Monthly Archives: December 2016


This is a good word for New Year’s. Each year proceeds from the previous, attacca.

If you’re looking at a musical score, and at the start of a movement you see attacca, you know you’re supposed to dive right into that movement without pausing from the previous one.

To attack it.

Except no. No and yes, but no.

To attach to it.

Sure, when the next movement comes along, you have a choice to pause for a moment or just to jump on it and keep going. But while a strong attack on the opening note can make quite a statement, the point is just that it’s attached like a trailer to a truck. It’s concatenated: chained together.

Why the confusion? Because the two English words, attack and attach, connect to the same Italian verb, attaccare. I won’t say the Italian is the direct source, but the English words and the Italian word appear to have the same origin – and both English words translate to attaccare. It reminds us that attach or stick (or tack on, if you like the sound) can be active and aggressive, not always passive. Think of a magnet: bring it close enough to the right kind of thing and it just – attack-attaches to it.

The Italian has a broad ambit of senses: according to Harper Collins, senses include ‘attach’, ‘stick’, ‘hang (up)’, ‘attack’, ‘begin, start’, ‘stick, adhere’, ‘be contagious’, and ‘cling’. Attaccare discorso means ‘start a conversation’, and Con me non attacca! means ‘That won’t work with me!’ That’s quite a lot of meaning sticking to one word. But it all seems to work, because it’s all related.

Years don’t need magnetism or a physical attack to roll around, of course. The line from one to another is arbitrary and instantaneous, and the instant passes without tremor (other than percussive sounds from fireworks and champagne corks). In truth, the time it takes to pass from one year to another is more than a full day: the Line Islands, part of Kiribati, are 14 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, while Howland Island and Baker Island, owned by the US – and farther west than the Line Islands – are 12 hours behind it. That means that when the new year first arrives on the planet, it’s only 10 AM on New Year’s Eve in London, and when it last arrives it’s already noon on New Year’s Day in London. It is possible for something to happen on January 2nd and for people not so far away to learn of it on December 31st of the previous year.

There are also half-hour and even quarter-hour time zones on the planet (for example, when it’s noon in London it’s 5:30 PM in India and 5:45 PM in Nepal), meaning that the new year arrives a total of 39 times. And, because a day lasts 24 hours, it will be New Year’s Day – or New Year’s Eve, or any other day – somewhere on the planet for 50 hours from when it first arrives to when it last departs.

Time may seem to attack. The year 2016 has one heck of a casualty toll among famous people, for instance (and a far greater one among non-famous people). But as attached as we are to our arbitrary divisions of time, a year has no true discrete existence. Yes, the planet orbits the sun in a regular period, but just where we draw the line to start a new period is arbitrary – roughly 10 days after it reaches perihelion, going by the calendar that will start the year 2017 forthwith (other calendars start other years at other times). We go with it because it works with us. Because we are attached to it.

And while we may make resolutions to turn over new leaves each New Year’s, we mostly just turn over new pages in calendars (if even that). We don’t let go of our attachments. Rather, we sing to not letting old acquaintance be forgot. We go right into the next movement, but it is still attached to the one before.

populism, populist

Language change is, generally, organic. It usually doesn’t happen by fiat (especially in English); it also doesn’t happen by vote. There may be some influence from “above” by people such as English teachers, but that mostly affects what rules people think they’re breaking when they’re speaking the way they want to speak anyway. You could say that language change – grammar, the meanings and pronunciations of words, and so on – happens by mass popular movement.

Which is not to say that it’s populist. Populism is a political stance that advocates the people – the general populace, hoi polloi – in opposition to a ruling élite. Language change is not the product of a program leading a movement of the populace in opposition to English teachers, editors, and others. There could be such a movement, of course, but de facto language change happens by popular will anyway. We’re all part of it, not just the people at the top. (The situation can at times be different for languages with official deciding bodies, such as in France.)

