Monthly Archives: October 2015


In front of the building in which I work is a well-tended bed of plants, nicely coiffed in its long box bordered with metal cladding. Some are prairie grasses. Others are hardy, enthusiastic eruptions of spearmint-like leaves with tiny flowers toned in that purple that theatre lighting technicians know as “surprise pink” (also, less officially, “FM pink,” and the FM does not stand for frequency modulation but is a reference to how attractive it makes the complexion). On my way in and out of the building, passing them at eye level as I walk on the small pavers before the boxes, I find them anodyne or at least analgesic, and in some ways positively inspiring. Such little pops of prettiness, purple spurs daring the suburban cityscape… no discarded coffee cup can conquer.

However, I suck at knowing plant names. Plants don’t care about their names, so why should I? I know them by sight. I know words well enough to know their limitations (a picture is not worth a thousand words; there is no exchange rate – besides, for any word in the language I could find a thousand pictures). But every so often I find that I want at least to know what people call something (see parthenocissus). And so I posted the photo above on Facebook and asked, and Jennifer McIntyre informed me that it is spirea – Japanese spirea, to be precise.

Spirea! Also spelled spiraea. Pronounced /spaɪˈriːə/, which is to say “spy rhea.” One may wonder if it is a synthesis of spy and diarrhea, but that would be spurious. A relation to spiral? Not spurious; they both trace back by way of Latin to Greek σπεῖρα speira ‘coil, twist’. But never mind this mortal coil. These flowers are more of a divine inspiration.

Inspiration? Such a word. Different people find different inspirations in different ways. When I want to write something, I go out looking for inspiration like harpoon-holding Ahab, ready to spear any spermaceti-filled cetacean but confident I will in the end master that one white whale. When I want to take pictures, I don’t expect inspiration at all; I am like a calf-roper, lasso at the ready. But when I want to seek a prophylaxis against improving my context, or simply want to dream about desiderata well beyond my means, then (as likewise for many on Pinterest, apparently) “inspiration” is the order of the day – pretty pictures and plans for things that would take too much effort to gain, but the having of the picture, the “inspiration,” gives me a momentary sensation of the goal, a little pipe dream… an opiate.

As, perhaps, are these flowers. I have said they are analgesic, even anodyne. Could they be narcotic? Likely not – they’re not poppies. But while they lack opium, they do have aspirin. In Canada Aspirin is still a trademark, but in the USA it lost that status during World War II because its owner was Bayer, a German company, and so they lower-case aspirin as the generic term, while in Canada the generic term is ASA, short for acetylsalicylic acid. But do you see a spir in aspirin? It is indeed the same as in spiraea, and the flower name is the source of the drug name. Spirea contain salicylates.

Not that I need to eat these flowers to cure headaches. Just the sight of them and their little purple spurts – first spheres, then spears – eases the blood, sweat, and tears. Sometimes it’s the small things that make the difference. And these spirea are small. Yet they can aspire to greatness.


I have had good response to the first instalment of from the bookshelf, so I will do another today. I don’t intend to make it a daily thing – it’s more time consuming than a post without pictures – but I won’t run out of books however often I do it.

Today’s book is a time-abused little volume of instruction that came into my possession I know not how (though I think my mother-in-law picked it up at a rummage sale for me). It has seen rain (though not fire) and curious white substances. But it stands proud and confident nonetheless.

Behold Cobbett’s English Grammar, a volume far more sure in its learning than even those far more knowledgeable books piled beneath it. Ah, grammar: one of those fields, like painting and sartorial fashion, in which many people feel that the confidence of their opinion is the surest index of their rightness, and they just make things up on the basis of their own felt discernment – and publish them (caveat emptor). Grammar is like feces unto the flies of prescription: people who believe that we must have rules are naturally drawn to it and impose rules willy-nilly, brooking no question or opposition, giving no quarter.

And of course they seek to impress those rules on the still-curing cement of young minds, to pre-empt any grammatical libertinism that could take hold. Flip this book open and the very first page you see – before even the title page – is this:

Whoever this Harry Martin was, he was a dab hand with a pen. We can see that this book was set to brand its rules on his brain fully an eighth of a millennium ago, and on the far side of the Atlantic: the Thomas Rawlins Grammar School in Quorn, Leicestershire.

