Monthly Archives: September 2015


A scene utterly ridden with (as opposed to rid of) flowers, or having that general sense or quality literally or metaphorically, is called florid. What about when there aren’t many flowers but there are a whole lot of leaves and other green things?

Well, yes, there’s verdant, which is a fervent-sounding word, faintly suggesting vermin but generally with more verve and offering something covered and dancing with green, perhaps in Vernon, BC, or some place yet to be discovered. But verdant is a Latinate word, with that open-shirted v and all that. How about something Greek-derived? And to rhyme with florid?

What’s the Greek root for ‘green’? You see it in chlorophyll, which is formed from χλωρός khlóros ‘green’ and ϕύλλον fullon ‘leaf’ (note how Latin transliterated the Greek differently from how we tend to today). Yes, that chlor that also shows up in chlorine. Does it sound unpleasant? We may have bad associations with it, thanks to Clorox. But it has two lovely liquids – /l/ and /r/ – and that velar fricative in the original, so often written as ch in Gaelic and German and other languages, and when you hear it in Irish Gaelic, the language of the Emerald Isle, it sure doesn’t sound so horrid. Not that Irish uses a chlor word for ‘green’; actually, the Irish word is glas, which can also mean ‘grey’. Yes, in Ireland green and grey are thought of as the same colour. From what I’ve heard (and pictures I’ve seen), this makes sense: grey shades into green there. And many other places too.

But that is a digression. The word we are looking for is obviously chlorid. As in “I walked into a concrete-walled room dripping with mist and overgrown with plants but few flowers; it was not arid or frigid but humid and vivid, suitable for annelids and aphids and triffids, and probably also orchids, but it was not florid, simply pervasively and irrepressibly chlorid.”

But is this a word? A real word? Well, I can’t swear that anyone would understand it were you to use it. Not so many people know the sense of the chlor root. But it has been used and is in a dictionary. A dictionary: the Oxford English Dictionary. With one citation, from 1822. And that citation appears to refer to complexion or skin tint.

So a person might say “You’re looking a little greenish, lad. Positively chlorid, in fact.” Sure, that would work. But I can think of no especially good reason not to take this word made of known parts and press it into service for other green-hued things if we want. As long as we don’t mind that many readers will think it a typo for chloride and will come to a variety of inferential misadventures on that basis.

Still. Why not have another special secret word for verdant? With a different flavour and tone? A word like a special room full of green plants and rain hidden in a brutalist building?

R u OK w Hillary’s emails?

The release of emails to and from Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state has provided much interest and entertainment. One thing that caught my eye immediately was the use of abbreviated forms such as thx, pls, w, and especially u. So I wrote an article for The Week about it (I didn’t give it the title, though):

Hillary Clinton, and the surprising history of elder statesmen writing like tweens



This article first appeared in Active Voice, the national newsletter of Editors Canada.

What’s English for Schadenfreude? Schadenfreude, of course.

Words are like Barbie dolls or trading cards or Hummel figurines or camera lenses or kitchen gadgets: if we see one that fills a spot that we don’t already have filled, we want it. Even if we didn’t know we needed to fill that spot until we saw the word.

This is surely one reason listicles about “untranslatable words” are currently popular. Perhaps you never thought before about wanting a word that means “the look on a person’s face as they watch the person ahead of them at a bakery take the last one of the pastry they wanted,” but once you see a word for it, goshdarn it, you have to have it.*

The funny thing about those articles on untranslatable words is that they always give translations for the words. And not just “Schadenfreude (n.): Schadenfreude,” either, but “Enjoyment of someone else’s suffering.” So, really, the words aren’t untranslatable, are they? Not any more than anything else is. There just isn’t a single word for them.

Actually, if you want a really untranslatable word, try a preposition. How about French à? Does that mean “to”? Hmm. In C’est à moi? In J’habite à Montréal? In poulet à la crème? You can’t come up with a single equivalent word for any preposition, because different languages always use them in different ways. And yet within the sentence you can always translate them, as much as you can translate anything else.

But the dirty secret of translation is that you can’t really translate anything else either.

