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.

whisper (word review video)

It’s time for another word review video. For this one, I used my clip-on stereo microphone because I had to. As I listen to the sound, I am wishing I had a better microphone; please accept my apologies for some of the extra noise. I tried a variety of things to abate it and this was about as good as I can do. My best suggestion is for you to turn the sound down a bit. Which you should anyway, given the subject… and the delivery.

That old bad rule-seeking behaviour

Linguistics is great for making you aware of things you were already doing consistently but weren’t consciously aware of. In fact, that’s the basic point of several subfields of linguistics. There are a few particularly memorable examples that one learns in the course of an education in linguistics. One of these is the order of adjectives: we have a standard order for adjectives when there are several before a noun. We may not be analytically aware of it, but if someone says “a red big balloon” it will sound wrong.

If you’re a linguistics student, you take that as more data, and the point of such data is to use it to help you figure out why we tend to do that, and to do that you have to see what exceptions there are and sort out what the various inputs and influences are. It’s explanation-seeking behaviour.

If, on the other hand, you’re not a linguist but an ordinary English speaker, you may approach English with an eye to finding out what is right and what is wrong. We learn that good grammar is the great sorter, and we treat errors as evidence of flawed character and intellect. And so when you encounter a new fact about the language, you may well be inclined to turn that fact into a rule. It’s rule-seeking behaviour.

So when, recently, a book came out pointing out (in passing) the standard order of adjectives to the lay masses, many people were all “mind=blown” about it. The author, Mark Forsyth, stated confidently that the order absolutely has to be opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun, and “if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

Linguists, of course, quickly critiqued this overstatement; read Language Log for some responses. But non-linguists didn’t just say “Wow, I didn’t know I was doing that”; many of them were writing down that order and determining that any deviation from it must be wrong. I didn’t see any instances of people telling other people “You didn’t put it in this order, so you’re wrong,” but I did see instances of “What’s the correct order? I don’t want to get this wrong!” English speakers, you see, are in general convinced that they’re always making mistakes and doing things wrong, and they want to know the right way to do them for those instances where they’re going to be judged. (Ironically, many of them think one of those instances is when they’re talking to a linguist. Listen, honey, whatever you say or don’t say is great with us; it’s all data.)

So I feel I need to say this: There is no official correct order of adjectives you must adhere to. If something sounds wrong, then adjust it, but if it doesn’t sound wrong, it’s not wrong.

In fact, we vary the order depending on context, priority, and sets of words that we’re used to having together in a certain order. Consider a nice big old round red Spanish silk riding hood. Try moving any of the words and it may sound wrong (but not like a maniac!), although big old nice Spanish red round silk riding hood doesn’t sound awful to me. You might also get away with Spanish red silk. Some orders are more weighted than others. But change nice in the original phrase to good. Suddenly it doesn’t work as well: not good big old but good old big will sound better because of collocation – good old travels together. Also, any compound noun will defeat the word order. You have a tawny giant tortoise, for instance, because giant tortoise is a thing. And it will be different in what it can convey than giant tawny tortoise. We can even vary the order to adjust the sense: a little dumb ass is different from a dumb little ass because dumb ass is a common collocation.

So if you come up with a string of adjectives and it doesn’t sound right, just change the order so it sounds right. Make things that go together go together. Do not start overthinking it: don’t say “this one must go before that one because that is more common or more essential,” as is a common explanation for the ordering. Go with what sounds right. Afterwards, you can use that as interesting data to tell you what you see as more essential, but do not arrange the order by asking yourself which is more essential, because you could be wrong. For instance, we would all say big red building and not red big building, even though the building can be repainted more easily than it can have its size changed. And yet even that order can be changed in some circumstances: for instance, we use little closer to the noun to express an attitude towards it: I’m not gonna drive that purple little car of yours all over town communicates something not altogether the same as I’m not gonna drive that little purple car of yours all over town.

