Monthly Archives: July 2016

Etymology in dire straits

A very common mistake, and source of linguistic misinformation being passed around, is the assumption that because A resembles some apparently older B, B must be the source of A. Such resemblances are suggestive and worth investigating further, of course, but without a historical record, you can’t say A comes from B – and if the historical record pretty clearly indicates something else, then it undermines the initial hunch. It’s true that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but when there’s sufficient contradictory evidence, the absence of evidence does gain some weight. (And, as historical linguists like to say, etymology by sound is not sound etymology.) At the very least, as the likelihood narrows, your appealing account is in increasingly dire straits.

I’m listening to some Dire Straits right now, not by coincidence. I decided to play them after being forwarded this account:


The Origins of the phrase “In Dire Straits”

In Hebrew “The Three Weeks” is also referred to as Bein ha-Metzarim (בין המצרים), or “Between the Straits” or “In Dire Straits”. It is based onLamentations 1:3: “Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits.” Thus, when you next hear someome refer to being “in dire straits” you’ll know it comes from the exile of Jews from Israel.

What are “The Three Weeks”? I’ll get into that at the end. But first, let’s dive into some dire straits.

The phrase in dire straits – or even just the two words dire straits – is not to be found in the Bible; the passage quoted from Lamentations is one of two uses of dire in the King James Bible (which gives us most of our quotable terms from the Bible), the other being in Job 20:22, “In the fulness of his sufficiency he shall be in straits: ever hand of the wicked shall come upon him.” Thus a translation of the Hebrew phrase into in dire straits is one using an idiom seemingly not traceable to an English translation of the Bible. Quotes from Shakespeare are often confused with Biblical quotes, but the only use of straits in Shakespeare is from As You Like It, act V scene iii: “I know into what straits of fortune she is driven.” The word straits (plural) doesn’t appear in Bartlett’s Quotations at all! Dire shows up 22 times in Shakespeare but not once in the King James Bible. Its first appearance in English, mutated from Latin dirus, is in the mid-1500s, and it caught on as a useful adjective. Likewise, as we see, straits and in straits and in a strait (and even great straits and desperate straits) were long used figuratively – since the mid-1500s also, in fact. But they don’t show up together until much more recently.

Google ngrams graphs the phrase as emerging in the late 1800s. According to a newspaper column from 2000, the first use of dire straits together that can be dug up in anything recorded is a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 24, 1933: “It was . . . absolutely essential to do something about the physical needs of hundreds of thousands who were in dire straits.” But Google Books takes us back a bit farther, giving several hits in the decades around 1900. It finds it in an article about Paganini from 1892; there is one from the debates of the Legislative Council of the Colony of Natal, June 26, 1890: “He told us in terms of infinite scorn that when the Colony was in dire straits of extremity after the Zulu War we were silent and still”; there is one from the story “A Masai Adventure” by Joseph Thomson, in the annual periodical Good Words in 1888: “he answered with unusual humility, showing to what dire straits they had fallen.” Even then, the phrase seems established.

The earliest hit I can find goes all the way back to the 1700s: the (long) epic poem The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius, in translation by Francis Fawkes, published in 1780, which has at lines 719–720 “When now the heroes through the vast profound / Reach the dire straits with rocks encompass’d round.” This is clearly a literal use! But could have been a seed for later figurative uses if some of the authors had been educated in the classics in translation. But I can’t find it in a search through a fairly good corpus of English fiction books (novels and collected stories) from 1710 through 1920. It seems to have gained some momentum for a reason uncertain to me in the early 1900s; the Roosevelt speech no doubt helped at least some. The first time the phrase shows up in the Hansard (transcribed debates) of the British Parliament is 1884, and its use accelerates slowly: 1 hit in the 1890s, 2 in the next decade, 5 in the 1910s, 12 in the 1920s, 19 in the 1930s, 14 in the 1940s. There’s no sharp jump as we might expect if it showed up in a single important source.

The term, anyway, according to the Google ngram, rose in usage through the 1900s, peaking in the 1930s and holding fairly steady, but then it started to climb again in the early 1980s… which is when the musical group Dire Straits hit the scene (they were formed in 1977 and had their first hit – “Sultans of Swing” – in 1978, but they became really huge starting in 1980, when they got two Grammy nominations, one of which for Best New Artist). Usage of the term dire straits has been climbing ever since, even as the band Dire Straits has subsided from charts somewhat.

