Monthly Archives: February 2017

What’s logical about English?

A common complaint about English – by those who are inclined to complain about English – is that it’s not logical enough. Whatever that means. Words aren’t premises and sentences aren’t syllogisms, after all.

If you inspect the targets of their opprobrium, you find soon enough that what they mean is that English isn’t tidy enough for them. It’s inconsistent. Lacking in symmetry. Their experience has led them to believe that for every up there should be a down, for every in an out; when they see an over, they think “therefore under,” and if there is no under, they are… underwhelmed.

They’ve condemned themselves to a lifetime of disappointment. English does not satisfy their need for an overarching tidiness. It is not a Zen garden; it is a forested mountain, every tree grown unplanned in its place and conditions, every rock where the ineluctable complexities of physics left it. It is not an edifice of modernist design with proportions based on the golden mean; it is a Winchester House of a language, a veritable Heathrow Airport of accretions (for those who have not been to Heathrow, let me just say I suspect that J.K. Rowling based Hogwarts on it). Like any natural language, English has been built up by habit, need, association, and analogy. It does have structure – in fact, it has some inflexible syntactic requirements. We have slots to fill, and fill them we do. We just sometimes grab whatever’s ready to hand to fill them.

Let’s consider a few examples. One case where a desire for logic has actually prevailed is “double negatives.” Anyone who has studied logic will tell you that in “not not” the second not undoes the first one. “There will not be cake” is disappointing; “There will not not be cake” is affirming. Thus, the reasoning goes, “I do have nothing” and “I don’t have nothing” are opposite. But anyone who has learned a Romance language ought to know ça ne vaut rien, no vale nada – that ain’t worth nothing.

Nothing, you see, is not not. It’s a noun, not an operator. And one thing languages like is agreement. Concord. Adjectives tend to take the same gender as the nouns they modify, for instance. In English, we use concord with tenses in some contexts: “Should we expect them tomorrow?” “They said they weren’t coming.” Notice how we use weren’t even though we’re talking about the future? We even let negative concord pass unremarked in some contexts: “They won’t be coming, I don’t think.” This doesn’t mean I don’t think they won’t be coming; it just retains the negative aspect.

But since it’s possible, with shifting emphasis, to make “There ain’t no one here” and “There ain’t no one here” mean opposite things, an argument can be made for disallowing negative concord for the sake of unambiguity. So the proscription stuck, defended by pleas for logic – although “if negative noun, then negative verb” is perfectly reasonable if that’s the rule in the language.

Syntax has its requirements – as linguists would say, there are principles and parameters that specify how it functions in a given language. Negative concord is one parameter we have managed to turn off. Others are not so easily disabled. It’s necessary to have an explicit subject (except in imperatives), for instance; I can’t write “Is necessary to have an explicit subject,” so I stuff in an it that has no meaning. It may not seem logical to have a pronoun with no referent, but consider that, from the view of our syntax, “if it has a sentence then it has a subject” is solid. Sometimes we grab and stuff on the fly – we may jam a word in the place where a word like it normally goes, even if in this case it’s a whole nother thing and what even were we thinking? This, too, comes from a simple if-then – just a little simpler than it might have been.

Another plea for logic comes when a word is pressed into service in a way that seems untidy. One I saw recently was an objection to using disconnect as a noun, as in “There is a real disconnect between the labourers and the management.” We don’t say “There is a connect between them,” we say connection, so it’s illogical not to say disconnection. Indeed, this is untidy, in the same way as it’s untidy that when my wife is at home I heat two servings of food and pour two glasses of wine, but when she’s not at home I heat one serving and open a beer (or go out for sushi). But our little untidinesses have reasons: my wife doesn’t drink much beer and doesn’t like sushi. And disconnect is an allusive use borrowed from electronics and telephony.

A line of communication is expected to remain connected, so there is no instance where we would say that it has experienced a connect. We grabbed a bit and stuck it where it fit, and in so doing made a metaphorical connection. There’s no need to construct a symmetrical positive use any more than there is a need for a 33-storey building to have 33 levels of basement. And there’s no need to disallow allusions just for the sake of tidiness – we don’t forbid lights on Christmas trees just because there are none on the house plants. If you want to make a connection, you make it; if you don’t, you don’t. That’s logical, no?

