Monthly Archives: August 2016


Every bookkeeper needs a bookcase, right?

If you’re keeping a book that was kept by a saint, then surely you’ll want a case for that, at least. Given the pure rareness and preciousness of the work – a holy relic, sure as the hair on the saint’s head (after all, books fill the space under the hair) – if you wish to argue for armored and bejewelled protection, you have a case.

Especially if you want to carry that book into battle (perhaps on a chain around your neck) as a talisman for troops. A mighty fortress is our God, but saints can make do with a parallelepiped of armor. Anyway, if a commitment to battle is binding, why not commit to a battle with a binding? You want to provide your warriors some hard cover – there’s no respect for a paperback rider.

So what is this book-shaped armour – which can also carry other relics of the saint, such as the aforementioned hair or some bones or skin? It’s called a cumdach. That’s with the ch pronounced hard (as in ach and loch), and the m not pronounced at all – apparently that little book of a letter has been bundled away somewhere.

Actually, it hasn’t. The letter that’s been absconded with is h. The Irish word that we stole away is cumhdach; the h was for a long historical period written as a superscript dot over the m (so much easier to purloin like a loose jewel). That mh can, depending on the word and the dialect of Irish, be said like “v” or “w” or not much of anything, but generally nasalized one way or the other. So the first syllable of this word would sound, in casual speech, not much different from the first syllable of coondog. If you just say it /ˈkuːdəx/ as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, you’ll be the one stealing away a phoneme.

Cumdachs aren’t available in quantity. The vogue for them is almost a millennium in the past (especially the carrying into battle part); some of them have had their contents stolen, and others have themselves been stolen – ornamented as they typically are with precious stones. But, given that, I see no reason not to bring the word to the present for an expanded sense. If you happen to own a book that’s been hollowed out for holding precious relics of your own life (jewelry or documents, say), or if you happen to have a nice-looking box in which to carry a book of value, why not call it a cumdach? I have two nice boxes that are fashioned to look just like books. They hold my ties. They may not be saintly, but they are formal, and anyway, blest be the ties that are in a binding, right?

If you want to know more or see pictures, have a look at medievalfragments and medievalbooks.


There is what you know in your mind, your brain, that soft blancmange encased in your nutshell behind your eyes. And then there is what you know in your heart, your lungs, your liver, your kidneys, your chest – your thorax. Your vitals, your vittles, those meats that animate you and that, were you a cow for the slaughter, would be cut out and packaged by the butcher to sit under the counter forlorn and unasked-of – or used in the making of haggis or hot dogs. We believe ourselves in rational control of our world, but our minds are chiefly used for justifying those motives we feel more primally in our thoraces – what makes the heart race or the liver lunge or the lungs convulse. Never mind Occam’s Razor; we live by Thor’s Ax.

“Thor’s Ax?!” you’re probably thinking. “Thor has a hammer!” Yes, that’s true, he wields the massive hammer Mjölnir, and he also has a belt, some gloves, and a staff, all of which also have names. But listen to this: “Jarnbjorn was the Dwarven-forged battle axe wielded by Thor. Thor used this axe long before obtaining Mjolnir.” Jarnbjorn can cut almost anything, and is indestructible. But eventually, we are told, “Thor lost Jarnbjorn. Kang the Conqueror recovered Jarnbjorn from Baron Mordo’s tomb in Brazil.” Thor eventually got it back: “When Thor could no longer wield Mjolnir after his battle with Nick Fury on the Moon, Thor took up Jarnbjorn once again.”

Does that sound like it might not have come from the Sagas? Marvel, mere mortal! Marvel Comics, I mean. Read all about it on Wikia.

What, are you annoyed about this fictional invention imposing itself on… uh… a fictional invention? Well, fine. If you don’t want it, you don’t have to have it. But you may want to consider this authoritative debate of whether Jarnbjorn is better or worse than Mjolnir.

In the end, of course, you choose your hero – and your hero’s weapon – more from things you feel in your thorax than ones you tally in your cerebral cortex. But the thorax isn’t just your inner Thor with an Ax, ready to attack and defend and cut through anything (especially reasoning). It’s also your inner Thoreau, camping out at Walden, fantasizing about nature, and it’s your inner Lorax, lamenting the loss of that nature. It’s your inner hyrax, too, related to the mighty elephant but really smallish and cuddly.

