Monthly Archives: June 2015


“How,” Maury’s owlish uncle Evelyn harrumphed, “could they have let such a howler pass?” He swatted his newspaper onto the table in front of him and jabbed a nicotine-stained fingertip at the offending line. “I shall have to write a letter.”

Maury and I leaned towards the paper from our respective sides. “Monkey business?” Maury said.

“Mournfully bad,” Evelyn said, drawing forth his fountain pen and a small coil-bound notebook.

“Cart before horse or leg before wicket?” I said. Evelyn merely turned his head towards me for a moment, lowered his lunettes so he could peer at me significantly over them, and turned back to his scrawling in bilious green ink.

Since it takes Evelyn a few minutes to write one of his wonted screeds, I have time to explain the comments above. A howler is a thing that howls, of course, but it is seldom applied to wolves. Rather, it is often a short form for howler monkey, a kind of monkey that – well, you can guess what kind of noise it makes. Howler is also a now-rare term applied to professional mourners at funerals (one does see them so seldom today). And it also refers to an egregious error. That can be an error on the sporting field, especially in British parlance, or it can be an error of fact, logic, or grammar.

Is an error so named because it makes you howl with angst or laughter? It seems that it is in fact the error itself that exclaims: as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, it is “Something ‘crying’, ‘clamant’, or excessive; spec. a glaring blunder, esp. in an examination, etc.” Glaring is a visual metaphor; its auditory equivalent is howling. We don’t refer to things as glarers, however, perhaps in part because that’s a word that requires extra effort to say. But I do think that people like howler because of the how and ow that it contains – and perhaps the suggestion of who, as in “Who is responsible for this?”

Now, then. Maury’s uncle Evelyn (and we can understand how a man with a name that in the past century has gradually become a “woman’s” name might be sensitive to gaffes) finished writing his latest lance at the boils of journalism. He held up the notebook – I could see the numerous cross-outs and interlinear additions – and commenced reading aloud.

“Sirs: Your author has committed one of the most egregious schoolboy howlers in his choice of a rhetorical connective: he begins a sentence with ‘Now, then,’ a patent contradiction in terms. Is it now, or is it then? As the great Roman orator Cato – unlikely known to your woefully undereducated scribblers – was wont to say…”

Somewhere in the middle of his baterful oration I was seized by a coughing fit and had to leave the room to treat it with ethanol in solution taken orally. It occurs to me that I have failed to mention the use of howler commonly seen among dyspeptic writers of letters to the editor: to refer to something that few other than the author would even consider an error, but that the author wishes to present as about as bad as calling the pope a Muslim. In these uses, howler means “Ha! You have touched on a fine point that I have learned or figured out and that I am confident sets me above you ignorant fools, and now I get to run it up the flagpole! Howl in despair and bow before me, ye wretches! Et cetera.”

I remained in the other room for some time, coughing occasionally as needed, until the sound of the re-lifting of the newspaper signaled a return to quietude… at least until the next owlish hoot and holler.

No kudo for your bicep

After a bit of a pause to work on other things, I have gotten back to writing for The Week. My latest article went up this week:

Why there’s no such thing as a ‘bicep’: A tour of words that sound like plurals but aren’t


Ah, to put on the Ritz. To be rich, or live the life of the rich. Money, it seems, is power: the power to have luxuries, the power to be treated as though you’re always right…

In my world, Ritz was first of all a cracker. And I don’t mean a white person (you may know that cracker is a negatively toned word for a white person in the US). I mean a roughly circular orange crunchy thing made of flour and who knows what else. You probably know them; their current campaign is “Life’s Rich.” I ate many a square of cheddar on top of many a Ritz cracker in my youth. Thus, when I first saw reference to a Ritz Hotel, I wondered why a cracker hotel was so special.

Ritz also makes me think of a taco – specifically Taco Ockerse, who in 1983 came out with a hit version of Irving Berlin’s 1927 song “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” By that time, I knew the reference. I knew a Ritz Hotel was a luxurious place, old-school luxury, something like the Palliser Hotel in Calgary or the Banff Springs Hotel, both CP Hotels at the time and now both Fairmont Hotels. Grand lobby, plush rooms, classic service. I knew what ritzy meant and what Taco was singing about: the well-to-do strolling up and down Park Avenue, “high hats and Arrow collars, white spats and lots of dollars, spending every dime for a wonderful time.” Ritz was a name, but I didn’t think that much about where the name came from; it was just rich razzmatazz.