Now for that Hebrew phrase: בין המצרים (bein hamitsrayim) names the period from the seventeenth of Tammuz through roughly the ninth of Av, The Three Weeks commemorating the destruction of the first and second Jewish Temples, a time of solemnity for observant Jews. I like Wikipedia’s commentary:

The Three Weeks are historically a time of misfortune, since many tragedies and calamities befell the Jewish people at this time. These tragedies include: the breaking of the Tablets of the Law by Moses, when he saw the people worshipping the golden calf; the burning of a Sefer Torah by Apostomus during the Second Temple era; the destruction of both Temples on Tisha B’Av; the expulsion of the Jews from Spain shortly before Tisha B’Av 1492; and the outbreak of World War I shortly before Tisha B’Av 1914, which overturned many Jewish communities.

But while Wikipedia puts in a “cf ‘dire straits’” next to the literal “Between the Straits” translation, it just links to the Wiktionary definition. There is no evidence I can find that links the term dire straits historically to this period; the connection appears to be a modern one, made readily enough once the phrase dire straits was common. We don’t much use the term straits outside of names and figures of speech anymore, so when we see it in one place (Between the Straits), it’s unsurprising if we connect it to another common collocation (dire straits). It just doesn’t happen to be the origin as far as the historical evidence I can find goes.

By the way, בין המצרים is, I find, also translatable as “among the Egyptians”: בין (bein) means ‘between, among, amid’; ה (ha) is ‘the’; מצרים (mitsrayim) is ‘Egypt’ – Wiktionary points out that the name of Egypt has a dual ending (–im) perhaps because Egypt was formerly two realms, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, and it says “Connections have also been drawn to מֶצֶר ‎(métser, “border, limit”) and מיצר \ מֵצַר ‎(meitsár, “sea strait”).” Still, the closest to Egyptians that dire straits seems to come is the Sultans of Swing.


This word presents to me a choice cut of memory, which in turn presents another more recent, both of them snippets from someone speaking on a raised platform to instruct an audience.

Sometime in the first decade of this millennium: A panel discussion after some film or other at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. One of the panelists was the publisher of a local alternative newspaper. She asserted that 2012 was going to be very big, that something very big was going to happen on December 21 2012, because it had been predicted by the Mayan calendar, and the Mayans were “a very technologically advanced civilization.”

Fall of 1993, a lecture hall at Tufts University, a campus on top of a hill cut in the middle by the border between Medford and Somerville, Massachusetts: An early lecture in a compulsory World Civilizations interdisciplinary course for which I was a teaching assistant. The professor was showing pictures of various items of Aztec culture. An image: a recumbent stone figure, elbow-braced, knees peaked, head turned to us, face like a rough hewing of a horrified inflatable doll, and a large bowl held on its belly. “This is chacmool,” the professor said. Then she moved on to the next picture.

Chacmool. Such a sound, like calcareous stone on French shellfish, or like chocolate milk. The word is first crisp, then melting: did the pot hold some mystic chocolate mixed with chilpoctli, suitable for sale at Starbucks? (No, that was called Chantico® – a name taken from an Aztec goddess of hearths and volcanoes.) The figure did have a moue of shock on its face; perhaps it was from tasting its heart’s delight.

Perhaps it was from someone tasting its heart.

Chacmools were a genre of sculpted object found throughout Central America, including among the Aztec and Maya. They were used for ritual purposes; the bowl was functional. It could hold offerings to gods such as food, drink, herbs… and human hearts. The one I saw first, from Tenochtitlán, is generally thought to have been used for this last purpose, as we eventually learned. On raised platforms in temples and on pyramids, captives had their hearts excised – no doubt using the best technology available, nice sharp knives – and presented in the bowl. I do not think they were asked whether that was their heart’s desire. We were not given an in-class demonstration.

The word chacmool is not Aztec, although it may look as though it could be. Its advent on this earth – as Chac-Mool – occurred in Worcester, Massachusetts, as a mutation of chaacmol. That was, according to the amateur archaeologist Augustus Le Plongeon, Maya for ‘thundering paw’, which Le Plongeon named the figure because he believed (we think mistakenly) it represented a former ruler of Chichen Itza, where he found it. So, to get to the heart of the matter: A French-American explorer (born in the Channel Islands) gives what he believes is a just Mayan name, which is mutated by an American sponsor publishing it, and is further merged subsequently, and is applied to the whole class of artifact, none of which were ever called that originally.