Some people also like to laugh at how “illogical” English words are. “Why do our noses run and our feet smell? Why do we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway? Why do we say a bandage was wound around a wound? How come you can object to an object?” OK, now tell me why these are illogical.

Every one of them comes from a well-motivated historical development founded on consistent principles: metaphor, ergativity, historical sense developments and standard compounding rules, phonological shifts, stress-based differentiation of nouns from verbs. In every case there was an if-then judgement based on analogy. It just happened not to be exactly analogous to some other if-then judgements, and it produced results that seem inconsistent when juxtaposed. I think that’s fine – why not have funny things? But more than that, it’s not even illogical. In every case, we got to it from “if A → A´, then B → B´.” They just happened to be local judgements made in the context of a big, multifarious, inconsistent world.

But it would be illogical to treat a multifarious, inconsistent world as though it were elegant and pervasively consistent, wouldn’t it? It certainly wouldn’t be well adapted. It would be like laying down a strict grid street plan for a very hilly city (and San Francisco knows how well that worked out). It wouldn’t be as much fun, either. And it might do real harm.


There are those among us who oft wax litigious, not because they wish to convey justice or even because they carry a flag for a cause, but just because they wish to harass, harry, shake, and generally wear their opponents down. It may be a means of asserting personal dominance – the world has a back-drawer infestation of such pests – or it may be a way of silencing opponents or winning in business by draining the resources of others. Such cases, and such people, are vexatious.

That’s the recognized word, and it’s a good one. You know what vex is, I’m sure. In its shape and sound it even suggests the cross, squinty face one makes when subject to annoyance. We often use it to refer to objects and situations that senselessly annoy us, but in its first sense vexing is deliberately causing annoyance: a good synonym is harass. It is done to shake the person up and rub them the wrong way, disturb them, agitate them – that’s what Latin vexare means. It is most likely related to vehere, which means ‘carry’, which we see in convey and convex and also in vexillary ‘of or relating to flags’.

Those of us who think of vexation as a reaction to some irritant might assume vexatious means ‘disposed to be vexed’. In fact, it means ‘disposed to vex’ – i.e., ‘tending to cause vexation’. Certainly insensate objects and situations may be vexatious, for example the dreadful weather in which I recently drove to Montreal from Mont-Tremblant, the dreadful traffic on the roads, the dreadful lack of ploughing on the highways, the dreadfully unhelpful signage, the pasta-plate of roads around the airport, and the apparently pilgarlic “winter” tires on my rental car. But the word is best used for people who are deliberately obnoxious.

There are many ways a person may be vexatious; it is the quotidian sport of internet trolls and those “free speech” advocates who insist on their right not to convey the truth or bear the flag of justice but just to insult and irritate and maximally vex those they disdain, especially ones who can’t easily fight back. But vexatious has a special legal stature. It is an established term of art, and in some courts a judge may declare you to be vexatious and in so doing prevent you from bringing further suits unless you get express permission.

Of course courts are formal establishments with formal rules; speech in them is subject to explicit conventions and enforced restrictions. Other areas of interaction in society are not as explicitly governed; we communicate using courtesies and conventions that we tacitly agree on and cooperate in. Vexatious people abuse the cooperation and subvert the agreement; in the dance of communication, they are the ones wearing spike-soled shoes that damage the floor. Their “free speech” destroys the basis of speech in society; it claims a right to that which it negates. It insists on the cooperation of others while it is utterly uncooperative; it demands goodwill serve badwill; it breaks faith. Since the point of the right of free speech is the preservation and reinforcement of communication in society, vexatious communicators work to destroy what they claim to be building. Speech is like building bridges on bridges on bridges on bridges; vexatious speech is like driving demolition equipment onto those bridges to damage them. Speech is like a ball game; vexatious speech sets out to break the balls.

Most parts of society are not courts of law; we can’t, in declaring someone vexatious, force them to get permission before they can speak again. But though we may not be able to stop a vexatious person from talking, we don’t need to give them an audience. We don’t need to let spike-shoed dancers onto our floors, demolition machines onto our bridges, or ball-breakers onto our playing fields. Freedom of speech not only lets but expects us to nix the vexatious.


