Monthly Archives: January 2016


How can you tell a photo from a telephoto lens?

You… can’t, actually. You can spot some photos that are almost certainly not from a telephoto lens, and you can spot some that very likely are from a telephoto lens. But the thing that makes a telephoto lens a telephoto lens is not discernible in a photograph.

For those of my readers who are not notably enthusiastic about or well versed in photography, let me say first that any lens that is a telephoto lens is a lens with a relatively long focal length – but (and this will surprise some camera buffs too) the converse is not true.

What is focal length? Imagine looking through a cardboard tube from a toilet paper roll or a paper towel roll or a wrapping paper roll. The longer the tube is, the narrower the angle of view at the other end. Camera lenses are like that, except that whatever you see at the other end fills the whole picture, no matter how long the lens. Perspective narrows. So long lenses make far-away things look closer because they enlarge them. But they also compress perspective: buildings at different distances can look like photos stacked together.

What is long, by the way? If you’re using a 35 mm film camera (named after the width of the film, not any lens), or its digital equivalent, a “full-frame” sensor, a “normal” lens has a focal length of 40 to 50 millimetres (50 is the usual standard length). Anything shorter than that is at least a bit “wide” and anything longer than that is at least a little “long.” 85 mm is a “portrait” lens (good for taking head shots of people because their features are not distorted by perspective and because the background is blurred out a bit – oh, no, I am not going into depth of field today), and real “long” lenses start at 100 mm or so and go on quite far, increasing in price as they go (there are other factors that also increase the price and no, I’m not digressing into them today). Smaller sensors or film will have a correspondingly shorter focal length for the same angle of view, and longer ones (medium and large format) will have longer focal lengths.

I’m going to give an illustration of all this below.

Since you’re reading this, you’re probably a word buff, and that means you almost certainly recognize tele and photo. That’s tele from Greek meaning ‘far’, as seen in television, and photo from Greek meaning ‘light’ as in… oh, come on, you know as in what. If you’re a photography buff, you may well think of telephoto as another way of saying ‘long’ as in ‘long lens’ because long lenses let you see far-away things better, like a telescope. But it’s not. It’s really a way of designing a lens so that the light paths telescope in, so to speak. That is, the lens acts like it’s longer than it really is. It might be a lens with a 135 mm focal length that’s physically less than 130 mm from front to film (or sensor). Considering that focal length is nominally the distance to the back of the glass in the lens, not the front, you can see that this lens is somewhat shorter than a simple design would make it.

So if you’re in a camera store and someone’s trying to sell you a lens that’s comparatively long, and they keep calling it a telephoto lens, should you point out that not all long lenses are telephoto lenses? No, you should not. They probably know that, and anyway, nearly all modern long lenses are telephoto lenses, because why have a lens that’s physically larger than it has to be? Telephoto lens designs have been around since the late 1800s. So unless you’re buying a lens for a bellows-based camera (a large-format camera or certain medium-format cameras), the salesperson is not wrong. And what do you care about anyway? Taking pictures you like or making sure everyone knows you know the exact meaning of something?

Now. That was the words part. Here’s the photo part. I took a few photos out my bedroom window tonight with three different lenses. Here are the lenses.


The one on the left is a 20 mm lens. Since my camera has a “four thirds” format sensor, which is smaller than a full-frame sensor and so cuts down the angle of view in the picture, this lens has about the same angle of view as a 40 mm lens on a full-frame camera would. The middle lens is that 135 mm lens I was talking about above. When I put it on my camera, it’s like having a 270 mm lens on a full-frame camera. The one on the right is a 350 mm lens, and yes, it’s telephoto too. There’s only so much you can do with the materials available to make the lens shorter. It has an angle of view like a 700 mm lens on a full-frame camera.

How long is 700 mm? About 2 feet 4 inches. What angle of view is that? Well… Here are some pictures taken using that 350 mm lens.

Here are some pictures of the same subjects taken with the 135 mm lens.

And here is a picture of the whole scene taken with that 20 mm lens. It all fits in the one shot, with so much more.

Obviously not a telephoto design. But also, because this is a mirrorless camera, not a retrofocus either. A what? …Never mind.


On Tuesday night, I was at a reception hosted by the Literary Review of Canada (of which I have been the designer for more than 15 years), and I had the chance to chat with Andrew Coyne, a fairly well known political commentator. I particularly liked one thing he said: Radical and extremist are not the same thing. Bernie Sanders is a radical but he’s not an extremist. Donald Trump is an extremist but he’s not particularly radical.