The name, as it happens, comes from César Ritz, a poor Swiss boy who came to be one of the great hoteliers of a century ago. He moved up through the ranks, becoming general manager of the Savoy in London, where he installed the famous French chef Auguste Escoffier. If you’re wondering who to blame for “the customer is always right,” apparently it’s him – of course, he was following the golden rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules. It’s a productive approach in expensive hotels (though it can produce questionable results in more modest establishments). After he was sacked from there at age 48, accused of fraud, he started up his own hotels, the Ritz in Paris and the Carlton in London, and several others thereafter, including one in Madrid.

Which is where I come back in. Our recent trip to Portugal and Spain was the sort of thing one saves up for, and our last hotel was the Ritz Madrid. It’s the kind of hotel where, with the light switches by the bed, there are buttons to call for the bellboy, the maid, and the handyman:

The rooms were plush, though of fairly normal size:

The hotel did not have a swimming pool. We wouldn’t have booked it by our own choosing for that reason alone. It did have a lobby bar, where, if you wanted, you could have very good champagne for as much as €150 a glass. Our breakfast, if it had not been included with our room rate, would have cost us €35 each in its restaurant:

It was not the most luxurious and exclusive hotel of our stay; actually, I would put it in third or fourth place out of four, though its published rates make it nearly the most expensive. But, yes, plush, posh, all that. A good place to display your ability to pay, and the power that comes with it.

Well, the word rich does come from an old Germanic word meaning ‘power’ first of all, and ‘wealth’ just consequently. You can see this same root in Richard and Heinrich, one or both of which contributed to the Swiss personal name Rizo, which is the evident source of the family name Ritz. All the Ritz words we have trace back to César Ritz – even Ritz Crackers, which managed to take the name once it had become common coin with such phrases as putting on the Ritz.

About that song, by the way. The version Taco Ockerse sang, which was the version Fred Astaire sang in Blue Skies, was the 1946 version. The original 1927 version was not about rich white people. It was about poor black people from Harlem spending all their money to dress up. They weren’t up and down Park Avenue; they were up on Lenox Avenue. It wasn’t “where fashion sits,” it was “where Harlem sits.” Not “lots of dollars” but “fifteen dollars” (admittedly the equivalent of a couple hundred today). Not “Come let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks and umberellas in their mitts” – one of the great masterstrokes of lyric writing – but “Come with me and we’ll attend their jubilee and see them spend their last two bits.” After all, it wasn’t “putting on the ritz”; it was “puttin’ on the ritz.”

But while the customer may be always right, Berlin found that the customer was not always white, and the original lyrics were, shall we say, belittling. So Berlin ritzed it up a bit more by filling it instead with rich crackers, loaded with real cheddar. So to speak.


Language is not ballistic – it’s not something that was thrown with a set trajectory and held a steady course until it hit the present. It is not something that even always moves forward. It is certainly not something frozen. It is sometimes raw, sometimes thawed, sometimes cooked, always decaying and growing at the same time. It is perverse, willful, refractory, twisted, froward. It is thraward.

Froward is not a typo for forward. It’s a word you may have seen in Shakespeare. It means inclined to go against what is normal, reasonable, or expected. You know to and fro? The fro is another form of from and is opposite to to. If something will not move toward, if it is deliberately untoward, it is froward.

But thraward? Well. In the beginning (or, well, not the beginning, but as long ago as we have any record of) there was a word thraw – actually a verbal root þraw, but we’ve long since lost that nice þ letter and replaced it with the messier th, and we’ve dropped most of the verbal inflectional endings too. This word thraw meant ‘twist’ or ‘turn’. You still see it in throw a pot or throw your back. You also see it in throw meaning ‘toss, hurl’, except that now it doesn’t mean ‘twist’; it’s gotten its new twist probably from the twisting the body does when throwing an object. The act of what we call throwing used to be named with the word weorpan (oh, that w was another letter, too, derived from a rune, but that’s a whole other story again). That word comes down to us as modern warp, which now has more to do with twisting than with tossing.

Anyway, froward – or its alternative version fraward – was turned into thraward by some speakers, particularly in Scotland. (It is pronounced with the same a as in warp.) It turned away, turned astray, twisted, was thrown off course, got warped, whatever you will. But then so did throw and warp. They did not turn back; they did not push against time. They simply spiralled, turned athwart. Thraward thus seems a better word for language than froward. Especially since it’s evidence itself of such perversity.