OK, OK, the overlearning of autodidax can make a person prolix. In the plain world, your thorax is your chest. Your ribcage and what’s within it. That part of your torso that is above the abdomen and below the neck. It attracts its share of attention, to be sure, more on some people than on others. Much of that attention is driven by equipment located closer to the ground, and is often about as welcome as anthrax.

Indeed, the various effects of the thorax can make a person downright waspish. Which is a way of bringing me to what bugs you may think of on the garden path. Insects have segmented bodies; the unpleasant end of a wasp is the abdomen, but the middle part with the legs and wings (and other important things) is the thorax. I’m pretty sure diagrams on insects were where I first saw this word and abdomen.

But if we want to make an insect connection, it should be to not wasps but ants, which in Greek are μύρμηξ murméx, which word is (it is said) related to Μυρμιδών, in Latin Myrmidon, which names a set of warriors. They would all have had thoraces, but not all Greeks would have, because Greek θώραξ meant ‘breast-plate’ or ‘cuirass’ (a double-sided bit of armor for the upper body) – from that it came to Latin as thorax, which had the ‘chest’ sense and came directly to English as such, showing up first in the 1400s (but making the extension to bugs only in the 1700s).

We can say chest or breast, of course. But thorax, being classical, sounds more technical. It also has the soft, heavy start and the cutting end. It is a good name for that part of the body that feels the many cuts of the emotions – and learns to resist them over time.

Unless, of course, they come from Thor’s Ax. That thing can cut almost anything.


What do you do if you’re in the rottenest place there is? A veritable rat’s nest? An isolated place, a real penal colony?

Smile. Because you can’t do anything else.

And eat a leaf.

You’re a quokka, after all.

A quoi? Que? Do I mean a duck, a quacker? No, and I don’t mean a quagga either. Quaggas are extinct and being phenotypically resurrected. But they’re also zebras. A quokka is not extinct, nor is it a zebra. It is a small marsupial, a fuzzy microkangaroo, a wanna-be wallaby. And it is, to all appearances, quite content. Laid-back, even. Have a look:

It is, at least to look at, the Arthur Weasley of the animal world (though it doesn’t look very weaselly). Nature, evolution, and human perceptual schemata have endowed it with a face of perpetual friendly amusement, and the beneficence of its environs and general lack of local predators have given it a gentle contentment (well, mostly gentle) and a fearless quest for food. It is the sort of animal that gets more or less the same cheery guitar-strumming soundtrack on quite a few of the videos about it you can find on YouTube.

Where does this word come from, this quokka, /kwɑ kə/, that is laid back in the mouth, the tongue touching only at the back, the vowels back and middle, with the lips only blowing a Marilyn kiss at the beginning? It’s from a local language, Nyungar: kwaka. It just happens to have been introduced to the English language at a time when /kw/ was spelled qu as a matter of course.

And where is this animal from? You know it’s a marsupial, so yes, it’s from Australia. But not all over. Just the western tip, near Perth. But especially on a little island that’s just 19 km off the West Australian coast, a ferry trip from Perth: Rottnest Island.

Rottnest? That doesn’t sound encouraging. You may be relieved to know that earlier forms were Rottenest… and Rotte Nest. Which makes it clear that it hadn’t to do with rottenness. No, it had to do with rats. At the very end of 1696, Willem de Vlamingh landed on the island. He found it lovely, fecund, temperate: “a paradise on earth.” So, naturally, he named it, in Dutch, Rat’s Nest. Why? Because of the quokkas. They’re all over the place (though especially so after dusk; when the earth casts its shadow to hide the overbearing sun, these happy lesser lights emerge).

De Vlamingh thought the quokkas were rats. Big hairy ones. But, I guess, very friendly ones that were prone to springing around. At any rate, they didn’t make him think poorly of the island.

And what do you do with a lovely little island like that? Hmm, how about put a penal colony on it? Or a reform school? Yes, in 1838, a penal colony for Aborigines was established there. And in 1881 a reform school for boys was built. Both were closed in the early years of the 1900s. But it was used for internment camps for enemy aliens during both World Wars, and there was a military base there too.

