in the teeth, but domestic apatites are pale reflexes of the wild and exotic apatites you may find. In the many apatites of the world is much deception: you may think you have and hold one thing, but it is quite another. Look closely; you may see palaces and caves, heavenly clouds and hellish nightmare realms. But one thing is true: apatites are hard. Specifically, apatite is the defining mineral for 5 on the Mohs scale.

Yes, I’m spelling that right, and what is the Mohs scale? It’s the standard scale for hardness in minerals and other things. Talc is 1 and diamond is 10. So, strictly, apatite is exactly halfway up. But consider your teeth and bones: do they seem hard to you? One kind of apatite, hydroxyapatite, is the major component in tooth enamel and bone mineral.

Yes, apatite is a mineral. It’s actually a group of phosphate minerals. Its name, which sounds exactly like appetite, comes from Greek ἀπάτη apaté ‘deceit’; Abraham Gottlob Werner gave it the name in 1786 because apatite was often mistaken for other things. (To satisfy your appetite for etymology: appetite comes from Latin appetitus ‘desire’, from appetere, from ad ‘to’ plus petere ‘seek’.)

Minerals are fascinating things. Everyone should, in their childhood, spend some time in the minerals section of a museum. Try to go to one where they light them nicely. The mineral is mainly just arrangements of molecules made of calcium, phosphorus, oxygen, and either hydrogen (and more oxygen), fluorine, or chlorine – Ca10(PO4)6(OH,F,Cl)2. But take a look at how that all comes out. So many colours and shapes.

From such basic elements are our apatites built and crystallized, and yet they crystallize in so many different ways. Some are lucid, some opaque. Read into them what you will; see fantasy realms and dramas, or pure forms. Seek what you desire, but be prepared for deceit. There is no need to be uptight about it. In the end, know this: ordinary as they may seem to you, you have your own apatites, and you would be an indistinct useless mass without them.


“Boy, it smells.”

“Smells? Smells of what?”

“Smells of something nice.”


“I mean, it’s pungent.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Sure, it has a nice odour.”

“Like, it reeks of good things?”

“Well, what? Is there another word for smelly that’s not freighted with negative associations?”

“Like a word that seems made to be said by a gentleman with an Italian accent?”

“Yeah, sure, a roll of the tongue, a tap, a liquid, a nasal, a final crisp point.”

“Do you mind if it makes you sound like a hackneyed newspaper scribbler?”

“…Um… should I?”

And so we come to redolent. It’s a delicious three syllables, more sapid than lentil, not as bright as red, entirely oblivious to rodent, rolling off the tongue like an Italian second dish. It’s not a verb, it’s an adjective – and it usually shows up with one of two prepositions: of and with.

So already it’s a little starchy because while you can use verb forms of some of the others (it smells, it reeks), you have to use a form of be plus a preposition to make redolent work. I mean, yes, you can say “That’s a very redolent cigar you have,” if you don’t mind sounding like the sort of self-consciously sesquipedalian person who will always say “reticent” where “shy” would be better. But normally you say something is redolent with a thing or redolent of a thing.

What’s the difference? “Redolent of X” means it has the smell of X, but of course in a rich, evocative way. (The writer thinks, “I want something lyrical here,” and grabs this word, which tends to come with a little flag sticking out of it, “Try me! I’m evocative!”) The air ­– most often it’s the air – is redolent of spices, garlic, perfume, onion soup. It borrows on reminiscent of (we will not say reeking of). “Redolent with X” means it is full-smelling, rich and evocative – the smell is saturated, red-lined even – and that the main element in this richness is X. It’s in the same vein as spiced with, alive with, rankling with, pregnant with, riddled with, that sort of thing.

Either way, it revs up with the opening /r/ and then readily rattles off three syllables. Etymologically, it uses the Latin re prefix as an intensifier; the d is inserted because there needs to be a consonant between the e and the following vowel. The olent has the same ol as in olfactory, from olere ‘emit a smell’.

And unlike smelly, pungent, odorous, reeking, and so on, it does not have a primary negative tone. Nor, on the other hand, is it flowery like perfumed. It is mellifluous, polysyllabic, literary. All of which make it ripe to be hackneyed by scribblers who want easy shortcuts to textual flavour and evocativeness. It is a sort of instant umami, a dash of nam pla – or more likely a sprinkling of powdered onion soup mix on the top of the casserole of words. Use it with care, therefore; you don’t want your text to be redolent of – or redolent with the odour of – junior journalists and other hacks.


If this word looks to you like it should be a famous vegetable, maybe it’s time to bring you up to speed on it. This is not food fast or slow, nor a star who’s fallen off the b-list; it’s more a characteristic of a tercel, if not always of a Toyota Tercel.

Celerity is what you have after acceleration (ac ‘to’ plus celer plus ation) and before deceleration. If you want to get somewhere in a trice – can we say get there tricely? – you need celerity or ye will be derelict. Let me add some clarity: celerity is speed, from Latin celer ‘swift’. It is a business-class or first-class word for speed. And just as business and first will get you to your destination at the same time as economy, but with more expense and ostentation, so celerity will serve the same sense as speed, but with a Rolex chronograph on its wrist.

There are other synonyms for speed, of course; Merriam-Webster’s thesaurus includes fastness, fleetness, haste, hurry, quickness, rapidity, rapidness, speediness, swiftness, and velocity. But they don’t all have exactly the same tinges and tastes. Some imply time pressure, some have a sense of carelessness; others are dryer or more positively toned. Several have that –ness that drags like a trailer. One thing nearly all of them do have, though, is a fricative at the start: /s/, /f/, /h/ (only sort of a fricative in English, admittedly), and the one voiced one the engine-rev /v/. Two others have the liquid /r/. Only one starts with a stop: quickness.

Of them all, celerity is truly the most rare and expensive – the only one that the average speaker might not even know. It is a shining silver streak of a word, soft and liquid with one lightly crisp tap as it passes. It may have a more lyric quality, even. It is ethereal and yet somehow slightly lesser in impact.

I do not think that this watch is truly a businessman in business class drinking his transatlantic Caesar with celery. No, it is a wisp of a lady in a diaphanous dress wearing not a watch at all but simply a silver bracelet, sitting in first class sipping Perrier-Jouet and talking to no one as she sees the Pacific slip quickly away below. Who is she? A starlet? A food guru? A simple skater? No one knows for sure, except for that bespectacled nerd sitting next to her reading impenetrable theory for relaxation. He is flying as fast as she is, and he will arrive with her at the same hotel room. And he knows what celerity is. Not haste. Not hurry. No pressure. Simply being everywhere before the slower ones.