This seems more thoroughly confected than a cup of “drinking chocolate” from Starbucks. And, like that “drinking chocolate” with its plundered suitable-sounding name, it says more about what we want to take from other cultures than about what they have to offer us. Time and the transfer of memory cuttings are tricky things. What goes around doesn’t always come around the same way.


In the season of the cicada, I went seeking a truce between the wounding heat and the inner cacophony. I followed a board trail on a hillside and saw a break in the edge, an off-cutting path slicing through the woods. I left the main way to see what transpired: leaves, leaves, and more leaves as I wound my way through, and then, in a trice, this wounded tree.

Such succour in these cicatrices! All these carvings of cravings, young longing and shorting stabbed and hacked through the bark, memorialized in a tree you will only see if you go where you are not meant to be. The sap bled fresh some times in the past when the tree’s skin was fresh and tight; now it has healed and filled, and the tree is plumper and wiser and less bending. But still, even if stretching and half-illegible, it bears the cicatrices.

Cicatrice. This is French for cicatrix, Latin for ‘scar’; it comes into English as a longer, more surgical word for the same. The written form bears three sickles c c c to cut and two candles i i to burn in memory, and the remaining letters atr e may suggest arte: Vissi d’arte, I lived for art, I burned my candle at both ends and cut myself in the soft tentative skin of society.

We all have scars, of course. Few reach adulthood without wounds in our skin, and none make it without healed cutlines in our minds. I can look at my own trunk and see, southwest of my omphalos, a stretching solder from four dozen years ago, a souvenir of not dying yet. I could have kept my belly skin pristine, untouched into my grave at age one; instead I received my cicatrice and my indefinite surplus years. Remember that: our scars are our memories – so often there would be no us to remember without them.

So I see, off the official path, this tree, with its cicatrices from passing passions. I don’t know who made these marks, and I don’t know what followed; the incandescent moments of youth usually burn down to guttering trunks of wax and weaving threads of smoke. But they make their cicatrices in the growing lives of those involved, healed but not wholly: holes but holy – trenchant moments, the cuts that make the etchings of our lives, the healed but ever-present scars that prove we have been alive.

And behind them and below them and above them, smooth now but still keening, the round places where entire branches once were but are now gone.

Xenakis, Euryale

I have always been far-wandering, even in enclosed spaces. I have always welcomed the exquisitely extrinsic. You may say that I am to some extent xenophilic. It was natural that, when I was in university, I would at times cruise the shelves in the library looking for books that could be new friends and fascinations. I would look up a title on some subject of interest, and then I would explore its neighbourhood. This is so much easier with books than with people: you can’t, having visited a friend or gone on a blind date, simply knock on neighbours’ doors to see who else might be fun. There is something stochastic about such human propinquity anyway: aside from a desire and ability to live in the same part of town, neighbours may have nothing at all in common. Not so with books. They stand in ranked parade, spines in line, and you can easily find several to pull out and get to know better. You don’t know what you’ll find until you look, of course, and you will always have to make choices: you simply can’t read them all – there aren’t enough hours in your life. But some, when you open their doors, reach and grab your shirt or neck or hair and pull you in. And some of those turn into lifelong companions. You can’t keep the library’s copy, of course (no, you can’t, and I will be displeased with you if you think otherwise), but you can buy your own copy thereafter. I have a few books on my shelf that I came to know through the university library.

I can picture the original of this one on its shelf, on the left as you face outward towards the window to a view over the hilly housescapes of northwest Calgary; on the same row as works by and about John Cage (which was who brought me to the neighbourhood), a shelf or two along from the inside end, about halfway from the floor to the ceiling. (Any book I have ever liked in a library I could walk up to and pull off the shelf thereafter almost without looking.) I read it through. Some time later, I bought my own copy in paperback (the university’s was hardcover). I think it likely that I ordered it in. Here is where it sits on my shelf, not far from a window with a view of the concrete cliffs of downtown Toronto but not in sight of it.

And here is the cover.

How could I not be interested in the avant garde? I am the sort of person who throws open the front doors of books as they rest quietly in their neighbourhood. I am the person who made, in hand calligraphy, a poster that said “If at first you don’t exceed, try, try again” – and I did not mean it in the business “Did we exceed your expectations?” sense.


