Monthly Archives: March 2016


“At the tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki-tiki room!”

A song from my youth, when we first visited Disneyland. The Tiki Room was not an actual bar – hardly suitable for children, you know; it was an audio-animatronic presentation of tropical birds in a Polynesian theme. I believe it still exists, but in updated form.

Polynesian themes were a preferred exoticism of the mid-late 1900s. There was even a Grammy for Best Hawaiian Music Album. Home electronic organs had Hawaiian presets (ours did! I was very impressed). Ah, hulas, the tropics, palm trees, pineapples, wooden statues, and fancy drinks. Of course it was all a fantastic confection. It used adapted borrowings from other cultures to feed a fantasy. It was not simply idealized; it was idolized. And then fashion moved on.

Did it? To some extent, yes, but the idea persisted. The Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World is still there, still themed in that Disney way with fantastic tropics in colour-saturated decay. Fancy umbrella drinks are still available in many places.

People want to think themselves world-wise and well informed, but they often seek sanitized, idealized, shrink-wrapped versions of wisdom: where before we sought the dim, hurricane-lamp-lit wooden rooms and heady sugary alcoholic beverages, now we seek serene beaches and refreshing massages and images of meditation and rejuvenation. It’s still a fiction, but one that pretends to enlightenment.

But some still like the old fiction. Of course now they know that it is a fiction. But it is an entertaining one. And now it’s really a throwback to a half century ago, with quotation marks on it. So we don’t endorse the reductionism, right? But we sure do enjoy the atmosphere and beverages. Tiki bars, it turns out, are a thing once again, at least in some places. The San Francisco area has several.

What is this word tiki? Does it seem a bit antique-y? Or anyway creaky? A tiki is some kind of wooden image or charm, we seem to recall. Is it one of those many statues of ancestors and deified beings that are associated with Polynesian cultures? In an extended sense, perhaps. But originally Tiki is the representandum of one particular class of statues, those representing a primogenitor, a first ancestor – a male one in particular. The word comes from the most southwestern Polynesian culture, the Maoris, who live in New Zealand. It has come to be adopted and adapted and Disneyfied by Americans, on the far northeast of Polynesia (Hawai‘i) and beyond.

So now it is a word that, in American English, bespeaks a certain kitschy pseudo-Polynesian style, especially one that involves dim bars with fancy cocktails. A tiki room doesn’t have audio-animatronic parrots. So what does it have?

A front door, for one, which is the limen between the honest constitutive quotidian reality and the fantastic escape within. Walk down Gough Street in San Francisco and you will pass a rather plain metal-and-dark-glass door with no sign other than a piece of paper announcing the hours of Smuggler’s Cove. Open it and push aside a black curtain and you are in a space smaller than you probably expected. There is a doorman. (“Do you have your IDs on you?” “Yes, we do.” They do not show their identification. He lets them pass.) There is a bar that you will need several seconds even to see. In case you had forgotten the term a dark-adapted eye, you may remember it now.

You peruse the menu. You order a drink from a fellow in a tropical shirt.

He makes it.

You go upstairs, to where there is still more decor.

You drink it.

And repeat.

Heady drinks in heady décor. Entertaining. Is tiki tacky? Yes – but attractive too. An idealized, idolized way to spend idle time.


There was a gnome on the gnomon, guarding the garden.

“You will pass,” he said.

“I—” I was about to ask about the missing “not” but thought then I should not. I walked forward. He reached out a red concrete hand and blocked me. The path was too narrow for me to go around without traipsing on flowers. I stopped.

“I didn’t say you will pass now.”

“Well, when?”

“When you say something gnomic.” He folded his arms.

“Gnomic,” I said.

“Economic with words but soaked in gnosis.” He tilted his little hatted head a bit.

“I know.” I could have said “γινώσκω,” but it may have been Greek to him. It would have made the point: something gnomic is of the nature of a gnome – but not a diminutive guardian spirit of the earth; this gnome is a shorty, pithy statement of a general truth, from γνώμη gnomé, ‘thought’.

We don’t know why the gnomes we all know as gnomes are called gnomes. Ask Paracelsus, the German Renaissance scientist and occultist par excellence – he may have invented the name. He may even have invented the gnome!

But that’s academic. I was standing here at the gate to a garden that I so dearly wanted to enter, and I was interdicted by an enchanted chunk of concrete. Beyond: a firework of flowers, a mosh pit of moss, wooden benches backed with capes of leaves ready to be draped on my back as I sat, and cats. But in front was this sundial and its angling guardian taking my time. Puffy blue coat, red mittens, pointy red hat, brown pants, all on a pyknic figure, and all formed of curiously flexible concrete.

