Monthly Archives: November 2015


Doesn’t this look like the name of some Egyptian pharaoh or Babylonian king? Or perhaps some writing left on a wall by a disembodied hand that was a bit too drunk? (If that doesn’t make sense, look up mene mene tekel upharsin.) Or maybe what Neneh Cherry and Pharrell Williams would be called if they got together?

Or it could just be a nice soft word with white shoulders clothed in light linen. It seems pleasing enough. Even French in its way. To me it does, at least, because the first time I noticed it, it was spelled nénuphar. It was on a bottle of liquid hand soap. The French part. (Hey, we’re in Canada here.)

Twice a year, we go to the One-of-a-Kind Craft Show, and we have some favourite booths we stop at (out of the something like 1000 that are there). I like Peppermaster, for instance – I always taste their latest and hottest sauces. I get my cufflinks etc. from BBJ (Barbie’s Basement Jewellery). Aina buys dresses from if and Dinh Bá. And we buy our hand soap (and hand cream) from Lovefresh. It’s not as cheap as the mass-market stuff, but it’s more responsibly made and it sure is nice.

One of their kinds of hand soap is Nénuphar. Well, that’s what it is in French. In English, it’s Water Lily.

Yes, nenuphar – which is also an English word once you lose the accent on the e – means ‘water lily’. It’s not the kind of soap we buy the most of (grapefruit and lavender and lemon grass are more to our taste) but it’s nice for our smaller bathroom that guests go into. It has that super flowery smell. I mean, lilies, right? It makes me think of that perfume, White Shoulders. Also funerals. Especially if you open the bottle and sniff the great clear mass of it directly, full on. It’s like you’re lying on a bed of flowers. No, not on. Under.

So this word must be Greek, right, with the ph? Unless it’s something like Hindi or Thai? Hmm. Here’s the funny thing: It came to us (via French) from Latin nenufar. Latin got it from Arabic naynufar. The OED says that was probably a “transmission error” from Persian nilufar. Which in turn comes from Sanskrit nilotpala, from nila ‘dark blue’ and utpala ‘lotus’ or ‘water lily’.

Do you notice where the ph comes in? Right at the end. French also had it originally as nénufar. Apparently f just didn’t seem classical enough. Latin has f, but words that are loans into Latin must get ph because Greek, amirite? Maybe the f is just too, um, basic, so they have to adjust the ph balance.

So. From nilotpala to nenuphar – which, in English, according to the OED, is pronounced “nen you far” or “nen ya fer,” thanks to the phonological muscle-wrenching of the English vowel shift.

Well, whatever. It all comes out in the wash. Actually, no, it doesn’t – your hands smell like it for a while.

Cnidaria, cnidarian

Look at that pretty thing. It has a rounded cap on it followed by a mess of attachments trailing off, pointing in various directions.


Frozen here but fluid in reality, never quite the same from one instant to the next, and, as you see it, in an engagingly backlit form, though with the contrast a bit stinging. So too the marine life form it names. There are differences, of course. For one, the critter has its sting in its tail and the meat of the subject in the cap, whereas the sting of Cnidaria is in the cap: How, exactly, do you say Cn?

The answer, for most Anglophones, is that you skip the C. You just swallow it. As to the rest, the aria is pronounced like area, and the nid can have either a “short” or a “long” i. The standard American pronunciation is like “I dare ya” with “n” before it, and if you really want to say the C, you’ll probably say Cnidaria exactly as you would say “Can I dare ya.”

Dare ya to do what, now? Hmmm… how about swallow one?

Swallow one what? Cnidarian, of course. Cnidaria is the phylum name, and cnidarian is what we call an individual member of the phylum. More commonly we call them jellyfish, but really they’re not fish – fish are vertebrates. Cnidaria is a whole separate separate set – we don’t just file ’em in another folder or another drawer; we phylum in a whole different cabinet. The Cnidaria also include sea anemones and corals: all critters with squishy bodies and stinging tentacles; some attach to things and some float freely, and some do both at different life stages.

The stinging tentacles are what give them their name. Cnidaria comes by way of Latin from Greek κνίδη knidé ‘nettle’. Nettles are hard and jellies are soft, but if you swallow jellyfish tentacles you’ll wish you had swallowed nettles. I recall reading of a marine biologist who was keeping some jellyfish tentacles in water in a bottle in the fridge, and one of his office mates came in thirsty and grabbed the first bottle of water he saw and took a big gulp. He recognized his error instantly, but too late. He was hospitalized – it was, shall we say, unpleasant. (Life lesson: Don’t drink from other people’s water bottles.)