We have ideas about what a radical is, who is radical, what is radical, and so forth. When I was young, radicals were “wild-eyed,” and you would have a mental image of some young communist or anarchist with hair like a basket of deep-fried exclamation marks, eyes like devilled quail eggs with olives, and the personal hygiene habits of an indolent hippopotamus, and he (or occasionally she) would be waving and shouting and maybe tossing a bomb or something. These days you’re more likely to see it with “Islamic” or “cleric,” or occasionally “feminist.” It tends to be used as a way of othering people, casting them into an irrational role. It implies that the person is about as peppery as a radish and hell-bent on eradicating civil society. Many people are strongly resistant to proposals that they make fundamental changes to their ways of living. And radicals are always exponents of fundamental change. So, in defence of their comfort, people cast radicals as ridiculous extremists.

Hmm. Fundamental change versus radical change – do you notice the difference in tone? If your CEO says “We’re going to have to make some fundamental changes,” that means the basic ways of doing things will have to change, but it will be done in an authoritative, considered way. If your CEO says “We’re going to have to make some radical changes,” it will probably give more of an idea of suddenly jerking the steering wheel and going off road. It also probably means you have a new, likely younger, CEO. Fundamental change doesn’t always take you out of your comfort zone. Radical change seems to require going out of your comfort zone. And yet… leaving aside the difference in tone and implication, how would you define the difference in denotation?

Meanwhile, there are other uses of radical. Free radical, for instance (at the beginning of Never Say Never Again, M tells 007 he needs to go for a health cure; Miss Moneypenny asks him what his next assignment is, and he says “I am to eliminate all free radicals”). Whatever those are, they must be very bad, like little wild-haired bomb-tossing anarchists in your blood, right? And then there’s radical mastectomy, which is the biggest, baddest kind of boob removal, for women whose breast cancer is no small thing. On the other hand, there’s also the shortened form rad, as in Totally rad, dude, which shifts the sense from the bad kind of ‘wild’ to the good kind. And there are other uses, such as in Chinese orthography, where the basic characters (of which there are some 400) that are combined to make other characters are called radicals.

And there’s this: √. That’s not a check-mark; it’s the thing you use to indicate a square root (or, with a superscript number in the notch, some other kind of root). It’s called the radical sign. When you first encounter that term, you may wonder if it’s because of its rakish tilt. But no. It’s time to get to the root of what radical really is.

Radical is an Anglicization of Latin radicalis, which is derived from the root radix. Radix is not just a root; it means ‘root’. It’s the source of our word radish. When we speak of eradicating something, the original image is pulling it up by the roots – removing the whole plant, in other words.

So everything that is radical has to do with roots (well, except when someone is using the term more loosely to mean “wild” because they don’t know its origin). Political radicals want change from – or to – the roots. Fundamental change. As Bernie Sanders shows, it does not have to be extremist; heads do not have to roll. And (though Sanders is no example for this) their hair can be quite tidy, right down to the roots.

Free radicals are atoms or groups of atoms that are highly reactive and ready to form bigger molecules – and may cause damage in doing so. A radical mastectomy removes a breast by the roots, muscles and all. Chinese radical characters are the roots, the basic forms. And the radical sign signifies a root – square root, or, with the necessary exponent, some other kind of root.

You know what I mean by exponent, right? If I put x2, the superscript 2 is the exponent. It says to what power the number is raised. It just so happens that you can express the root of a number without using a radical sign. You just use a fractional exponent. The square root of x, which you can write as √x, can also be written as x½. So a radical is a fractional exponent.

Just incidentally, x0 is always equal to 1, regardless of x – if you’re looking out for number one, you’re not going to be a radical or an exponent of anything, really. Also, if the exponent is a negative number, it means the reciprocal of the positive – that is to say, x–3 is the same as 1/x3. And x–½ is the same as 1/√x. It’s easy to get confused between fractional exponents and negative ones, but it’s worth remembering: negative exponents always want to divide, but radicals are not always negative exponents. Some radicals are exponents of quite positive things – change for the better.


Today has been Rabbie Burns Day, the 257th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the poet. I did not have haggis (my wife can’t abide it), but I’m having a wee (or not-so-wee) dram of Scotch as I write this. I’m celebrating, but more about that anon. I’d like to toast dear Rabbie with a toast that was probably written after he was under the turf: Here’s tae us! Wha’s like us? Gey few, and they’re a’ deid!