In one of my essays for one of my seminars when I was getting my PhD, I wrote something about “ramifications accruing.” The professor, Laurence Senelick, wrote a comment there: “Can ramifications (branches) accrue?”

It was at that point that I learned what the literal reference of ramification was. This word had taken root in my mind years earlier, but its reach, as it spread through my synapses and along my neurons, had not before touched the tree its seed had come from.

That’s not so surprising, really. We always see it in phrases such as “the ramifications of this decision” and “this will have ramifications we can’t anticipate” and… let me pull some quotations from the Oxford English Dictionary: “The extensive ramifications of a conspiracy long prepared” (Walter Scott, Rob Roy); “Like all central truths, its ramifications are infinite” (G.D. Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, The Reign of Law); “Such are the ramifications of this complex civilization of ours” (P.G. Wodehouse, Bill the Conqueror). So inference tells a person that ramifications are implications, consequences, perhaps the ramparts and fortifications of a castle built on the foundations of our actions. What in ram would tell the average Anglophone it had anything to do with branches?

But branches it is, and we know that branches are not usually tidy and predictable. They fork off in all directions, and crook and curve and break like bronchioles, as though trees were the lungs of the air breathing the earth, and each splits into smaller ones, and those into still smaller, and you don’t know just where they will and won’t touch, or which will green and bear fruit.

There is something wild about branches; the woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but sometimes they are forbidding and always they are unruly. We have an adjective ramage (sounds like rummage but with ram) meaning (per OED) ‘wild, untamed, unruly, violent’ of an animal or a person – or a shrubbery. But branches can be trained and tamed too; they can be cut into topiary, but they can also be woven or swirled or…

A ramada is, after all, an open shelter made with branches. It comes from Spanish: rama ‘branch’ plus –ada a past participial suffix used to derive an adjective. I’m sure that however many of you have been in a ramada, quite a few of you have been in a Ramada: a chain of hotels with branches widely distributed. Sleeping in a Ramada is rather more ordinary and interior than sleeping in a ramada, which may have… ramifications.

Ramifications are everywhere. Not just trees have them; your lungs and nerves and circulatory system do too, as does lightning, as do rivers (when you view them in reverse), as do many more metaphorical things. We do not always appreciate them, but they appreciate – they increase over time. They compound. They crack like earth lightning – darkning, perhaps – into our squared-away worlds.

But they do not just reach. Although they stand relentlessly stark in winter, every spring is re-leaf time, and they fill the air with glories of green. Likewise with our figurative ramifications: every page of a book or a legal brief, every greenback, every piece of printed paper is a leaf of a ramification. Someone did something and it has come to this.

And this comes to you. As you go about your life, not noticing what you leave behind, what seeds you plant, they grow outside your window, tap on the glass, fill the air, send forth leaf after leaf, and when they are the most colourful, that is when it all will fall and the ramifications be laid bare. Do you see it there?


I live aloft, not in a loft apartment but in a lofty one: three times three times three floors above the pavement. I’ll often look up to my window as I approach from the street, and when I am up in my apartment I’ll often look up from the same window at still taller buildings nearby. Being aloft gives me a lift (as it should, since loft and lift are related); the regular hubbub below is left, and I am aloof as one afloat in the Luft (air, in German). The higher the fewer, you know.

What is aloft? It is relative: it is whatever is loftier than you. Look at the picture above: there’s a lamppost, its pinnacle reachable by an ambitious drunk; there’s a peak of a theatre building; there are towers, some higher than others, some closer than others. You can’t tell from the photo which is highest, so I’ll tell you: it’s the corrugated one on the far right, barely peeking in and summarily bested by the lamppost… until we change our point of view. From where I sit as I write this, I can step to the window and look far down at the lamppost, or tilt my head almost equally up to see the top of that tallest tower. (There’s a taller building, but it’s hidden. Taller still that that is a true tower, a half-kilometre in height; the tip of its needle top is barely perceptible in the photo, like a long blade of grass at the crook in the theatre roof.)

Half of the buildings you see there – the ones towards the right – are offices. But the other half, starting with the tall knife-shaped one, are dwellings.