Between this and the appearance, we get a common name for the floaty things such as we see in aquaria: medusa. I have recently learned from my Finnish word-of-the-day email that the Finnish word for jellyfish is meduusa (double u because it’s a long vowel – but the stress is on the first syllable because it’s Finnish). I’m not sure why that would be a word you would need to learn early on in Finnish, but there it is (where? not in the Baltic Sea, that’s for sure). It’s obviously borrowed into Finnish. Finnish belongs to a different language phylum – it’s Finno-Ugaric, no more related to English than Navajo, Nahuatl, or Na’uruan is – but languages can borrow words. The only way you’re going to integrate a critter from another phylum into the Cnidaria is for a cnidarian to eat it.

Or we could eat the cnidarian. No, no, not the stingy tentacles. The cap. Cooked and chopped up and seasoned, it’s not so different in texture from squid, though the flavour is different and less pronounced. I had some with lunch just the other day. I quite enjoyed it. You may prefer a jelly sandwich, but I don’t mind the odd bit of jellyfish. Can I dare ya to try some?


My bookshelf is a tree. It doesn’t look like a tree, no, but it’s made from trees – the wood of the shelves, the pulp that made the paper in the books – and it has many branches. Branches of knowledge, that is. There’s quite a lot on languages and linguistics, of course. There are also numerous other reference books, many of which acquired at the Oxford University Press sale that used to happen annually. It is a rich tree with many leaves (of paper) on each branch. Some branches are deceptive: on the upper right you see a novel by Irvine Welsh, not a lexicon of Welsh. Some parts of this tree are in the light, some are in the shadows…

…like that book hiding back there. Visual Encyclopedia. What is that, now?

A thick book on glossy paper, richly illustrated and labelled. Its size makes it easy to hold but not so easy to hold open.

You can see that in this book are many branches. This shadowy part of my library tree is quite dense. It is in some ways a microcosm of the shelves around it with their 1200-some books (more than two for each page of this one). Let’s look at the branch of it that has branches.

Plants! Trees and so on. They have branches. There turn out to be quite a few kinds of plants. Let’s go to the gymnosperms.

You see some seeds, of course (that’s what the gymnosperms get their name from: naked seeds). You also see some branches. Let us look at this one from the ginkgo tree, a tree that is supposedly good for the brain. (Does it make knowledge stick to your brain? I’m not sure, but if you live near one, it makes its seeds stick to your feet for a few weeks each year.)

Is that a branch or a twig? When does a branch become too small to be a branch? A branch can have branches, but at some point those little branches are not quite big enough to be branches.

Well, we can draw a definite line when the material changes, anyway. A petiole is not a branch; don’t be misled by its branching. It connects a branch and a leaf – indeed, it’s the thing that connects the leaf and the stem.

The book helpfully tells us that petiole means ‘leaf stalk’. Fine, we know leafs talk: this leaf of paper is talking to us right now.

Oh, yes, right, that’s leaves. Even though leaves talk can also mean ‘walks out on speech’. But this is not walk, it is stalk. I think we have taken a wrong branch. Well, anyway: How, in fact, do you put petiole in speech? The British style has the first syllable as like “pet”; the American style has it more like “pede” (as in centipede). But the French, who gave us the word, say the beginning like our “pate” (rhymes with spate – I don’t mean pâté) and spell the word pétiole.

It may make you think of petal. After all, it is a small branching-off part of a plant; it connects to leaves, which are similar to petals in various ways. But that is another misleading branch (though perhaps there is some cross-influence in the form). The Latin source of petiole, petiolus, most likely derives from the ped and pes root meaning ‘foot’ plus a diminutive suffix, meaning it’s related to pedal. Petal, on the other hand (or foot), comes from an unrelated Greek root for ‘spreading out’.

So. There is your knowledge: branch, twig, stem, petiole, leaf. It is true that petiole seems more erudite, perhaps more polite, or perhaps more specific – a cross between a petunia and an oriole? – but the tree doesn’t care; it’s just there. As is this sub-sub-sub-branch of knowledge we have leafed our way to today. Now we will leave it, but at least you may be relieved that, should you see petiole in future, you will twig what it is.