So, you could reply, if we all decided that the meaning of populism should shift to ‘following the will of the people as with a general tide, without a specific political program’, then that would be the meaning. Well, yes, if that sense shift happened and ultimately overcame opposition. The change would probably take quite a while and not be without some controversy. But it could happen.

But there are shifts that we have every right and reason to resist, no matter how many people use the new sense. We are all streamkeepers of this flowing language. When a word is being used as a euphemism to let something slide that should not, or when its use carries implications that have negative consequences, we should not let these pass unnoticed. If we speak up and point out the problems, we may help these shifts to become unpopular.

So, for instance, for a long time there was a default assumption that people in certain roles were masculine, and so he and him were used. Around the time that such assumptions started to be a bit less tenable, a common line from prescriptivists was that he and him were the natural universal gender-neutral pronouns. (Poor men, having to sacrifice the uniqueness of their pronoun! Ah, such sacrifices must be made.) At long last enough people pointed out that this did, in fact, convey the default assumption of masculinity – words carry resonances and implications whether you say they should or not – and so use of masculine pronouns as a universal has lost general acceptance. (Read more about this in my article on they.)

Which, I suppose, you could say was a populist movement – the neglected masses against the prescriptive authorities – though it was in particular a movement by and on behalf of the more neglected moiety of the populace, to influence the more dominant segment and thereby produce a fairer outcome for all.

But now let’s say that people start using populism to refer to a movement focusing on the desires not of the whole population but on a minority of it who consider the remainder to be of lesser status. Say, for instance, that there is a group we’ll call X in the population, and they feel that the government has been giving too many rights to that larger part of the population that is not X. This group has traditionally been the group that, for all its internal differences, has been ceteris paribus the more-advantaged group, and they’re seeing non-Xes get similar rights. This doesn’t involve the loss of any rights from X – unless you consider it a right to have things that other people you consider inferior can’t have. If some political leader or party rallies members of X against the government just so they can protect their perceived right to have more rights, would you call that populism? Would you accept seeing it called populism? When the movement is for the rights of not all the populace but just a subset of it, and strongly against the rights of others?

This is not a hypothetical question. I’m seeing populist used quite a lot by news media and the commentariat for racist, nativist, frankly sexist and reactionary movements. In countries across Europe and at least one in North America, leaders who advocate or enfranchise not just xenophobia but racism and sexism are being called populists, and the reactionary groups that support them are being described as having populist sentiment.

Which implies that women and non-white people are not part of the populace, or anyway are not relevant parts of it. In spite of being, in sum, the majority. And, for that matter, it also implies that white men are, en masse, in favour of such movements. Which is also not true.

I think we owe ourselves and everyone else a duty to make this use of populist and populism unpopular.


We went on a trip through niveous countrysides and cityscapes. The three pictures above are the views from our three successive hotel rooms on the mornings of our checkouts. The land is covered with snow, smooth and white as Nivea, frothy as Evian, delicate and naïve, ovine in its fluffiness.

In our peregrinations we passed white churches and picnic tables.

We skied niveous riparian plains with veinous trees and red paint.

We walked streets nixed with flakes, past trees spruced with invasive lights.

Envious of our niveous souvenirs? Snow is pretty but problematic. You can march with boots or glide with skis, but if you are consigned to driving from point to point you may be disappointed by the slowness of the snowiness. Beauty may be paralyzing, and if you think snow is baleful, allow me to introduce you sometime to the ice storm, a singularly lethal beauty. Weather is the hand you are dealt, and you play it as you may and must.

Words, too, are dealt to you. You have more of them in your hand than you probably remember, and more ways to play them than you probably think the rules allow.

The word for now is niveous. It means ‘snowy’ but without the Tintin reference but with various other overtones and a vibe at its heart. It comes from Latin, of course: niveus, an adjectiving using the combining form niv- referring to snow. The nominative form of the noun for ‘snow’ in Latin is nix. Which may not sound very soft (except inasmuch as it reminds us of Stevie) but reminds us of the obliterating effect of a snowfall, nixing the picture. Cecidit nix: snow has fallen, snow has snowed, neige a neigé. And all is as gnomic as a sphinx, buffered with billions of flakes, each unique and evanescent. A presence that makes an absence, but a textured, soft one.