This is best translated into standard English as “Here’s to us! Who’s like us? Damn few, and they’re all dead!” But gey does not mean ‘damn’. It means ‘very’ or ‘rather’ or ‘pretty’ (in the intensifier sense). Gey few means ‘rather few’ or ‘a good few’.

This is Scots, of which there is more than one variety. I don’t have any books on the Ayrshire dialect of which Burns was a native speaker (and anyway he was a native speaker of the 18th-century variety), but I happened to acquire an entertaining book on another dialect at some book sale or store or honestly I can’t even remember. It’s hiding on the top shelf of my dictionaries and phrase books.

It’s not very big; you can barely see it between the Czech and the Dutch. Here it is in my kitchen.

This is an entertaining, charming book, replete with cartoons. It is meant to be amusing, but it is at the same time accurate – it’s not taking the piss; it’s written by someone who grew up speaking the Doric dialect.

Doric, to me, always meant one of the orders of classical architecture. It was the one with the boring columns (Ionic had the curly capitals and Corinthian had the leaves). But this Doric is a dialect of Mid Northern (aka Northeastern) Scots. Here’s a Wikipedia article on it: Oh, sorry, that’s in Scots. Try this one; it’s in English: Anyway, if you’ve ever tried to understand someone from around Aberdeen, Doric is what you were up against. Scots is its own language, split off from English centuries ago, but as it is, because it looks somewhat recognizable to English speakers, we kid ourselves that we should be able to understand it, and some people still mistakenly believe that it’s just a regional variety of English. Well, Swedes and Danes understand each other, generally, sorta, and there’s about as much difference between Swedish and Danish as there is between Scots and English. The Doric dialect, as it happens, is named after the Greek area, apparently because the Scots were being compared to Spartans.

Here’s a page from that fun book:

At the top you see the end of a “Useful Phrases” section, including such as “Ye’d maak a better door nor a windae,” dryly translated as “Excuse me, please. I cannot see past you.” The translations assume you can figure out the literal translation (‘You’d make a better door than a window’, which is also a common phrase used by Canadians, usually addressed to school-aged youth who haven’t figured out where not to stand). But look a bit farther down the page and there’s this nice line:

Es taiblie’s gey shoogly. It means ‘This table is very wobbly.’ And so here is our word of the day, gey. Shoogly would be a good one too, but it can wait.

Whence comes gey? The Oxford English Dictionary is helpful on that, since the word is fairly widespread, not only in Scotland but also in Ireland and northern England. It comes from the same source as English gay – you could say it’s another version of the same word. English gay came into the language meaning ‘bright, brilliant, lively, showy’ and also from that ‘happy, light-hearted’. More than a century ago (just how long ago is unclear because it was surely used orally long before it showed up in the printed record) it came into use to refer to men preferentially attracted to other men, and that usage has become the supervenient one now, at least in part because so many people who aren’t homosexual avoid using it lest they be mistaken for such. The long history leading up to that usage is a whole other story that I’m not going to spend time on today just because gay isn’t the word of the day. Gey is. And gey went from a specific positive to a general intensifier (like very, originally ‘truthfully’; damn, short for damned and you damn well better know the literal meaning of that; and more modern colloquial usages such as wicked).

What was the source from which gay and gey came? French gai, which meant and still means ‘happy, cheerful’, and a variety of extended senses. The history before that is surprisingly complicated but apparently involves Old High German. Yes, even the Old High Germans could be happy. And the French of course know quite well how to be happy. The interjection o gai or just gai can be heard in some French folk songs such as “En montant la rivière” and even the Breton “Tri martolod.”

So, now. What cause have I to be happy and drink a toast today? Aside from good auld Rabbie, of course (and for more of him, spin back a few years to my vignette on skirl). My cause to be happy is just this: I have finished the first draft of a thesis. So let’s have some whisky already!


De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est. “Of the dead, nothing but good is to be said.” Well, that’s a fairly exact translation, but not so idiomatic – Latin liked passives and other constructions that used est (‘is’) far more than English does. Better to render it as “Don’t speak ill of the dead” or “Speak only well of the dead” or that sort of thing. There are a lot of dreadful translations into and out of Latin. I’ve sung and heard music written in English and then translated word for word into Latin, which is a ghastly and villainous thing to do, sort of like using a computer like a typewriter, hitting return at the end of each line and aligning using spaces and so on. I’ve seen books and poetry translated equally badly into Latin, somehow adding more words where Latin would use fewer, as though translation were an exercise in explication (imagine! a Latin translation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with a title that, translated back from Latin, means ‘how an evil little being called the Grinch stole the birth of Christ’).

