Monthly Archives: October 2015

Do you do tai chi on Halloween in Hawaii?

My latest article for The Week deals with the tricky question above – and whether it should be “Do you do t’ai chi on Hallowe’en in Hawai‘i?”

The wacky world of apostrophes, explained


Be on the ball with the origins of phrases

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

My topic today may seem a bit ribald, but I’m sure you’ll have a ball with it. It’s about monkey business with the origins of phrases, and how to make sure you stay on the ball and don’t hit a wall.

People love stories about the origins of words and phrases, but many of them are rather dodgy. A good general rule is: Look it up — on a reliable site such as or But if you don’t have immediate access to the web, or the phrase in question isn’t covered on the trustworthy sites, you can still apply a little real-world knowledge to estimate its trustworthiness.

Let’s start with two examples: cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey and balls to the wall. Those might seem rather off-colour, but popular accounts of their origins proclaim them both to be innocent. Let’s try applying our good sense to them.

For the brass monkey, the story often passed around is that on battleships, cannon balls were piled in pyramids on brass plates called monkeys, and when the weather got really cold, the differential shrinkage between the iron balls and the brass plate would cause the balls to dislodge.

For the wall, the story is that the balls in question are the two balls on a fighter pilot’s control sticks and the wall is the firewall between the pilot and the front of the plane — so balls to the wall means with the accelerator control and the ascend/descend control fully forward, putting you in a high-speed attack dive.

What do you think of the monkey story? It sounds convincing — don’t you remember something on a ship being called a “monkey,” and don’t metals shrink by different amounts with the cold? If you dwell on those, you might not stop to think about how steady the deck of a battleship isn’t. Really, balls piled in pyramids on a vessel where dishes slide off tables and shelves if they’re not held in place? And how much is that shrinkage, by the way? Do you have brass fixtures on your door? Do they shrink enough to pull on the screws or wood?

In fact, cannon balls were held in wooden frames so they wouldn’t roll all over. The “monkeys” on ships were “powder monkeys,” boys who carried charges. And a quick look online will tell you that the shrinkage rates of iron and brass are nearly identical — less than a millimetre per metre. As to the expression, earlier versions included references to freezing the tail off a brass monkey and being hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey. So the supposed “innocent” origin doesn’t pass the test — those are real monkey testes.

How about the pilots? What do those joysticks look like? If you recall that, sometimes at least, there’s a ball on each … you’re right. You’d be justified in reserving judgment on this one, because it’s so tidy, but the truth is that it’s correct: it came from fighter pilots in Korea and Vietnam. So that means it isn’t a crude reference? Heh. Please. These are military men. You can feel sure the double entendre was intended.

The army and the navy are often credited with popular turns of phrase. As we have seen, the credit is sometimes due and sometimes not. Another case where it is not due is on the ball. As you may know, at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich there is a red ball that is raised just before 1:00 pm each day and dropped exactly on the hour. It is bruited about that sailors who held fast to this time were said to be on the ball. It may seem reasonable enough; sailors did in fact need to use it to make sure their chronometers were accurate. But the historical record doesn’t support it. The phrase first showed up associated with baseball. Ah, yes, sports: a third field often credited — sometimes rightly — with the origins of phrases.

If that time ball sounds like an old acquaintance not to be forgot, then you are surely thinking of the one used in Times Square at New Year. Time balls for giving the hour to those at a distance were common in the 1800s, but their modern survival is mainly ceremonial, now most often associated with parties. Such as New Year’s balls? Well, yes, but that kind of ball — which we see also in have a ball (and yes, that’s where that phrase comes from) — may have music, but it does not require spheres. It comes from Latin ballare, “dance,” which we see in modern Spanish bailar, among others. A quick look in an etymological dictionary will tell you that.

And so we see you can truly have a ball with etymology — and, with good research, you can have another one, too.


I wasn’t going to do another one from the bookshelf tonight – one a week is enough. But sometimes enough is not enow, and one who floats on the waves of words and images must live in the now. And so, in my jammies, with a glass of wine, on the carpet of my library, I pull from the shelf a book as yellow and foxy in the pages as the library lighting.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in Edward Fitzgerald’s famous English translation, with illustrations by Edmund Dulac.