Let us wander through this palace of text about music, this guide to the avant-garde of sound that presents the subject silently, to see what synaesthetic or transaesthetic stimuli it may present. Understand as we do so that I was not a highly skilled musician; in fact, I was a rather lazy one, and would not have gotten into a university music program. No matter; I was a drama student, and loved the idea of these musical adventures.

The book is illustrated with images from scores. It starts out innocuously enough.

At this point the text is more intriguing than the score. “Wolff tried to free himself from ‘the direct and peremptory consequences of intention and effect’ by grossly simplifying the materials he used in his fully notated pieces.”

Flip over the page.

Well. That’s a little stranger. It looks very mathematical but in fact it leaves much room for interpretation, as the score says. But wander on: turn one more page.

That, too, is a score (for December 1952 by Earle Brown). How does one interpret it? Each player will do it differently. Players with more learnèd backgrounds and more skill will likely do more proficient and impressive things with it. Rank amateurs with no discipline are unlikely to produce a result worth listening to. But it uncages the music (even as it John-Cages it – Brown was part of the same set as Cage); it makes it a Calder-style mobile that relies explicitly on judgement, intervention, interpretation.

Cage, for his part, loved to experiment with chance and the mapping of other areas to music. Star maps, for instance, as with Atlas eclipticalis.

The composers’ peregrinations were not just in the written indications. They were in technique as well. And sometimes that called for new approaches to the scoring, like this from Penderecki.

Sylvano Busotti wanted the players to approach the instrument erotically. In Per tre sul piano (For three on the piano), “the instrument becomes a prone body, alternately caressed, cajoled and assaulted by its suitors.” His notation, Paul Griffiths declares, “is not unhelpful in suggesting a properly erotic manner of performance.” We may consider that Paul Griffith – and Sylvano Busotti too – may have had a different sense of the erotic than some of the rest of us.

This was all fascinating, of course, but I was familiar with Cage already, and would inevitably have met Stockhausen and some of the others. The section of this book that is most memorable to me – the one I think of first when I think of this book – begins like this:


This doesn’t mean that everyone should play badly. It means that the scores are designed to defeat even the best players. Whereas scores such as Brown’s and Cage’s encourage the players to invent and fill in, the anti-virtuosic scores give more than enough and it is up to the player to decide what will be left out. A decade later I would learn that this was a necessary approach in scholarship too: when you write a thesis, you can’t be exhaustive or you will be exhausted (and your readers will too). You have to decide not only what to put in but what to leave out.

And that is where I saw this.

Griffiths tells us (as if we don’t have eyes, or just for the sake of saying it) that this “would appear unlikely ever to fit comfortably under two hands.”

The sight of the score has surely gorgonized you; those racked-out stems may as well be abstract expressionist snakes on Medusa’s head. But the piece can be played. Here, look, and listen:

It challenges you: can you even hear it all, take it all in? If this score is a neighbourhood, can you walk every alley? Or are you afraid of what may await you down one of the darker ones? Something strange, perhaps, and unwelcoming? You know you will have to choose what to attend to and what to let fall.

This piece is Evryali by Iannis Xenakis. If that seems like Greek to you, you have it exactly. Evryali is a modern transliteration of a name more commonly rendered Euryale from the classical pronunciation; the original is Εὐρυάλη, which means ‘far-roaming’. It was the name of the middle of the three gorgon sisters. The youngest and most famous of the three was Medusa, famously decapitated by Perseus with the aid of an ocular prosthetic (his shiny shield). Medusa was mortal; her sisters, Euryale and Stheno, were immortal, so Perseus avoided them altogether. He had one thing he needed, and he took it; he was a simple careerist, focused on getting ahead. No room for feelings or far-roaming explorations.

Why does the score look as it does? It is not simply to confound the player; after all, pianists do practice – concerts aren’t cold readings. Xenakis divided the staves between different parts of the hands; in some scores he had a separate staff for each finger. But Evryali is not playable as written; the pianist simply can’t reach all the notes as indicated. There will always need to be interpretation. The intervention of the performer, which in truth is inevitable, is forced to be explicit. At the same time, the audience member, who is the receiving host of this visitation of notes, is forced to relinquish an accounting of every note and follow the overall shape and flow.