Aloft, here, half a village shines, arrayed
In golden light; half hides itself in shade

That’s Wordsworth, waxing on an alpine hamlet, but these downtown mountains that we live in here are made of the same minerals, just more carefully arranged. And at the golden hour of dusk they do indeed shine half in golden light.

Such a word as aloft deserves a lofty diction, think you not? As we mount, striving against gravity, we separate ourselves from the quotidian; so too might we take it as cue to adduce lexemes and syntagms that are seldom seen in the street. This is the choice we make, we are told by Ronald Ross:

Heav’n left to men the moulding of their fate:
To live as wolves or pile the pillar’d State—
Like boars and bears to grunt and growl in mire,
Or dwell aloft, effulgent gods, elate.

(He says nothing of women; they were probably beyond his ken.)

But however lofty you are, there are others still loftier, less tied to the ground: larks, “the pear-shaped balloon,” “sailing clouds,” and “Thou orb aloft full-dazzling!” – those last three all from Whitman. Even other humans have untied and levitated. As aloof and alone as you are, there will still be another one who is beyond you.

Look again at that photograph.

Click on the picture, so you can see it at fuller size. Click again on the web page that opens. Look, there, just past the spire of the TD tower that grows its soft little fleece of steam: in the heart of the sky, there is a small airplane, straight-winged, scudding above the dusty downtown dollar-piles, aloft.

turn the other cheek

OK, this isn’t a word. It’s a phrase. But it’s a phrase that can serve as an excellent illustration of the value of historical research and awareness of cultural context.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase turn the other cheek. It’s a popular admonition to forgive wrongs and not to fight back. Someone does you dirty? Turn the other cheek. You often get this advice from people who have not likewise been wronged, and sometimes from people who are the wrongdoers. It is open to abuse because it seems to give carte blanche to abusers. And, on the other hand (ignore the pun), you get instances like a particularly stupid one I once accidentally saw in a terrible TV show where Michael Langdon played an angel. Some bad guy punches him in the side of the head. Langdon turns his head and gets punched on the other side. Then he says, “I turned the other cheek,” and belts the bad guy. (Of course bad guy punches never knock a good guy out, but good guy punches usually knock a bad guy out. But I digress.)

The phrase comes from the Bible, from the Gospel According to Matthew, the part popularly called the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s the line from the King James Version: “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” But let me give you a bit more context, and let me give it to you in a better version. (The King James Version is a 400-year-old translation of the Hebrew and Greek sources. The state of scholarship and research has advanced much in the intervening four centuries, and the language has changed too. We think the KJV is elegant because it – and Shakespeare – is held up to us as examplary of beautiful English: it’s what we learn to judge beautiful English by, so of couse we revere it. But it’s no longer a truly accurate translation, if it ever was.) Here, Matthew 5:38–41 in the New International Version:

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

That seems plain enough, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the problem. We see words we understand, referring to things we can picture (even if we don’t experience them much), so we assume that we can take it at face value. We treat the cultural context of the Bible as effectively identical to our own cultural context.

“We,” I am happy to say, does not include scholars like Walter Wink. Walter Wink was a minister and professor. He wrote several books, and coined (among others) the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence.” Walter Wink did the hard legwork on this passage. He looked at the history and the cultural norms at the time. The time and place in which Jesus lived was a Jewish nation under Roman occupation, a nation subject to its own laws and norms as well as to an imposed Roman occupying law. Walter Wink also worked through the physical implications of this passage.

Jesus didn’t say a cheek or your cheek. He said the right cheek. Say someone slaps you on the right cheek. They’re facing you. How do they do that? With their left hand, right? No, wrong. The left hand was unclean. It was not to be used for touching other people. No matter what. (This rule still stands in some cultures.) So they’re backhanding you with the right hand. This was a kind of slap of rebuke given to a social inferior. It wasn’t a fighting blow; it was a reprimand. Master to slave. Father to son. Husband to wife. Roman to Jew. Anyone who struck a social equal that way was subject to a fine. The rule of law was important!