The bird from everywhere but where it’s from

The turkey, as you may know, does not come from Turkey. It also does not come from France, India, Rome, or Peru. And yet its names in different languages around the world attribute it to those places. So… why? Find out in my latest article for The Week:

How the Thanksgiving turkey was named after the country Turkey



I’m on the scent of another word from the bookshelf. Let’s look back here in the dark hidden corner behind the baseball-glove chair.

Tall, thin, graphic, glorious mementoes of my youthful favourites. Let me tug this one out and drop it on the stack next to the chair.

Does it look familiar as I gradually reveal it? It was a revelation to me 30 years ago.

The book is actually 20 years old. It came out in 1995. It’s The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. Meaning that Calvin and Hobbes started 30 years ago.

30 years ago today, in fact. November 18, 1985. I’m not one to choose a single favourite in most things, but Calvin and Hobbes is easily my favourite comic strip. Intelligent. Well drawn. With a few simple lines Bill Watterson could express so much character. And then sometimes he’d really go to town.

The strip draws on the impermanence of childhood and the perdurance of childishness. It revels in the ridiculousness of life and luxuriates in ludicrous fantasy, all forever contained and threatened by parents, protectors, and peers who insist on imposing order, stifling imagination, rebuking rambunctiousness. Never mind: for the duration of a strip we may strip ourselves of due ration and see things as… well, as they really are, honestly. (To see the images closer up, by the way, click on them.)

Does Calvinball seem a senseless sport? You’re playing it right now. English is the Calvinball of languages. All natural languages are Calvinball to some extent: we make up rules as we go along, sling slang, even with straight faces collude in ludic creations that come and go with the breezes. There will always be those who try to nail it all down, stop it from changing, paint pretentiousness on the messy pretense, but there will also always be us Calvinist-Hobbesians. And a little Calvinist-Hobbesian in all of us, even the sourest, wafting in and out. Nothing stays the same, of course, but then, nothing stays the same.

Some of us like our play cerebral, very cerebral, even punishingly, showoffishly cerebral. The play of the art gallery placard. The play of academic essays (every word of Derrida and Baudrillard is a game – actually, every word of everything is a game, but some academic word games are like playing racquetball with razors for racquets and kittens for balls). Watterson happily took the piss out of those games while playing them athletically and commenting on life in passing. If thoughts are a penny each, Watterson gives you seven cents.

Calvin and Hobbes is the only comic strip I can recall having learned a word from in my adult life. I admit my memory my be of uneven focus; perhaps I learned the word first and the shortly after saw it again in the strip. But what other strip (well, aside from xkcd) would you find a word like this in?

Evanescence. The sound of a snake s and two soft sickles c c cutting down with ease and taking away. A play of six letters dancing to make eleven letters, here now and moved on in the next moment, melting as they appear. If life never makes any sense, if it is vain and in vain, it is because it is vanishing. Nothing lasts, so there is a last of everything. Just as words can flip their sense inside a sentence, so too our innocent sentience, even our essence, self-incinerates in an instant.

Where does this word come from? Page 166 of the book, yes, but that’s the medium. Before that? First we trace evanescence to English evanesce ‘fade away, vanish into thin air, disappear, be effaced’; then we trace that to Latin evanescere, which contains e ‘out’ (as in E pluribus unum) and vanescere ‘vanish’, which in turn comes from vanus ‘empty, insubstantial’ – the etymon of vain as well as vanish. The Latin equivalent of Japanese mu, the central concept of Zen, so often translated as emptiness but that’s misleading. There is nothing there, yes, but it’s because as soon as you look there there is no there there anymore. Everything is always waving goodbye because everything is always a wave, impermanent, waiving permanence, invincible only because there is nothing to vanquish: it has vanished.

But that is not bad. That is just as it is. Our lives are like a stroll across a paper suspension bridge, dropping lit matches behind us. Everyone walks in time and then runs out of time. In the road trip of life, how often do we see when our touring machine will halt? When I bought this book, did I know that a decade and a month after Calvin and Hobbes had begun it would end? The strip evanesced in December 1995, the eternal six-year-old setting off into eternity with his tiger, and Watterson flowed away invisibly, liberated. No new Calvin and Hobbes strips have been drawn in 20 years. And yet there it still is. It left its marks. They have not finished fading yet.


