Monthly Archives: January 2017

munch

I’m not a peever. There are some usages I’m not too keen on, but I usually don’t dwell on them, because there’s no accounting for taste. There are a couple of words, though, that get some journalistic go-ats exceeding what I can swallow – the sense stretched just too far for me. I am left with hands on face, jaw agape, a bit like a person in a rather famous painting.

Not to say I’m screaming like the figure in Edvard Munch’s famous work is. But just as the figure is surrounded by much thick swirling colour, I’m a bit overcome by rather bold strokes in the word-painting. And some rather overused terms too.

I’ve occasionally joked about making a parody of newspaper food writing; I’d call it Munching Thick Crusty Slabs. But at least in that sentence munching is being used for something that involves an audible “munch” sound, or anyway a very pronounced movement of the jaws. Which are classic components of the meaning of munch, which has been with us, in its imitative formation, since the 1400s.

We know from Chaucer and others around the time that one may munch bread, and from Shakespeare that a donkey may munch dry oats and a person may munch chestnuts. We also know, though, from Thomas Dekker in 1631 that one may munch up cheese, and from Joanne Baillie in 1798 that one may munch up plum-cake, but note that those are both munch up – add the up and it seems to connote ‘gobble’. We also know from Baroness Orczy in her 1905 Scarlet Pimpernel that one may munch grapes. But they do make some sound, do they not?

Perhaps I am being too particular. But I still remember reading a review of some brunch places in a Toronto newspaper and seeing a reference to one patron “munching on eggs,” and thinking, “Goodness, how over-fried those eggs must have been – or did they not remove the shells?” And I can look through articles in The Toronto Star from recent years and see people “munching” on “a charcuterie plate with local cheeses and ethically-sourced cured elk and beef,” “souvlaki, perogies and sangria,” and “sliders” (small burgers, in this case made using meatballs). All of which are soft things.

Well, there it is. Consumption has its risks along with its pleasures. We all munch on the foods and words we choose as we like, and sometimes we are served something that is not quite to our taste. I have opinions about food, too, after all: I like peppers only if they are hot or roasted or both; I like nutmeg only if I can’t actually notice it; I like cilantro only if it is on my wife’s plate and not mine (in exchange I get the “nasty sea insects” she abominates). That doesn’t mean they’re intrinsically bad. I just have my pertinacities, and they are relatively few. I can also get bored of clever things that are overdone – I’m tiring of heavily hopped beers, for instance, and I don’t mind if a fancy meal involves neither smoke nor foam. But on the other hand, I like a good many things that quite a lot of other people can’t abide.

Modern art, for instance. And expressionist art too. Like that bloke Edvard Munch. Poor Edvard, though: he had a rather austere, pietist upbringing, and he lost his mother and one sister to tuberculosis, or, as it was called at the time, consumption – the only kind of consumption he likely had more than enough of. There was also mental illness in the family. As he at one time wrote, “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies – the heritage of consumption and insanity.” It made for outstanding art, but I don’t mind not being him.

So I can hardly complain about a few things I’m not (so to speak) crazy about in the words I consume. And anyway tastes are such tricky things. The name Munch is pronounced like “moonk,” not at all like the nice eating word. I do wonder, if we pronounced our verb munch the same way, whether I would expect different things of its sense. Probably…

asperity

It is a season of much asperity.

Yes, there is, as Samuel Johnson wrote in The Rambler, “The nakedness and asperity of the wintry world.” But there is also, as he wrote another time in the same periodical, much “Quickness of resentment and asperity of reply” – if not in our personal daily lives, then certainly in the larger world. (Thanks to the OED for the quotes.) As we traipse through the precipitation, we could aspire to something much more auspicious: prosperity, sincerity, perhaps a party (or parties). Something to leave a better taste in the mouth.

Taste? To me, asperity has a clear taste, and that taste is the taste of Aspirin. Have you every chewed an Aspirin? It is acetylsalycylic acid, and as such is as sour as ascorbic or acetic acid (vitamin C or vinegar), but since Aspirin also contains cornstarch, hypromellose, powdered cellulose, and triacetin, it has a chalky bittersweetness to it as well, and a texture not made for chewing really. So hard to swallow by itself.

And asperity of speech or circumstance is hard to swallow, and is sour and bitter. But I think asperity tastes like Aspirin just because the words sound the same. I could in other conditions have thought of it as poisonous like an asp, or as thick as aspic, or perhaps as poor as the opposite of prosperity. None of which have anything to do with its origin, and their resemblance to its sense is essentially coincidental.

What cool hell has spawned asperity? Like so many other words, it came to us by way of French – Old French asprete, which in modern French is âpreté – from Latin. The Latin is asperitatem, which is taken from the root asper. That may look like a name (indeed, by coincidence it is: Asper is a family name, but not from the Latin), and it may look like it’s related to aspiration, but it’s not. It’s just Latin for ‘rough’. Rough as a rasp.

