Monthly Archives: February 2016


“James,” my acupuncturist said once, “you think too much. You need to think less.”

Apparently my brain is sort of like the Macbook Air I’m typing this on: it occasionally overheats. I can be prone to what might be called “binge thinking.” Have you ever had a piece of fish that had lots of tiny bones that weren’t removed, and you’ve spent your whole meal dissecting it with fork and knife to find the bones, and chewing each mouthful carefully and thoroughly and probingly to find and remove any hair-thin bones you missed, lest they puncture your intestine? My thought processes can get like that from time to time.

Not that I think thinking is bad. I honestly don’t understand how anyone can think they ever stop thinking. How can you not constantly be thinking? I don’t mean being lost in thought all the time, but at least always considering everything before, during, and after, and – when nothing else is going on – having lengthy mental dialogues with yourself or imagined others. When is there ever a space where there’s nothing going on? I remember the line from Billy Joel: “Should I try to be a straight-A student? If you are then you think too much.” Ha! If you think you’re ever not thinking, then you’re just not paying attention. Right?

But overheating is bad. Brooding is bad. Fixating. Spiralling. Forming mental centres of gravity that become black holes. It can be a key feature in depression and anxiety disorders.

Which is where kufungisisa comes in. Kufungisisa has nothing to do with kung fu or ISIS or fungus or the Kurfürstendamm. The word kufungisisa means ‘thinking too much’ in Shona, a language (and culture) of Zimbabwe. It’s a cultural view of a particular set of mental disorders – or, as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) puts it, “an idiom of psychosocial distress.” If you have it, you’re ruminating on various upsetting thoughts. It is associated with various conditions, including “anxiety symptoms, excessive worry, panic attacks, depressive symptoms, and irritability.” Which means that I, and many of you too, have had kufingisisa. Or would have had I (and you) been Shona.

Mental illness diagnoses are culture-bound, after all. Expression of mental illness can be strongly culture-bound too. Some cultures have names for culture-bound syndromes where, for instance, a person just “snaps” and runs amok – in fact, amok is from a Malay term for just that culture-bound syndrome. Japan has a disorder called tajin kyofusho that is “characterized by anxiety about and avoidance of interpersonal situations due to the thought, feeling, or conviction that one’s appearance and actions in social interactions are inadequate or offensive to others.” Cultures with strong expectations regarding body image will give rise to mental disorders related to those body images, never mind that other cultures – or that same culture at other times – may have entirely different views on body image.

But people are people, and some things are fairly common at the underlying level. Depression, for example, appears to happen everywhere, though not necessarily with the same incidence and certainly not with the same interpretation. The DSM-5 notes that “thinking too much” is a common way of describing certain kinds of mental distress in many cultures. Indeed, “In many cultures, ‘thinking too much’ is considered to be damaging to the mind and body and to cause specific symptoms like headache and dizziness.” In Nigeria, excessive study is thought to cause damage to the brain, “with symptoms including feelings of heat or crawling sensations in the head.”

Maybe it is possible to overheat the brain. Intense thought can be different from ordinary thought, after all, and if there are strong emotions involved, well, this is not exactly some kind of Spock thing. But I rather suspect that much of this is focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause. Brooding doesn’t cause depression; depression causes brooding.

It’s like calling nausea or earache a condition. They’re just symptoms. So is binge thinking. I think.


And what then if you are left with a word such as scævity? What viatic will you take to vaticinate its sense? Its very presence on the page scatters meaning – ay, evicts it, leaving a vast cavity that you scavenge for sense. You seek perhaps to reap significance, but the scythe cuts from the other side, and it is you who are grimly reaped. How can you get the upper hand? Look up.

Look it up.

But even then you are unlucky. It is not a common word. You can find the main meaning, but nothing will tell you how to say it. Go figure.

Go figure it out for yourself. Here: it comes from Latin scævitas. So if you were saying it in Latin, it would be /ske vi tas/. But you aren’t. It’s no longer a Latin word; the itas is now ity. And I’ll tell you for free – though you might have guessed as much, given the assimilated form – that it was borrowed into English a few centuries ago. In the 1600s, in fact, if not earlier. So the pronunciation will conform to the long-established English way of saying such things: æ like /i/ (“ee”) as in encyclopædia; this also makes the sc “soft,” just like the c is “soft” is cæsar and cæcum. So: /si vɪ ti/.

But what is scævitas? It is a noun form of scævus. Which means ‘left-sided’. And also means ‘awkward’ and ‘perverse’ and ‘unlucky’. Our word scævity (you can consciously uncouple the æ to ae if you wish) means ‘unluckiness’ and also ‘left-handedness’. Which is a rather left-handed thing to say.