You can only come sufficiently close in the context of the text and your culture. And sometimes barely even sufficiently. Every word has different overtones and associations and references for different cultures – and for different sets of people (and even for each different individual) within a culture. It has different phrases it typically shows up with, different places it’s been heard, different rhymes, different sets of things it has been used to refer to commonly. And there are different attitudes towards what it refers to.

The idea of a purely accurate translation is like the idea of a truly authentic culinary experience from another culture. Say you want an authentic Thai curry. You go to a Thai restaurant. But they’re using Canadian-grown ingredients. So you go where they have imported Thai ingredients. But you’re still in a Canadian restaurant. So you go to Thailand. Ah. But you’re still… a Canadian in Thailand. You didn’t grow up eating Thai food. Look, imagine a person from another country (maybe Namibia or Vanuatu) eating fruitcake or roast turkey or tuna casserole for the first time. There is no way their experience of it is going to be like yours. You just have to accept that. Cultural experiences are not truly fully translatable. And language is a cultural experience.

Of course, there are many things that are purely functional, and the cultural accretions are quite incidental. “Push to open.” “Tear here.” No problem there; cultural attitudes towards pushing and tearing can be treated as separate issues. That lulls us into thinking that accurate translation is possible.

But even there, we’re taking tone and connotation for granted. Why doesn’t the packet say “Rip here”? Why doesn’t the door say “Shove to open”? And once we get even a little farther from the purely mechanical, judgment calls are a regular thing. Send the same document, even on a technical subject, to two different translators and you will get two different renditions, each with its merits and detractions. And if you get into fiction or plays or – the worst – poetry, you’re really just getting a sort of harmonic resonance of the original, on a different instrument.

Consider this:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

The famous first stanza of Dante’s Divina Commedia. Lovely, flavourful Italian. Here’s Robert Pinsky’s version:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

Here’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Here’s Courtney Langdon’s:

When half way through the journey of our life
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
because the path which led aright was lost.

Right road? Straightforward pathway? Path which led aright? Wood, woods, forest? Dark, gloomy? Midway, half way?

This is why Italians say traduttore traditore. Which has been translated “to translate is to betray.” But really I think it’s better rendered as “Translator? Traitor.”


*Oh, you want a word for that? How about discrescent? Or pain-déçu? I know: bedrøvet. That’s the Danish version of “sad.”


Every morning on my way to work, I pass a fence entirely overgrown with a very vigorous vine. The fence is a standard-issue chain-link fence; on the other side of it is a broad green expanse, a playing field with soccer goals and such like, and reigning over it are power lines.

There are also trees next to the fence. The vine climbs on them too.

As you can see, the vine has berries on it, pretty blue berries on anfractuous red stems.

For whatever reason, as much as I love words, and as much as I love trees and plants and such things, I seldom know the names of the plants I so enjoy being surrounded by. Perhaps it’s because I know they won’t come when I call them. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never had to buy or sell or otherwise manage them. Perhaps it’s because I know the limits of words. A picture is not worth a thousand words; in fact, there is no exchange rate. (And anyway, if there were, the values of pictures and words vary widely. An article I write for a site such as or will net me a cheque with which I could buy art, but not very big or expensive art. I am rarely paid for my photos, but that’s because they’re rarely used by anyone other than me.)

But I was curious, finally, about this plant. What are these berries? Are they edible? I set to finding out.

They’re not blueberries, of course; I could see that well enough. And they’re not really edible either. As it turns out, they contain oxalic acid, and while eating a few of them is unlikely to cause you lasting harm, you will almost certainly wish you hadn’t. Birds, on the other hand, have no problem with them, it seems. And they are a right feast for the eyes.

The common name of this vine is Virginia creeper. I can’t say I much care for that name. It’s misleading, given that we are not in Virginia here (and the plant’s native range covers a huge expanse of North America), and it’s, erm, creepy. It sounds like the nickname of a serial killer.

Fortunately, like all plants, it also has a Latin name: Parthenocissus quinquefolia, or just Parthenocissus for short. The genus Parthenocissus comprises 12 species, but this one is the flagship species, it seems, so we can use just the first word on it if we want.