Hello, Ireland!

My latest article for the BBC, on how our messy English spelling is the result of greed, laziness, and snobbery, got me a live interview with an Irish radio talk show this week: the Moncrieff show on Newstalk. It’s on line now, so you can give it a listen. Go to part 2 of the June 10 show and I’m about 1/3 of the way in (there’s a thin red-on-grey progress bar near the top; just click about a third of the way from the left, and drag right or left as necessary). The link, for those who prefer copying and pasting to clicking, is


“Naïveté is one of the mothers of invention.” Tom Cochrane wrote that, and I think it’s true. As witness, I present the naspritus tree.

In the early 1980s, I listened to a lot of rock music, mostly on CJAY-92 (which, unlike many stations, you could still get as far up the Bow Valley from Calgary as Banff). I listened mainly on car stereos and the monophonic speakers of my bedroom clock radio and similar devices. If something was a hit in southern Alberta at the time, I heard it. Some songs that were big in many places were utterly foreign to me; others that were big hits in my world were little known elsewhere (for example “Love Me Today”). One song that was somewhere in between was “White Hot,” by Red Rider.

“White Hot” had the distinction, along with April Wine’s “Say Hello,” of having had a section of its instrumentals used for a time as theme music for the CTV station CFCN’s 6 pm news show. But that’s a bit of local side fame. The song was actually number 20 on the Canadian charts (and number 48 in the US) in 1980. So I heard it often enough.

But, you know, I heard it on those not-that-great radios, never with headphones, and almost always doing something else at the time. So I just had this sense of the song as being something about some war memories involving random African places, in particular Tripoli and Tanzania. The person singing it was white hot and couldn’t take it anymore and needed rain. And there were trees of various sorts. (“Fuselli, foxy rifles, and the trees, in Tanzania!”)* The one that stuck out for me was the naspritus tree – the words I heard every time it played were these:

I can remember the naspritus tree in Tripoli
We were so much bolder then
Had you in my core tree to protect me
We were both soldiers then, older then, colder then,
I need rain, I need rain, I need rain

The word naspritus was pronounced /ˈnæspraɪtəs/, like “nass pry tus.” Oddly for me, I never bothered looking it up, probably because (a) I wasn’t in a position to when I heard the song and (b) to be honest, it wasn’t a song I liked so well I would buy the album, so I wasn’t really going out of my way for it. Look, it took me a couple of decades to look up one odd phrase in a song I did like well – which led me to the made-up word classiomatic. (Who just makes up a word like that?)

I had an imagined idea of this naspritus tree when I listened to the song, of course. It seemed likely to be some kind of fruit tree, tall, leafy, in which a soldier might hide with his gun to protect another soldier. Somehow it had some local importance. Was it eternal like a Joshua tree, folkloric like a baobab tree, just one of those things one encounters locally like a maple tree, or some personal memory like, perhaps, a bergamot tree? Were its fruits like nectarines or tangerines? Its name was obviously a Latin species name – not something well enough known to have a non-technical name, unless it had gotten the name and then became known, like flowers such as acanthus or aspidistra. It seemed to me to be, most likely, a tree that wasn’t really all that special but was one of those convenient sufficiently exotic pegs on which to hang the superiority of a foreign memory.

But all that seeming barely outlasted the duration of the play of the song. Only occasionally would it cross my mind at other times to wonder what a naspritus tree might be, or what in fact Tom Cochrane actually was singing if not that.

A naspritus tree, as it turns out, is a tree on which grow the fruits of naïveté and illumination. When we pick up its fruit as we find it lying, it is naïveté. In naïveté we hear a thing and fill it in as best we can according to sound patterns we’re used to, much as we fill faces and figures into furniture when looking around a dark room. Names need not have obvious sense, after all; as long as it sounds plausible you can assume some reality for it. Why would there not be a Lady Mondegreen, or a car called a classiomatic?

But when we finally look up, the fruit we see is illumination.

Look up into the tree? Look up in our references. Look up the word or words we had heard. We are at last illuminated.