Or, actually, not. It’s right-handed, and obliviously so, because why is it so bad to be left-handed, aside from everything catering to right-handed people? Some of the finest people I know are left-handed. Half of the American presidents in the last century have been left-handed, including Obama, Clinton, and Bush senior (not W, though). As far as I can tell, left-handedness increases the odds of a person being interesting. But of course it is in a way unlucky: You have to put up with all those oblivious right-handed people and all their oblivious right-handed stuff. (Try this: Find a camera with the shutter button on the left.)

Thanks to @tonythorne007 for suggesting scaevity.


There is something simultaneously sweet and sour about this word. Sweet? Or delicate. Or just dull? Yet somehow lucid, clear like the cacophonous claxon of a cicada. But undeniably acid.

We do like contrasts, so long as they’re well balanced. Nor do the contrasts need to be of things utterly unlike; a simple adjustment can be enough sometimes, like the difference between the shapes of d and ci – just a little erosion. Or i and l. Or between the sound of c and the sound of c when one is before a and the other before i.

This word nearly balances. It has d and d as bookends. In the heart is a, flanked by c and c, and then beyond those l and i – so similar in shape, but not the same. But what disrupts the perfect symmetry of the experience? U, of course. As soon as we see u come into it, it has a skew – but it simply could not exist without u.

Without you. De gustibus and all that, yes; of tastes. Tastes are individual. Every word has its taste, but a different taste for each person, and for each person a different taste for each word at each moment. Nothing stays the same. It cannot be reduced to tidy numbers on a balance sheet: there is no accounting for taste.

But it can balance, even if it is not opposites (the opposite of sweet would simply be not sweet). Pick two extremes and put them together. We taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami; you can have sweet and bitter, like Italian sodas or many a romance. Or you can have sweet and sour, to pique and to please.

‘Sweet’, in Latin, is dulcis. ‘Sour’ is acid – yes, acids are sour, and sourness is the flavour of acid. Citric, ascorbic, lactic, you name it: tart. Put them together and you have lemon tarts or many a Chinese chicken dish, and you have dulcacidus. In Latin that was said like “dool ka kee doos,” but it trips differently off our tongues now as this word dulcacid, the English equivalent.

Inasmuch as it trips off tongues at all, that is. It is not much used now. We could use an erudite-sounding single word for ‘sweet and sour’, yes, but somehow this word seems a bit… dull. And acid. To us English speakers, that is. Taste may be individual, but it is also affected by your culture, after all.

smilax, sarsaparilla

Sometimes life seems like an impenetrable thicket of brambles. The more you try to push through, the more scratched up you get, and at the end of your efforts you don’t get what you want and you get what you don’t want. What is left for you? Smilax. Vegetate with sarsaparilla.

Smilax. Does that look like a portmanteau for smile and relax? That’s how you say it – there’s nothing tricky about the pronunciation. I suppose you could smile and relax with smilax, but that’s not what it means. It also doesn’t mean ‘smile and use an ax’, though you could do that with smilax. But it would be the smilax that you’re smiting with the ax: it’s a dense briery plant, in fact a whole genus of them. If you want to get to the root of the problem, though, eradicate it – e ‘out, from’ radic ‘root’ ate: pull it out by the roots. And then you may get to the sarasaparilla, if you take roots and make root beer.

Yes, Smilax is a genus with more than 300 species, and they’re all ornery little shrubs, the botanical equivalent of that dreadful project you’re stuck with at work. They include greenbriers, catbriers, prickly-ivys, various plants just called smilaxes, and sarsaparilla. What’s sarsaparilla, aside from a kind of smilax? It’s the plant whose roots give much of the flavour to root beer. Sometimes you’ll see root beer called sarsaparilla.

Kind of a classic-looking name, isn’t it, sarsaparilla? It seems to me to be a cross between a laid-back Southern something-or-other and a truculent simian or towering Japanese lizard. But it’s soft and liquid with a little pop, an ideal name for a carbonated beverage. You might be more energized by the sight of the Spanish version: zarzaparilla. It means ‘little brambly grapevine’: zarza ‘bramble’ and parilla ‘little grapevine’. Does that zarza look familiar? Yes, it’s the same one that shows up in Zarzuela, which is named after a place that’s named after brambles. And where does this zarza word come from? Basque sartzia.

Fair enough. Many are the days one may wish to lie back and bask in the sun with a glass of sarsaparilla and just… smilax. And think of what might have been. Which might have been Smilax.

