Monthly Archives: October 2016

Hallowe’en (word review video)

Today I’m reviewing Hallowe’en. Not Halloween – just the version with the apostrophe.


This word doesn’t belong where it looks like it belongs. Or it does, depending on where you think it belongs.

It sure looks like stalagmites, doesn’t it? You know, the stone spires in caves that stick up from the floor? (The ones that hang down from the ceiling are stalactites. As a kid I learned from some CBC kids’ show that stalactites have to hang on tite, while stalagmites grow up with all their mite. Of course they don’t; like coffee and comments sections, they increase drip by drip. But it’s memorable.)

It also looks like sparagmites, which are kinds of sandstones, conglomerates, and other fragmental rocks. Hmm… frag-mites. Only it’s phrag. As in phragma, a partition in the bodies of some insects. Or phragmocone, the chambered part of the shell in certain cephalopods. Or phragmoplast or phragmosome, which are subcellular things that show up during cell division in certain plants.

That phrag. It seems simultaneously erudite and ludicrous, perhaps even crapulous. It makes me think of attempts at locution while the mouth is stuffed with a rag. But no. Nor is it something to do with fragments. It does have to do with dividing, though. It comes from Greek ϕράγμα ‘fence, screen’.

So is a phragmite a fence kind of rock, then? No. It’s not a rock at all.

I first saw this word in an article in the New York Times. The sentence in which I saw it was “Friends of Ms. Vetrano said she ran frequently with her father along the trail, which is lined by the tall reeds known as phragmites.”

So. A phragmite is a kind of reed.

Nope. Wrong again.

A phragmite isn’t anything. Phragmites is a kind of reed. Yes, it’s a fake plural. It’s pronounced like “frag mighties.”

And what kind of reed is it? It is a common reed. In fact, it is the common reed. That’s its normal English name: the common reed. The author of the story might as well have just said the trail was lined by tall reeds.

Phragmites is everywhere. Its geographical spread is described as “cosmopolitan”; it’s a native species pretty much all over the globe. But at the same time, in North America it is described as an invasive species. What?

Well, there are different kinds of these reeds. Phragmites australis is native to North America, whereas Phragmites australis is an invasive European… what? Can’t see the difference? Oh, yeah, well, there are subspecies. The kind that was already here before the Europeans arrived is subspecies americanus. The other kind is the standard Eurasian kind. They look just slightly different – the Eurasian kind tends to grow in denser stands, have denser seedheads, and be lighter and bluer in colour. The main way you can probably identify it is that, unlike the americanus kind, it doesn’t grow mixed in with the other plants; it tends to crowd them out. Yeah, the native species was living here nicely, getting along with everything, and then the Eurasian kind came across the ocean and starting taking everything and crowding all the rest out. Even though they’re the same species. Huh.

I’ll tell you one thing: rocks don’t do that.

Look! It’s a noun! It’s an adjective! It’s a number! No, it’s…

My latest piece for The Week is an introduction to that double-agent class of words, there in the numbers but not of the numbers: quantifiers.

Singular or plural? It’s complicated.

bigly (word review video)

It’s time for another word review! Some people will say that I can’t do a word review of bigly because it’s not a word. I say they are bigly mistaken. Take five minutes and see for yourself.


Blow a horn! Shout for joy! Celebrate seven times seven times! Break the chains! Let the land and the people rest! Forgive all! Light a flame!

Where shall we light a flame? Hmm… how about on some cherries?

Chef Auguste Escoffier created the dessert we call cherries Jubilee (cherries flambéd with kirsch and served on ice cream) for the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. Why was it a jubilee? A jubilee, in this sense, is a special celebration to mark a landmark anniversary (as, for instance, of the beginning of a reign): silver for 25th, gold for 50th, diamond for 60th. That is transferred from ecclesiastical special years: in the Roman Catholic Church, every 25 or 50 years there is a special year of universal pardon and remission of sins – pilgrimages are involved, to Rome of course – and other special jubilees may be declared in other years as well.

The Catholics in turn got the idea from the book of Leviticus in the Bible. The people of Israel were prescribed to have a sabbath year every seven years: the land was to lie fallow, to regenerate. After seven cycles of sabbath years, there was to be a jubilee year, when not only would the land lie fallow but slaves would be freed and property that had been sold would revert to the seller. It was to be a year of rest and restoration. And it would be announced by a blow on a ram’s horn during Yom Kippur.

A ram’s horn? A ram was, in the Hebrew of the time, yobhel; the announcing of the jubilee with a ram’s horn was, apparently, what gave it its name. But when that came via Greek to Latin, the word that should have been jobelæus appeared as jubilæus, almost certainly because of the pre-existing Latin verb jubilare ‘shout’ and its noun jubilum. So a year of liberation and rest became readily associated with shouting for joy. Everybody celebrate and have a good time! Jubilate! (Which comes from jubilare, not jubilæus.)

And, of course, observe the turn of an important year. In Alberta, two large auditoriums were built – one in Calgary, one in Edmonton – to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the province, in 1955. They are called the Jubilee Auditorium (specifically the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium and the Northern same same same). I think that was where I first saw the word jubilee. But it shows up in all sorts of places. I especially like it when it shows up with cherries.