He leaned forward and his brow somehow scowled in an oddly animatronic way. “Without something gnomic you won’t be coming any further.”

“Don’t get short with me.” I stepped forward on the path. His hand shot out again.

“Gnome,” he said.

Beyond him I could see a cat curl up on the bench.

I so desired to sit and smell the petrichor and pet the cat. To shower in flowers and dream again in green.

But I did not like this little no-man. A soreness surged in me to spite him in spite of myself. It was thoughtless, but so was I; I could not have piece without giving him a piece of my mind, but I was dry.

“How do you know I will pass?” I folded my arms.

“I know you. You always pass, without fail. You want to go in.”

I leaned close, my mouth next to his ear, and spoke with a scalpel softness. “We can’t have everything we want.”

A concrete hand smacked me on the back of the head and I tumbled forward. I was in. Rubbing my occiput, I went and planted myself on the bench. Now, where did that cat go?

And who still has garden gnomes?


It is time once again to turn to my bookshelf, that great pile of paper. What once were trees (and, in the finer cases, linen) are now paper with marks on them and will at some future time be dust or soil or ashes or the turds of worms. All our knowledge is written on fertile soil, and the seeds of future trees of knowledge sprout in it, but it must be aerated by those lowliest of crawling things. Perhaps you and I, too, are the worms of the world: bookworms digesting words with our minds only so that the spaces we have left may make the field more fecund.

I do have a lot of books, along with some other ways of seizing the transient images of the world.

In the heart of that photo is a book I got from a bunch that had been in a box in someone’s basement or attic in India. I still have never read it through, though I have sampled it.

It looks like a book of recipes, doesn’t it? And it is – but it is recipes for living, and food for thought.

It is moral guidance in Tamil. By an author whose name looks oddly Tolkienian. With English translation.

The English translation is in rather stiff rhyming couplets. I cannot comment on the quality of the original, but, as the book is revered, I rather suspect it counts as elegant because it helps set the standard for elegance – somewhat as, say, Shakespeare does for English. Shakespeare’s usage is archaic, of course, and poetic, and so we revere it for that, but we also take it for its aphorisms, sometimes somewhat changed in modern times. Here’s one: “The smallest Worme will turne, being troden on.”

And what will the worm turn? How about the pages?

How can a worm turn pages? Simple. It turns them into worm turds.

This book is vermiculated.

There was another book in the bunch that was so thoroughly digested it could not be kept. This one has been sampled by bookworms, but the substance remains. You can see the little traces like shredded vermicelli in the negative.

You did know that vermicelli means ‘little worms’, right? Well, enjoy your next plate of it. It’s still among the most delightful of pastas. Think of it as being the strings from some violoncelli instead.

The verm in vermicelli is of course the same as the verm in vermiculated – and, yes, the verm in vermin too, though that has shifted in sense (and in sound when you say varmint). The sum of vermiculated means (as a past participle) that it has been affected (ate) by little (icul) worms (verm). Ickle worms ate it, to be exact. All of it? No, but enough to articulate vesiculations in it.

Are these profane worms? Do they profane the words? They do not eat the bodies men of life bereave, but do they eat the minds? Or just the traces of the minds? Are books more than the fertilized soil left behind by a mind, enriched by the excretions of thoughts? And on their way to become soil again? If so, what are these bookworms except precocious?

And will they turn again?

Kicking ass and taking names is useful sometimes

A colleague was wondering about a construction on the order of “Multiplying the number by 9 and adding the digits together give you a multiple of 9.” Does that sound odd to you? It did to her – she wanted it to be gives, not give. And yet the subject is two things: multiplying … and adding … So shouldn’t it take a plural conjugation, give?

It shouldn’t because it’s one action, multiplying and adding – a compound noun phrase that is nonetheless a single entity because it is a single complex action rather than two separate actions. If it’s two different possible actions – i.e., you can multiply or you can add with equal effect – then it’s plural. Parallel examples:

Kicking ass and taking names is my favourite Saturday evening pastime.

Kissing ass and taking bribes are both ways of getting ahead in business.

It’s similar to how we can say “The hop, step, and jump is the silliest track event,” not “are.”

When in doubt, though, or concerned that some readers may prefer singular while others prefer plural, you can always avoid the issue by using an auxiliary (or, as possible, a past tense), which conjugates the same either way:

Multiplying the number by 9 and adding the digits together will give you a multiple of 9.


It’s tempting to say that this word is a tough nut to crack. But that wouldn’t be accurate. Better to say it’s the seed of an interesting exploration once you start to pry it open.