We all know what a selfie is. The word first showed up in the early 2000s in Australia to refer to a self-portrait taken with a cell phone camera. Selfies are so completely associated with cell phone cameras that some people have spelled the word cellphie, and I suspect the phonetic connection has had a role in the success of this word.

Self-portraits have existed for much longer, of course, but a selfie is a product of the technology of our own time. A self-photograph requires you to be reasonably sure of the focus and to frame yourself suitably well. For the individual grab shot it means the camera has to be able to focus on you at arm’s length (selfie sticks are a new thing).

Cameras with timers on them are not new; people have long set up a camera and focused it and put the timer on and gone and stood at the focal point and been photographed by it. But once cameras were added to cell phones, it was natural for people to realize quickly – almost by reflex – that these (initially) fixed-focus cameras with very small sensors and wide-angle lenses would be able to put them in a picture at arm’s length with some of the background. Soon cell phones with cameras had small mirrors next to the camera to allow this (the second cell phone I ever owned had one such).

And then the iPhone added a second camera – or, anyway, a second lens and sensor, with the remainder of the hardware and software being shared – facing the user. A diminutive sensor, lower resolution, low-quality image compression, but sufficient to the purpose. The narcissism of the selfie-taker, such as it may be, does not seem to require high resolution. At least for most people. It just requires the resolution to capture one’s own image. It may be a derivative act with a derivative camera, but the homunculizing urge seems endemic and perhaps innate to humanity.

Self is a reflexive first of all, cognate with (and closely resembling) similar words in other Germanic languages (compare German selbst). The noun form the self followed on from my own self, his very self, and other such extended forms of the reflexive. The ie is a suffix indicating the diminutive and the derivative; it’s especially popular in Australia (as in barbie for barbecue; another popular suffix there for about the same function is o).

But the selfie camera on a phone, now that it exists, does not have to be used for selfies. Things may be used for purposes other than those for which they were designed! Language isn’t the only thing that takes existing bits and uses them in novel ways. It happens that nowadays, with our flat phones, it is common to have your phone near you on a table, face up. The regular camera is facing the surface in darkness, but the selfie camera is looking directly up at the ceiling, something that humans seldom do – we may glance up at an oblique angle, but to survey it perpendicularly is a thing generally associated with a supine position that is seldom socially appropriate in adulthood.

But what if you were to turn on that selfie camera while the phone is sitting on the table and take a picture of what it sees?

What would you call this? A ceilfie, of course, using that blending we like to do of part-words on the basis of sound. Ceiling: a word that will probably make any French speaker think right away of ciel, ‘sky’ or ‘heaven’, from Latin caelum, but may also draw on the same origin as conceal, the Latin celare ‘cover’. It is abstracted either way, but fair enough: a ceilfie is rather abstract in itself.

Ceilings are, after all, typically evenly patterned. Few of them are carefully decorated. Add to that the particular qualities of the selfie camera on a phone: it’s low resolution and low-quality compression, and so at any real magnification looks as much like a careful watercolour as a photograph; and its lens tends to get smudged, especially if you keep it in your pocket (as I do), giving it a cloudy, smudgy, smeary look, with streaks coming from the lights that are usually in the picture when facing up with a wide-angle lens.

Ceilfies may include the sky, depending on the nature of the ceiling above you. Taking ceilfies really helps you become more aware of the upper side of your world. But it also has aesthetic appeal. Those who like abstract paintings may well enjoy the patterns ceilfies reveal.

Since I have (as far as I know) invented the thing, I am propounding the following rules for celifes: You have to set your phone on the table with the camera turned off, just in whatever place you put it. It’s best if you don’t even think of taking the ceilfie until you look at your phone sitting there. You can’t move it; no framing allowed. Turn on the selfie camera and take the picture, making sure that your face isn’t in the picture.

That’s all. You can adjust colour or contrast a little afterwards if you want, or even convert it to greyscale, but anything more than that and it’s something beyond a ceilfie. Which doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, but the point of ceilfies (to my mind) is that what’s there is interesting enough without having some aggressive filter applied to it – just a bit of image alteration through the reduced resolution and clarity.

And sometimes you may even capture someone else, perhaps looking Kilroy-ish over a balcony edge.


I really wanted to see my way clear to do another one from the bookshelf today. I had a vision of what it would be, which made it more difficult than just grabbing a book and opening it. But this volume came to light.

The cover illustration is a detail from Sunset, Rouen, by JMW Turner, who is a painter for those who love light, and glow, and impression, and paint. You do not always see the subject with perfect clarity, but you understand the feeling of it so much better.

