Monthly Archives: August 2015


Don’t pretend you don’t sniff books. We all do.

The smell of a book may not have anything to do with the quality of the contents, but it is a part of the reading experience. I love the smell of a library; it tells me I am swimming in books. I love the smell of an art gallery, too, that olio of old oil, decaying latex, aging canvas and paper, mixed with the wafting scents of coffee and quiche from the cafeteria. My wife loves the smell of an ice rink; I love the smell of a theatre backstage (dilute latex paint and a bit of wood).

And who doesn’t love the smell of a new car? For that matter, who doesn’t pay attention to the sound of their car? High-end sports car manufacturers (Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini) put a lot of effort into getting just the right engine sound, the one that distinguishes them from the others. It’s a mark of the mettle of the metal, the machismo of the machine. Meanwhile, vacuum cleaners have long been far louder than they need to be, just because people wouldn’t believe they worked if they were too quiet (this is changing, which pleases me; I won’t say that, like nature and cats, I abhor a vacuum, but I sure hate the sound of one).

Pick up a new wine glass. What’s one of the first things you’re likely to do to it? If you’re like me, you’ll flick it with your finger to hear the “ting.” If I see a silver coin I will drop it just to hear its higher ring when it hits. I can only assume gun owners pay attention to the sound their gun makes when it’s cocked – I know that different guns can be identified by the sound they make when being fired (AK-47s apparently have a distinctive sound unlike American equivalents; I assume an Uzi has its own resonance too; and so on). Photo equipment buffs always pay attention to the shutter sound, whether they admit it or not. One photographer I chatted with said she loved the Mamiya 7 (one of the best cameras ever made, by common opinion) but couldn’t get over the light, almost flimsy-sounding click of its shutter. (It’s also ugly. A camera only a results-oriented person could love.) Any Leica freak will have clear attachments to the sound of a Leica’s focal-plane shutter; go to Steve Huff’s website and check his videos in his reviews of Leicas and other new cameras – he never misses trying the shutter sound and comparing it to other models.

Heck, people are so attached to the sound of a shutter that digital cameras that have no mechanical shutters will come with a fake “shutter” sound – or a choice of several. But I’m not here to talk about skeuomorphs today. I’m here to talk about genuine sounds and sights and smells that are secondary to the ostensible principal function of a thing. These sensations are associated with the valued thing and so gain a glow of that value, but in many cases they also tell us something extra about the quality of the thing. How well-built is the car, the camera, or the gun? How pure is the glass or crystal, or the silver in the coin? What sort is the paper and ink in the book or magazine?

We taste reality like many of us taste wine. Why does the colour of a wine matter? What difference does it make if this pinot noir has a light ruby glow while that one bleeds like borshch? In the end, it’s the taste that matters, right? Well, let’s be honest: few of us would drink as much of it without the alcohol. But if it’s not just the alcohol that matters, why should it be just the alcohol and taste that matter? Why not appreciate the look of it? Why not appreciate the label on the bottle, too? Many people do. As well they should. Why not look for reasons to enjoy things?

Many people pretend to taste and discernment but spend their time looking for reasons not to enjoy things. It’s evident that their primary enjoyment comes from feeling themselves of superior discernment, a discernment that means knowing which few things are good and which many things are not. I do not think this is a very effective way of enjoying life. It is true that there are many things a given person will not enjoy, and that things that seem wondrous to you when you first start in a pursuit may seem trite when you know the subject better. But if you want to enjoy what you experience, why on earth would you not look for more ways and reasons to enjoy things? Why would you look only for reasons not to enjoy things? This just increases the number of things you don’t enjoy. I don’t like the look of that balance sheet.

When we appreciate secondary aspects of things – their sounds, their smells, their appearances (I’ve barely mentioned the look of cars and cameras and so on; somehow we all take it for granted that that’s important, though it has little to do with function) – we are appreciating reality as we appreciate wine. And, of course, words.

