Monthly Archives: March 2017


Flabbergast. F-L-A-B-B-E-R-G-A-S-T. Flabbergast.

This would make a good spelling bee word, wouldn’t it? Other than its being reasonably well known and predictable. It sounds long and floppy and loosely jointed, garrulous as a flibbertigibbet, frenetic as a flutterbudget, verbally flabby and flatulent (gaseous) and ultimately aghast.

Well, especially aghast. The word may be fluttering and rubbery but its meaning is slackjawed: “to overwhelm with shock, surprise, or wonder,” to quote Merriam-Webster ( The Oxford English Dictionary shows us a nice quotation well suited to our times: “Now we are flabbergasted and bored from morning to night.” That does seem the incessant go-round of digitally mediated modernity, no? But this observation was made in 1773, in the Annual Register for 1772, in a jeremiad on faddish new words, signed “Observator,” and the author was inveighing not on the state of life but just on the words used to speak of it.

So flabbergasted (and flabbergast) was new in 1772. Where did it come from? There has been speculation and there have been observations – related forms in Suffolk and Perthshire – but no one knows (yet). It is likely a collision of flabby and aghast and who knows what else, formed on the basis of sound symbolism and phonaesthetics on the nonce by some fashionable lark in London society and passed about as a bit of the latest lexical frippery.

And it has lasted, especially among those who love lively syllables. I had occasion to use it myself lately when I described a haul of prizes from a spelling bee. You see, the ACES (American Copy Editors’ Society) conference, in St. Petersburg, FL(abbergast), which I was attending, had a spelling bee sponsored by Lingofy, with officials from Merriam-Webster and Scripps, to raise money for the ACES Education Fund scholarship program. There were 15 entrants and a goodly audience. It went to 7 rounds, I think. And the last person standing, successfully spelling agelast, A-G-E-L-A-S-T, was… me. For which I won a nice little lucite trophy. And a Bananagrams game. And a copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, which weighs 18 pounds. And an iPad Pro. And a messenger bag to carry it all in (which I did, and was nearly Grendelized, disarticulated at the shoulder by the weight). Flabbergasting indeed.

breth, brath, broth

There are some people whose every breath is wrath. They don’t merely stew; they are a seething broth of ire, ever at the boiling point. They are a bucket of gasoline looking for their perfect match. They are not just brash, they are brath, broth, full of breth.

These are old and disused words, breth and brath and this sense of broth. They all come from the same Old Norse: bráðr, ‘hasty, sudden, rash, passionate’. One might say ‘impetuous’. ‘Quick to anger’. All up in your Face-book. A-Twitter with rage. Except that no one has really used them for a bit over 500 years now.

That’s not that surprising. Breth, a noun meaning ‘fury’ or ‘rage’, sounds exactly like breath and while it can make neat wordplays – such as this line from a play written in 1500: “While I am in this breth, let me put him to death” – it is likely to cause confusion. True, a beautiful sight can take your breth away, but “fresh breth” may be misleading. Still, there could be some value in calling the raging trolls of the interwebs the breth-ren.

Broth, for its part, is of course going to land you in the soup. The broth we know is derived from brew just as sloth is from slow and death is from die. This other broth, an adjective meaning ‘impetuous, violent, wrathful’, has no origin in common with its doppelganger. And while it’s true that in some kitchens every day is a broth day, some may find it a bother to have to deal with both. But again, how could we not want to call a member of the breth-ren a broth-er? Aside from the fact that exactly no one would get the wordplay, that is. I won’t even try to anagram it productively into throb.

But brath! Well, now, that’s a word of its own. It’s even two words – the Scottish variant is braith. Brath is the northern English version, broth the southern, of the same word. In the south it’s a bubbling broth, in the north more of a hot bath, one that rhymes with wrath (or, in Scotland, wraith). And it has such a nice taste of brash. It gets that br in there, as in bratty and brusque and brutal and broken, and rhymes with psychopath and aftermath. And we could still make a wordplay with brathren and brather – which would remind us of their steam-powered blather.

Hebrew and Yiddish words, we have them

My last article for The Week was on words we got from Arabic. This time it’s words we got from Hebrew and Yiddish. You’ll probably know about some of these. You’ll probably be surprised by some others.

15 English words you probably didn’t know came from Hebrew and Yiddish


Whoever is the subject?

Who will inherit the investigation?

Oh, whoever will inherit the investigation?

Whoever will inherit the investigation, he will be someone Mr. Trump nominates.