That’s a good way to think of it. Take up a rasp in your hand and rub it: it is covered in asperities (yes, you can say that: the plural asperities literally names the things that cover a rasp or any rough rugged surface). It has an asperity of feeling. If you rub it against furniture, it makes a sound with asperity. (Here’s Johnson in The Rambler again: “Our language, of which the chief defect is ruggedness and asperity.” Speak for yourself, Samuel.) And when your significant other sees what you have done to the furniture, you will likely experience further asperity. Which is to say, things will be rough between you for a bit.

What can you do about asperity? The world will always have its friction, its roughness, its points. But it will also have its smoothness, and over time roughness will wear more and more to smoothness, even as other things break and become rough. Winter comes and it is cold; the summer comes and it is warmer. And interim we seek such solace as we may find: pastry, parties, art, repast, pay… there’s always something in the mix. And something more to aspire to.

croon

The lexis of our language is like a coral reef, full of wonders rich and strange. And, as with coral reefs, one of the threats to its diversity is bleaching.

Coral bleaching is a result of coral shedding algae due to rising sea temperatures. Semantic bleaching is a result of words shedding distinctions of meaning due to overuse, over-broad use, what one might call thesaurusitis: treating all words in a section of Roget’s as fungible. The words are still in use, but they lose much of their distinction of sense, thereby reducing the expressive power of the language. And modern electronic media can amplify this effect.

Expressive power and electronic amplification have much to do with the word of which I sing today, croon. It’s not a new word; it dates back half a millennium in Scotland and northern England, where it has for that long had the sense of a low sound, either (particularly in Scotland) a low, deep, loud, steady sound, or (more broadly) a low murmuring sound or soft quiet singing. It sounds like it should mean what it means. In singing, it’s the opposite of belting. Belting is the kind of singing you do when you have a noisy room and poor (or no) amplification. Once you have a good microphone and good speakers, you can draw the audience in with quiet, smooth singing. You can croon.

Which is what happened in jazz in the late 1920s onward. The first truly famous crooner was Rudy Vallée. His soft voice crept like a lover into millions of living rooms through the radio. Many others followed; the one probably most often thought of as a crooner was Bing Crosby. They all had a gentle, quiet singing style that worked closely with the microphone.

But as one technology giveth, another helpeth take away. Newspapers are written by people who are trained to be allergic to repetition. They seek different words for the same thing to make their prose seem more varied and expressive. We can never forget that a pumpkin is a gourd thanks to them; we are given the idea that every promise, however solemn and formal or not, is a vow; food writers talk of people munching even the softest, smoothest, quietest foods (ice cream? oatmeal?). And every act of singing may be called crooning.

It’s not that the word is always used over-broadly; it has not been utterly bleached. But a quick look through recent New York Times articles finds gospel choirs “crooning” more than once and a jazz singer who “crooned over the trio, belting the 1941 Duke Ellington classic” – yes, crooning and belting as the same act. Even non-singers, we are told, have sometimes “crooned”: soccer fans, en masse in a stadium, “crooned” “We’re not going home”; Donald Trump, at a rally, “crooned” “I love you! I love you!” to his supporters. Every one of these uses is amplified to an unlimited number of eyeballs through the wonder of the world wide web.

As a linguist, I can look at this and just write it down as instances of semantic broadening due to an evident desire for more expressive-sounding vocabulary (with the likely long-term effect of reducing the expressive value it draws on). As an editor and user of the language, however, I would rather resist it, because it ultimately reduces the expressive power. And there can be quite a lot of expressive power in the soft, quiet, focused, and amplified sound of crooning.

kyle, kylie

There are some words, like some people and some songs, that you just can’t get out of your head – they keep coming back to you. And sometimes when they come back they mean a different thing each time.

One word like that is kyle. As a noun, it has three different origins and three different meanings. One is ‘sore, ulcer, or boil’, coming from Old Norse kyli ‘boil, abscess’. Another refers to a small iron wedge that holds the head of a hammer (or similar implement) onto the shaft; it’s related to German Keil. The third is ‘narrow channel, strait’; it comes from Gaelic caol (pronounced about like “kale”). If you know someone named Kyle – or if that’s your name – you’ll be relieved to know that the personal name comes from that third sense.

Which is not to say all Kyles are strait-laced. Certainly not all Kylies are. I don’t know about you, but when I see Kylie I immediately come back to Kylie Minogue, the pop star who had a huge hit with her 2001 “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”

Funny thing about Kylie, though. She’s from Australia. And while I don’t know what her parents had in mind when naming her, there’s another word from Australia we need to come around to: kylie. It’s not very common in current use, but it’s still in the dictionary.

What’s a kylie? It’s another distinctly Australian thing: a boomerang. The word comes from Noongar, one of the indigenous (Aborigine) languages of southwest Australia. So it’s fitting that Kylie has had many happy returns.

Just as a little tangent: her family name Minogue traces back to an Irish Gaelic word meaning ‘monk’. Kylie doesn’t seem very monastic… I guess she came around.

laryngitis (word review video)

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When life hands you laryngitis, make a video.