But what is the name for these sensations, these secondary aesthetic qualities? I’m not familiar with an established formal-sounding term (though perhaps someone will toss one my way), so I’ve decided to confect one from the usual classical bits. It’s the word you’ve been waiting for me to get to: deuteraesthetics (with or without the final s, as needed), from deuter, meaning ‘second’ or ‘secondary’, and aesthetic, referring to sensations. The deuteraesthetic aspects of a thing are the sound of a shutter, the smell of a book, the look of anything that has a primary function unrelated to appearance.

At base, of course, they are all sesquiotics: semiotics, but three times as good.


The late kerfuffle over the official recognition of Mount McKinley as Denali has taken me by surprise. I had actually thought that the name had been officially recognized ages ago. It turns out that while the national park surrounding it has been called Denali since 1980, the mountain itself has remained McKinley because of objections… from Ohio.

As you may know, Denali is not in Ohio. In fact, Ohio has no mountains. Why would Ohio wish to bend distant Alaska to its will like some alien Svengali? Just because Ohio happens to have the birthplace of President William McKinley. McKinley never visited Denali, but he was assassinated in 1901 and it was decided officially by the federal government in 1917 to name the mountain after him, following a tradition that had been started by a prospector who called it that when McKinley was still running for president. It had also been called Densmore’s Mountain.

Well, why would they ask the local Koyukon Athabaskan people what they had been calling it since time immemorial? They had a name for it, after all. It may not have been nailed on a sign, or somehow inlaid in the stone, but maybe someone could have asked them…?

The name, of course, was Denali, which means ‘the great one’ or ‘the big one’ (not, though it may sound appropriate, ‘the gnarly’). The Russians (who colonized Alaska for a while) had called it Bolshaya Gora, which means ‘big mountain’ and may have been a translation; anyway, it was more or less aligned with Denali. It is a big mountain; hard to deny that.

But when explorers explore and discoverers discover, they want to name things! It’s like when we were kids. We come to a new place and we discover a new playground. No one has ever seen this playground before! We just discovered it! I was the first here ever! Yeah? Well I was here two steps ahead of you, so I was the first here everer! Shut up, you two, I touched the swings first, so I was the first here everest! So what are we gonna call it?

Except, of course, we eventually learn that someone, in fact, built this playground, and lots of people have been there before. But if we’re adults in a new land, we conveniently ignore the people who were there before. They’re just this tribe we discovered! What shall we name them?

But you can’t ignore them forever. And indeed, the people of Alaska – even the non-indigenous ones – have been calling the mountain Denali for quite a long time. This isn’t some Democrat-versus-Republican issue; the politicians from Alaska who have been pushing for officialization of Denali include many Republicans.

But why would the people who live there matter, when we have this glorious tradition of honor to uphold? It’s America’s tallest mountain! It was named after an assassinated president! It’s cultural heritage! It’s always been that way!

For nearly a century, anyway. In the mouths and books of people who have never visited it and will never visit it. A change to the name is “insulting to all Ohioans!” Never mind that having Ohioans dictate what Alaskan mountains are called is insulting to Alaskans. It would be more sensible to name something in Ohio after McKinley, no?

It’s just like those fake “rules of English” (or social norms, or or or) that many people adhere to. They remember it being that way when they were kids, and maybe someone told them that was the rule, so that means it’s the great universal tradition from the golden ages and for all times. Anything else is a gross abuse and innovation.

And so we have the recent news headlines. Here’s one from The New York Times: “Mount McKinley Will Again Be Called Denali.” (Actually it never stopped being called that; it’s just being officially recognized.) But then here’s one from ABC News: “White House Renames Mount McKinley as Denali on Eve of Trip.”

Perhaps, after “renaming” the mountain what it was always called by people who had some connection to it, Obama can create a new state in honour of those who think McKinley was the original name and the local people don’t count. He can call it Denial.


