Monthly Archives: December 2015


I wanted to do something lapidary for tonight’s tasting note. I make no claims to writing gems – I am not much of one for self-spruiking – but at least I am not prone to alalia (speechlessness). So I have found this elegantly euphonious name of a mineral. It may even have something of the animal in it: specifically, a wing – ala – and a light one at that. So I’ll alight on it.

Its initial ala is especially to my liking because those are the initials of someone lovely and likeable (and light) to whom I was wed 15 years ago; today has been our anniversary. But it also has a little alliteration internally with those two licks of the tongue, and to the eyes it seems a specially strong seal of approval, A1 A1. I also like the little light in the middle right, the candle of the i.

But what light of the alalite through yonder window breaks? What colour is this rock? It is, it seems, a light – or not-so-light – green, that loveliest of colours, shade of the forest and of the best eyes. But alalite is a sort of diopside, or perhaps it is just another name for diopside – the sources are conflicting and uncertain on this – and diopside, though mainly various shades of green, can also be blue, brown, white, grey, or colourless. It can also be clear or cloudy. Very helpful, isn’t that? Anyway, it’s MgCaSi2O6. Magnesium, calcium, silicon, oxygen. Four things you are sure to have in your kitchen, but not in purified form, just in foods, supplements, or implements – or atmosphere. And not in this combination.

And where does this name come from? The Ala valley in Piedmont, Italy, where this variety of diopside was first identified. So it is a green stone of a mountain valley, and its name sounds like echoing yodeling. I like it – I delight in it. I do not have the stone, but I have the name, and it is illuminating (even elating) enough.

Is 😂 a word?

My latest article for The Week looks at emoji and emoticons – little icons of facial expressions and gestures and objects – and asks two important linguistic questions: Are they words? And if so, what kind of words are they?

Is an emoji a word? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


My late teens were charged with yearning and self-fulfilling prophecies of failure, an arc of desire and disappointment that was accomplished before it began. I felt that I wanted to be someone whose lost potential others would mourn, who had loved better than others and yet to whom others would say “I loved you better.” I was in search of a new version of reality, an altered state, one in which simple truth of feeling would be enough.

In other words, as I have since realized, I was pretty typical in many ways. Except that I was even less able than most to act on my desires, paralyzed from within, so afraid of rejection that I pre-rejected.

I was introduced by a drama teacher to the music of Laurie Anderson. I loved her work instantly. One piece stirred me more than others – and in fact still stirs me, and now I understand a little better what she had in mind. It’s “Gravity’s Angel.” Play it while you read this.

Send it up. Watch it rise. See it fall. Gravity’s rainbow.

Send it up. Watch it rise. See it fall. Gravity’s angel.

It’s a reference to Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. The song doesn’t follow the plot; you may know the song ever so well and still be entirely in the dark about the book. But there is a thematic resonance.

I was curious. A friend had the book. I borrowed it. I found it was very well written – vivid – but also a bit hard to follow, which actually I sort of liked (hey, I had already read Finnegans Wake). But it was too vivid, and it described some things that were hard to swallow. I put it down a third of the way through.

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to try it again. I bought a copy.

It’s a darkly (darkly!) comic novel, hallucinatory almost, an alternate reality, full of sex and destruction and desires, version and inversions and perversions and conversions and reversions and other diversions. It’s set during the Second World War. Its opening and focal point is the Blitz in London.

I’ve been wanting for some time now to take this one from the bookshelf and taste a word from it. But what word? Today I finally just grabbed it and opened it and flipped to a page. Nope, not that page. Another. Hmm. A third.


There. There is the word I want from this book. A word of hallucination, a word of escape, a key to a Lewis Carroll world of inversions, but a word of a destroying angel, an angel rising above a bombed city, an angel falling in a bomb on a city, an angel eating you from within like unsatisfied desire.


Amanita is a kind of mushroom. In fact, one kind of amanita is the classic toadstool, bright red with white dots: Amanita muscaria, commonly known as fly agaric (the musca in muscaria refers to flies), because it was used dried in bowls of milk to kill flies. But it is also a well known hallucinogen, eaten (and, it seems, smoked) recreationally. It has surely led to the undoing of many flies of more than one kind.