Do you like this word, Parthenocissus? It sounds like a combination of Parthenon and narcissus, doesn’t it? The one is a classic marble structure, now thought of as pure white though it may have been brightly painted in its heyday, and the other is a flower and the self-regarding mythological Greek who was supposedly transmuted into it.

Parthenocissus means ‘virgin ivy’. The parthen part is the same as in Parthenon, which was dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena. The cissus is a Latinization of Greek kissos ‘ivy’. I supposed parthenokissos would seem like a kiss from a virgin. Is parthenocissus a self-regarding virgin? And, on the other hand, does narcissus mean ‘sleepy ivy’, from the narc ‘sleep’ root plus cissus?

It seems not. The origins of narcissus are unclear but are probably from a loanword into Greek. It’s not related to ivy, anyway. As to the parthenocissus, it’s obviously fecund, but it may have gotten the “virgin” name from its ability to form seeds without pollination. Or it may have gotten it from being Virginia creeper. Virginia is named after the virgin queen, after all (that’s Elizabeth I). Oh, and it may act like ivy, but it’s not very closely related to it. Oh well.

Does it act like a virgin? Well, what ever do virgins act like? 14-year-old boys are not known for modesty but most of them are virgins. But this vine does enforce some modesty, covering as it does buildings, fences, and whatever else it attaches itself to. The long stretch of it that owns the fence along Don Mills Road on my way to work does a good job of shielding Flemingdon Park from the traffic.

Fall is coming, of course. Its leaves will turn and fall, and the berries will be gone as well. But this parthenocissus will still be queen, like Elizabeth I, or goddess, like Athena, of the fence… even if wearing something a little more see-through.


Who is this man in white? A plaintiff, a caitiff, Hiram Abiff? A bailiff, a mastiff, a hippogriff? A sheriff with a tariff for a whiff of spliff? Nope. It’s the pope.

That’s what pontiff means? ‘Pope’? Almost. Pontiff means ‘That’s the pope and I’m a journalist’. Journalists have it hammered into them that they must not say the same word over and over again. “Elegant variation,” y’know? So to avoid saying pope over and over again, they say pontiff over and over again.

It’s like those people who latch onto some counterculture clique so they can be themselves, just like all the other people who are being themselves the same way. I’m put in mind of a writer I worked with once who fancied herself a great journalist – in spite of being neither – who objected to my changing impacted to affected because impacted was her style. Really? That’s your style? You couldn’t find a better one to hitch your wagon to?

Pontiff sounds somehow “official,” like a committee (or like the word committee). It’s newsy. Sort of like temblor, another word that only news story scribblers use, or tawny gourd, a way of avoiding saying pumpkin twice. These words are in a similar register to the announcements the management in my condo building posts in the elevators: “The cleaning of the lobby floors will commence starting Tuesday. Please exercise caution when walking.” Oversized and starchy and not quite the right colour… Pontiff is a tawny gourd of a word.

Where did this word even come from? From Latin pontifex (which is also the Twitter handle of the pope). The generally accepted etymology is from ponti, a combining form of pons ‘bridge’, and fex, a combining form of facere ‘make’. So a pontifex is a bridge-builder, by this account.

But not literally. The term was originally used for any of a variety of high priests. It ultimately came to be narrowed down to the Bishop of Rome – the pope, who is currently Pope Francis. (Note that it’s Pope capitalized as a title, but pope lower-cased as a descriptor.) I’m sure that the press popularity of pontifex has in part to do with its starting with po as pope does. The words aren’t related, though; pope traces back to Greek παπᾶς, papas, which means… “papa.” You know, “daddy.” The pope is a father-figure.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway. Call him pontiff and he sounds more like an official from a committee… someone with double letters in his title. More legal. Legalistic. But especially journalistic.


white ash branches

Life’s paths are fantastical and fractious, following not what line some abstract geometer might limn but carving the segments and curves that present least resistance, most opportunity, or simply the most enticing caprice. We are lightning, that kiss of earth and heaven; we are rivers twisting and carving canyons and cataracts; we are tree branches, turning new ways with each season, trying twigs and tangles in different directions until we have extended ourselves in uncountable angles to gather sun and air. Wherever we are going, we will get there, because where we get is where we were going, but where we point at any point may not be the point at all.