Look at these lovely pictures, each on its own separate plate complete with onionskin veil to protect it.

The yearning lass looks rather like Meryl Davis, methinks.

I don’t think that’s Charlie White.

No, these are paintings of Persian love and longing, in a European vision. But their European provenance does not make them un-Persian. The poetry, at least, is part of the Persian dispersion. It is a volume of ruba’iyat, which is the plural of ruba’i. The ruba’i is a Persian quatrain form. The rules are that lines 1, 2, and 4 must rhyme, and that the fourth line must be a high, strong, deep completion of the meaning. There is also expected meter. Fitzgerald has gamely preserved the poetic form in his translation. Number XI is a poem that may seem familiar.

Does it seem familiar yet somehow not right? Let us try that again.

The volume I own, you see, contains editions 1 and 2 of Fitzgerald’s translation. The second edition is different from the first – a whole new essay at the matter, even renumbered. Apparently one was not enough. Are two enow?


That is a precious word, isn’t it? Simply a rhyming mutation of enough?

In fact not. Enow, Doctor Johnson explained to us, is the plural of enough.

Does that seem a strange thing to say? In the modern time, it may well, but English words used to have much more thorough sets of inflection. Old English genog became, over time, singular genoh but plural genoge, and those grew to Modern English enough and enow. (It makes more sense if you know that the g’s were fricatives or glides, not stops, and the h was pronounced.)

But in Modern English, once we have learned that one is enough, we take it at its word and stop, and never discover that two are enow.

Remember that, now, the next time someone tells you enough is enough. It may be so, but enow are enow, and two are better than one – especially with that bread, that flask of wine, and that book of verse.

And so there you are. There art thou. There are we. Here we are. Enow. And now?


It’s time for another episode of “from the bookshelf.” But it’s late – I’ve spent the day at a linguistics conference – and I need to be expeditious. So I will quickly pull this volume from the shelf.

I received it for some birthday in my youth, I think. It’s full of Canadian classics, of course. Robert Service was the plucky poet of the Klondike, and there are at least two poems by him that Canadian schoolchildren cannot escape reading (or at least that used to be the case; I can’t say whether it still is). One of them is “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” The other one is this.

“The Cremation of Sam McGee” is such an essential of the well-read Canadian mind that I once did a quick parody of it on the easy assumption that all of my readers (Canadian editors) would know it in an instance. And I wasn’t wrong.

There is one word I think of in an eyeblink whenever I think of this poem. It’s a word I first saw in this poem, and have read altogether not thrice, not twice, but just that once – or in just that one place, however often returned to. And yet its sense was, by context, immediately grasped.


It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”

The “it” is a boat, a derelict as Service calls it. Service says he saw in a trice – a slice of the eye in time, a trick, a quick instant, a moment without trace.

Very well. But what is a trice?

Trice was, first of all, a verb, borrowed from a Middle Dutch word meaning ‘haul’. In Middle English it got the sense ‘pull quickly’, ‘pluck’, ‘draw suddenly’. Its first sighting is in Chaucer. Now when it’s used at all as a verb it means ‘pull or haul with a rope’, but don’t count on anyone knowing it.

But that verb came to be converted to a noun, first in the phrase at a trice – as though saying ‘at a hoist’ or ‘at a pluck’ – and thereafter in a trice. It has a long history of use, threading through Shakespeare and Charlotte Brontë. But, at least if you’re Canadian, the telos of all that was its spotlight flash in Robert Service, and all uses since then refer back to that one trace. Now you read it, and in the same second you grasp it; and now it is forever a mirror of that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge.


This is the time of year when the green leaves.

When the green leaves what? The leaves.

It’s the time of year when the green leaves the leaves, and what is left is – well, that depends on where you are, what the tree looks like, and what the weather has been like. But if it’s the right trees and the right weather and you’re in the right part of the country, you are in for a treat: rather than a wan yellow, the leaves the green has left come to be a bright red. They are dying and dead, of course, but they go in a blaze of glory and finally leave dry piles of browning red on the forest floor and parking lots.