The number one thing we should learn from this, then, is that in general people aren’t fully aware of how their language works and yet they make it work, and when people start trying to analyze it and come up with prescriptions they very often miss things and get things wrong. The most poplar grammatical cudgels are based on thick-headed simple-minded misunderstandings of how and why we do things, and on grotesque overapplication of rules. That’s why they’re used as cudgels: not everyone follows them because they aren’t real rules, they’re made up.

Mistrust imposed rules, especially inflexible ones. You’ve been using English your whole life. If someone tells you that something that sounds right to you is wrong, and that something that sounds odd to you is right, they’re probably just wrong. And if your analysis tells you that a sentence that sounds awkward to you is right while one that sounds good is wrong, question your analysis. If you love the language and want to understand how it works and use it effectively, engage in explanation-seeking behaviour, not rule-seeking behaviour.


No matter how you try to hold things, sometimes they get out of hand. This is especially true with language. To some extent, we are all ketchepillars.

What is a ketchepillar? Is it a caterpillar covered in ketchup (or some other red fluid)? Or a caterpillar you can’t catch? Or a pillar covered in ketchup, or on a ketch? Or a pillar you can’t catch? Or… wait, pillars don’t move. Unless you’re so intoxicated that they do. Or so dizzied by change.

No, a ketchepillar is…

…actually, let’s play our way to what it is. Let’s get on the ball. Let’s get a grip on the ball. Let’s get the ball in hand. Let’s play handball. Or, perhaps, play jeu de paume, ‘game of palm’, a game that was played starting in the 1200s and 1300s in long indoor courts with a gallery on one side. (Some of these courts still exist. One is an art gallery now. Another is a theatre.) The ball was hit with the palm. That was kind of brutal and bruising, and people sometimes need their hands for other things, so they started using gloves. And then they used vaguely palm-shaped paddles on sticks. These eventually became things we would call racquets.

Once racquets came in, it wasn’t really the game of the palm, was it? It’s still called jeu de paume in some places, but another name caught on, tenez, which is French for ‘hold’, ‘receive’, or ‘take’ (second person plural, imperative in this case). That got adapted into English as tennis.

But tennis isn’t played in walled-in courts, is it? No, it moved out onto the lawn on the 1800s and got a new set of rules. Now lawn tennis is just called tennis and the original indoor tennis is called real tennis by its players, because language sometimes moves about as fast as tennis balls.

And is subject to reconstruals, too. Take the term for ‘zero’ in tennis: love. You may have heard that it comes from French l’œuf, ‘the egg’. It’s an appealing story, but it lacks historical attestation. The evidence more supports the idea that the term came from the joke that if you weren’t scoring, you were just playing for the love of the game (or of your opponent, perhaps). In which case the reconstrual is not from l’œuf to love but from love to l’œuf!

But this doesn’t take us any closer to our ketchepillar. For that, we have to go Dutch, and then go Scottish. I am not making some oblique reference to economies, either. The Flemish name for the game, way back when, was caetse-speel, where speel means ‘game’ and caetse comes from Dutch kaats ‘place where the ball falls’ – taken from a northern French word cache, it seems, which meant ‘chase’. This got dragged into English as cachespule, cachespell, caichpule, catchpule, catchpole, cachepole, cache-puyll, cachespale, cachepill, kaichspell, and just who knows what-all else!

Who knows? The Scots know. Well, they did back in the 1500s, when they called it something more like ketchepill. And from that they gave us – and the Oxford English Dictionary – the word ketchepillar, meaning ‘tennis player’. (All of the above historical info is obligingly yielded up by the OED.) In this game of lexical tennis, you don’t just hit the ball back, you change it every time you try to get a grip on it.

Of course anyone who speaks English is playing a game – an ever-changing game with shifting rules and equipment, and you can’t win unless you, too, can shift as needed, crawling like a caterpillar across a tennis court. But, then, who needs to win if you’re playing it for love?