Smilax, you see, was the name of a nymph: Σμῖλαξ. She was the object of unrequited love by a human youth. He pined for her, but his love was not evergreen; in the end it did not flower, but he did: he was turned into a flower that bears his name. He was Κρόκος; we know him as Crocus. And Smilax, the poor lass, was also turned into a plant, all because she wouldn’t Netflix and chill (or IMAX and climax). But she wasn’t turned into what we call smilax. She was turned into bindweed, a flowering vine. That’s what the Greeks called σμῖλαξ. Somehow more recent botanists managed to switch the name over to a less friendly, albeit tastier, plant.

Poor nymph. Just minding her own business when some random dude she couldn’t care less about develops a thing for her, and next thing she knows, she’s turned into a plant, just because she was pretty. And then she doesn’t even get to keep her name! Think about her next time you think you have troubles. A briery thicket? Pah. It’s nothing. Have a glass of root beer. And as you sip your sarsaparilla, raise it in memory of Smilax.


How perverse is it to taste a word that hasn’t been used in about 800 years and that includes a character that’s been out of use in English for half a millennium? That has two morphemes, one of which is not only no longer productive in English but is not even in use, and the other of which is obscure, untraced, and unseen eslewhere? How deliciously wanton is that?

Not half as deliciously wanton as including it in a modern dictionary.

Oh, but this is the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the most colossal lexicographic effort available in the English language. It is the output of senseless devotion, of a decades-long Bacchanale in the love-den of the language by the most unrestrained of word nerds. The life they led! And an unled life it was – they were not pulled around by others; they were drawn by their own fascination and linguistic concupiscence. They were esurient for words. When the objects are words through the ages, lust and gluttony, however untoward they may be, are not deadly sins but a waywardness that brings and preserves life in the language. They are prodigal in their promiscuity and promiscuous in their prodigality.

And so we have this word, sitting with the others in the Oxford English Dictionary, like an innocent in the crowd – an innocent wearing two large clogs and an enormous feather and nothing much else to speak of. Asked for its bona fides, its invitation, its affiliation, it has but two citations to show, both from the same book circa AD 1200, and not even spelled quite the same as it. Here’s one: “All þe flæshess kaggerrleȝȝc. & alle fule lusstess.” The usher squints at the cite, then at the word sitting there, and with a sigh hands back the credentials and moves on.

So what is it, kaggerleȝc? It’s pronounced like “cogger like” or “cogger lake” and is made of two bits, kagger and leȝc. The second bit is a suffix equivalent to modern ness; it was usually spelled laik but is seen in the Ormulum as leȝȝc. What is the Ormulum? It is a 12th-century work of Biblical exegesis, and it is a treasure for historical linguists because the author, rather than adhering to old standard spellings, developed his own phonetic spellings and wrote the work in strict meter, all for the purpose of ensuring priests’ ability to pronounce the vernacular appropriately. It thus helps us to know how English was pronounced at the time too.

The OED dropped the second ȝ, presumably because the Ormulum tended to double letters where they were normally singular. But it did not normalize the spelling to laik, perhaps because this word is a hapax legomenon (a one-off), and perhaps because at the time it was collected from the Ormulum its morphology was not understood.

And what is this great feather, this ȝ? It is yogh. It represented a voiced velar fricative. You know the Scottish or German ch as in ach? Just add some voice to that. But it could be weakened to a simple glide like “y.” It was eventually replaced with g and y and other respellings, but sometimes it was replaced with z because the cursive z looked a lot like it, and then that sometimes led to the pronunciation changing to “z.” Names that have this ȝ-to-z change include Mackenzie, Menzies (said “mingus”), and Dalziel (said “deal”). Such wayward carrying on!

And kagger? The context of the quote could help if you understand Middle English. The hints I’ve been carpet-bombing you with might also help. It meant ‘wanton’ – or anyway, that’s inferred; no one ever saw it by itself, only in these instances of kaggerleȝc. And kaggerleȝc means ‘wantonness’.

Wanton, by the way, is another word made of old bits that you can’t get in stores anymore. The wan is roughly equivalent to un as in undone. The ton is a past participle of tee, which means – meant, because who uses it now? – ‘draw, pull, lead’. So: Unled. Untoward. Froward (not forward).

And so this wanton use of dusty ancient lexis is a little self-referential note about the compilers’ wanton use of dusty ancient lexis. It’s like that old book on the shelf you have just because you have it. You keep it for special occasions, and then you pull it out and open it carefully and admire it, and wonder who first set eyes on it.

discreet, discrete

If you do not use your discretion in keeping words discrete, your lack of discernment may result in indiscretion – and it won’t be discreet.