For the time being. Until it breaks and melts and mixes with dirt. Well, never mind. There will always be more.

In excelsis in excess?

Is it possible to try too hard? Sure. People do it every year around Christmas. One of the ways they do it is by trying too hard to pronounce in excelsis right and ending up saying (or singing) it wrong – making too many sounds. Sometimes the highest and best is not the most. Here’s my latest article for The Week:

How do you pronounce ‘in excelsis’?


Calling them what they want

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada.

We’re all professionally attentive to detail, so I’m sure we all appreciate that, having earned a PhD, I am technically Dr. Harbeck, and it could be rude to call me Mr. Harbeck. My wife, having a master’s, is Ms. Arro — not Miss Arro, because she’s married, and not Mrs. Arro, let alone Mrs. Harbeck. Letters addressed to us as “Mr. and Mrs. Harbeck” will be received as uninformed or rude, depending on who they come from.

Now, if I were a judge, you would call me “Your Honour”; if I were a lord, I would be “sir” or “my lord”; if I were a king, I might be “Your Majesty.” When we refer to politicians, nobility and high-ranking ecclesiastics, we have to make sure we include, as appropriate, “the Right Honourable” or “His Eminence” or whatever. We’re in the business of calling people the right thing: the title to which they are entitled.

Or calling them what they want to be called. Even non-editors know it’s rude to call someone something they don’t want to be called. We don’t call Sir Edward “Eddy baby” unless he asks us to. We also don’t call people who have changed their names by their old names, especially if their identity has changed. We don’t call Chelsea Manning “Bradley Manning” or Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce Jenner” (although we may use that name historically, for instance in stories on the Olympic Games).

We don’t always call people by names and titles, though. Sometimes we just use pronouns. There are languages (such as Turkish and Finnish) in which the sex of a person makes no difference in the pronoun, but English is not yet one such. Since the binary distinction is an unnecessarily restrictive imposition, the singular they is gaining currency (since number sometimes is relevant, however, expect to see they-all becoming popular in its wake). But some people do want to use pronouns for gender presentation. There are a few different pronouns in use, not just heshe and they, but also others such as zey. But not nearly as many as there are honorifics, let alone names.

And yet, some people — even ones apparently capable of attaining and requiring “Doctor” before their names — find it beyond endurance to have to keep track of these pronouns. They deride it as silly faddism or political correctness — terms of abuse for people who refuse to stay in the boxes you have made for them. They can manage to remember who is Mr., who Dr., who Your Excellency; they can get a grip on who is Alex, who Sandy and who Alexandra; but keeping track of pronouns is just too much for them.

Of course it’s not really. They just don’t want the dominance of their paradigm challenged.

As editors, we like to ensure adherence to chosen sets of arbitrary standards. But we also like to check our facts and get the myriad nice details right — such as what pronoun a person has asked to be called by. It’s not all that difficult, and it’s good manners, too.

In the original article, I didn’t include some further remarks on “freedom of thought,” which was a line taken by a professor who is a prominent opponent of following people’s choice of pronoun. But I would like to add them briefly here:

In the case of the professor in question, it’s obvious to onlookers that he’s incensed at having to defer rather than always be deferred to; it threatens his freedom of thought only inasmuch as it makes it difficult for him to maintain his hyperinflated self-estimation. (He has been heard to lecture women on the purity of his feminist bona fides. Not really the cuttiest butter knife in the drawer, this guy.)