Those red leaves owe their colour to something named for blue flowers: anthocyanin. Unlike the yellow, which is what was there behind the green all the time – the yellows are xanthophylls and beta-carotene, and the green is chlorophyll – the red anthocyanin is added: it’s synthesized once about half the chlorophyll is gone. But anthocyanin is a multi-purpose pigment. Just as the same song may show up as bubblegum pop, grunge, symphonic metal, or new country depending on the production values, instrumental arrangement, and accent of the singer, so the anthocyanin shows up as blue, purple, or red depending on the pH level – the acidity. Indeed, you can use it to tell the acidity of a solution, from red at the most acidic, through pink and purple and blue and then green to yellow at the most basic. But it gets its name from a colour in the middle, and from being used in flowers as well as leaves.

You may or may not recognize the anth, from anthos ἄνθος ‘flower’; it shows up in anthurium (a kind of flower) and, yes, anthology, a collection of flowers of verse (and now prose). It is not related to the anthro in anthropology et cetera; that is to do with humans. The cyan should be familiar. It names a kind of blue colour, and it also shows up in cyanide, which gets its name from cyanogen, which was so named for its presence in Prussian blue. It is a convenient coincidence that cyanides are radicals made up of a C and an N, carbon and nitrogen; the CN is reminiscent of cyan. But the name comes from that Greek blue, kuanos κύανος, run through Latin with cy for the κύ.

Cyanide can leave your lips – or those of any anthropos – blue with death. But anthocyanin, chemically unrelated, leaves leaves red with dying. Such a beautiful passing, and not really a death, anyway, merely an exfoliation: the trees persist and will re-green in the spring. (You can read more about what happens and why on Science Daily.)


The three items in this photograph have something in common.

Yes, yes, they all have glass and yes, they can all help you to see things from a more interesting vantage. But that’s not what I’m on about.

They’re all vintage.

Granted, one of them is from about 1954, one is from 1976, and one is from 2013. But all three may be called vintage in the right context. In fact, two of them are far more likely to be called vintage more often by more people in more places. The third one actually is made from a vintage.

A vintage is, first of all, a grape harvest. That is what Latin vindemia means, which became French vendange, which became English vendage, which became vintage under the influence of vinter ‘wine merchant’ (from Latin vinatarius, from vinum ‘wine’; it has now with age gained an n to become vintner).

Some wines are made from juice blended from several years of harvest, just to even things out and use some of the better stuff to make the worse stuff more drinkable (because you lose money if you just pour the worse stuff back in the dirt). Other wines are made from the grapes from a single harvest in a single year. It may be all one kind of grape, or it may be several kinds, even from several different vineyards, but if it’s all from the same harvest – the autumn of the same year – it’s one vintage, and you can put that on the bottle so people know which vintage.

The vintage year matters because for any given area (and producer) the wines are better in some years and worse in others. It also matters because different wines age at different rates. Wines are like people in several ways, and one way is that some of them have their glory days early and then get pretty unpleasant after that, while others are not so great for a long time (though a discerning person can usually identify a promise of the future) but then become glorious. Some have longer glorious periods; others, shorter. The sweet ones often last longer but, unless they’re rich, are seldom held in as high esteem as the more demanding ones. Some, of course, are bad at the start and don’t really get any better. And less discerning people will sometimes hang onto one for a long time thinking it will be great, only to discover at length that even its salad days are over and it’s hardly fit for removing paint. The same is true with wines.

But they’re all vintage, every one that was made with grapes from just one year, be they red, white, or pink. However, as we hear in such places as Sinatra’s “A Very Good Year,” fine vintage wines is a common phrase (or, as Sinatra sings it, “vintage wines from fine old kegs”), and because the best vintage wines are made to be consumed many years thence (the best Bordeaux and Burgundy may peak after decades, while most other quality wines peak within ten years), the common line of thought is that vintage connotes ‘old’ and ‘quality’. (Also, because red wines are more typically made for greater aging, we usually think of red when we think vintage.)

And so vintage has come to be used for other things that are old and, one hopes, of quality. Especially things from a specific identifiable year – cars seem to have been the first non-wine things called vintage; there were already “vintage” automobiles in 1928 (!) – but, increasingly, anything old and desirable is open to being called vintage. Or, for that matter, any old thing at all if the person wants you to think of it as desirable, and to pay more for it. It’s like antique: a word for old stuff that you’re supposed to think is worth a lot more for its antiquity.