Here is a relevant quote from an autobiographical sketch by Xenakis:

These uncertainties in the appreciation of music are not restricted to contemporary music. I have encountered the same variations during performances of works by the classical musicians I prefer: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Monteverdi, Chopin. Music does not transmit a representation in a direct and immediate way. It acts more as a catalyst. The composer chooses his music because it creates in him, via the ear that detects repetitions and symmetries, an effect that promotes expression of his representation. This music then sets off in the listener a psychological effect that may be close to or far from that which the musician has felt. Moreover, music comprises several levels of comprehension. It can be sensual and only sensual, in which case its effect on the body can be very powerful and even hypnotic. Music can also express all the facets of sensitivity. But it is probably alone in sometimes arousing a very specific feeling of expecting and anticipating mystery, a feeling of astonishment, which suggests absolute creation, without references of any kind, like a cosmic phenomenon. Some forms of music go further, drawing you intimately and secretly towards a sort of gulf where the spirit is happily submerged.

I’m not surprised if you skimmed some of that. That’s how we read these days, isn’t it? That’s also how you must listen sometimes. Allow this piece to spread through your awareness:

Who was Xenakis? He was (among other things) an engineer, and an assistant to Le Corbusier; they co-designed the Dominican priory of Sainte-Marie de La Tourette, among other buildings, and Xenakis by himself designed the Phillips Pavilion at Expo 58 (see this MIT course handout for a picture of it, a plan for it, and a similar-looking score by Xenakis). He had a lifelong love of music and went back into it, becoming one of the most important composers of the 20th century – which, of course, does not keep his name from being a stranger to many.

Which is only fitting. This name, Xenakis, Ξενάκης, pronounced like “kse-na-kis” (yes, you have to say the “ks” at the beginning; no, you may not say “z” instead, tough it out, the Greeks can and they have the same mouth muscles as you do), is formed from two simple Greek parts. The suffix, -άκης, is a diminutive suffix and is also used in forming family names. The root is – as far as I know, anyway – ξένος, which shows up in English in various xeno- words. It means ‘stranger, foreigner, guest’ – and sometimes ‘host’ too, inasmuch as the host and guest are equally strangers but equally bound by obligation of welcome. We may think strange is meant to be a bad thing; we see the word xenophobia. But xenial means ‘welcoming, hospitable’, as we are supposed to be to our guests (although not all people are equally so). So, in a way, Ξενάκης is ‘a little stranger’.

Small wonder, then, that the work of Xenakis seemed so simultaneously strange and inviting to me, as I in my wanderings came to its door and was drawn in on sight – and, later, on sound.

Here is a good article on the music of Xenakis. And here are a couple more videos of his works. You may or may not like them. It is always up to you; the performance, after all, arrives in your head, whether or not you have a bed made up for it.

They made a podcast. I know, right?

Sometimes when the weather gets so summery I just get so busy summering that I forget things I did a while ago and sent off. I know right? Well, here’s one: a podcast version of my article on “I know, right?” It’s a nice reminder of how much of what we say is verbal gesture rather than literal denotation.

‘I know, right?’: The anatomy of a wonderfully nonsensical phrase


What is a shadow? A hole in the light.

When there is more than one source of light, it is like multiple overlapping realities: in one there is a hole, in another there is not. You see some parts in only one universe, some in more. But some parts are just not there.

When we look to the light and something is between us and it, we see a silhouette. A person-shaped hole in the universe. Our eyes tell us there is nothing there. The face, the fineries, the wealth of expressions and accessories, all annihilated. No colour remains; it is desaturated, just as the opening and closing sounds of silhouette are devoiced, and it is devoid. Not a whole; just a hole.

A silhouette may move, touch, interact, but we know it only by the edges, where it touches the light, much as we know a dark cave or the internal life of a person. The edges may glow, but if they do, the inside is all the more obscure by contrast.

And yet the person or thing is still there. If we were to reach out and touch, our hands would tell us so. The eyes are one universe; the hands are another.

A silhouette was first a cut-out, a paper shape, made from the shadow cast by a person. You can still get them; you can still make them. It’s easy: take a person from the side and drain all the light from them, then confine them precisely to dark paper. It’s as simple as a critical profile published in the news. It is a critical profile: it’s your profile, showing parts that are critical to your physiognomy.