Yes, I like accumulating things – judiciously, not wantonly – and I am disinclined to part with my treasures. I have an indeterminate number of books, but anyway more than there is room for, especially merged with my wife’s equally prodigious and constantly growing collecting; I have nearly a thousand CDs and no more room for new ones, so now I buy on iTunes; I have about a dozen cameras, about as many lenses for the ones that can take different lenses, and thousands upon thousands of photos stored up from them; I still have every email of any significance at all from the past sesquidecade; my section of the bedroom closet is packed like a Tokyo subway, but two thirds of them haven’t been worn this year or last; I have a dozen or so watches and two dozen or so ties; I have every issue of the Literary Review of Canada that I’ve ever worked on (nearly 20 years’ worth), and almost every issue of The Walrus since its first; I have a couple dozen bottles of liquor, but at least I finish those… gradually…

Aina thinks I may be a hoarder. But she’s the one whose clothes drawers erupt black fabric when she opens them, and she’s the one with more than a hundred books piled against the wall by her side of the bed. So.

I am not a true hoarder. A true hoarder is like this bloke I read about today, who incessantly accumulates old doors and window frames in his yard (click on the link just to see the pictures). It’s like this woman who died after a pile of her accumulated stuff collapsed on her. It’s like this person who had more than five dozen cats in a one-bedroom apartment.

Wait! Can you hoard cats? I know you can’t herd them. But are “crazy cat people” hoarders? Hoarding is for treasures, but inanimate ones, no? If I see a platoon of puddy tats, I’m more likely to think it’s a horde than a hoard.

Horde is not related to hoard, by the way. Horde comes ultimately from a Turkic word for ‘camp’. Hoard is a good old Germanic word that since the beginning of English (when it was hord) has been a noun for a collection of valuables laid away for future reference, and thence a verb for the act of laying them away. This word has been in the collection as long as there has been a collection.

English has increased its collection quite substantially since then, of course. We still have many of the oldest words, some of them at the bottoms of piles, some much worn from regular use, some brightened or bent over time – how does a gathering of treasures harden so it is heard as a bad thing, anyway? because it sounds like a hoary horror? – but we have accumulated an unmanageable treasury from our millennium and more of excursions and inventions. The English vocabulary is like Smaug’s gold-hoard (and the mot juste that’s on the tip of your tongue is its Arkenstone of the moment).

Is a word-hoard a bad thing? Robert Macfarlane seems not to think so; he glories in adding local landscape terms to his display cabinet. I don’t think so either, as my blog’s ton of word tastings (if they’re a pound each) attests. English may have an utter superfluity of words, but somehow we can always make use of one more to add just the right bit of flavour that was missing before. Unlike Scotch or Bordeaux, additions to your vocabulary are usually free and don’t occupy a lot of space.

I suppose excess words could collapse on you if you’re not careful with them. But really, my myriad of words is to me not so much a yard of dirty doors and windows (though words are, in their ways, doors and windows to the world) as a mewing mass of moggies waiting to be petted, to taste you with their sandpaper tongues, and to dig their tiny claws into you and your friends.

Forget the title

I have, on occasion, gotten responses to my articles published on commercial sites (Slate, The Week, BBC) that have focused on the titles.

Here’s the TL;DR of what follows:

Paid authors on commercial sites don’t write the titles. Forget the titles.

Seriously: When you read an article, the title is probably what drew you into it. Yay for the headline writer. They did their job. Now you’re reading the article. The person who wrote the article is a different person from the person who wrote the title. The article was written first. The title is an ad for the article.

Most people who read articles don’t actually have a clear idea of how articles are made, it turns out. A sparkling example of this came in a comment on one of my articles that was republished on Slate’s Lexicon Valley. The reader clearly assumed that I had written it following the same process he had probably used writing his last essay, which was probably for grade 9 Social Studies:

1) Come up with a topic; make it the title.

2) Start looking things up. Write as you go.

3) Stop when you run out of things.

This, as it happens, is pretty much the opposite of how real professional writers actually write their articles. Here is the sequence I typically go through:

1) Think of an interesting topic for an article. (Occasionally a publication or site that you’ve worked with will suggest a topic and see if you want to write on it. Your answer is probably YES! Writing is a drug that sometimes pays rather than costing.)