But then – beyond the undone flies – lurks Amanita phalloides, known as the death cap. And different species known as destroying angel: Amanita bisporigera, Amanita exitialis, Amanita ocreata, Amanita virosa. They will be your undoing if you eat them. Not right away – it takes a few days – but by the time you realize something’s wrong, your only hope to live is likely a new liver. Such appealing-looking phallic fungi, not so different in appearance from many table mushrooms, tempting too to those who wish to experience a new reality. Oh, and they will.

It’s a pretty word, isn’t it? Amanita. Like a cross between Amanda and Anita. Perhaps they are cousins of Alice – we should go ask her. It apparently comes from Amanon, a mountain in what is now Turkey. It makes me think of our first microwave oven, an Amana: a very well made machine, a miracle of technology, cooking with radio waves. Amanita could just be a small Amana, a little thing in your hand capable of leaving you fully cooked.

Pynchon’s book is a rainbow of sex and death, an arc with all the visible colours and more, extending into radio waves. It has its destroying angel and it has its angelic young man in an arc of destruction, annihilating at final contact; it has its louche antihero and its picaresque adventures, its half-circle of the demimonde; it has its escape, its hallucination, its alteration. It has its cheap tricks that make you say “Amanita few minutes to absorb this.”

And perhaps you will not fully appreciate what you have let yourself into, what you have let into you, the gravity of the circumstance, until too late. You have swallowed it and it has eaten you from within.

At sixes and sevens about nine and 10

A colleague raised a common issue: she had chosen to use Canadian Press style for a website with health information, and it left her with stuff such as “at ages six to nine, you will use 10–20% more.” What to do about those mixed and inconsistent numbers when they show up together like that?

I’ll tell you what: Don’t follow Canadian Press style. Or any other style like it, when it comes to numbers.

In many ways, CP style is appropriate only for newspapers. For instance, usages such as “$9-million” are not standard English but have a justification in the narrow columns of a newspaper. CP style rules for spelling out numbers, however, are not appropriate for newspapers. Nor for most other nonfiction, in fact.

Long ago, when teaching test prep for the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and SAT, I realized that numerals communicate more directly, immediately, and effectively to the reader, stay better in the mind, and leap off the page much more readily. In any work that is being referred to for facts, numerals are more effective for all magnitudes, not just for 10 and higher. And in a context that is as space-sensitive as a newspaper, the only reasons for preferring spelled-out numbers are prissiness and dogged traditionalism. That’s it. Adhering to their rules produces not only the example above but even worse things, rubbish such as “He is facing an eight- to 20-year sentence” and “seven in 10 people.” There is nothing about this is that is helpful to the reader; it is distracting and impedes comprehension and retention.

And how about starting sentences with numerals? The standard argument is that the reader somehow won’t know you’re starting a sentence. Why? Numerals stand out as much as capital letters. There’s a space after the period – a suitably large one in a modern proportional font, too – so no one will mistake it for a decimal.

Look, do you really prefer this:

Nineteen-eighty-four was a bad year. Eight out of 10 members of the club faced jail time ranging from six to 20 years.

to this:

1984 was a bad year. 7 out of 10 members of the club faced jail time ranging from 5 to 20 years.

Really. Which leaps off the page and into your brain more readily? Which sticks in your mind better? Quick, tell me (try it without looking first, then just at a glance): How many out of 10 members in the second example? And in the first? And what was the jail time range in the first? And in the second?

If you’re communicating factual information where the numbers matter, use numerals. Don’t worry, people will still remember how to spell them even if you don’t spell them out. You are not contributing to the decline of literacy. You are facilitating the communication of information.

Will some readers complain if you don’t spell out the low numbers? Yes – the kind of reader who is more interested in making sure that everyone follows their personal set of rules than in the actual communication being effected. These are not readers to take any account of; almost nobody even likes them. Most readers just want the facts.

The only numeral that is problematic, in fact, is 1, and that’s because it looks like l and I, especially in some type faces. For my own house style at the company where I work, I have set the rule to be that we use numerals for all numbers in all contexts except where 1 appears by itself, in which case we spell it out for clarity. We make occasional exceptions with idiomatic phrases, where the numeral would look odd (no need to be at 6s and 7s about that). Otherwise, it’s all numerals, and that makes it much more effective and usable.