But just to address the broader question: If you are of the opinion that strict nativist two-valued gender normativity is the only truth, I assure you that using requested pronouns will not force you to think otherwise. You are still able to think such things. If you are concerned about your reputation, lest you be mistaken for someone who respects others’ choices of gender identities, you are still free to make it clear that you are actually quite rigid in that regard, and are conforming to university policy out of respect for civility. You are even free to think that civility is stupid; your freedom to be a jerk in your mind is not impaired by a requirement to act nice. Most of us are jerks in our minds more often than we are in our words and deeds.

For a parallel: We can’t force people not to think racist thoughts (though we can do what we can to encourage them to revise their views), but we sure as hell can require them not to say racist things. Especially within the ambit of an educational institution, for instance. Part of existing in a civil society is agreeing that, however little you may like or agree with some people, you must at least recognize that they have certain rights, which must necessarily be extended to all for the functioning of society. One of which is to be treated like a human being, and not as something less due to some intrinsic part of their person.

See? You can think whatever you want. But you act in a way that shows the required acknowledgement of others’ humanity. This may threaten your freedom of thought if if interferes with your holding the view that you are already being more than accommodating enough for these people, or forces you to confront the possibility that, in spite of what you tell yourself, you do not view everyone equally. But I do not think freedom from having your thinking challenged is a freedom worth fighting for.

carousel, carousal

The life of leisure and revelry is a merry go-round. Do not get on your high horse and look down on us in our carousal; we are on horses, high, and looking down on you from our carousel. Drink life to the bottom, drain the glass, get in a lather, rinse, and repeat, go back, Jack, and do it again. It’s like Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde, where A sleeps with B sleeps with… all the way to J, who sleeps with A, through all the levels of turn-of-the-century Viennese society, a carousel, a ring-around-the-Rogers. Except with carousal we’re just talking about consumption of food and beverage, exchange of convivial fluids, not vital fluids.

What is the difference between a carousal and a carousel? One is a round-and-round ride that will leave you dizzy, perhaps a bit sick, and feeling like a kid again, and the other one is a fairground attraction involving fake horses. One has an a and one has an e. And then there’s that pronunciation, which is messed up as all-get-out: the stress is on “rouse” in carousal, though you may well have trouble being roused after one, and on “care” in carousel, though it is a carefree ride. Well, OK, that’s if you’re an Anglophone North American. If you’re a Brit, according to Oxford, you are expected to say it /karuːˈzɛl/, which is as close as an Anglo can come to the French pronunciation.

Oh, yes. That’s another thing. The word that involves a fairground ride with fake horses comes to us from French, and to French from Italian, and traces back to horseback tournaments of knights. The word that involves drinking a lot comes to us from German, and traces back to… drinking a lot. Going all out, in fact.

All out? Gar aus! Different accounts link it to drinking all the beer from a glass or to drinking until the innkeeper says “Everybody out!” But it often has the implication of a pub crawl or multiple-itinerary bender, perhaps under the influence of cruise. Anyway, gar aus is what gave us (via multiple different spellings) our modern carouse, and somewhere along the way we started voicing the s and devoicing the g (as may happen when one has had a few). So now its noun form, carousal, rhymes with arousal, which seems usable enough, as the two have an inevitable yin-yang relationship: carousal can lead to, and defeat, arousal; and, on the other hand, the morning after you have caroused, you must perforce be aroused, so you can do it again… maybe not that day, though.

And carousel? From French carrousel, from Italian carosello or garosello (and there’s that g/c alternation come round again), which named a tournament with jousting or riding in formation or feats on horseback. The ultimate origin is much disputed. Could come from a word for ‘quarrelsome’, or a word for ‘chariot’, or a word for a Neapolitan ball game that traces ultimately to a word for ‘shaved head’. I suggest debating it on your next carousal. You’ll go round and round and won’t get anywhere in the end, but it will be fun. Even if it’ll probably leave you with a headache.


Naughty or…?

Or nice, of course. Santa’s going to find out who’s naughty and who’s nice. We all know that thanks to a song written in 1934 by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie. It was a huge hit when it was sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show – within a day it had orders for 30,000 records and 100,000 copies of the sheet music. (Yes, that’s right. Think about that for a moment.) Nice, eh?