Life is anfractuous.

And anfractuous is life. We start with this soft article an and then, like a snap of a twig, break off with frac; our tu spells “chew” and our ous spells “us.” Who has manufactured this? How does it turn? Is this u an n and this n a u? Is the sinuous s we see simply the broken back view of an a? The word curves and turns and will not take a straight path. It is anfractuous.

It comes from Latin, suitably modified. The an comes from a root meaning ‘about’ or ‘around’ and the fract from one meaning ‘break’ or ‘bend’ – fracture, fraction, infraction, and also frangible. The verb is frangere; its past tense is fractus. How do you get fractus from frangere? You start by saying the g as “g,” not “j.” Then you add the past-tense ending tus, and the t makes the g harden to c. Then all you need do is reduce the n to a nasalization and then to nothing. And how do you get that g to go from “g” to “j” as we say it today? Simply by saying it farther and farther forward in the mouth in anticipation of the e or i until it’s right at the ridge and it breaks away with a little affrication. You see, these strange transformations all take the path of least effort. They seem inevitable in hindsight. They got where they were going because where they got was where they were going.

So we take our paths, we grow out as branches and we become enlightninged, and perhaps our end is the light and perhaps our end is to light – on fire. We grow and grow old like the white ash trees, and perhaps we end as white ashes. But however we may break, we take leaf, and then we take leave, and it all comes around again, breaking and bending, beginning and ending and starting over.

There is one poem I can find that carries the word anfractuous. It also embodies it. It is by T.S. Eliot, who has been ashes long enough that I am safe to reproduce it here:

Sweeney Erect

                   And the trees about me,
Let them be dry and leafless; let the rocks
Groan with continual surges; and behind me,
Make all a desolation. Look, look, wenches!

Paint me a cavernous waste shore
Cast in the unstilled Cyclades,
Paint me the bold anfractuous rocks
Faced by the snarled and yelping seas.

Display me Aeolus above
Reviewing the insurgent gales
Which tangle Ariadne’s hair
And swell with haste the perjured sails.

Morning stirs the feet and hands
(Nausicaa and Polypheme),
Gesture of orang-outang
Rises from the sheets in steam.

This withered root of knots of hair
Slitted below and gashed with eyes,
This oval O cropped out with teeth:
The sickle motion from the thighs

Jackknifes upward at the knees
Then straightens out from heel to hip
Pushing the framework of the bed
And clawing at the pillow slip.

Sweeney addressed full length to shave
Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base,
Knows the female temperament
And wipes the suds around his face.

(The lengthened shadow of a man
Is history, said Emerson
Who had not seen the silhouette
Of Sweeney straddled in the sun).

Tests the razor on his leg
Waiting until the shriek subsides.
The epileptic on the bed
Curves backward, clutching at her sides.

The ladies of the corridor
Find themselves involved, disgraced,
Call witness to their principles
And deprecate the lack of taste

Observing that hysteria
Might easily be misunderstood;
Mrs. Turner intimates
It does the house no sort of good.

But Doris, towelled from the bath,
Enters padding on broad feet,
Bringing sal volatile
And a glass of brandy neat.

Some travel shortcuts

I think it’s time for another poem from my book Songs of Love and Grammar. This is one of a small set that have nothing to do with romantic difficulty – though it does have to do with getting around.