Where was I. Oh, yes. De mortuis et cetera. It’s often shortened to Nil nisi bonum, ‘nothing but good’. Have you seen the movie Lawrence of Arabia? I recommend it; well made, highly quotable. But don’t quote the pronunciation of Nil nisi bonum you hear near the beginning. Oh, it’s accurate – to British schoolboy Latin of nearly a century ago, which is what would have been used. But gah. A great exhibition of the effect of the Great Vowel Shift of English on pronunciation of Latin, but really: “Nill nice eye bone ’em.” A more accurate-to-the-original version (allowing for the usual Anglophone incompetence at loan phonetics) would be like “Kneel knee see bon oom.”

Why am I going on about this? Oh, yes. So anyway, at a funeral, someone delivers a eulogy. That’s from Greek εὐ eu ‘good’ (you see it in euthanasia, ‘good death’, and a number of other words too) plus λογία logia ‘speech’ (or ‘words’; you see it in all those –ology words and many others). You say nice things about the dead person. It’s a sad time, someone’s been lost, no one wants to be reminded about the unpleasant parts of the person’s character because that kind of poisons the grief. Anyway, there’s no risk in saying nice things; the person isn’t going to get a swollen head from them or use them against you later.

But if there’s good speech, there must be bad speech, right? Such as the speech we often make of others before they die? Various kinds of criticism and kvetching? The Greeks had a word for it, surely? Well, no, they didn’t, not as such, but that didn’t stop us from taking Greek parts and jamming them together, because the ancient Greeks are dead and they’re our parts now, never mind those modern Greeks, they’re two millennia removed from it too. We just took the opposite of eu, that negative dys (from δυσ), not dis as in dislocation (that’s Latin and means ‘away from’ or similar senses) but dys as in dyslexia, and stuck it onto the logy. Dyslogy. With one swell foop we have dislodged the eulogy. And, like eulogy, it’s said with the accent on the first syllable. But it’s a bit harder to say. And it’s harder to look at, too: tandem y’s (we are not used to seeing two of them with four letters in between) and quite a slog through “sludge” in the middle.

So where do you use dyslogy? Be honest: you probably use it all the time; it doesn’t take much to dislodge the cup of malcontent. Dyslogy will spill out about the weather, perhaps, unless you live somewhere where the weather is always nice. About sports, politics, people who cut in front of you and then move slowly, people who live where the weather is always nice and flaunt it on Facebook, anyone who uses the hashtag #soblessed, maybe even anyone who uses the word hashtag, lousy translations, people who complain about everything all the time, and, of course, those pretentious dicks who use words like dyslogy.


If you happen to wander into the be– section of the Oxford English Dictionary, you bump into all sort of verbs and adjectives: becalm, befuddle, beclap, bechance, becloud, bedaub, bebop, bechamel, oops, those last two aren’t made with the be– prefix, but the list goes on – in fact, the entry for be– (prefix) has 558 sub-entries. That’s 558 words other than the ones with their own separate entries starting with this prefix that signifies a becoming or imposition or “from side to side (within a space), to and fro, in all directions, in all ways, in or through all its parts, thoroughly.” Think of the poor lexicographer. The very thought has me trembling. I think I would end up bebunged like a barrel.

A barrel? No, no, not a barrel. A clavichord.

If behatted and bewigged mean bedecked with a hat and a wig, bebunged must mean having a bung, right? Or somehow affected by a bung?

Nope. There is no alcoholic delirium tremens in bebung. But there are tremors. Of the hand. Deliberate ones. And there is no bung, really. There is beb and there is ung.

Unlike the words around it, this word is a loan from German. And in German, –ung is a non-forming suffix similar to the gerundive –ing in English. The German verb beben means ‘tremble’; bebung – said /ˈbeɪbʊŋ/ (like “babe oong”) – means ‘trembling’. But not just any trembling.

I remember one time, when I was in university, one of my friends – can’t remember which, but given how my life was at the University of Calgary I should probably really put “friends” in scare quotes or just replace it with “people I associated with who variously tolerated and scorned me” – was playing something on the piano (probably with one hand) and, on sustained notes, shook the hand over the fingertip like a violinist does when playing tremolo. I didn’t say anything then, but I thought, “That doesn’t do a damn thing to the sound. Does it?”