Whoever will inherit the investigation, Mr. Trump nominates him.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Wait, says the writer. Mr. Trump nominates him. So it must be whom. Whomever. And so, in The New York Times, appears this:

Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Because formally correct. So whom. Yeah?

Nah. Hyperformalism.

Of course cases like this bedevil writers. The construction is complex and whom is not part of standard daily English; in effect, it is a foreign word for most of us. Wherever we think it might be appropriate for formally correct speech, we are tempted to slip it in, sort of like how some people stick –eth on every conjugation when they want to sound old-fashioned. But sometimes we go overboard and use it where it doesn’t belong.

When people write sentences like the one in question, the rule they’re turning to is that the object must be whom, not who.

The rule that they’re forgetting is that every verb must have a subject.

What’s the subject of will inherit?

It has to be whoever, because whoever else would it be?

One loophole that writers miss that would resolve some grammatical dilemmas is that a whole clause can be an object, as in “Mr. Trump will nominate {whoever gives him the most money}.” Another loophole they miss is that the subject or object of an embedded clause can be made to disappear by what linguists call moving and merging, leaving just an embedded trace (that we know exists thanks to psycholinguistic experiments). That’s what goes on here. The him in Mr. Trump nominates him gets tossed like a baseball in a double play back to the Who, and the catcher’s mitt on the Who is ever. (It can also be an emphatic as in “Oh, whoever will help us?” but it’s not one here.)

Look at “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” (I put the m in parentheses because if you use whom as the object you would use whomever here, but in normal non-prickly English we use whoever as the object too.) Notice that you (almost certainly) wouldn’t write “Who(m) Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” The ever sets up a second reference, the he. It can also set up an object (him): “Whoever gives the most money, Mr. Trump will nominate him.” (All of this works with she and her too, but we can see that Mr. Trump does not work with very many shes and hers.) So the ever can refer to an object while attached to a who that’s a subject, or the converse.

Our sentence du jour, however, is not derived from “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” Not quite. In “Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” the main verb of the sentence is clearly will inherit (will is the auxiliary that takes the actual inflection, and inherit is the infinitive that conveys the sense); the subject of will inherit is Whoever, as already pointed out. Mr. Trump nominates is an insertion – a subordinate clause modifying Whoever. By itself it would be Mr. Trump nominates him, but, as I said, the him is tossed back and caught by the ever.

Let’s diagram that like a good linguist, shall we? This is the fun part! Syntax trees have details that non-linguists will be unfamiliar with, so let me set down a couple of basic facts:

  1. A sentence is a TP, which means tense phrase – because it conveys tense (when the thing happens), not because it’s too wound up. The heart of it is thus the part that conveys when it happens: the conjugation on the verb. The verb phrase (VP) is subordinate to that, but it merges with it unless there’s an auxiliary verb taking the tense.
  1. A subordinate clause is also a TP, because it has a conjugated verb, but it’s inside a CP, which means complement phrase, because it’s a complement to something else in the sentence. Often there’s a complementizer, such as that or which, but not always.


The subject is Whoever. Because in English conjugated verbs (except for imperatives) have to have explicit subjects and they have to be in the subject (nominative) case, this can’t be Whom or Whomever. The tense goes on will. The verb is inherit. The object of that (its complement) is the noun phrase (NP) the freakin’ mess – sorry, the investigation. (I haven’t broken that down further, but actually it’s a determiner – the – and a noun.) The complement of Whoever, by which I mean the subordinate clause that describes who the Whoever is, is Mr. Trump nominates [him]. The him is tossed back to the ever.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Whoever will inherit the investigation?

Who will inherit the investigation?

He will inherit the investigation.

(Mr. Trump nominates him.)

So why doesn’t the NYT version instantly sound bad, as “Whom will inherit it?” would? It’s a more complex and unfamiliar construction, and what we tend to do in such cases is go with the salient rules we can remember and basically make up rules to make the rest work. For people who don’t balk at the “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” I believe what’s probably going on is that it’s an underlying “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation,” and the he is getting tossed back to the ever. So you have a trace of the subject rather than the object. Now, you can have a trace of a subject when you have more than one verb conjugated to the same subject – “Whoever gets the nomination inherits the investigation” – but it’s not normal formal standard English for a subject to be deleted and merge with an object that is not deleted. We need the subject!

But then, really, whoever speaks formal standard English all the time? Well, not whoever wrote that sentence, anyway, or it wouldn’t have been written, because it would have sounded wrong.


As you “SO?!” so shall you threap.

To threap is to make a threap, but not to make a threat – you are not talking of action, you are taking action, and the action is disagreement. You may threap a person, in which case you are rebuking or scolding the person; you may simply threap, in which case you are arguing, bickering, or wrangling about terms; or you may threap that something is so, in which case you are maintaining your position in the face of contradiction or doubt.