Actually, it’s kind of overused in that sense, and, frankly, I’m more than bored with it. As much as I like cameras old and new, I could happily go through the rest of my life seeing old cameras called old cameras and not vintage cameras. You can count on my avoiding using it in that sense.

But you can also count on my not telling you that that sense is wrong. It’s well established, understood by everyone, and it takes part in a very common process of semantic broadening through association and figurative usage. You don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to use it, but you don’t get to say it’s wrong. It’s been used for that sense for almost a century. By its own definition, it is a vintage definition.

Well, hey, not everything that is vintage is good. We may like to think we all get better with age, but some old things are not better for it.

And, on the other hand, not all that is not vintage is bad. Obviously with things such as binoculars and cameras the new is expected to have a measure of functional superiority, even if it lacks charm and “authenticity” (whatever that is) and nostalgia. But even with wine, just because it’s not a vintage wine doesn’t mean it’s undrinkable. OK, yes, with most wines, non-vintage wines fall into that faint-praise-damnation bracket called “easy drinking” (or else they’re “plonk”). But among champagnes and other sparkling wines, non-vintage is standard. Vintage is uncommon. Expensive and highly valued, yes (because they’ll only make it if there’s an exceptional year; otherwise it all goes in the blend), but uncommon and not necessary for quality. I’ll happily have a glass – or a bottle – of “N.V.” champagne any day. Especially a day that merits any sort of celebration (such as celebrating having a bottle of champagne on hand). And hey, best to drink it before it (and you) gets any older.


Look at this beautiful little cube. Its lines are almost clean; there are just a few irregularities. It could be a thing of beauty or a thing of use.

Or it could be an irritation. Those sharp edges, digging into soft, tender surfaces. Put it in the wrong place and it can be quite uncomfortable. It is small, but it may seem rather larger in contact with sensitive parts. It can be the sort of thing you may want protection from.

Let us call it a mote.

Mote is a word you may or might not be familiar with. If you are, it is likely from the King James Bible – Matthew 7:3, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” – or from some cultural reference to that passage, such as the science fiction novel The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Which does not exactly tell you what a mote is. It’s something that gets into your eye, yes, but… OK, it’s a speck of dust, a grain of sand, some tiny but noticeable particle. The point Jesus is making in the famous line – typically translated in more modern versions with speck – is that one ought not to counsel others on their small faults when one has much larger ones of one’s own (a beam – or, in some modern versions, a log!).

Is mote related to mite? They’re both small things, but it is not, though they both come from old Germanic words. Mote seems like a word for a larger thing, though, doesn’t it? That o tends to go with big, round, heavy things, while i is more common with small things (this isn’t universal, of course, but it’s enough of a tendency that we tend to form expectations of unfamiliar words on this basis). There is a larger thing called a mote: a mound, hill, embankment, or similar natural feature or man-made fortification; the word comes from Latin mota. It just happens that the ‘fortification’ sense was extended to a ditch, sometimes filled with water, and that version is now respelled as moat. It sounds the same, of course. Such is English; so be it. So mote it be.

That’s the other at least modestly current mote: an auxiliary verb meaning ‘may, be permitted to, have the opportunity to’. It has a more archaic and lofty flavour now than may, and it also has fewer uses. “So may it be” or “It may be so” can express doubt or evaluation; “Let it be so” is effectively a third-person imperative. “So mote it be” is (especially in some ceremonial uses, for example in Freemasonry) an equivalent for Amen (which, by the way, does not actually mean ‘OK, that’s the end’). “As mote be” – for example, in “As wicked a person as mote be” – means ‘as could exist’. The Germanic root has grown into Dutch moeten and German müssen, which translate back into English as ‘must’: a command. But mote is a permission, a possibility. Quite the opposite of the obstacle or irritant presented by the other two senses.

Which takes us back to our pretty little cube, a thing of beauty or irritation, of help or harm. How small is it? I have nudged a Canadian nickel (5-cent piece, for my international readers) next to it for comparison:

And yet if you get that in your eye, it could hurt.

Briefly. This cube is a grain of not sand but salt: a good thing as long as it is in the right place and the right quantity. Put it in a moist place such as your eye and it will dissolve soon enough and run away in tears.

So mote it be.