The answer is no, it doesn’t. Once you’ve struck the piano key, the hammer has bounced off the string and the only way you can make the sound change with the key is to hit it hard enough to make the hammer bounce off the string again. Titillate the key all you want, you will only be bending your digit. But guess what: It’s different with a clavichord.

What is a clavichord? An instrument that sounds rather like a harpsichord but works a bit more like a piano. But it makes its sound by striking the string from below with a metal point that stays in contact with the string, and if you waver the finger on the key up and down – not sideways – it can vary the tension on the string to produce a tremolo effect. A tremor. A bebung. Here, watch:

The sound is about as unsteady as a somewhat be-bunged drinker. But of course be-bunged is not in the dictionary. You still understood what I meant, though, didn’t you?

So you can’t make bebung on a piano. Except that you can do something that is also called bebung: you can just tap the key a few more times to make repeated strikes of the string to extend the sound or produce a vaguely similar effect. Well, similar in the same way as cicada sounds like the sound a cicada makes. But it might be better for bebop.


Mmm, schmaltz. Delicious, yummy, dripping, greasy schmaltz. It’s like the smelted gold of the food world. Roast a chicken the right way and the schmaltz just drips down and bathes the vegetables. Make gravy with it, or save it for frying other things, or spread it on bread, or…

If you’re like me and first encountered the term in its figurative sense (I believe I learned it from MAD Magazine), the above might seem a bit odd. Who wants sentimentality in their gravy, or mawkishness spread on their bread? Elevator music for dinner, the Magical Strings for frying things in? But if you know only that meaning, the literal original will make it all make sense. Yes, schmaltz is chicken fat. Melted chicken fat. Primally pleasing, not a health food, not highbrow.

You can easily guess that this is a word from Yiddish. The schm is a good sign – we see it in other Yiddish loans such as schmuck and schmendrick as well as in the reduplicative derisive schm: “Chicken schmicken, it was a Cornish hen”; “Prefix schmefix, it’s a pseudomorpheme”; “Lean schmean, it’s covered in schmaltz.” All these Yiddish schm can also be spelled as shm, by the way, because they’re transliterations. Yiddish is properly written using the Hebrew alphabet. Schmaltz is שמאַלץ and can be transliterated shmalts.

So this word comes from Hebrew? Ha. Hebrew schmebrew. Like most of Yiddish, it’s Germanic. Yiddish is an offshoot of German with substantial Hebrew influence. The modern German equivalent is Schmalz, pronounced exactly the same way. It’s like if the German word for ‘fat’ were Fatt.

Which it’s not. It’s Fett. But there’s another word for fat, in modern German meaning ‘lard’ but historically broader in sense. That word is, yes, Schmalz. In Yiddish it came to mean chicken fat specifically, because that was the main fat that was available for cooking with. (It did maintain a broader sense of just ‘fat’ in schmaltz herring, an especially fatty kind of pickled herring.) Frying in butter is a no-no (not kosher to mix dairy with meat); lard (from pigs!) is no good either; and for assorted reasons, beef fat is not really a good option either. And there just wasn’t a whole lot of olive oil available in northern Europe in previous centuries, know what I mean?

Fortunately, melted chicken fat can be a pretty good thing. That’s why getting really lucky can be referred to as “falling in the schmaltz.” To dive into a vat of delicious liquid chicken fat… it’s like falling into molten gold. Only without the fatal burns that you get from molten metal.

But the connection is a good one. There is an English word related to schmaltz, you see. It’s a verb referring to melting… metals now, mainly: smelt.

Ha. Can you smelt a chicken? Well, guess what: I can. I smelt one yesterday, and it smelt damn good.


I promised to come back to this book. Remember? This bookshelf at my parents’ place?

This book.

I have it on my bookshelf too. Not the same edition. It’s back behind a post. See it?

Look closer.

A box set.

The set also contains The Hobbit, but the volumes of The Lord of the Rings are thick from being read, so I keep The Hobbit next to the box (I read it before I got this box set, so this copy is less read).

Did you know that books get thicker with reading? They absorb some of you each time you go through them. Every book you read, part of you is passed into it through your fingers and the pages are fattened with your spirit and imagination. Return to the book and you will find it there. And add some more. And as you pass through life, that soul you left in the book still feeds into you and sends images to you. You never truly say farewell to a book once you welcome it and it welcomes you.

I swear it’s true.

And I read this copy twice. At least twice, but twice for sure. So it’s thickened.