Now, if someone struck you that way, and you invited them to strike the left cheek, you were inviting them to an open-handed blow. That’s an entirely different kind of slap. It was not a rebuke to an inferior. It was a challenge to an equal. You’re inviting them to hit you again, but you’re inviting them to hit you as they would hit an equal. If you are their equal, the first blow was improper. If they are your social superior, the second blow would be. You’re forcing them to be open about the imbalance, the injustice. It’s not violence. It’s peaceful. But it’s resistance. It’s a dare. It’s cheeky.

How about if someone sues you for your shirt? Let’s not forget that they didn’t wear three-piece suits then. They wore an inner garment and an outer garment. These have been translated as shirt and coat, but actually they were khitona, or tunic, and himation, or toga. The coat, the toga, was the outer garment, but it was actually more essential, because it’s what you slept in at night. Deuteronomy 24, verse 13, lays down the law that if someone gives you their coat – himation, toga – as a pledge, you must return it by nightfall so they can sleep in it.

So, now, they’ve demanded from you the shirt off your back. Literally, that’s what they’ve taken you to court for. You push it. You get cheeky. You give them the coat too. They’ll be required by law to return it. Oh, and if they have both your shirt and your coat, what are you wearing? …Nothing. Which exposes you to shame – at their instigation – but also exposes them to shame for viewing it. So you’re really pressing the point. You’re not letting them get away with a halfway villainy, a socially allowable injustice. You’re making them commit to an obvious injustice, to face the full force of their actions: “Stop, why are you doing that? You’re making me feel like a bad person.”

Now. How about that extra mile? We know that “go the extra mile” line too. But this isn’t a running club buddy asking you. It’s not your aunt saying “Can’t we stroll a bit longer.” It’s not your friend saying “Dude, help me move this sofa to my new place.” Judaea was under Roman occupation, and Roman law permitted Roman authorities to require any inhabitant of an occupied territory to carry messages and equipment for the distance of one mile – but prohibited forcing them to go any more than one mile. They could be punished for making you go farther. So. You’re walking along the road in your country , which is occupied by these Romans, and a Roman comes along and says you have to carry something for him. This blows your lunch plans a little bit, maybe, but it’s not terrible; a Roman mile was a bit shorter than a modern mile, and might take a person 20 minutes or less to walk. It’s just an indignity, an injustice. But it’s one permitted by law, so it’s OK, right?

So at the end of the mile you keep going. “No,” says the Roman, “you don’t have to go any farther. You can hand it over now.” “Oh, no problem,” you say, smiling. “I can do two.” Why not? You’re keeping someone else from having to do that mile. And you’re putting this occupier in an uncomfortable situation. “You’re making me look bad!” “But I thought you wanted me to carry this for you!” Cheeky.

So you do not return violence for violence, no. That would compound wrong on wrong. It would also make you lose. They could have you arrested for it. Instead, you turn the other cheek, go the extra mile. But, in its historical origins, that is also not meek acquiescence. It’s pressing the point. It’s making the injustice plainer to see. It’s making it awkward. Politeness lets injustices pass. But pushing politeness can expose them, too, without giving any excuse for further injustice. You just have to turn… cheeky.

The phrase turn the other cheek is well ingrained in the language, of course, as is go the extra mile. It would be far too much to expect people to instantly change the usage to refer to a kind of meekness that presses the point and exposes the injustice. Still, it’s worth knowing, to appreciate historical context and to reconsider the value of the usual intention of the phrase.


I have been known to take a tipple or two. A quick quaff. A wee dram. A shot of hooch, a bit of booze, a tiny toddy, a sip of the sauce. I have a taste for the hard stuff; if there’s a problem, I can offer a solution… of 40% ethanol. I take not just firewater, of course, and similar spirits (a mug of moonshine, perhaps? but skip the rotgut); much as I like the malt, I will take that malt-and-hops beverage too. Who doesn’t like the pint? Or fizzy by the flute or bumper, or other sorts of Bacchus’s favourite beverage – set out the stemware and replenish it with juice of the grape. There are just so many ways to drink.

How fortunate that there are so many synonyms for drink. Or perhaps how unfortunate.