Prying open is, certainly for me, the essence of pistachios. The shells are always partly open, sort of like vegan clams, and the one thing a bowl of pistachios will guarantee is that my thumbnails will be separated a bit more from the quick by the bottom of it. And I will get to the bottom of it. Set out a bowl surreptitiously and you will be sure to catch me red-handed.

But not literally, I hope. Please don’t give me the ones that are coated in red colouring or your place will look like a crime scene (and so will my face; you will eventually figure out that I just touch my eyes a lot and am not actually in an emotional crisis). The red colouring isn’t really needed anymore anyway – it was added to hide stains on the shells, but since they’re picked by machine rather than by hand now, it’s not really an issue.

Pistachios are one of those things that are one thing to normal people and cooks and another thing to botanists. You and I and Julia Child classify things by their qualities in cooking and eating; botanists classify them by… different criteria, to do with form and function in nature (not in the pot). In botany, a banana is a berry and a strawberry is not. This does not mean that “a banana is really a berry and a strawberry really isn’t a berry wow can you believe it!!!!!!” Botany just came to use existing words in reconfigured senses rather than coming up with new words; they determined that consistency of sense in certain qualities was important and in other qualities was unimportant, and you and I and Julia have different priorities. Anyway, a pistachio is not a nut, botanically. It’s a seed. It’s in the middle of a fruit – specifically a drupe (cherries are also drupes). We don’t eat the fruit. We don’t eat the whole seed. We just eat the soft part in the middle of the seed. (Which, incidentally, gets very soft indeed if you cook it.)

How do the seeds get half-open, by the way? They just pop open at a certain stage in ripeness. Pop! They dehisce. “De-hiss?” Well, popping is quite the opposite of hissing… Dehisce means ‘open up’. It can also mean ‘doff your clothes’. Which can itself get a little seedy but never mind.

But never mind the sound of popping and of not hissing. What is the sound of pistachio?

This may seem obvious, as you probably say it the same way all your friends say it. But it has been a bit of an issue for me for some time. You see the word looks like an Italian word, and if it’s Italian, the ch is pronounced “k.” So “pi sta ki o.” But no. You almost certainly say it “pistashy-o.” But you may say it “pistatchy-o” if you’re British. So what’s up? What do the Italians say?

The Italians spell it pistacchio, with two c’s. And say it “pi stak ki o.” Well, they do in standard Italian now. But this word has been in English since the 1400s, and it came in by way of French as much as Italian. French for pistachio is pistache, though in earlier times there has also been a pistace version. And in Italian? Well, there’s the modern form, and there’s the regional variant pistacio, which in standard Italian would be said “pi sta chi o” (i.e., /pi.ˈsta.tʃi.o/), though I can’t say how the regional dialects say it.

But where did all that come from? Latin pistacium. Which in the medieval style says “ch” for the c but in classical style says “k.” However, the genus name – also “Latin” but botanical Latin, which means a special-use version of Latin no one has ever made complete Latin sentences with – is Pistacia.

Right, so OK, where did Latin get it from? Greek πιστάκιον pistakion. And Greek got it probably from Farsi pistah or Pahlavi pistag, and perhaps ultimately from Aramaic pistqa. So there we have it. A uvular stop /q/, then velar stops /k/ and velar or glottal fricatives /h/. And over time it moves forwards in the mouth and gradually softens, through affricate /tʃ/ to fricative /ʃ/.

So does that mean the correct pronunciation is “pi sta ki o”? Not in English. Just as pistachios soften with time in the cooking pot, that last consonant in pistachio has softened with time going from language to language. But whereas it has moved forward in the mouth, what it names tends to move back in the mouth as you chew and swallow it. And then, of course, you reach for the next one.


Not that St. Patrick’s Day is a huge thing in Ireland, but this isn’t really for the Irish, it’s for everyone else. They all want to celebrate the Irish, or anyway to party in honour of a culture stereotyped as bibulous, and they want to do that by wearing, eating, and drinking green things and doing so until they, too, are green. Or perhaps grey. They sing rubbishy songs that have little to do with true good Irish music, and they drink themselves sick… toasting each other’s health.

May the road rise to meet you! What that really means, of course, all motion being relative, is that you fall to meet the road. But, you know, same result. So slant your glass, and then slant yourself! Slant ya!

Sorry, that’s spelled Sláinte. That’s the Irish word for ‘health’, as in yours. It’s pronounced like “sloncha.”