You will note I said “most other nonfiction.” For works that are more narrative in style, such as many biographies and most fiction, numerals may stick out quite a bit in the flow, since – as noted – they leap off the page and communicate much more quickly. In a story they can be like sudden spurts of water in a steady stream (or like your tap after the water’s been off and air has gotten into the line). So I don’t take issue with the literary habit of spelling out up to ninety-nine and, in dialogue, even higher. But in informational material – such as health data – I strongly advocate all numerals all the time.

And the Canadian Press ought to smarten up and do so as well. Until they do, though, effective editors will do better to ignore their prescriptions. After all, the name of the game is effective communication, not “Who’s following the holy writ?”


“It’s… JEN-TACULAR!” You drop your fork on your bacon and eggs and look up at the TV. There, good enough to eat, are Aniston, Lawrence, Lopez, and Garner. Well! This is a good way to start the day. Breakfast TV indeed! Positively jentacular.

Of course, such a scene might be most openly desirable to that sort of gent who is attracted to copious quantities of bacon and eggs. Well, yeah, and the Jennifers, too. But come on. We’re talking about breakfast here.

You didn’t know? Jentacular means ‘of, or relating to, breakfast’. It’s from Latin jentaculum ‘breakfast’, which in turn is derived from jentare, ‘eat breakfast’ (or, for the old-schoolers, ‘break fast’, since breakfast is from break fast, i.e., end the overnight fasting – that thing where you don’t eat because you’re asleep). Of course, in classical Latin, it’s IENTARE; in modern writing, we distinguish consonant i from vowel i by using the extended version of the letter, j, for the former, just as we distinguish the vowel form of v from the consonant form of v by writing the cursive form, u, for the former. We’ve made them official different letters, and they sound much more different in English. But in Latin jentare (or ientare, or IENTARE since half-uncials didn’t exist way back then) was pronounced “yen-ta-reh.”

Quite a difference between a yenta and a Jen, though, isn’t there? As much of a difference as there is between breakfast and breakfast. In some places, breakfast may be fish and soup; in others, it may be sugary processed grains soaked in low-fat milk (because somehow lots of sugar and little fat is better than little sugar and lots of fat?); in others (looking at you, England – please invite me over), it may be bacon, eggs, beans, and fried tomatoes – not gentle, but gentile. Breakfast changes over place and time.

And so does Jen, or rather Jenny. We know that Jenny is not new as a nickname in English; we see it in various usages even in the time of Shakespeare. But somehow in The Doctor’s Dilemma, written by George Bernard Shaw in 1906, there is this:

MRS. DUBEDAT. My name is Jennifer.

RIDGEON. A strange name.

MRS. DUBEDAT. Not in Cornwall. I am Cornish. It’s only what you call Guinevere.

How do we reconcile this? Is Dr. Ridgeon oddly onomastically naïve? No. In the time of Shakespeare and for centuries after, Jenny was short for Janet or, occasionally, Jane. If you’re wondering how Janet came to be Jenny, you may as well move on to how Richard became Dick, Edward became Ned and Ted, Robert became Bob, John became Jack, and Margaret became Peg. After those, Jenny seems quite obvious for Janet, doesn’t it?

But more obvious for Jennifer. Which is indeed from the same root at Guinevere, which means, roughly, ‘fair and soft’. OK, fair enough, once Jennifer is popular it naturally claims Jenny and Jen. How did Jennifer become such a popular name that Jen is practically the default name for North American females now? I guess a lot of people liked it… starting with those who saw The Doctor’s Dilemma, which – in spite of being one of those preachy, wordy Shavian thinkdramas (which are nonetheless great to act in) – was quite popular. I’m sure the scripted extreme attractiveness of Jennifer Dubedat (and thus of the actresses who played her, starting with Lillah McCarthy) didn’t hurt.

But. That’s a lot to digest before breakfast. I should go more gentle on the gut in what is, for many of my readers who open this first thing in the morning, still an antejentacular hour. I suggest something to settle the stomach. Sparkling wine, perhaps? Ah, that would be jentacular.

Phonological aspirations

Do you wish you could have an easier time with non-English sound distinctions? Do you have a sense there are sounds that sound the same to you but are heard as different in other languages? Give this a listen – it’s the podcast version of my article on subtle sounds English speakers have a hard time telling apart.

5 subtle sounds that English speakers have trouble catching