Something so loved yet so louche is bound to accumulate synonyms and euphemisms. We want to talk about it without talking about it; we want to be coy. A while back I said offhandedly that there must be more than 365 synonyms for drunk, and I have long since validated that claim (see? include the comments).

Which does not mean we have to use them all incessantly. We can talk about alcoholic beverages without using a different word for them every time. There is a fear in some circles of using the same significant word twice in close proximity (within a paragraph or two, say), and it seems so… writerly… to toss in variants. Some of these words seem to be in the language just so people who are afraid of repetition have another word (see temblor).

Tipple shows up when a writer wants a fresh word for ‘drink’, noun or verb. It has a bit of a different tone to it, but it has some cross-currents. It can sound as prim as a steeple, or as bare as a nipple; it may make you a bit tipsy (just a sample) or it may make you topple. It shows up more in certain kinds of context: favourite tipple, tipple of choice; a tiplpe or two, the odd tipple, the occasional tipple; a local tipple, a summertime tipple, a sunset tipple. If you search newspapers, you will probably note a preponderance of noun usages.

Which is entertaining. Because it’s a kind of backwash. In real life we could say the tipple makes the tippler, because until you’ve tippled you aren’t a tippler and you require tipple to tipple, but in the history of this word the noun shows up last – in the later 1500s – and the verb shows up a bit sooner – circa 1500 – but the word tippler is the earliest of the three, dating as far back as the late 1300s.

But… that –le suffix… and the agentive –er that’s obviously tacked onto it… how can you go backwards through that? Well, to be fair, the sense of tippler meaning ‘drinker’ has been dated back only to 1580. The earlier instances all refer to a retailer of ales and other intoxicating liquors. A tippler was first a person who sold alcoholic beverages. And tipple meaning ‘sell liquor’ is the sense that showed up in 1500; the sense meaning ‘drink’ appeared around 1560. So we may have had a backformation from tippler in one sense, and then a forward formation in the other. If there is a tippler, then there must be tippling; but tipple sounds like a verb of action (get to tip a bit now and again, for instance), so…

…so where does tippler come from? It’s not completely clear, but it’s not formed from tip. It can’t be, unless tip was around in common use for quite a while before anyone got around to writing it down. More likely is that tippler comes from a Norse dialect word relating to drinking little bits. But we’re not really sure. It’s all rather hazy.

And now we have this word in our collection. It’s not the standard word; it’s become a quaint curio, a cute toy, a fun little thing to trot out for guests or just when we want to feel a bit more… special. The English lexicon is like a liquor cabinet, and a very well stocked one at that. And every now and then you just want to bring out that odd little bottle of liqueur. It serves its intoxicating turn (with the extra kick for the synonym addict), and it has a different flavour too, and on top of all that it marks you out as a sophisticated collector and tippler.

fnarr fnarr

I challenge you to read today’s word and not snarf or snicker.

Oh. Too late?

What does fnarr fnarr look like it might be? You may be inclined to imagine that, notwithstanding its chortling appearance, it’s really the name of a fruit or other food, or perhaps a folk dance of some sort. Or some furry little arboreal critter.

Well nope. It is, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, an interjection “representing lecherous or half-suppressed laughter,” or an adjective describing something “characterized by crude sexual innuendo; vulgarly or salaciously humorous.”

Do we wonder whether this is some obsolete holdover from 18th-century Scotland or Restoration England? It is not; it is one of the newest entries in the OED, with a first citation from 1987. And the source is clearly identified (and not just by the OED): It’s a British comic for adults named Finbarr Saunders & His Double Entendres. The title character is a youth who finds something off-colour to snicker at in absolutely everything (a dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste!), and the adults around him give him more than enough material to work with. He emits a wide variety of sounds of suppressed laughter in reaction; examples include (in all caps since the lettering in the comic is, as in most comics, in all caps) GRA! GRA!, YOOP! YOOP!, SNIT! SNIT!, WURP! WURP!, FOFF! FOFF!, AROOGA! AROOGA!, BIP! BIP!, YURK! YURK!, SPROOF! SPROOF!, PLEEB! PLEEB!, BOOF! BOOF!, and of course FNARR! FNARR!