Here is the title page:

This book is, as I say, very confident in its prescriptions. It is no respecter of persons; however great they may be, if they do not meet the standards of the author, they are given no courtesies, as you will see from the table of contents:

Doctor Johnson, the king, various other statesmen: all guilty of “false grammar” and “errors and nonsense.”

Would you let a creature such as this slip his crusty avuncular arm in its shiny sleeve around the shoulders of your impressionable offspring today? But this is just his approach. The book is written as a series of letters to his fourteen-year-old son, James. You will see that the letters are dated beginning 1817, a full human lifetime before this volume was entrusted to the instruction of master Harry Martin.

Why is he writing letters to his son? He is on Long Island, New York. What on earth for? The footnote is instructive: “In March, 1817, Cobbett fled from England to the United States, partly influenced by political reasons, and partly, no doubt, by the fact that he had contracted debts in England to the amount of £34,000.”

£34,000 is a fair chunk of change even today. But a debt of that size at that time would be equivalent to almost exactly one million pounds in 2015 spending power. A million pounds! What did Mister Cobbett do with that? I’ll tell you what I think he did: poured it into his book. Every reader of this work is weighed down with a million pounds of high-handed prescription, of which not a featherweight is honest linguistic research and understanding. (He doesn’t even use the term etymology correctly.) And Harry Martin made notes and underlinings in the book, giving thereby at least the impression of heeding its admonitions.

I am confident that Cobbett was as conscientious and scrupulous in matters of learning as he was in matters of finance. He may have brooked no idleness or shortcuts, but he was apparently quite fine with deciding things without considering that they may not be true.

There are so many words in this book. Which one shall I taste? Well, you know already; it’s at the top of this article. On what page do I find it? I find it in a speech by Lord Castlereagh reproduced on page 150.

The sentence is long, but here is the part of it with which we are concerned: “there is reason to foresee that French ship-owners might be induced to renew the Slave Trade, under the supposition of the peremptory and total abolition decreed by Napoleon Bonaparte having ceased with his power…”

Mister Cobbett does not like this. He does not like the speech at all. He states no position regarding the slave trade; it is a mere trifle in the face of such terrible writing. He presents his own revision of this unintelligibly obscure speech, including this revised passage: “there is reason to apprehend that the French ship-owners may be induced to renew the Slave Trade, from a supposition that the total abolition recently decreed by Napoleon, has been nullified by the cessation of his authority…”

If you think his version is worse than the original, well, so do I. But Cobbett is a man on a mission. He picks the speech apart sternly, mercilessly, decisively, conclusively.

“If the abolition were total, what had peremptory to do there? Could it be more than total?” Well. Is that what peremptory means? It’s not a word we often use. What is peremptory?

This book and its author, that’s what. Peremptory comes from Latin perimere ‘kill, destroy’, which in turn comes from per ‘thoroughly’ and emere ‘take’. That same emere later came to mean ‘buy’ and shows up in caveat emptor and pre-empt. (It is not related to emetic, which comes from Greek ἐμεῖν emein ‘vomit’, but in a case such as this there may be some concinnity.) That which is peremptory takes a merciless attitude: slaughter and scorched earth. Decisive, conclusive, fixed, dogmatic, intolerant of other positions, hyperconfident.

So peremptory would not mean more than total. It could seem to be redundant with total, at least until you stop to think that a person may peremptorily declare a partial ban: “The slave trade shall be limited to [place X] and [persons Y], and all others shall be punished without mercy.”

If you were Napoleon, you could make such a decree and expect it to be enforced. If, on the other hand, you simply had a Napoleon complex, you might make your pronouncement emptily. Well, you could enlist a children’s crusade, perhaps, and these children, some at least, could grow to have brains as desiccated and obdurate as yours – mistaking the wizened for the wise – and pass the instruction to the next generation.

Peremptory is an important-sounding word, proud with its p’s, conservative with its tory. It may describe good things, such as abolition of slaving, or bad things, such as, well, books like this. But this is a nice volume to have for historical interest and entertainment. The paper is soft and still resilient, though it is clearly wood pulp and not quality linen bond. I do not know what the type face is; there is no colophon. But I have noticed – have you? – that there are wide spaces after the periods. They would probably create what designers call “white acne” on the page… if the sentences weren’t several lines long each. I don’t like those big spaces. But that’s a hot topic for another time.