Let’s be honest: discrete and discreet seem like the sort of word pair that just exist to be a sand trap in the golf course of the language, don’t they? They’re pronounced the same way and they have related meanings. But if you mix up the two, someone is sure to hold it up as evidence of a woeful lack of education. The English language is like a secret society where there’s a new password at every door, and sooner or later you’ll get one of them wrong and be stripped of your disguise and your power – your discretion and your discretion. And those who get it right will mock you indiscreetly. (Come to think of it, it’s more like an elementary-school secret club, isn’t it?)

Let’s start with the difference between the two words. One means ‘separate, distinct’, and it keeps its two e’s separate with the t: discrete. The other means ‘unobtrusive, prudent, secret or good at keeping a secret’, and it keeps both e’s hidden behind the t: discreet. So you see that the spelling suits them to a t and, remembering that, you can spell them with e’s. I mean ease.

But how did these words come to be so similar? Indeed, the noun form of the one is discretion and of the other is discretion. Which is to say there is no way to keep them discrete.

The reason for this is that they were originally the same word. The Latin source is discretus, which comes from the past participle of discernere, which is dis ‘apart’ plus cernere ‘decide, separate’. So if keeping things discrete and keeping things discreet both require discernment, now you know why. The connection between distinction and secrecy comes through prudence: knowing what’s what.

The two words were kidnapped into English in the late 1300s as one word with the two senses already in use. The spelling shifted around for the next couple of centuries as all English spelling did – discreyt, disgret, dyscrete, discreate, discrite, dyscrete, discreete – but it was only in the late 1500s that the spellings became discrete. English users sensed that there were two senses and thought it sensible to keep one for one and the other for the other. And so, almost discreetly – certainly it’s still difficult for many to see the difference – they became discrete.


When I was a kid, we sometimes did long car trips. We would pass through city after city and state after state (provinces, too, but not as much) on the kind of itinerary normally plied just by those who drive rigs. One thing that stood out to me when we passed through capital cities was that their capitol buildings tended to have green domes. I don’t mean a verdant green; more of a turquoise. I just assumed, being a kid, that this was something that went with important architecture. I had no idea that they were once bright, shiny, and copper-coloured.

Copper-coloured because, of course, copper. What colour does copper rust to? Green – that turquoise-y green. You will see it on other formal things: pennies, of course, though regular handling keeps if off most of them, but larger declarations of worth too, such as plaques and church steeples:

This green patina is verdigris. The state house domes were green because they were covered in a fair degree of verdigris.

Oops. Was that meant to be a wordplay? Fair degree and verdigris? The problem is this: the word is properly said like “verdigriss.” Hmm. The word looks like French, no? Yes. But it’s not directly borrowed, spelling, pronunciation, and all. It has changed and acquired a patina over the years, and is vulnerable to being reinterpreted through misconstrual.

Wouldn’t be the first time, though. Its French forms go back through history: modern vert-de-gris, which has a related adjective form vert-de-grise meaning ‘greyish green’ or ‘green of grey’ because that’s what it literally means, and it does look like that too; 14th-century vert de grice; 13th-century verte grez; and back to 12th-century vert de Grece: ‘green of Greece’. Yep, Greek green; the Latin equivalent is viride Graecum. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “the terminal syllable at an early date was no longer understood and hence underwent various corruptions of spelling and pronunciation.”

Various? Here are some of the spellings it’s had since it showed up in English: verdegrez, verdegreys, verdegrease, verdegreece, verdygresse, verdygrace, verdegrise, and, somehow, vargrasse. Well, what the heck, it was used for grass in some paintings.

Paintings? Yes, verdigris is seen in paintings as well as patinas; it used to be used as a pigment. But just when you want to rely on it, it turns out that it changes. Well, it goes from turquoise to a truly verdant green over about a month, which is good. But then it can keep changing. It holds its colour in oil, but not in other media, and if the pigment is made by boiling verdigris in a resin, it can turn brown even in oil paints. I’d like to quote Wikipedia on this, for reasons that will soon be apparent:

This degradation is to blame for the brown or bronze color of grass or foliage in many old paintings, although not typically those of the “Flemish primitive” painters such as Jan van Eyck, who often used normal verdigris.

So they painted the grass and leaves green, but, like the real thing, they went brown in time.

But not van Eyck. Who was van Eyck? Here, I happen to have a photo of his statue in Brugge:

There you have it: appositely (not ironically; iron rusts red) colourfasted into nobility by verdigris, changed by time like a word.