So now, having consulted transcriptions of the lyrics, having listened more closely on a better system, I can tell you that the words I heard are these:

I can remember the nights by the sea in Tripoli
We were so much bolder then
Had you and my poetry to protect me
We were both soldiers then, older then, colder then
I need rain, I need rain, I need rain

Does that still not make perfect sense? It will help a little in the context of the song, which by this point you really ought to listen to:

But what will really help is this, Tom Cochrane’s reminiscence of writing the song, from

I guess it proves that naivete is one of the mothers of invention… I wrote most of the lyrics in a dusty corner of Guelph University’s Porter Hall library after reading Henry Miller’s White Heat/Time of The Assassins, an essay on Rimbaud. Kenny came up with the mystical piano intro after I played him the song at his place in north Toronto. I would travel to Somalia during the crisis there some 15 years later with World Vision. This was a country in which Rimbaud had sold guns, and unfortunately that legacy still remains.

There are two more things I must mention. First, if you listen to the song, you will hear something that sounds sort of like “summer lie” and, later, in the chorus, something that sounds sort of like “summer lyin’ shore.” These are in fact references to Somalia, as Cochrane says in the quote above. I’m really not sure how he got that odd hyper-Anglic pronunciation; it’s not in Oxford, let alone anywhere else. Perhaps it is one of the ground-lying fruits of the naspritus tree. Second, Arthur Rimbaud was the author of, among other things, the volume of poems Illuminations. I wonder whether Tom Cochrane had the occasion to read it while he was holed up in the library at Guelph… Illumination is, after all, one of the daughters of curiosity.

PS Guelph, pronounced “gwelf,” is a small city about an hour west of Toronto.

* The actual lyrics turn out to be “For selling faulty rifles to the thieves in Tanzania”

Plough through enough dough to make you cough or hiccough

This article was first published on June 9, 2015, on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada (the Editors’ Association of Canada)

You want some tough spelling for an English learner to plough through? Head to ough. There are six different ways it can be said at the end of a word, as in plough, through, dough, enough, cough and (for those who spell it that way) hiccough. (Never mind the versions with another letter after it!)

Nearly all of the ough words trace back to the same final consonant in Old English (what our language was from the seventh to 11th centuries), but to several different vowels — vowels that do not match tidily to modern sounds.

What was the Old English final consonant? It was g, also written as h. In certain places, the Old English g softened to a fricative and, at the end of a word, tended to become voiceless. So, in different texts, you could see g or h both standing for the “h” sound. In Middle English (what we spoke from the 11th through 15th centuries), the fricative version of g was written as ȝ, a letter called yogh (which, by the way, is the only current English word ending in ogh).

Over time we stopped making that sound and replaced it with other sounds or with nothing … but we kept writing it. However, when we got printing presses, the type sets we bought from Europe had no yogh in them. So we got gh instead (just as the lovely letter þ was replaced with th).

What were all those vowels that ended up as ou in ough? Some were o’s, short or long; some were u’s; occasionally there was a long a. In the normal course of things, the modern English descendants of those sounds (after a millennium of mutation) are as follows: long á became “long o,” so hám became home; short o became “short o,” hardly changed in pot and bottom; long ó became “long oo,” so fóda became food; long ú became ow or ou, with mús becoming mouse and dún becoming down; and short u ended up sometimes as in put and sometimes as in putt (which sound the same in certain dialects).

But the ough words are not the normal course of things. There was this velar fricative after the vowel, and in Middle English it gradually weakened and caused rounding of the lips (velar fricatives tend to do this because they make the sound contrast more). So plog became our word plough, and slog became the rhyming slough, because they had the vowel in “pot” plus a “w” sound. For some reason, bóg took this course too and became bough. From dáh, which naturally evolved towards the vowel in home, we got dough. The history of burg to borough and þuruh to thorough is more chaotic — in some modern English dialects, the final vowel is like “uh.” Meanwhile, we got through from þurg because it made it to Middle English with the u before the r, so it kept the “oo” sound, and then the u and r swapped places while the final fricative stopped being said.

And then there are the ones that kept a stronger stressed “wh” sound in Middle English — or that only appeared in the language then — such as the Old English genóg, tóh and ruh and the Middle English slohu and coȝ. The strong “wh” sound at the end was dominant enough that the vowel was shortened to the one we hear in “book” (except in coȝ, which had a short o with no u influence). But then we strengthened the “wh” sound at the end of words to make it “f.” And so we got enough, tough, rough, slough and cough.

Oh, and what about hiccough? That’s due to pseudo-etymological mischief. The word was hicke up or hikup — readily reflected today as hiccup — but some silly fellows decided it must come from cough and so, because they wanted words to show where they came from (that classist obsession with pedigree), they started respelling it. It’s a mere parvenu, a poseur. A hiccup.