Silhouettes are economical, not just in their use of light and materials but in their cost. They were all the rage in the mid-1700s in France. The finances were not doing so well; there was a war on with England. In 1759, the new Controller-General under Louis XV, faced with a hole in the budget – expenses more than twice the country’s income – decided it was time to do something the English did but the French had not: tax the rich and privileged. External signs of wealth – doors and windows, luxury goods, farms, servants, profits – were subject to evaluation and assessment. The rich did not like this; it desaturated their outward glory and gave them incentive to hide it. The Controller-General, Étienne de Silhouette, became an eponym for things cheap or austere, especially those paper cutouts that were all the rage. He retired after 8 months and left his successor to fill in what he had started. Some accounts say that he himself was fond of paper silhouettes.

What kind of a name is de Silhouette? It is a toponym. His family was from Biarritz, in the Basque southwest corner of France. Silhouette is a French rendering of Zulueta, which is derived from the Basque zulo ‘hole’; it means ‘place of caves, grottos, holes’.


It’s a season of squalls, brief tempests, passing furies. The toddler down the hall crop-dusting its discontent between elevator and suite door. Small dogs suddenly frantic as suddenly calm. Winds picking up your possessions and sprinting halfway down the block. And Hobbesian rainstorms, timed to thrash through just after you head out and before you can come to cover. The iron and concrete canyons of the city core become Angel Falls for a handspan of minutes, and you are at the foot.

There are fewer things more simultaneously thrilling and calmly comforting for me than watching a vicious drenching through a window from a warm, high, dry space. Late in the day, in the golden hour, the overladen clouds arrive and release, the rain scratches and crosshatches the view and rattles the windows like thrown handfuls of diamonds, and the glass is quickly jewelled.

And then it is quelled, no more permanent or sincere than a convention, but the dripping and bewildered buildings will take some time to dry and tidy up.

Whence comes this word squall? It was a verb first, an imitative word for screaming, squealing, wailing, squawking, hollering, as of a small person or a crow or a cat, a sound not genteel but altogether squalid. Sometimes in the 1600s and 1700s they would spell it squawl. From that came a noun for the same. And perhaps – it is not dead certain, but perhaps, and probably in fact – that noun was the basis for the sense ‘suddent and violent burst of weather’ – wind, rain, snow. (Snow squalls are the kind of squalls you get in Alberta, but in the other half of the year.)

The word is fitting in sound and shape: when you say it, it arrives with short warning, the hissing fuse /s/; then it explodes, the burst coming from the back /k/ and expanding through pursed and spreading lips /wɑ/ before finally echoing and narrowing down through the final /l/, a dark /l/ that may not even touch at the tip of the tongue. And then it is over, and you move on to the next.


This word just… walks along and… bumps into you. And keeps walking. Noisy, obnoxious, maybe even raring for a fight, but definitely presumptuous. Perhaps rambunctious. But not necessarily a bumpkin. Merriam-Webster gives this example: “a bumptious young man whose family wealth gave him a sense of entitlement.” So certainly not scrumptious (let alone scrump-dilly-umptious). Maybe a bouncer, though more likely among the bounced, but not bouncy.

Bumptious keeps company with words such as arrogant and upstart. It’s a yob who wants everything to be sumptuous, and if it’s not – or even if it is – he will be abusive. It’s a crowd you do not want to be among, especially if you are a decent, sensible person. It’s the leader of that crowd, perhaps the aforementioned rich young man who has become a rich older man with no tempering of wisdom. Whoever it is, they’re fractious.

Fractious. Ah, now, that’s a nice erudite word, isn’t it. Originally ‘disposed to make fractures’, i.e., to break things literally or figuratively; now a white-coat word for ‘unruly’, usually followed by child. It is also – along with similar words such as captious – a model for bumptious. But unlike those other words, bumptious is not purely Latin. Someone took good old English bump and rudely jammed it onto the tious (not even the proper suffix, ous). Someone sometime around the year 1800.

The first sense of bumptious was not so noisy; it meant (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) ‘offensively self-conceited’. (Oxford adds that this word is colloquial and undignified.) It has since bumped up a bit more, to ‘obnoxiously self-assertive’ or words to that effect. Like those guys you can hear coming down the street before you see them, or that person who pushes in front of you in line, or any of the myriad louts who instantly earn the quiet acid condemnation of the genteel. But the dry anathemas of discomfited doyens are otiose: to the bumptious, they mean bupkes.


There are some things that seem so obvious. You look, and they’re there. They seem obvious to other people too. But obviously different from what you see. A different perspective gives a different conspectus. This does not conduce to consensus or common respect.

Words can be like that. We see the same thing (and hear the same thing), and yet they have different flavours for different people. This is why even onomatopoeia is still conventionalized. It’s also why a game like Balderdash can be the kind of fun it is.