Nice, in case you didn’t know, comes ultimately from Latin nescius, meaning ‘ignorant, unknowing’, and has taken an interesting path since then to mean just about any quality you want it to mean – or nothing at all. Nice, eh?

Not nice. Naughty. Not just because such etymological wantonness may seem naughty, and not just because both nice and naughty have ‘wanton’ as one of their dictionary definitions (and yeah, we know what that Santa dude is really after), but because naughty comes from nothing.

Well, no, it doesn’t come from nothing. It comes from one thing that comes from not one thing but two things, and each of those things is two things. But it does come from ‘nothing’. That is, it comes from naught, meaning ‘nothing’, and that comes from both ne aught and na wight, the former of which means ‘not anything’ and the latter ‘no being’ (or ‘no person or thing’). Directly related, in fact intertwined and not really possible to separate, is nought ‘zero, zilch, nil, nada, nothing, bupkes, jack squat’.

So the oldest recorded sense of naughty, from circa 1400, is ‘having nothing’. Ooo – poverty bad. Well, being poor is often seen as a moral failing, isn’t it? At least by those people who worship a golden (or at least orange-ish) idol, seen as virtuous by dint of material wealth – and who claim to follow the teachings of a person who said “Blessed are the poor” but who grab money and tell the poor their poverty is their own fault. Well, “they have had their reward,” as the guy they claim to worship (not the one they really do worship) said.

But, even though having stuff is seen as a blessing and not having it as a curse, naughty didn’t get the meaning ‘bad’ because poverty is seen as a moral failing. Or at least it doesn’t appear that that’s the reason. Rather, it’s because bringing others to nothingness, to deprivation, especially moral deprivation and depravity, is seen as wicked. And the earliest ‘wicked’ senses of the word make it clear that it was not seen as lack of material goods: it was first used to mean ‘morally bad, wicked’. Which meant wayward, disobedient – and also wanton, particularly in the sexual sense.

We still believe by default that there’s something morally wrong with enjoying yourself – and something enjoyable about being morally wrong. Advertising makes that clear: if you see the word sinfully it’s probably followed by delicious or something similar, and decadent is now a lexeme kept almost exclusively for chocolate desserts. Guilt is something you are supposed to feel after consuming too many calories, at least in the view of those who sell “diet” food. Enjoy yourself and hate yourself; buy to be bad and buy to be good. A nice control cycle we have going, eh? Or should I say I naughty one.

We don’t use naughty in full severity anymore, though. Nowadays it is reserved almost entirely for (a) the peccadillos of children (and even those are winked at) and (b) sexual inclinations and activities, which of course are subject to the same control cycle as other primal pleasures, only raised to a higher exponent. This is not something that developed in the 82 years since that Santa Claus song came out, either. A popular song of 1871 was “It’s Naughty but It’s Nice.” The phrase naughty but nice has been in use as such since not long after that.

So why Christmas? I mean, yes, Santa as the jovial, agreeable version of an enforcer, a Big Brother who has you caged in a panopticon (e.g., modern England or any other surveillance state, including your computer, don’t kid yourself), dealing out rewards and punishments. But consider: What do people like about Christmas? Among other things, getting stuff. What are we always told? It’s better to give than to receive. How do you reconcile that? Easy: We organize an occasion where I give to you and you give to me. So we get that thing that is naughty – avarice, cupidity – while at the same time being nice, i.e., virtuous (but not ignorant; disingenuous, rather). A nice bit of subterfuge. Which allows us to merge an old pagan festival of consumption in the face of impending winter with a celebration of the birth of someone who proclaimed “Blessed are the poor” and enjoined us to give rather than take.

Oh, by the way, do you like the photo at the top? It’s from the Christmas Market at the Distillery District in Toronto, part of the seasonal Saturnalia. It’s above the outdoor bar. Nice, eh?