2) Do some research to see whether it’s feasible and which way it will actually go.

3) Pitch the topic to the site you want to publish it. (If you’re writing for your own blog, skip this. If you’re writing for a group blog, check with the other contributors to make sure you’re not eating someone else’s lunch.)

4) If they OK it, research the topic. Make notes.

5) Think about how to structure the article.

6) Write the article. Do a draft, revise, feel disgusted, revise thoroughly, restructure, revise, realize you can’t view it with any objectivity anymore, be done. Maybe. Put a provisional title at the top when you start. Change it when you finish, if not before.

7) Send the article to the publication. (If it’s your own blog or one you’re a joint contributor to, you will go with your last title and just publish it. And then maybe look it over in the morning and fix a few things.)

8) The publication’s editor will go over it and tighten it up and change things. If you are wise, you will assume they are right (except where they have accidentally changed the sense, in which case you obviously didn’t write it clearly, so you negotiate a revision if you can). You lack objectivity at this point. Also, they’re paying you, so that counts for something. If they’re not paying you, well, they still have a fresh perspective; how much do you respect them? Anyway, they usually run the changes past you before publishing. Not always.

9) Someone – your editor, perhaps, or some mystical nameless other – will come up with a grabby title for the article. You may or may not get to see it before it is published. (I know one person, exactly ONE person, who gets to write his own titles and they’re used as is. Hi, Dad!)

10) Someone may add theme images with or without captions. You will see them no sooner than any other reader of the publication (website). If they’re really problematic, you can always ask if they can be adjusted, but you would be wise to be quick about it.

So there it is. If you’re reading an article, you may have gotten to it because of the title, sure, but the title is an ad for the article, almost certainly written by someone else. Once you’ve started reading the article, forget the title.

dirigible, blimp

What’s the difference between a dirigible and a blimp?

They have the same general form, but you don’t want to be misled. It’s tempting to assume, as I did for so many years, that the difference between the airships is visible when they’re deflated: a dirigible is rigid and a blimp is limp. It just seems so obvious, no?

Obvious but wrong. Similarity is not identity. Hydrogen and helium can both keep an airship aloft, but if you choose the wrong one you can go down in flames.

The truth is that a blimp is a dirigible. But not all dirigibles are blimps.

One may be forgiven for seeing rigid in dirigible, but I can see gerbil in it too and yet I am confident that airships are not held aloft by rodents running on wheels. Likewise, the presence of dirge, bridge, and bilge in it do not guarantee funereality, traversivity, or seawater. To find the origin of the word you must look in the right direction.

The right direction is direction itself – specifically the Latin word (and etymological origin) for it: dirigere. Something (in fact anything) that is dirigible is capable of being directed – i.e., steered. This is what all those cigar-shaped, finned, lighter-than-air vessels have in common, be they rigid (like Zeppelins – a brand name, by the way), semi-rigid, or blimps: unlike the classic “balloon-shaped” balloons, they can be steered and propelled. They are not merely at the mercy of the winds.

A blimp, then, is a kind of dirigible that does not have a rigid framework. Deflate it and it will be limp. So of course it is tempting to assume that the limp in blimp is the limp in, well, limp. There are even stories about how the word came to be, such as that the airship was “Type B: Limp.” Alas, there is a striking lack of actual historical evidence for limp­-based accounts. At least as likely are accounts linking it to the sound it makes when struck with the hand, or other more impressionistic sound-symbolic explanations. But no one’s entirely sure. Yet.

What we do know is that the word blimp showed up during World War I, when the things it names did. Of course, coming up with the ability to fly, we soon look to it for ways to hurt other people, for example by dropping bombs from above. Now, though, we have even more efficient and effective ways of killing people, so the place you’re most likely to see a blimp is floating above a sporting event – the continuation of way by other means. And actually the current Goodyear airship is the continuation of blimps by other means: it is an airship, and a dirigible one, but it is actually a semi-rigid airship made by Zeppelin.