And all through that time the quokkas were there. And after the prisoners left and the prisons closed, the quokkas were still there. Now people come by boat to bike around, enjoy the scenery, and take selfies with the smiling little marsupials.

People who live in heavily touristed areas sometimes get sick of the tourists. The quokkas seem fine with tourists. How happy to be a quokka!

Laurie Anderson once sang, “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now, only much much better.” For quokkas, this seems not to be true. The second part isn’t, anyway; the first is right on. Their name could as well be taken from the French quoique, pronounced the same as quokka with a French accent, and meaning ‘although’. Quoique les prisonniers sont venus et partis, et les touristes venues, les quokkas sont heureux. Although the prisoners have come and gone, and the tourists have come, the quokkas are happy. Ils ne sont ni des rats ni des souris, mais ils sourient. They are neither rats nor mice, but they smile. Or at least they seem to our eyes to smile. They are none the less for all that; for all that, they are nonetheless. Quoique. Quokka.

Here’s a little more quokka video exploration for you, complete with cheery guitar music.


A while back, I introduced you to the ubac: the shady side of the peak. Every hill or mountain on the planet, being of three physical dimensions (as far as we know), has parts that are more towards the equator and parts that are more towards the pole – the exceptions, of course, being those few peaks that are right on the equator (neither pole has a peak on it). Those parts that are more towards the equator are more exposed to the sun; those that are more towards the pole are more in the shadow. The sunny side of the peak is called the adret.

The exception may rightly be made that any mountain within the tropics will have the sun directly overhead twice a year and, for a segment of the year, have the sunny and shady sides reversed. So, for instance, in Cuba the ubac and adret may trade places in the height of summer. Employ of ubac and adret might take one aback or at least seem maladroit in those circumstances. But these words are from French and Occitan, and ultimately from Latin, so the tropics are off-topic, etymologically.

One may also point out that not all mountains have faces that are neatly north or south. This is true, too: a knife-edge peak aligned north-south will have no adret and ubac to speak of. But on the greener, softer slopes of agrarian France, the distinction is more easily and consistently made.

Since I have said this word comes to us from France, you may infer that it is said like “a dray,” and if so you are right. If, however, you think of it as “a dret,” you are also right. We stole it and we do these things to words we steal into English, after all. But to say it “ad ret” would be beyond the pale.

Or you could join the small cadre that make it adrec, or be precious (what a drag) and put on the Old Occitan adreg, but both of those look more like brands of Scotch whisky and would not be illuminating – or adroit. Well, they would be related to adroit, as this word is. You may know that adroit means ‘skilful, adept, dexterous’; ‘dexterous’ brings to mind the further origin of adroit: French à ‘to’ plus droit ‘right’ – ‘to the right’. That droit used to be droict (hence the c or even g rather than t in adrec and adreg); that in turn traces back not to dexter but to directum, ‘straight, direct, right’. It is the right not of the right hand but of rightness or correctness (and, yes, correct has the same rect, which incidentally traces even further back to the verb regere ‘rule’).

If you read my note on ubac you will know that it comes from the root that gives us opaque, which in this case means the dark side. So a mountain has a light and a dark side, and light makes right in this view. You are right to want the right to the light side if crops are your trade, for the sunny sides are much more highly rated. I don’t mean to throw shade on the ubac: direct sun has its drawbacks too. But you will probably tread your dray horse on the adret. Seek the lesser lights in the shadows, but make hay where the sun shines.


There’s something timeless about dusk, when the night has swept from the east and is high in the sky and the sun is rounding away from it. Yes, dusk marks a time, the time when day becomes night, but every day it returns – because in fact it is always there as we are turning. Look at this blue marble from afar: the sun is always on one side, and so there is never a time when it is not sunset, and night, and sunrise, and day; we just spin through the series on this carnival ride, around and around, and the entire rest of the universe seems to rise and fall, rise and fall. And when the sun sets, be it behind sharp lake or blocky buildings or torn mountain edge, it signals again the settling of daylife and the rising of nightlife.