The emotivity of the utterance is conveniently expressed with reduplication (in the ordinary tongue, that means you know he’s excited because it comes twice). Nearly all the words have some indication of stifling: a back vowel (/u/ or /o/ or similar), a retroflex (/r/), a lip-biting fricative (/f/).

These expressions haven’t all equally caught on. But fnarr fnarr has. It probably doesn’t hurt that fnarr can be contracted from Finbarr, but it is particularly effective in its expression; it’s a very good representation of a partially stifled snorting chuckle of a basely lecherous kind, a har that can’t be smothered by a pillow. It has a certain animality to it, too – dog owners probably recognize it as a sound their pet has made while contending with a chew toy or other plaything. It has made various appearances in the British popular press (music review magazines, for instance), and was helpfully noted by the Guardian in 1990. It sometimes shows up reduced to fnar fnar or just fnarr.

Not every double entendre is fnarr fnarr, though, just the obviously crude and crass ones. I have often said that a word isn’t much good if it can only mean one thing at a time. I do love a good double entendre. But good is the word to watch here. It is possible for innuendo to be refined. Wit is like cane syrup: it can be heavy and sticky and hard to swallow, the sort of thing you can’t wait to rinse off, but if you refine it and dry it out you will get some sugar.

Oh, go ahead and say it.


“Oh, you’re here to install?” my coworker Amy said to our sysadmin today. “Great! I’m just gonna vamoose.”

Vamoose! Get out! It’s been like forever since I’ve heard that word. It’s one of those colloquial western-Americanisms you hear in the same places as gulch. You get a sense of the typical context from a common phrase that uses it: vamoose the ranch. Which has the same general sense as the vulgar French fous le camp and echoes of the same sounds. But you don’t picture the same people saying them.

What a sound vamoose has, too. Like someone disappeared lickety-split and left a dust of bits of other words: vanish, scram, move it, cut loose. It hits the scene with the va-va-voom of a sports car and in the next move disappears down the tracks like a caboose. And yet it has the obtrusiveness of a moose. (It doesn’t have the antlers, though. You’d have to stick the m on top of the v.)

You may already know where this word comes from. In the earlier half of the 1800s, English-speaking cowboys often saw their Spanish-speaking counterparts in the American southwest, and they picked up a few words from them, like canyon, rodeo, and lasso. Our word vamoose comes from Spanish vamos, ‘let’s go’. It has something else in common with lasso: an unstressed Spanish /o/ sound has been converted to a stressed /u/ pronunciation (the spelling of lasso doesn’t reflect that change, though). There’s something about that “oo.” When do you vamoose? Maybe when you’re a dude in cahoots with some galoot who looted lots of moola and you have to put your boots on the route or they’ll shoot you.

It’s a versatile word, vamoose; it can get around. It serves as a verb both transitive – “He vamoosed the jail” – and, more commonly, intransitive – “Are you going to vamoose? I think we should vamoose.” One way you can’t use it is to mean the first-person plural imperative ‘let’s go’, though: If you say “Vamoose!” the hearer will understand ‘scram!’ as in a second-person imperative.

Go figure. When we got it out of Spanish, it got out of the Spanish sense as it got out of the Spanish form. Well, we got out of it what we wanted to get out of it, and then we got out.


For me, there’s hardly a more western word than gulch. It immediately brings to mind pictures of cowboys on horses riding in – or towards – a deep dry ravine. The horses’ hooves make sounds as they brake against the gravel downslope: “gulch, gulch gulch”; a bad guy is shot off his horse and hits the dirt: “Gulch!” And afterwards the cowboys are thirsty and gulp some water to quench their thirst…

Funny, though, I don’t associate gulch with drinking. Ravines, yes; falling, yes; but not drinking, even though “gulch” is a perfectly reasonable-sounding word for gulping something cold and fresh to quench your thirst. Other people have thought so. When gulch first showed up in English in the 1200s, it was a verb meaning ‘swallow or devour greedily’ (per the OED), and from that sense there was a noun gulch current in the early 1600s – it has since bitten the dust – meaning ‘glutton or drunkard’. But there was also a noun gulch meaning ‘heavy fall’ that showed up in the later 1600s, and a verb gulch meaning ‘fall heavily’ that followed on that in the 1800s.