So be wary of relying on forms! They may be nothing but hot air. They may be limp. They may be misdirecting you.

The restrictive which

I think it’s about time I posted another poem from Songs of Love and Grammar, the silly book of rhymes about grammar and romantic difficulties which I wrote a few years ago. This one focuses on the “restrictive which.”

Allow me to explain. Let’s say you have a noun that’s modified by a subordinate clause: “the cake that I ate” or “the cake, which I ate.” If there are several cakes, you specify which cake you’re talking about by using a restrictive clause: “the cake that I ate” (not a different cake that I didn’t eat). If there’s only one cake you could be talking about, and you just want to give a bit more information about it, you can do so with a nonrestrictive clause: “the cake, which I ate.”

It’s more common in North America to use that rather than which for restrictive clauses (the cake that I ate rather than the cake which I ate), but which is normal in England and elsewhere and many people use it in North America. The thing that really makes the difference between the two kinds of clause (in print) is the comma: with a comma (the cake, which I ate), it’s nonrestrictive; without (the cake which I ate), it’s restrictive. This poem is for those people who think the restrictive which doesn’t exist. Oh, yes, it does…

The restrictive witch

There is a certain house which sits upon a shady street
and in it lives a person which you may not want to meet.

She has a cloak and hat which she is never seen without
and owns a darkling cat which likes to yowl and prowl about.

And there is one key thing which makes this witch a cause of fear:
she has a special magic which she does to those who near.

Whatever thing she catches which is single of its kind,
she makes it simply that which is like others you may find.

This is an operation which she does with neat precision
by writing sentences which are subjected to excision

of one small curly mark which serves to separate the noun
from modifying phrase which newly serves to tie it down.

No longer have you just one job, which pays you well, to work;
your job which pays you well shares time with other jobs which shirk.

You had a dent, which is not big, alone upon your car;
now by the dent which is not big sit other dents that are.

Your marriage, which is happy, soon will find it’s not alone –
your marriage which is happy won’t be when the rest are known.

Your ring, which says Eileen, will lead Eileen to know your games:
your ring which says Eileen shares space with rings with other names.

It’s bad enough to have one bad divorce, which is near done;
the bad divorce which is near done awaits another one,

and though one lawyer’s bill, which could be worse, is not a lot,
the bill which could be worse is stacked with others which could not.

And all this loss which is not fair comes not from peeve or itch;
it comes from lack of caution with that bad restrictive witch.

What about Canadian, eh?

I felt a bit bad about not mentioning Canadian English in my BBC article on American English. And then someone who didn’t know I was Canadian sent me an email smugsplaining Canadian to me, so I responded. But I decided I really needed to do an article on Canadian English. So I pitched it to the BBC, and they said “Sure!” So. Here it is:

Why is Canadian English unique?



Why do I so enjoy writing these word tastings? Partly it is because I enjoy writing and I enjoy an audience. But partly it is because I have a lexicographic wanderlust – and, for that matter, an encyclopedic wanderlust. When I was a child, I would often pull out a volume of our World Book Encyclopedia and look up something that had caught my fancy, and from there I would wander through other entries. (I operate on a need-to-know basis: I need to know everything.) This wanderlust – which I have by no means lost; indeed, the internet has greatly facilitated it – may seem a wanton acquisitiveness, a noetic cupidity, and I won’t say it’s not, but it’s another thing too: an excellent way of wasting time.

I am much better than I should be at wasting time. It’s not that I have more of it than anyone else (though I do use less of it for sleep than I should); it’s just that I have an aversion to using every last moment in some pointedly productive fashion. I must use some of it frivolously, distractedly; I must fritter it away pursuing my latest intellectual dipsomania. I must squander time, in fact. Not that time spent looking up facts is always wasted, but let me tell you, I do waste a lot of time I could be using to do important things.

It could be worse. It could be money. Imagine having a need to waste money. I know some people do. Indeed, many people who find themselves with quite a lot of it seem quite avid in seeking ways to dispose of it recklessly. It’s both a way of proving to oneself that one has it, and an attempt to rectify the unaccustomed situation by reducing the excess.