Doesn’t look like that’s what it spells? It does in Irish. Irish spelling is much more consistent than English spelling; it just happens to follow quite different rules. Why not? The grammar is different too. Tá do leabhair agam, ‘I have your book’, is said like “taw doe looer a gum” and, word for word, means ‘is your book at-me’. Do bhris sé an cathaoir orm is said like “doe vrish shay a ca-heer orum,” word-for-word means ‘… broke he the chair on-me’, but doesn’t mean he broke it literally on you, just that he broke it to your detriment, the same as in casual English we use “…on me” to mean ‘to my detriment’, as in “He went and sold it on me” or “She walked out on me.”

So anyway, Irish consonants can be either narrow or broad, which means palatalized or not. English parallels would be like the difference between the two common pronunciations of news (/njuz/ or /nuz/) or of mature (/mətʃʊr/ or /mətur/). The way they indicate this in writing is by having them flanked by either “narrow” (i, e) or “broad” (a, o, u) vowel letters, as appropriate. So there are a lot of “silent vowels” in written Irish. (For other reasons, there are apparently silent consonants too – but really they’re part of digraphs, like th is in English – but I’m not going into that now.) But when there’s an e at the end of a word, it’s pronounced, but just as a reduced vowel: /ə/. And if there’s a t right before it, it’s narrow, which means it’s said like “ch” – that is to say, the same thing many of us do when we say “meet you” or “slant ya.”

This word sláinte, which means ‘health’, is – incidentally – related, way back in Proto-Indo-European, to Latin salus ‘health’ and German selig ‘blessed’. Also to Italian salute and Spanish salud, which both mean ‘health’ and both are used as toasts too. We do like to wish each other good health as we raise a glass. However green its contents may or may not be.

Incidentally, the Irish word for ‘green’ is glas. It’s also the Irish word for ‘grey’. Just as we see the sky, the sea, and many other shades and saturations as different versions of blue, Irish sees all these greens and greys – and the colour of blue-grey eyes – as different shades and saturations of glas. (Which means my wife and I have the same colour eyes in Irish, though not in English.) That kind of makes sense; a lot of the greys you’ll find in nature are easily seen as desaturated green.

So about 90% of the scenery in Ireland is glas. Also about 90% of Canadian pub-goers on their way home at 3 AM after St. Patrick’s. And 100% of the ones the road has risen to meet.


In general, we know what macro means like we know what micro means. Both come from Greek, and differ from one another simply by the vowel. In English, that’s the difference between Mac and Mike, but in the Greek original it’s like the difference between hee hee and ha ha.

So now, tell me: what kind of laugh and what kind of laugher gives us hee hee? How about ha ha? Which sound is higher, ding or dong? If a bell goes ding-dong, is the second note higher, the same, or lower? Most people most of the time in most languages will say the “ee” sound is smaller and higher and the “ah” sound is larger and lower. (To go really large and low, go for “oh” and “oo.”) It’s also closer: Italian, for instance, gives us qui and for things here, and qua and for things there.

So micro (spelled μικρο in Greek) refers to small things, things you look at close up, and macro (spelled μακρο in Greek) refers to large things, things you take an overview of. Microeconomics is economics on the small scale; macroeconomics is economics on the large scale. Microscopic is teeny-tiny things looked at closely, and macroscopic is life-size or larger. And microinstructions are individual instructions, while macroinstructions are sets of microinstructions put together in a sequence to accomplish a more complex task. Macroinstructions have, since the 1950s, been called macros by computer programmers, and if you’re wondering why those little executable sequences in Word are called macros, now you know.

The exception to all of this is macro lenses and macro photography. If you have a macro lens (or a macro extender or attachment for a lens), you are using it to photograph… small things. Things like this bug.

Or this drop of water, maybe.


One reason is that microphotography, also and perhaps more properly known as photomicrography, refers to photographing really small things. Things too small to be seen with the unaided eye. So when I photograph bugs and raindrops, they’re really too big to be that.

But they’re still awfully small to be called macro. They’re smaller than most things I’d take pictures of.

But that’s actually why they’re macro… because after I take the photos of them, I present them on screen in an image that shows them larger than life. Originally, photomacrography was exactly that: any print (remember prints? posters?) that was larger than what it depicted. It made the subject larger, so it was macro. By that definition, billboards are often photomacrography. But that definition is not what has persisted.

And that definition is not the one that has transferred to the metathesized version, macro photography (also written as one word, macrophotography). In the current definition, you are taking pictures of small things and showing them larger than life. For instance, you could take piece of macaroni and make it as big as your elbow. (Sorry, I have no illustration for that, because I have no macaroni.)

If you’re interested in macro photography, I wrote a guest post about it for the blog of my friend, the photographer and fellow linguist Selena Phillips-Boyle. Read it on her blog: “Let’s Get Small.”