For me, though, its significance right now is that I have completed seven times seven years of my life, and today I have embarked on my fiftieth year (at the conclusion of which, in one year, I will be 50 years old). So, naturally, I took an extra day off from work to make a nice, restful long weekend of it. Now let’s see what I make of the rest of the year…


Sometimes you are kept in the dark. Sometimes you keep others in the dark. Meaning in language is a ball that is thrown from one to another. Sometimes the ball is not caught. Sometimes it is not even thrown but faked: a deliberate mystery, a perdition of meaning.

For tonight’s word, let me go to my bookshelf. But not the usual bookshelf. My much-photographed library shelves are not the only place we have books. They’re piled all over. And if you open this kitchen cupboard…

I have a collection of cookbooks. Sometimes I even open them. One or two of them. Some of them go years without being opened. I used to use them more. I wonder if there are words in some of them that have never been seen in that copy with human eyes – and never will be.

Some of these cookbooks are gifts. One of my favourites – though I’ve never made much actual use of it – is one my cousin the food-and-wine lover gave me. She sought it for years and it finally appeared in a reprint.

The Art of Cuisine, recipes and art by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, assembled by his friend Maurice Joyant, translated by Margery Weiner, with culinary notes by Barbara Kafka. Culinary notes? Yes, well, the recipes were not written for beginner audiences; they were noted down by a gourmet for use by other gourmets comfortable in the kitchen. So, for our rather more helpless and literal modern cookbook-buying audiences (who also may be unfamiliar with some things that were matters of course in the France of the 1800s), the noted cookbook author Barbara Kafka has given usable clarifications. We wouldn’t want the meaning to be missed.

It certainly has some engaging recipes, and it tells them in that lovely conversational way that old cookbooks often do.

Admittedly there are some recipes I am quite sure I will never make because I will never happen to have a key ingredient. They sit there on the page, connecting to my eyes and brain, giving me an aesthetic anticipation, but never eventuating in action.

At the very end of the book is a section called ULTIMA RATIO FINIS. It is (after its section title page) just this one page, facing another illustration.

As you can see if you look closely, it contains three recipes: grasshoppers grilled in the fashion of Saint John the Baptist; saint on the grill; and ancient recipe.


Full of mystery. It will never be known.

God revealed the knowledge only to his Prophet, who uttered no word about it. This recipe will, therefore, remain forever unknown to all other human beings.

A culinary equivalent of Arthur Sullivan’s lost chord.

An owsell.

Did you not see the word owsell in the recipe? Anywhere in the book?

It’s not there.

I first became aware of this word last week thanks to a tweet by Simon Horobin, professor of English at Oxford. He tweeted a picture of the Oxford English Dictionary entry for it.

The first thing you see is that the word is preceded by an obelisk, a dagger indicating the obsoleteness of the word: †. It is dead. No one uses it.

But at the time the OED was first assembled, it was found and noted in a book. So there it is. The OED has a few hapax legomena that appear just because someone used them once in a book. It takes rather more than that to get into it now, but they are loath to expunge an old entry.

The second thing you see in the entry, after † owsell, n., is

Origin: Of unknown origin.
Etymology: Origin unknown.

There is, below that, a little note about the sense as conveyed in the one text citation: “Although perdition is later sometimes described as black (following Milton On Death Fair Infant, 1673), and there are instances of figurative use of ‘ouzel’ (blackbird) in allusion to the colour black (compare ouzel n. 1c), it is not easy to see how this might be interpreted in the quot. here.” The text citation, which is at the very end of the entry, is a quotation from A six-folde politican by John Melton, published in 1609: “Neither the touch of conscience, nor the sense..of any religion, euer drewe these into that damnable and vntwineable traine and owsell of perdition.”

After the usage note, you see the characterization “Obs. rare—1.

Then you see the definition:

(Meaning unknown.)
Possibly a typographical error for some other word.

Say no more.


Hmm, this is a succulent-looking word, don’t you think? A little lexical Lucullan delight? Or perhaps a sultry seducing succubus? Are you doing a mental calculus on how it inculcates its sense? Are you furrowing your brow? Do you dig this word, is it groovy?

It is a groove, that much is true. A furrow. A wrinkle. A trench. An involution, a mark of graving. That’s what it signifies in Latin, and it has come to English with the same general sense, but it has fit itself into more specific niches. It is a groove made with an engraving tool. Or a rut, or a fold in the landscape. Or it is a groove or furrow somewhere on or in the body. But especially it is a groove in the brain.

Your brain, as you probably know, is as wrinkled as a shar-pei’s face. Your cerebral cortex (that’s Latin for ‘brain bark’) has a lot more area than your skull does, so it just folds in and out like a T-shirt stuffed in a can. The parts that are folded out so you can see them if you’re holding a brain are called gyri (singular gyrus), and the parts that are folded in are called sulci (plural of sulcus, obviously). The brain also has a few deeper splits between parts; these are called fissures.

That plural, sulci. Think for a moment about how you would pronounce it. If you think about it from the pronunciation first, you may come up with “sulk eye.” If you start with the spelling, you may prefer “sull sigh.” Or you may get sulky.

I mean “sulky,” another possible pronunciation. All are attested, and all are acceptable (though the older English style is “sull sigh” and the original Latin is closer to “sulky” – actually more like “sool key”). You should decide which you like best, because sulci often come in groups.

Or you could just stick with the little ones. A little sulcus is a sulculus, and if that isn’t succulent I don’t know what is. And its plural is sulculi, so at least you don’t have to worry about that “k” versus “s” thing. But if you do worry about it, you have your sulci – and gyri – to thank for it.