Some people also, finding themselves endowed with fame, respect, responsibility, reputation, what have you, react similarly: they do spectacularly ill-judged things. A person who has everything shoplifts an item of little consequence and is caught. A movie star or politician practically goes out of his way to arrange liaisons that will be looked on very dimly by much of the populace. A beloved singer develops an excessive liking for intoxicants and has a nasty mishap.

Squanderlust. They – and, in my temporal way, I too – have squanderlust.

I didn’t invent this word. I found it while not wasting my time: I was, in fact, doing actual linguistic research. But not on this word; I just happened to see it. And I knew I had to taste it.

The word is not new; it has been around at least since 1935. But it is not often used. The Oxford English Dictionary has three citations, and the first two are to do with politicians (in their official roles, going on sprees with tax dollars). The third, from Time magazine, July 18, 1977, is this: “No longer the ultimate expression of corporate and personal squanderlust, the private plane is now a ubiquitous … means of air travel to smaller cities.”

So squanderlust is, of course, money (or time, or reputation, or whatever) spent in large quantity on things not worth the expense. It is buying an item that is far surplus to any reasonable requirement (and perhaps even unsuited to it): a Lamborghini just for picking up the groceries; five hundred dollars on a pair of jeans; a beautiful piece of quality equipment one doesn’t even know how to use; four times as much food as is required for an event.

But then, considering our ways as a society – overloading ourselves with unnecessary luxuries that we really only think we need, acquiring many things entirely surplus to requirement just because they make us feel good, wasting untold amounts of food – do we not all have some measure of squanderlust? The waste that makes us comfortable in our bounty? Or are we simply so numb and heedless we don’t even enjoy our squandering?

Who let that word into the dictionary?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

Every so often, Oxford or Merriam-Webster will release a list of words recently added to one of their dictionaries, and many people become grouchy at what they see as awful — or even fake — intrusions that have somehow been bootlegged into the hallowed halls of the official lexicon. You may even agree that they are right to be leery of such items as bae, selfie stick, lolcat, subtweet _and acquihire, all recently added to Oxford. The role of the dictionary is to be a signpost, after all, not a weathercock that flips with each language fad that blows through.

Fair enough: We look to the dictionary to know what the accepted words and meanings are. If we want to know what some asinine adolescent thinks should be a word, or thinks an existing word should mean, we go to Urban Dictionary, which is the great graffitied bathroom wall of the language. But when you put up a signpost, it has to point to the actual correct way to the destination, not to where you think they should have put the destination or the road to it. It also has to be updated with new signs when new towns or subdivisions are built. You might want to go to one of them, after all — just as you might want to know exactly what all those young people mean when they say, “My bae subtweeted me with a lolcat.” Where else than a dictionary will you find out? (You don’t want to ask one of those youths. They will just roll their eyes at you.)

A dictionary needn’t include every passing bit of slang that sprouts in the morning and withers in the afternoon, of course. A word has to have some staying power; it has to be well attested in published texts. Which means that you, dear readers, are the real bouncers at the language pub. As editor Sarah Grey told editors at the recent EAC conference, paraphrasing lexicographers Kory Stamper, Ben Zimmer and Steve Kleinedler, “If you’re waiting for dictionaries to say a word is OK, you should know that they’re waiting for you to start using it.”

It is always a judgment call, of course, as the good people at Oxford tell us. Some words don’t last as long as we think they will. Weblog is already archaic, shortened down to blog, and it has been a long time since anyone other than my father said zowie or anyone other than Prince Philip said gadzooks. But others have more staying power. As Ammon Shea tells us, a century ago Merriam-Webster’s Third Collegiate Dictionary added a large number of slang words, which some saw as disgraceful weeds in the language. Among them were several words that likely passed without remark in my opening paragraph — grouchy, awful (meaning bad), fake, bootleg and leery — along with bouncer, pub and many more.