I like this edition because it has the appendix in the back with the alphabets, runic and Fëanorian.

I cannot tell you how much I fell in love with these alphabets in my childhood and youth. I loved alphabets. I once made a volume of fantasy languages; at that age, I couldn’t be bothered much with the syntax or lexis (let alone the morphology), but I came up with a complete sound system and alphabet for each of them. I’m sure I have that book somewhere. It’s a graph Nothing Book: a hardcover book with empty pages of graph paper. I filled quite a few of them.

I shall have to dig it out. If I have it here it’s under a hundred pounds of other boxes in the closet, probably. Not tonight.

Tolkien is famous for creating languages for his different races. He’s not the only person to create languages, of course; Klingon and Na’vi are two recent examples of thoroughly created “conlangs,” constructed languages (I find the term conlang a bit fanboyish – sci-fi fans have an absolute fetish for syllable acronyms – so don’t count on seeing me use it much). But he was one of the seminal ones to do so, and he did it in a truly thoughtful way, like the philologist he was: complete with history, sound and morphosyntax changes, and more.

Tolkien based his languages on human languages he liked. He like Welsh and he liked Finnish, and he created two elvish languages, one inspired by each. The language of the Grey-elves is Sindarin, inspired by Welsh. It’s the language that elves in The Lord of the Rings generally use in everyday use. But then there is the one based on Finnish: Quenya, the language of the High Elves, the ones who went to the west and for the most part stayed there. Some of them came back to Middle-earth and lived with the Grey-elves and came to speak Sindarin, but kept Quenya – a gradually changed dialect of it – as a formal tongue. The language of their home and heritage, brought out now for formal occasions. And for when they look to the west and their spirits are crying for leaving, remembering Valinor, the western land, and Valimar, its capital.

That might seem familiar to many people in Canada, children of immigrants, who speak English every day but, when they go to church on special occasions or to community gatherings, still have the language of their forebears, wherever they came from. The language that their parents, or their parents’ parents, said farewell to their native home in. The language that is at the same time the connection, the thread, that holds them to their homeland. The language they read the book of their heritage in, and that connects them to the part of themselves they left there.

The longest text Tolkien wrote in Quenya is this poem – a song, actually:

That’s in the single-volume edition my parents have. Here’s in my edition:

He helpfully gives a translation of it below the text.

It’s in the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring.

It’s sung by Galadriel as the company of the ring leave Lothlórien, the elvish tree-garden-river-home, a green dreamland. In fact, Lothlórien means ‘The Dreamflower’. If you saw the movie, Galadriel is the one played by Cate Blanchett, a rather perfect bit of casting. You can hear it sung in many versions on YouTube. Here’s one by Adele McAllister:

The name of the poem is also the word that comes around in the last stanza:


Four syllables: /na ma: ri ɛ/.

Namárië! Nai hiruvalyë Valimar.
Nai elyë hiruva. Namárië!

Farewell! Maybe thou shalt find Valimar.
Maybe even thou shalt find it. Farewell!

You can glean quite a bit from even just this stanza. Nai means ‘maybe’; hiruva means ‘shalt find’; elyë means ‘thou’ and can be attached to the end of hiruva to make hiruvalyë ‘thou shalt find’ or can stand alone to be emphatic ‘even thou’; namárië means ‘farewell’.

Except there’s more you can’t see from that passage. Namárië comes from á na márië, which means ‘be well’. It is used not only for farewell but for greeting and welcome.

Be well. Go well. Fare well. But in English we say farewell only as a parting. We may say hail as a greeting, and that comes from a wish of good health. But we have lost the literal sense of both in our common use anyway. We may say Good day as a greeting and as a parting, but we only perfunctorily wish a good day if we think of it at all. I cannot say how sincere Tolkien’s elves were in their salutations; remember, this is a word in what had become for them a ceremonial language. It is as though we in English said Latin Salve in greeting and parting. Or, perhaps, Namaste.

But wellness is good, coming, staying, or going. And the road goes ever on. You travel through space and time, taking yourself with you and yet leaving yourself everywhere, and taking everywhere with yourself. There is some of you where you came from, some where you are, perhaps some already where you are going. And every meeting and well-wishing is also an acknowledgement of the unbridgeable distance between two persons, and the transience of our passage through that moment.