I haven’t played Balderdash in years, but I remember playing it a few times when we lived in Edmonton. The game goes like this: for each turn, one person (a different one each turn) pulls a card and reads the uncommon word printed on it, and the players write down definitions. The first person collects them, reads each prospective definition (not in respective order) along with the real definition, and each other player guesses which one is right. Each vote your definition gets nets you a point. If you submit a definition that is pretty much the same as the real one, it doesn’t get read and you get two points.

One word I remember coming up was conspectable.

This word has parts that seem obvious enough to me: con, ‘with, together’, spect, ‘see’, able. I seem to recall I wrote a definition that was passably close to the real one and got two points. But what stands out for me is that one person’s invented definition was on the lines of “a policeman who goes around ensuring people respect each other.” A respect constable, in other words. A politeness cop, you might say. Someone who helps make sure people see it each other’s way, or at least understand one another’s points of view.

The definition given by Balderdash, as I recall, was (roughly) “visible from multiple points simultaneously.” Which really does seem obvious from the parts, doesn’t it? Just like the word itself: seen equally by all players, but seen from different sides. But those of us who grew up in the mountains know well that this does not mean the people are seeing the same thing. Seen from Exshaw there is a mountain we called Sproule’s Nose, after one of our teachers. Heading out of the mountains a bit east of Exshaw, there are two flat-faced mountains facing each other across the valley: Yamnuska on the north and Barrier Mountain on the south. It was years – honestly well into my adolescence, I think – before I realized that Barrier Mountain was Sproule’s Nose, seen from 90 degrees different. The flat face was the underside of the nose.

And some 25 years after conspectable came up in Balderdash, I find myself looking at the Oxford English Dictionary and seeing conspectable, with a obelisk on it (signifying obsolescence), two citations from 1727 and 1822, and the following definition: “Easy to be seen, obvious.”

The con, you see, is not the con in chile con carne. It is the con in conspicuous, confute, and convince, among others: an intensifier. It has the same origin, but Latin sometimes used prefixes such as per– and inter– and con– to mean ‘thoroughly’. Why use ‘with, together’ to mean ‘thoroughly’? For the same reason we use altogether, I rather think.

So. We all saw it. And it was obvious. I thought. Well, it was obvious. But as much as it can be seen from different points of view, it is not seen quite the same way. I was not conned by the contradiction; it was beyond my control. I just hope that, having inspected the difference, we can respect it.


You know what’s nifty? This word.

OK, OK, but seriously: a word like nifty is a nifty thing. Toss it in and you get just the right feeling – it’s a nifty little language trick. It doesn’t have any obvious relation to other words, and it doesn’t get used all that often, but it just fits neatly in its niche.

Its niche, for its users, is largely defined by the words it’s most often seen with: according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, these include little, trick, features, pretty (as in pretty nifty little trick), gadgets, stuff… You notice the tone and usage context of these words: not exactly formal; more endearing, fun, like things you use to charm a person (e.g., yourself) into buying a thing. Its synonyms (thanks, Merriam-Webster) include boffo, choice, crackerjack, groovy, jim-dandy, keen, neat, primo, righteous, swell, top-shelf, and a number of more formal words up to and including supernal (which might be a bit strong and self-regarding, to be honest).

But where does it come from? Hmm, that we don’t know. Its first published use – in 1865 – declares that it comes from Latin magnificat, but that is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, unlikely. More likely it has influence from the sounds of other words: natty, thrifty, spiffy (and perhaps the nif in magnificent); it has a nice lift to it, and though it may have some sounds of iffy and shifty, that neat nose of an n seems to set it up more nicely and endearingly. The /ɪ/ vowel is high, but not as high as /i/, so it’s small and sweet but not saccharine. The /ft/ is a soft touch, of course, and the y suffix adds a bit more diminutive potential. So it’s niftily put together: a clever little lexical doodad that serves the turn, not just denotation but connotation and a certain sense of fondness.

The ensemble of it may seem almost more to match style than substance: not so much intelligent as fashionable. Fair enough; although it has meant ‘ingenious’ for a long time, its first sense was ‘stylish, attractive’, a sense it has retained in some quarters up to the present. So you can call someone’s bowtie nifty and mean that it is pleasing to the eye or that it is stain-repellent and doubles as a beer opener. Either way, it’s smart… at least in the eyes of certain beholders.