And with the nightlife rises the night light: the moon, the stars, the planets. Night is not a cloak, not for these lesser lights; it is the removal of the obscuring effect of greater competition. Just as the best conversations in a party take place when (or where) the noise is subsided, the best moments with the reflecting moon and planets and the emitting distant stars come when the loud sun is out of the room. They are always there, these lights and reflectors, but if they are in the sky when the sun is in sight, they can hardly hold up against it. Some would be invisible without the sun – the moon and planets have no light of their own – but they are nearly nothing seen next to it; we need to turn from the one to see the others.

There is a word for those lesser lights that, just when the sun is sloping to other parties, sneak in the dark door opposite. A celestial body that rises at sunset or dusk is acronical. From our perspective they creep in behind the cornice of the planet’s edge, into the cone of its shadow, although in reality they are where they are at all times. But they are not acornical or aconical or even achronical. Oh, that last one, it has its appeal: the spelling achronical has been seen from time to time. But this word truly is outside of time; there is no chron in it. It comes from Latin acronychos, and the nych has become nic through a reconstrual by analogy. But though we may point our fingers to indicate the stars, this word has nothing to do with onycho-, the root referring to fingernails. Latin got it from Greek ἀκρόνυχος, which is formed from ἀκρο- akro- ‘high’ and νύξ nux ‘night’. What is acronical is high at night – rising when the sun sets and setting when the sun rises.

Which really means nothing more than that at that time, our ball of warm mud (with us on it) is between the sun and those night-high things. This interposition allows us to turn away from our local loud light and see in the shadow what is always there but not always noticeable.

Consider the idea that dreams run through your head night and day, always there, always stirring and steering your gently, but when you are awake the noise and light of outside life drown them out, hide them, keep you from noticing them at all. These dreams are the heavenly lesser lights of your mind’s sky. And the ones that come around just as the sun sets on your awakeness, the acronical dreams, are the ones you notice and remember, because the grand distraction, the great domination, the day of the brain, has quieted for a time.

Perhaps or perhaps not. Perhaps it is all a matter of perspective. The parallel may or may not shed light on the question, but that is not the main matter; to notice the small points, we need to shed dark on them. So here is to the acronical imaginings.

How do you say “laptop” in Lakota?

I’ve been on vacation the last few days, so I haven’t gotten to posting a word tasting. But my latest article for The Week is up. This one came at the suggestion and with the assistance of several people involved in the Lakota language preservation projects, and it took me far too long to get around to writing. I was lucky to have enough background in the other languages I mention: Mandarin, Icelandic, French… but the Lakota is the centrepiece, and the point is:

This is how old languages add new words


English’s offspring

English is descended from Anglo-Saxon, which is descended from Proto-Germanic. French is descended from Latin. Both are descended from Proto-Indo-European. Fine, fine. What about the future? What will be descended from English?

Future? What about the present? English already has descendants! I talk about a few of them in my latest article for the BBC:

How English gave birth to surprising new languages



My first acquaintance with this word was in the phrase filch a pilchard (though I’ll be damned if I can remember where I first saw it; when I Google the phrase, the first hit to use it is Sesquiotica). I’m not sure why one would incline to pilfering a small fish; one could as easily filch a flitch (a side of bacon) or a finch – although the finch might flinch, if it were quick.

Whatever you filch, though, it’s a peccadillo. You don’t filch a car or a million dollars – not unless you want to humorously play the theft as a minor matter (sort of like calling a mansion a “pile of bricks”). Filching is a dirty little thing, not a dirty big thing, and it’s quick and surreptitious (as Merriam-Webster reminds us). It has a sound perhaps of a hand grasping dry dust, like in a gulch, or something ground up, like mulch; it could be nothing more than rude air, like belch, or its constriction and stoppage, like squelch. But one thing’s clear: it’s closer to zilch than to much.

English filches words by the bagful, as we know. But did it filch filch? Probably not, but no one is absolutely certain. The Oxford English Dictionary, somewhat behind the curve on this, says “Of unknown origin.” Others are more venturesome: perhaps it comes from German filzen ‘comb through’; perhaps, as says, it starts with “Middle English filchen to attack (in a body), take as booty, Old English fylcian to marshal (troops), draw (soldiers) up in battle array, derivative of gefylce band of men; akin to folk.” Our language is so fickle, we sometimes end up filling in the blanks with whatever we can grab. And afterwards, we swear that it just fell off the truck.