When you’re referring to a couple of geographical features, such as the Bow River and the Elbow River, you can join them together and say the Bow and Elbow rivers, because river can be treated as a descriptive term in this case. If you’re talking about Green Bay and North Bay, you can say Green and North bays if you’re talking about the bays, but it might be misleading to use that when you’re talking about the cities. Some people like to extend this practice to city names, as in Forts Meyers and St. John, but that can get a little dodgy. Or maybe more than a little…

Getting around efficiently

Oh, all the places we have gone –
we’ve seen Forts Myers and St. John;
Green and Thunder Bays were nice,
and Frobisher, though full of ice;
Long and Virginia Beaches – spiffy;
Grand and Cedar Rapids – iffy;
I still recall how we did things
in Hot and Colorado Springs
and Sans Diego and Jose –
oh, yes, and don’t forget ta Fe;
Saints Petersburg and Paul were green,
Dart and Fal mouths were marine;
Ott and Osh awas were cool;
Grands Forks and Rapids, rather cruel;
Cals gary and ifornia, great;
Monts pelier and réal – don’t wait;
Wins dsor and nipeg, give a miss;
Den and Vancou vers, skiers’ bliss;
Columbs us and ia, just fair;
Phoeni and Bron xes – don’t go there;
Moose Jaw and Factory – no way;
Jun and Gatin eaux – OK;
Toes peka, ledo, ronto – yeah;
Men chester and itoba – nah.
Oh, yes, we’ve had the time that was
in Canad and Americ as!


We do so many things by reflex these days, and so seldom pause for reflection. We are too often too likely to view things through a single lens, and not to put them in perspective.

Let us reflect on reflection. The word reflection is formed by derivation (not inflection) from reflect, which comes from Latin re plus flectere ‘bend’: a reflection bends – or bounces – light back. A mirror is, semiotically, as Umberto Eco has explained, a prosthesis, not a sign in itself. Any object that reflects does not contain the image it reflects; what you see in it depends on your position. The reflection of a tower in a pool of water is just your line of sight reflecting to the tower in that position, and seeing the tower scattering light that was scattered onto it from countless molecules of atmosphere and surrounding matter, starting at some point with the sun: a myriad of reflections. That glowing glass building shining with the sun only shines it there for you because your line of sight bounces off it at that point towards the sun. The sun’s rays are bouncing equally off all parts of the building that face it; every square metre is glowing brightly for some eye in some location, but you only see the part that glows for your position. Reflection may lead to illumination, but what is illuminated depends entirely on your personal viewpoint.

Which is your personal perspective, of course. Perspective is simply a geometrical consequence of a single point (an eye or other lens) gathering reflected light from all around, and interpreting the diverging (or converging) lines of sight as parallel. It helps us gain a sense of the relative size of things, but what helps even more is binocular vision: add a second eye and the lines of sight converge slightly differently, and allow depth perception. When we talk about putting things in perspective, we really ought to talk about putting them in parallax.

Parallax is how a rangefinder camera – such as a Leica M-series camera, or the Ricoh that was my first camera – allows the user to focus: you line up two images at the point you want in focus, as your eyes do. On the other hand, an SLR allows through-the-lens focusing: the image bounces off a mirror onto a screen that is the same distance from the lens as the film or sensor, and you see on the screen what is in focus. This is why it’s an SLR: single-lens reflex. Reflex because the light reflects. Off the mirror.

That’s not a joke or a pun; that’s what the word reflex means: bounce-back. Some stimulus affects your nerves; you give a response automatically, like a mirror – or those Newton balls. Tack, tack; tack, tack; tack, tack…

I don’t use an SLR anymore (though I do have one). I don’t usually use a rangefinder camera, either (though I do have one). I use a camera (two of them, in fact) that shows on a screen on the back the image that is striking the sensor. This makes it smaller and lighter – quieter too (the mirror doesn’t have to flip up and down). It also means I don’t have to hold it up to my eye. Which is good because I wear glasses, but also good because when you hold a camera to your eye people react to it: they see your specular act with the prosthetic of the camera and they flinch, or turn away, or stare, or grin senselessly. The act of seeing is presented as not a passive reception but an active taking, and there is a reflex response to that.

When I hold a mirrorless camera at waist or chest level, especially a smallish one, it simply receives; few people take any notice of it. But it is still a prosthetic for my eyes, a single-lensed prosthetic giving me a different perspective from what my eyes see – different because lower, but also because it has a different angle of view, wider or narrower depending on the lens. I see things not just in perspective (as one always does) but from a different perspective. I see reflections – light bounced once or many times from its source or sources (and at night there are so many sources!), objects showing their positions because they reflect not smoothly but roughly, diffusing, scattering the light that comes to them, and shiny objects that do reflect smoothly, letting my position dictate what I see. You must know the position of what is being reflected before you can know with certainty the position of the reflector… unless there are points of opacity and diffusion on the reflector, which will allow your parallax to fix them.