The book, as you can see, is collected poems by Stéphane Mallarmé, a French symbolist poet who was 9 years old in 1851 when JMW Turner died. He was born Étienne Mallarmé, but he preferred a more directly Hellenic, less mutated version of his first name, a clarification without clarifying – for what does Stéphane or Στέφανος mean? (It means ‘wreath, crown, circlet’ and was the name of the first Christian martyr, so now you know.) His last name may suggest that he was poorly armed (mal armé) or perhaps badly teared (mal larmé), but those are tiers of resemblance on the base.

In this book you will find “L’Après-midi d’vn favne” (note the classicist use of v), which inspired Claude Débussy. You will find numerous other pieces of poetry as well. As the cover tells us, you will find them in parallel text: French and English, French on the left and English on the right, so that the meaning is clear. Let us open to a page.

“Clear” is relative. A poem translated is a poem traduced. The denotation and the general feel can be preserved in large measure, but translation is truly no clearer than a page held up to a light. You see an obverse; the form is there, largely revealed but somewhat obscured; there is a different rhythm, different overtones, different references and plays on words; the speaker of one language has grown up with a different set of cultural references than the speaker of the other. I will not say it is through a glass darkly, but it is through a page, lit from behind… it seems clear, but it is… what shall we say…

What is that word peaking through there, now, doubling up behind double? Half hidden, showing its back by way of the already yellowing flake of pulp?


Yes, there it is, in “Funerary Toast,” the translation of “Toast funèbre”:

Mindful of your desires, I wish to see
in our task, the idea, that our star’s parks have laid
upon us, for this man who vanished recently,
a solemn stir of words stay alive in the air
in honour of the calm catastrophe—
a huge clear bloom, a purple ecstasy,
which his diaphanous gaze remaining there,
rain and diamond, on these flowers that never fade away,
isolated in the hour and radiance of day!

C’est quoi, ça, en l’original?

Moi, de votre desire soucieux, je veux voir,
À qui s’évanouit, hier, dans le devoir,
Idéal que nous font les jardins de cet astre,
Survivre pour l’honneur du tranquille désastre
Une agitation solennelle par l’air
De paroles, pourpre ivre et grand calice clair,
Que, pluie et diamant, le regard diaphane
Resté là sur ces fleurs dont nulle ne se fane,
Isole parmi l’heure et le rayon du jour!

A diaphanous gaze. How can that be? Diaphanous means showing through, not seeing through. And yet. The word has taken on more of a meaning than it may literally seem to have. It is not merely to appear through something – dia δια ‘through’ and phanés ϕανης ‘showing, appearing’ – but to be a combination of epiphany and phantasm (both also from the same phan). It is not a word for ‘transparent’, even though transparent comes from Latin roots that mean the same as the Greek roots of diaphanous. A diaphanous dress is radiant, a diadem of clothing; a see-through dress is more revealing, and less high-toned; a transparent dress is… well, clear.

Sometimes this word is misrendered as diaphonous, because phon is a more common root. But phon refers to sound. A penetrating sound could be called diaphonous, I suppose, but the word is not used as such. When it comes to poetry, you may think that what is seen is what is heard, but this is not so: the wordplays in Mallarmé do not show so readily on the page. The letters open one window; the sound opens another. But in translation the window always has diaphanous curtains.

In art, we value the diaphanous more than the transparent. We love the word perhaps in part because it has that ph in the balance, that classical hallmark, that crisp and whispering couple that join to be simply soft. We want to see through, but we want to see the fabric too; we want to see the material, the medium. We want obscurity, a challenge, an involvement. We want not just Athena but also Diana and Aphrodite: our learning desires a hunt and hunts for desire.

We want life not through a glass darkly, but not through glass clearly; we want it through the fabric, the fibres, the medium, the texture of life. We want it with feeling. We want something to trip the light and make it phantastic.