We are always everywhere we have been, and yet we are never completely anywhere: we carry our absences like wishing wells in our shirt pockets; we yearn for places we no longer are, places we’ve lost, places we have not yet been. We fatten the pages of the book of life, pages made from the trees of our lost and future homelands. We wish each other well. Namárië.

exitious, eximious

This turn of the moon is proving exitious for the eximious. Lemmy, Bowie, Rickman, and in fact a few more, cancelled by cancer all. That vision of the Thin White Duke looking more exiguous than would be exigent. One day he exists; the next, he exits. No one is exempt, not even the exemplary.

Out, out, brief candle. Exit: Latin for ‘he goes out’, conjugated from Latin ex ‘out’ + ire ‘go’. Something that causes things or people to go out was exitialis, and by “go out” we don’t mean pass through a literal door. From that we got English exitial and exitious, meaning ‘harmful, fatal, destructive, catastrophic’, and so on. These words are rarely used now; I will not say they are valetudinarian, but they are not being taken out much. Unlike our three late luminaries.

But they do stand out. These fine words are not famous (if they were, they would be thriving); they are likewise not eminent, though they are impressive. But I’d buy them for a dollar, caveat emptor be damned. And I’d buy Lemmy, Bowie, and Rickman for more than a dollar – in fact, I’ve buffed up my Bowie collection since he was pre-empted. Isn’t it funny how much more often artists get taken out after they’ve been taken out.

And isn’t it funny that while ‘go out’ is exire, which gives us exit and exitious, ‘take out’ is exemere, which gives us exempt – and eximious, which means ‘exceptional, outstanding, choice’. And yet we have seen that even the exceptional are no exception, the eximious are not exempt, even the eminent are immanent and will sooner or later meet imminent elimination or at least manumission to luminosity. But in the world of Latin metaphor, being famous and talented and so on is something that happens to you – you are taken out – while dying is something you do: you go out.

Such a small difference and such a big difference. That switch from t to m is a switch from empty to eminent, and it adds a syllable too. Adding a side of irony is the fact that in Cyrillic handwriting and half-uncials, m is the shape for small T (small M is just a small M). But this is Latin. And this is life, borrowed time – and some of us pile up more interest than others. However recognizable your ™, you will in the end pay your IOUs; the price exacted, you will be an ex-act.


This word may sound waspish, like a bee attitude, but it’s a much more blessed attitude of being. It sounds too much like platitude – an anodyne pronouncement that feels beatifying in the abstract but when someone asks you to live up to it you say “Beat it, dude.” But a beatitude is an example, a prescription, not just a description.

Let’s start by noticing that there’s beatitude and there are beatitudes. Beatitude, the abstract mass object, uncountable, is also unaccountable, blissful – supreme blessedness or happiness. You can be in a state of beatitude. It means you are #soblessed. The word comes from Latin beatus, ‘blessed’, which may look ironic, since if we’re so blessed, you can’t beat us. It sounds ironic, too, because beatus is said like “bay at ooss” but if we’re so blessed, it would be obtuse to bay at us.

Beatitudes, on the other hand, are individual pronouncements about who is blessed. They are rather like desiderata. If some set of people are blessed, then it’s a good idea to be one of those people. There’s a specific set of beatitudes that the term usually refers to. Here’s the Latin – it’s not the original; it’s translated from Greek, which may not have been the original language either but then again may have, but in the Latin you see the point:

beati pauperes spiritu quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum

beati mites quoniam ipsi possidebunt terram

beati qui lugent quoniam ipsi consolabuntur

beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt iustitiam quoniam ipsi saturabuntur

beati misericordes quia ipsi misericordiam consequentur

beati mundo corde quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt

beati pacifici quoniam filii Dei vocabuntur

beati qui persecutionem patiuntur propter iustitiam quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum

beati estis cum maledixerint vobis et persecuti vos fuerint et dixerint omne malum adversum vos mentientes propter me

Hard to miss, isn’t it? Nine beati in a row. That’s the plural of beatus, and here it’s the predicate – it means not just ‘blessed’ but ‘blessed are’. Here’s the same set in an English translation:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Does that sound familiar? Some of my readers will know it well; others may not. It’s the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, a section of the Gospel of Matthew in the Christian Bible (I used the New International Version translation). The Sermon on the Mount is presented as one great extended sermon by Jesus to a crowd, but it was probably put together from various teachings of Jesus remembered from various occasions, passed on by word of mouth, and written down in various times and places, all put together in a coherent format. Notwithstanding that, it is one of the central texts of Christianity – even if some of its teachings can be rather challenging and open to competing understandings – and these nine beatitudes that make the opening lines of it are statements of essential values that Christians are supposed to try to live up to.