When we pause for reflection, we do so to become more aware of our position and the positions of others. We do it to stop acting by reflex. Which means that, really, we pause for diffusion. And to put things in parallax, or at least to see them through another lens.

The mp clan

My latest for The Week looks at phonaesthetics without ever actually using the word phonaesthetics (I thought readers might glaze over at the technical term). It also looks at an oddity in terms of distribution of sound combinations in English. It is…

The curious linguistic histories of ump, imp, amp, omp, and empt



Some people learn a thing, know it, and act like they know it. They apply the knowledge scrupulously. Others learn a thing and, as soon as they think no one is going to be checking up on them, stop acting like they know it. They do whatever they want and expect others to accommodate them.

My two favourite examples of this split are driving and bibliographic citations. I think we all know that there are many people who stopped paying attention to basic traffic laws the day after they got their licence. Editors – most if not all – know too that there are many university-educated people who must have learned how to do a proper bibliographic reference according to a standard style, but who, the moment they weren’t being graded, stopped caring, even if they’re writing things that require references. They might give the last name and the date and nothing more, or they might just paste in a link. Occasionally an editor will get a gem of the order of “Google search.” The only questions remaining for the editor on such occasions are “How do I clean up the author’s blood and where should I bury his body parts?”

Any user of bibliographic references – a person who actually looks up the works cited (the normal term for this kind of person is “grad student”) – will come to detest the lazy citations Op cit. and perhaps even Ibid., especially if all the bib refs are in footnotes and not in a References section. And yet there is something enviable about such insouciance or chutzpah. An editor who has spent hours tracking down the full details of articles sloppily cited will surely wish she or he could just put “It is known.”

Well, why not? Of course, everything is better in Latin, at least when you’re trying to impress. If you say something in Latin, the ordinary person will ask what you mean, but scholars – the people who would actually bother seeing the bib ref in the first place – may be afraid to admit they don’t know what it means. So I present to you, for use on special occasions, the Latin for “It is known”: Scitur.

Yes, one word: Latin has passive inflection available. Latin conjugations are a wonder. You can even use a third-person future imperative passive: scitor. It’s very difficult to translate into English, but a hack job would be “I command that it come to be known.”

Your next question may be how this word scitur is pronounced. Well. Latin has several different standards. It was a living language for quite a long time, and changed during that time; then it became a semi-living language, an enforced second language for many people with divers first languages; then it came to be taught in schools to pupils who were eager to forget it as soon as they could, and the pronunciations came under the spell of the phonotactic perversities of the first language of the teachers. Add to all this the fact that the i in scitur is long (and so is often written with a line over it in texts). So…

If you want the classical pronunciation, it’s somewhere between “skeeter” and “ski tour.” The c was hard in classical Latin, and the u was like in put.

If you want the vulgate pronunciation, it’s as above but with “she” in place of “ski” – the “sk” before a high front vowel softened to become “sh” (by the way, there was no point at which it was “s-ch”; the change of “k” to “ch” happened at the same time as the change of “sk” to “sh,” not prior to it).

If you want the Mister Chips pronunciation – the pronunciation of the British classicists for centuries up to the early 20th, following the same sound changes as the English language suffered in medieval times – I think it would be “sigh tur.” The i is long, as I said, and the Mister Chips version interprets that as an English “long i,” which is really a diphthong.

You could also go with a modern compromise and say it like “seater.”

Or you could not say it at all. It’s text. Let it speak for itself.

Which reminds me of the other perfect bibliographic citation for lazy people: Res ipsa loquitur. It’s a term used normally in law, but if lawyers can use it, why not scholars too? It actually uses the passive conjugation; a calque would be “[the] thing for itself is spoken.” But idiomatic English is “the thing speaks for itself.”

Yes, yes it does. It is known.