I was listening to The Burdens of Being Upright by Tracy Bonham this evening, and it reminded me of a review I read of it when it came out back in 1996. The reviewer praised it for its honesty.

But how did the reviewer know?

Honest is a term of high praise for a performer. It basically means “He/she is doing or saying things that I, or most people, would hesitate to do because they would show me, or them, in a bad light or make me, or them, unwontedly vulnerable.”

Here, have a look at an example: “The Ten Most Brutally Honest Songwriters.” These songwriters are disclosing personal details, talking about things one simply doesn’t normally talk about.

Well, heck. One doesn’t normally sing, either.

I don’t doubt that many songwriters who are praised for honesty really are being truthful about details of their lives and feelings. But, in general, how do we know? How do we know that they’re telling the truth and not just making up things for better effect? They’re performers, and the point of performance is not what you feel, it’s what your audience feels.

Which is why the saying goes, “The most important thing is honesty. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” (Actually, there are many different versions of the saying; Quote Investigator has traced its origins back to actors Celeste Holm and Ed Nelson.) If people could always tell when someone was being honest, life would be different. So different.

There are cases where we can evaluate more surely whether they’re honest. I don’t mean instances where a performer is singing “honestly” about something that can be documented not possibly to have happened. I mean the even more nebulous kind of “honesty,” a kind that was very popular 15 years ago and still shows up: the band sound like they’re recording it in a public washroom while their lead singer unloads a vicious case of diarrhea (and is also suffering from a Biblical bout of catarrh). So true! So like real life! So bare and raw and unprocessed! So unlike, say, Madonna, who is clearly heavily produced in a million-dollar studio!

Except that the Folding Bowels Band (or whoever) is also in a million-dollar studio, processed and produced, but pretending not to be. And, incidentally, is it more honest to expect people to pay for a technically highly competent performance or for one that your neighbour’s shaky adolescent squawks out in the shower? I think you’re making a more honest living – delivering expected quality for money paid – in the former case, though I must admit that if people really (for whatever reason) prefer the trans-tracheal evisceration sound, then yes indeedy, it is more honest to give it to them. De gustibus non est disputandum, eh?

But what, exactly, do we even mean by honest, really? A lot of time it’s in the line of “Dude was on. Dude was onner than anyone else. Dude was onnest!” Id est, it’s a plain term of approbation for a virtuous character or performance. We say it to honour someone. And why not? Honour (or, rather, honor, the Latin original without that dishonest pseudo-classical intrusive u that I, as a Canadian, refuse to relinquish) is the etymon; its derivative honestus (which came to us by way of Middle French) means ‘deserving honour; honourable; fine; top rank; doubleplusgood; meritorious of utmost respect’.

It just happens that we esteem highly – and (whether justifiably or not) associate with people of high station – truthfulness: a correspondence between what the person appears to intend and what the person actually turns out to intend. But we used the word honest as a more general approbation for nearly a century (in the 1300s) before starting to use it specifically to mean ‘truthful; not cheating’, and we still use it sometimes in more general sense to mean ‘respectable’ without specifically referring to lack of deceit.

But here is where we run into an issue with using it for performers – actors, singers, painters (a painting is a performance too, though the movement has stopped before you get to see it), so on. We turn to aesthetic performances in order to connect with things that expand our experience without actually involving us in real-world consequences. We want a vicarious experience, a fantasy. Even if it’s not a fantasy for the performers (as in a documentary), it is one for us, our reflexive responses no more imminently significant than the refreshing fear we feel standing on the glass floor in the CN Tower. We may want to have a sense that what we are seeing truly expands our grasp of the world in some way and doesn’t just comfort us – that it’s honest and not escapist – but our experience of it is not more honest, in the sense we think of today, than a roller coaster is an honest experience of a car crash.

We want well-faked honesty. We want not honest but Heston, a great thundering Moses leading us across the gap in a rearing Red Sea between our enslavement in reality and the promised land of truer (but non-damaging) understanding and experience. We want a performance that is honest only in that it delivers to us what we are paying for: a stirring deception.