I’m going to try a special feature every so often, at least if people like it. It’s called from the bookshelf. I’ll take a book off the shelf and find a word in it to taste, and add some bibliotechnical cheesecake shots while I’m at it.

I’m going to start with one of my most alluring volumes, part of a two-volume set of Paradise Lost that I saved from perdition at Tufts University two decades ago (it was part of a bequest but was not needed and, frankly, would not have survived in a circulating collection).

It has illustrations by John Martin and was published in London by Septimus Prowett in 1827.

It has the dusty-honey smell of an old book, with those age spots called foxing. Open it carefully; the binding is falling apart, though the pages are still strong. It is tempting to think of it as like a smudged old window, the glass rippling, the view obscured. But the words on the page are there as plain as any day, and when you can read them you can see with the clarity of the mind’s eye into the world it describes.

Let us turn to page… 27. O look, they put spaces before colons and semicolons and exclamation points! And larger spaces after them and – is it? – a double space after a period. Double at least. A space as wide as the sea and more transparent.

The sea? The glassy sea. Line 619: “On the clear hyaline, the glassy sea”… We have our word: hyaline. A word that rhymes with violin. What note does it play?

Is the glassy sea the hyaline? Is it then the high line? It is haline – salty, that is. It may be healing, but it may consume you. Not this sea, though, this glassy sea, this clear hyaline. It is as smooth as water in a glass, and as clear as a looking-glass. It may even reflect.

Which would be why we see the sense and then the same sense again. Hyaline, you see, comes to us from Latin hyalinus, which (as the y should tell you) is a loan from Greek, where the original root is ὕελος huelos ‘glass, crystal’ – a word that Greek may have gotten from Egyptian. A word, then, that has sailed on the Mediterranean, smooth or rough, more than once.

Glass and glass again. Elegant variation, ramified repetition. Use of a fine and pricey word, and then explanation of it with plainer stock. And that poetic trick of taking an adjective and using it as a substantive noun. Milton was not the only to use hyaline this way, though perhaps the first, but its longer and fuller history in English is as an adjective. It means, as the OED says, “Resembling glass, transparent as glass, glassy, crystalline, vitreous.”

Transparent not as the pages of a book, nor as an old and foxy word that requires looking up, but as plain text that, once read, shines an image into your mind. Or as a camera lens, letting the image pass through and be recorded to be re-presented to your own eyes, with their lenses and their vitreous fluid. And, so launched, it sails on them.


Look at this word. Read it. Try to say it. Ask yourself whether it’s five syllables – /kɛljuːzˈmætɪklɪ/ – or six – /kɛljuːzˈmætɪkəlɪ/ – or even seven – /kɛliuːzˈmætɪkəlɪ/. Decide, correctly, that it is most properly six but, honestly, if you’re ever going to say it, really five or at best five and a half (a long /l/ as in /kɛljuːzˈmætɪklːɪ/ is less than a syllable but more than not a syllable). Question whether your command of it will ever be such that you would use it. Wonder whether it will ever be imperative that you do so.

Wonder where this word comes from. Look it up, either in the Oxford English Dictionary or, if you don’t have that, right here in this article you’re reading right now. Find that it’s an Anglicization of Greek κελευσματικῶς plus the adverbial –ally ending. Find that that in turn comes from κελεύειν, which is a verb meaning ‘order’. Conclude that this is a fancy word meaning ‘as an imperative’ or ‘in the form of an imperative’ or just ‘imperatively’.

Muse. Ponder this word. Think about how it seems like keloid (a kind of cicatrix) and Kelita (a kind of singer), and decide that you would rather order up the latter than the former. Reflect further that it has a taste of charismatically, and decide that it would be helpful to be charismatic if you are going to be keleusmatic. Also not to be asthmatic.

Look in your wallet and wonder if you can afford this word, which is clearly not some stock five-dollar word. Wonder if it appears anywhere other than the OED, and chuckle as you think of it showing up in Urban Dictionary, that hotbed of crude slang and fourteen-year-old-boy definitions.

Find it in Urban Dictionary, complete with a definition that uses vulgarity.

Think about how it is odd to have such a long word referring to the imperative, which is generally by dint of circumstance a clipped form.

Use it anyway that one time you have a chance and remember it. Keep it on your lexical trinket shelf until then.