The sense we all know now, though, showed up in US English in the early-mid 1800s. There was more of a need for it in the sere and dusty west than in the verdant east, so it’s hardly surprising that it has cowboy associations. It is also associated with gold miners – the OED lists a number of gold-rush terms such as gulch-diggings, gulch-gold, gulch-mine, gulch-washing, and gulch-man.

The gold rush today, of course, is not so literal. If you go out west and find yourself in a gulch with gold, it will more likely be Glitter Gulch, the casino strip on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. But there’s more gold to be dug farther east now: the corridor outside the meeting room of the Ways and Means Committee in the Capitol in Washington, DC, is nicknamed Gucci Gulch for all the lobbyists who loiter there.

One thing’s for sure: if you’re in a gulch you’re less likely to find culture and more likely to meet a vulture. But if westerns have taught us one thing, it’s that greed comes to a bad end: follow your gluttony for gold into a gulch and the gulch will devour you… and belch dust. Ouch!


“Celadon,” I explained to my niece Evangeline, “is the colour you get if you cross celery and a mastodon.”

Which, really, is almost true: if you were to look at the bedsheets Evie’s mother was considering, you would agree that they were a pale greyish-green, although really more towards cactus than celery. (The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s “a pale shade of green resembling that of the willow” but many a Canadian would probably sooner associate it with goose poop.) But I was quick to clarify that that was not the actual origin of the word. (I think I was quick to. I don’t intentionally fill children’s minds with easily falsified confections.)

What is the origin? It’s nothing to do with the salad on your plate, happily (the last salad I ate of that colour forced a pre-emptive review shortly after). It also has nothing to do with teeth – the suffix that connectes beasts with teeth is –odon, as in mastodon, or –odont, as in “O don’t show me those awful green teeth again.”

Nor does it have to do with Celoron, which is a town (legally a village – in New York, a town is a subdivision of a county, not a civic unit like a village or city) next to Jamestown, New York, on Chautauqua Lake, not so far from the stamping grounds of my mother’s salad days. Celoron isn’t much of a muchness now, but it’s where Lucille Ball grew up, and it used to have one heck of an amusement park. Look at this:

(Coincidentally, I’m sure, that film has a bit of a celadon cast to it.)

Where did Celoron get its name? For a while I was under the impression it was from the roller-coaster – that does seem like a name for a roller-coaster, doesn’t it? A thing that accelerates? Sort of like Celeron, which is a kind of microprocessor made by Intel – for all I know, you may be viewing this with the aid of one. But no, the roller-coaster wasn’t named the Celoron; it was called the Greyhound. The village was named after a French officer who explored the region, staked French claims, hectored English settlers, and alienated some of his Iroquois travelling companions: Pierre Joseph Céloron de Blainville. After lumbering about like some mastodon for a while, he finished up in Montréal.

He had nothing to do with celadon.

No, celadon relates to something massive and historical and maybe a bit hairy, but it’s not a mastodon; it has its ups and downs, but it’s not a roller-coaster; it comes from France, but it’s not an explorer… It’s a book. A series of books. A novel of some 5400 pages in six parts, published between 1607 and 1627, even more digressive than this word tasting note. Its author: Honoré d’Urfé. Its title (and eponymous heroine): L’Astrée. Its hero: her lover, a shepherd named Céladon, who was as fond of wearing pale green ribbons as the later fictional heroines Trilby and Fedora were of wearing hats. The name Celadon was taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where it is borne by two separate chaps (one in book V, one in book XII) who have in common that they appear just for the purpose of being slaughtered in the same sentence as they are first (and last) named, a rather shorter fictional course than the later French name-bearer.

It happens that d’Urfé’s novel was very popular around the time that jade-green glazed pottery from China first hit the market in France. Some suggest that the pottery was originally called Saladin, not because you put salad in it (and let us not speak again of salad of the colour celadon) but because of some historical association with the sultan of that name. But one way or another, it – the colour and the pottery – ended up with the name of d’Urfé’s green-ribboned shepherd. And the colour is now used on other things, such as kitchen cupboards, bathroom walls, and bedsheets.

And if you have something celadon among your possessions and you do not fancy it, you can always celadon ebay.