This word has a literal meaning and a more figurative one. Literally it refers to Orpheus, and to the Orphic religion of ancient Greece; figuratively it refers to entrancement, as of the music of Orpheus, or to things mystic and oracular, as of the Orphic religion. For me, it first flashes a scintilla of this poem, which I wrote some 20 years ago (and revised slightly tonight):

Face unknown

I thought of you as I mounted
the stairs into the attic
so mysterious and alluring from an angle
you were ahead of me
your small body smooth arms hair tied
carefully I looked at your
face at an oblique angle I thought
what can there be there
like Orpheus ascending curious yearning and afraid
both to see and not
to see I turned on the light

Who was Orpheus? A poet and musician so skilled he could charm even wild beasts and make stones sing. And he went to hell – Hades – and back to retrieve his wife, Eurydice. He so pleased the gods of the underworld that they allowed him to take her with him, provided he not look back at her until they were both returned to Earth. Alas, he looked back, and she was lost from him forever – or until his death.

Orpheus went to hell and back for the woman he loved, and still he lost her (isn’t that a movie or two?). The Orphics also revered Persephone and Bacchus, who both had return tickets to Hades. Is it not Orphic in more ways than one to be blissful after having been through hell? How much more delighted you can be if you have first been de-lighted, consumed by dark.

Orphism held to metempsychosis – that is, reincarnation. It preached asceticism as a means of breaking from the cycle of death and rebirth (does this sound like Buddhism and Hinduism? I think it does, in the barest details, and with good reason – Hinduism came from the Indo-Europeans who took over India). It also held to specific initiation rites and professions of faith (which sounds more like Christianity in such bare terms). Orphics learned set formulas and responses to say in the other world after they died so they would attain release (does this sound like the ancient Egyptian religion, with its Book of the Dead? in such bare terms, yes). They had to remember to drink of the pool of remembering (Mnemosyne) rather than that of forgetfulness (Lethe).

Granted, that all sounds morbid rather than delightful. Asceticism is hardly what we have in mind when we think of entrancing, mystical things. We want soothing, not soothsayers. We are not all so ready to escape the cycle of death and rebirth, to die one last time for good. Some of us are having an enjoyable time in this life, or at least an intriguing one. Our lives may come with losses, but to lose you must first have had, and when you have little you can more easily experience the joy of having more. Oh, we should not be attached; attachment causes suffering. But having suffered, we may rejoice more fully than if we had never experienced pain. A round trip ticket to hell and back is better than a one-way ticket to your butt in that chair and nowhere else ever more.

So we lament the wheel of fortune, like Orff’s Carmina Burana, but if we get off the wheel at the top it is positively Orphic. Just be careful about looking back.


Some part of this picture is ecru. Which part depends on whom you ask. Google ecru and you’ll get an assortment of images in a variety of shades. You’ll also get a Wikipedia article that helpfully tells us the following:

In the 1930s and before, ecru was considered[by whom?] to be the same colour as the colour beige (a synonym or alias for beige), but since the 1950s ecru and beige have been regarded as two different colours.[citation needed]

We also learn this:

Uruguayan club Barrio Sur F.C. wear ecru colour as their away kit.

English clubs Liverpool F.C. and West Ham United had ecru shirts as part of their away kits in the 1996/97 season.

American minor league baseball team Loudoun Hounds uses ecru as one of its team colours.

Be honest now: you don’t associate ecru with butch things such as team sports, do you? It’s the sort of colour that only people who have lots of names for colours have a name for. In the catalogue of J. Crew you will find ecru. But when you venture into the world of drapes and walls and lamps and, you know, design, you are expected to know the difference between bone, cream, ecru, beige, and taupe. There will be a test. Give up now: once you start down that path there is no cure for it.

No cure, but there is ecru. Ecru seems to me to be the colour of some kinds of prosciutto. Not prosciutto cotto, mind you, the cooked kind. Prosciutto crudo. “Raw” prosciutto. But of course it’s not raw. It’s cured. Is cured raw? I don’t think so, but it’s not cooked.

Why did I just go there? Because ecru comes from French écru, which means ‘raw’. And of course at the same time it has the same letters as cure but differently arranged. Why is ecru raw? Because it’s the colour of raw – unbleached – linen (that’s the flax!). Not because it’s the colour of skin “in the raw” (let us not say “in the buff” if only because buff is supposed to be a different colour again). And that’s not just a crude reference; crude – and Italian crudo, as in that prosciutto I like so well – comes, like ecru, from Latin crudus.

All this development from the same raw material! But there you have it. Even the most seemingly drab (that’s another similar colour, drab) linguistic material can accrue a lot of colour and depth over time.

Contronyms: to sanction or to sanction?

This article originally appeared on BoldFace, the official blog of Editors Toronto.