Some lexemes excite scintillas of recollection, bright sparkling hints from the memory – a sight, a smell, a song, here and then gone, just a corner of an envelope of reality peeking into the picture. A glimpse. So for me with glimpse: it fades into this bit from Bowie and then fades out as quickly…

I still don’t know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild
A million dead-end streets and
Every time I thought I’d got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet
So I turned myself to face me
But I never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test

Listen to the song if you want:

Caught a glimpse. There are things you have and things you take (like a break or a pee or a photograph, for example), but glimpses are caught, like fish and colds and figurative wind. Your eye is a net, an open hand, and it closes on that momentary lick of light. And then it changes.

This onset, /gl/, is like a night searchlight, or a diamond turning in the sun. Consider some of the words that start with it: glance, glare, glass, gleam, glisten, glitter, gloss, glow… although there are others that are less light-like (gladiator, glucose, gluteus), there is nearly a glut of the shining kind; it could almost merit a glyph of its own, just as /ks/ gets x. Could we write *ance, *are, *eam?

But, now, look at some of these other /gl/ words: they emit light rather than perceiving it. And yet glimpsing is something you do; you glimpse, you don’t see a glimpse.

Do you?

What else is catching with your eye than seeing?

Originally, glimpse is of a set with glimmer and glitter: first ‘shine quickly, faintly, intermittently’; then, from that, ‘come into view quickly, faintly, intermittently’. From that came the noun: first ‘quick shining, flash’; then ‘brief appearance, fast transit through the visual field’. Finally it turned around to the percipient: if you catch a glimpse, you glimpse, and your act of glimpsing is a glimpse. The seer and the seen are one. The shine of a dime as it flips through the air merges head and tail. If you catch a glimpse, but your catching of the glimpse is a glimpse, you are caught in the act by the act; your eye is the mirror of the mirror. You turn yourself to face you.

No, you turn and face the stranger, who is the you of an instant in the past – or the future. The essence of the glimpse is changes, fleeting imps of vision, much too fast to take that test. The eye that sees itself sees only its former self of the last instant, awaiting the reflection. Glimpses are caught like pictures are taken: frozen moments, permanent pasts, the marks left by evaporated reality. You still don’t know what you were waiting for, but it has already happened. Or is just about to


Are the words of English efflorescences or confections? Often enough, they are at least a bit of both. Consider wymote. It looks as though it could be an uncommon surname, or a speck (mote) joined to a small dragon (wyvern). It sounds like a semi-articulate protest from someone unable to approach a castle. What it really is is something more of a treat for the eyes and tongue.

It’s not often used, obviously. But the word it grew from is even less used today: wymalve. That word in turn seems to trace back to a conjecture Latin viscomalva, which would have come from hibiscomalva, formed in its turn from hibiscus (from Greek ἱβίσκος hibiskos) and malva (from Greek μαλάχη malakhé). It names a flowering plant, common enough in Europe, Althæa officinalis, of the family Malvaceæ. The Althæa comes from Greek ἄλθειν althein, verb, ‘heal’. And indeed it has long been used for medicinal purposes. Its roots (the plant’s, not the word’s) are quite comestible when cooked; they are fibrous, and can be used in halvah or processed into something more gelatinous. The French added egg white and sugar to this and produced a soft dessert item, which they named after the plant.

Oh, did I not mention the French name? It was formed from viscomalva and was in turn the source of wymalve. Its modern form is guimauve. If you have ever sat around a Canadian campfire, you have likely seen that word on some packaging, next to the English. The English name comes from the common name for Althæa officinalis: it is a kind of malva that sometimes grows in or near marshes; malva has become mallow over the centuries; put that together and you have marshmallow.

Just to add to the fun, there is no Althæa officinalis in the modern marshmallows (guimauves). Gelatin, sugar, water, maybe flavouring. Probably not even egg white. We have taken the name (the French have too) and walked away with it. And if you see the plant – which has pretty flowers but nothing on it resembling the food (cattails are closer in appearance) – you may or may not want to use the name with the confectionary overtones. If you’d rather give the plant a distinctive name, try wymote, which has, like the marshmallows you toast over an open fire (or in the flames of a small dragon), very little left in common with its origin – partly through natural efflorescence and perhaps partly through deliberate confection – and yet is quite palatable.