Supposed to. Well, some do, and some pay great lip service. Some remember the last two very well and fancy that when people criticize them it’s proof that they’re among the blessed. But people may be criticizing them for not living up to some of the others, such as “blessed are the meek,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “blessed are the merciful.”

And here is one indubitable thing: if you are too waspish about your beatitudes, you should look carefully to see who is stinging and who is being stung.


Back behind the big plush chair in the corner, down on the bottom shelf at floor level, next to the large-format comic anthologies, stuffed in and rarely touched these days, are my books of sheet music.

I’m going to pull out two of them by the same artist. I don’t own much rock sheet music but I own these. I bought one in Calgary in a long-gone music store in Brentwood Mall, near the university, if my memory doesn’t betray me. I know exactly when and where I got the other one: in the summer of 1984 in a music shop in Montreux (on the Lake Geneva shoreline – the shop was a few blocks uphill, though). It was one of my biggest splurges in a summer spent at a conference centre up the mountain in Caux.

It’s the left-hand one.

Really, who else did you think I would be talking about today?

Yes, of course I’ve been a fan of David Bowie for a long time. From the time a high-school classmate drew my attention to him, I latched on and never really let go. Not that I always listened to his stuff all the time; I still don’t own all his albums. But Bowie had talent, and he had presence. Animal grace. Screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo. Those canine teeth. Eyes of two different colours that could stare for a thousand years. And that voice. Not the voice of a great singer. The voice of a great presence.

At an age when one wants idols, I easily devoted myself to Bowie. I even prevailed on my brother to go with me to a rerun of the Ziggy Stardust concert movie when it was showing in Calgary. I am quite sure my brother did not enjoy it as much as I did, so it was very sporting and brotherly of him. Bowie did not represent to him someone he would want to be like. To me Bowie was a doorway, a gateway, a stargate. I was under no illusions; I knew he had weaknesses, imperfections, an eggshell of humanity, his presence a performance that even he didn’t fully buy into. But that’s why I liked him. He was a star, a starman, come from the stars, fallen to earth.

Just like the rest of us. But he knew it.

Look at this book. I haven’t opened some of these pages in decades now. As I flip through I have to peel them apart here and there. It was in some damp place somewhere for some time, I guess: it has these dark patches. Age has grown into it.

I’m listening to “Suffragette City” as I write this. It’s one of the best high-school dance songs ever. It was played at every single dance at Banff Community High School when I was there. If you want to see the adolescent equivalent of the jump to hyperspace, watch the dance floor at “Awwwww, wham bam thank you ma’am!” – an interjection not found in the sheet music. Oh, sheet music: it just lies there, dry inklings in sprinklings of ink on paper. Without breath and bone and blood and muscle it is nothing. It needs that stardust.

What else? Ziggy Stardust. David Bowie was stardust, and to stardust he… no, has not returned; he always was and always will be. As are we all. But he knew it.

Bowie didn’t invent the word stardust, of course. In 1844 one astronomer first used the term star dust to describe the innumerable stars he saw, too small to be discerned individually. In 1879 a geologist used star-dust to name that dust that constantly falls from outer space on the surface of the planet. By 1933 it was a by-word for illusory, insubstantial things. Hoagy Carmichael had already in 1927 written his song “Star Dust,” now usually called “Stardust,” and in 1929 Mitchell Parish added the words: “…Love is now the stardust of yesterday / The music of the years gone by” … “But that was long ago / Now my consolation / Is in the stardust of a song.” In 1970 in her song “Woodstock” Joni Mitchell sang “We are stardust / We are golden / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden.” In 1972 Bowie became Stardust.

But he was already stardust, as are we all. 40,000 tons of stardust fall on earth each year – read this. It becomes us, bit by bit, through our skin and lungs and food, but we are already it. What other matter could we have been made from than the same celestial powder that powers and spins the galaxies? What burns above us burns within us and rests beneath our feet. The earth is not a separate thing; we are all dust in the universe, coming and going, forming and reforming, zigging and zagging. Whoever we were, whoever we will be, moving in this world, is only always and already stardust, an oddity in space, held together by gravity and chemistry and forces of attraction and imagination. We take in and give out and are never the same from year to year, day to day, moment to moment. No matter how you hang onto yourself, you are no more permanent than a daydream, never truly here, so never truly gone, like Ziggy Stardust. Perform it but do not truly believe the performance, just enjoy it. Let’s dance.

To David Bowie.