There are some words in English we may not know whether to sanction. They are so impregnated with meaning that their meaning may seem impregnable. If you try to hold them fast, you may find them too fast to hold; at best, you can hope that (of the senses available) one will have left and you will be left with the one that’s left. If, for instance, you ask someone to dust something and find instead they have dusted it, you might understandably lose your temper and have a fit of temper—especially if you are an inflammable, rather than inflammable, kind of person.

How do such self-opposite words—what Jack Herring labelled contronyms—come about? Sometimes it’s because sense and form cleave apart, and sometimes it’s because they cleave together. When they cleave, it’s typically because of a sense that cuts both ways; when they cleave, it’s likely because of forms being attracted by resemblance.

It may have started by coincidence. Latin had a prefix: in-, which referred to entry and commencement, and was related to the Germanic prefix in. It also happened to have another prefix: in- indicating negation, which was related to the Greek prefix an- and the Germanic prefix un-. Both of them can also change to il- before l (as you do when you illuminate the illiterate), to ir before r (as when it would be irresponsible to irrigate), and to im- before m, b, and p. Usually, this works fine; as a given word uses one or the other, and there is no confusion. But sometimes people reconstrue the meaning. Inflammable came to be back-formed to flammable and the in- taken as meaning “not”—sometimes.

But then sometimes people change word forms to what they think they’re supposed to be by their resemblance to other word forms. Take the word imprenable. The pren is the same as in the French prener (“take”). But somewhere in the 1500s some writers thought it should have a silent g as in reign and deign (both of which came down from Latin and stopped being pronounced), and so they made it impregnable. Perhaps by coincidence (or perhaps not), just around the same time, English borrowed the Latin impraegnare (“make pregnant”) and converted it to impregnate.

The seeds of confusion were thus sown on the basis of wanton cleaving to resemblance. This is also what happened in the case of cleofan and clifian, two Old English words. They were pronounced much like clave and cleave, respectively (plus suffixes, of course). Cleofan meant “sever” and clifian meant “adhere.” But over the centuries, the sounds spelled eo and ea shifted. Meanwhile, the pronunciation of clifian, which could have changed to resemble “clive,” stayed the same and the spelling shifted because there was this other word so much like it that had a very closely related sense.

Are opposites closely related? Indeed: differing only in one polarity. Sometimes opposites attract, meeting at the point of commonality and facing opposite directions. Sometimes the confusion comes not from fusion but fission: a nucleus of meaning that splits and heads in opposite directions. Take sanction, for instance. That sanct is the same as in sanctify; a sanction is a decree rendered inviolable – sanctified, given divine authority. But decrees can permit or prohibit. And so you can sanction an activity—expressly allow it—or sanction it—expressly prohibit it. Similarly, dust as a verb, converted from a noun, means to do something with dust, but that something can just as readily be to add dust as to remove it.

Sometimes the cleavage of forms is not so fast; it comes about gradually as the sense does not hold fast. Certain turns of phrase may help make the phrase become less certain and turn away. Take fast for example. Its first sense was “firmly fixed,” and, as an adverb, “in a firmly fixed manner.” But in the adverb sense it came to mean “very near” or “following closely,” as in fast beside and fast by. Shifting to a temporal sense, we came to have as fast as meaning “as soon as.” From that, fast came to have a sense of “quickly, swiftly,” which was then transferred to the adjective form. (Yes, fast meant “rapidly” before it meant “rapid.”) And now the original sense has mostly left and the newer sense is what is left.

That last sentence, by the way, holds the key to the Janus face of left. Leave can be intransitive—“depart”—or transitive—“depart from.” In either case, the one doing the departing is the one that has left; in the transitive, the one departed from is the one that is left: I leave it behind me, so it is left behind me. It’s not a real contradiction; it only seems so when an important word (is or has) is left out.

And sometimes contronyms come about because of sloppiness—they acquire a dusting of another sense because we don’t do the dusting on the original sense. Temper, for instance, has always meant “keep in due proportion, regulate”; it’s the source of temperance and temperature, after all. If you get angry, you lose your temper; just as you can have bad health, you can have a bad temper. But we are sometimes intemperate in our use of partial phrases. Bad temper can become just temper, and temper, temper! may be taken as meaning not “Let’s have some temper,” but “Let’s not have some temper.”

There are, of course, quite a lot more contronyms in the language. You are sure to find more—and the keys to their Janus-faced natures—if you look through a dictionary.

This article was copy edited by Karen Kemlo.