Let us imagine a case, let’s say a spokesperson, whom – to spice things up – we may call the Grim Threaper. He is representing some enthroned mammothrept who has not thruppence worth of thrift, but the Grim Threaper has heard that you have said as much, and he calls you out from the throng. He threaps you: you are a very naughty person for threatening the mammothrept’s reputation for thrift. You clear your throat and throw in some facts. He threaps: that is a manner of speaking, and besides the mammothrept did not mean what he said or say what he meant, and in any case he did not say what he said. Your temples start to throb but you thrust forth your evidence. He threaps that it is not so: the mammothrept is the chieftain of thrift. And so the Grim Threaper makes a threepeat, three threaps… but he may threap-eat yet when all is laid on the table (and why not – threptic has to do with eating and nutrition), so he ought to have put more honey on his tongue.

There are more ways you can use threap, too. You can threap someone out of something – wear them down with incessant argumentation. You can threap something upon someone – press it on them, urge that they accept it. You can threap someone down – prevail in discourse through threaping (“A man will say of a clamorous talker, he did not convince me, but he threaped me down” —Richard Winter Hamilton, Nugæ Literature, 1841; thanks to the OED for that and much of the rest of this information).

In short, threaping is badgering, bullying, talking a blue streak, and thereby prevailing or at least attempting to prevail. The word does not have the same bludgeoning bluntness as words that begin with b, and perhaps that is a weakness for modern use: thr can have driving force – thrusting, throwing, thrilling – but the vowel is too high (the same as in “three”) and thereby weak-seeming.

At any rate, you seldom see it. Well, I think it is nonetheless a useful word, one that can come in quite handy in our times. Allow me to insist and to persuade you…

The weaponization of grammar

I’ve published another article on This one is about something that we all have to deal with and many of us participate in: the treatment of “bad grammar” as evidence of intellectual and moral deficiency. I read quite a few “grammar guide” books for this, and there’s a lot more I could have written… but I had to fit it in 1200 words. So it’s not too long to read!

Why all English speakers worry about slipping up


You can’t get through the day (or night) without Arabic

My latest article for The Week is on words that English got from Arabic. We’ve taken more than you might think, but I look at just 15… including some that you probably can’t go very long without.

15 English words we stole from Arabic

(PS Let me remind you that the magazine writes the title after I’ve written the article and sent it to them.)


This isn’t a word you see as often as you once would, but some writers seem to like it for some purposes. Here are a couple of recent hits from The New York Times:

Her apple-cheeked robustness seemingly hollowed out by the final curtain, Ms. Piper vaulted in a single performance to the top ranks of distaff talent in a town where women across the spectrum of age and experience reigned supreme in 2016. —Matt Wolf, “In a Year of Surprises on the London Stage, Women Held Pride of Place,” January 3, 2017

Trump is surrounded by a bitchy sewing circle of overweight men who are overwrought at the prospect of a distaff Clinton presidency. —Maureen Dowd, “Girl Talk at Trump Tower,” October 1, 2016

Another recent NYT hit refers to Batwoman as “a distaff crimefighter.”

Distaff is an old-fashioned or newspaperese word for ‘woman’ or ‘female’ or that sort of thing. Sometimes you’ll see references to “the distaff side.” Those who use it likely see it as a handy synonym to enlist in that texturbation they like to think of as “elegant variation” (also known as tawny-gourd-ism; see pontiff and temblor). It seems to be lacking in negative connotations or connections. I mean, what, exactly, is this word distaff anyway? What does it mean? Where does it come from? I’m here to ’splain it for you.

First off, the staff in distaff is the staff in staff, as in shepherd’s staff and flagstaff.

Next, although it is pronounced with a “short” i as in dis (so not “Di staff”), the di is not short for dis- or de-. Which means that distaff does not mean ‘without a staff’. No, it’s from Old English dise (also spelled dis), which is an old Germanic word referring to a bunch of flax for spinning. “Here, spin dis!” A distaff is a staff about 3 feet long that was used for holding flax or wool for spinning into thread. The spinner held the staff under the left arm and drew the flax or wool through the left fingers, and twisted it into thread with the right thumb and forefinger as it was wound onto a spindle.

Oops! Did I say spinner? Sorry, the word is spinster.

Does that sound familiar? Like, hmm, a word for an “old maid”? Yeah. Spinning, you see, was woman’s work – or, anyway, work for women who didn’t have a husband to take care of. Starting in the 1600s, spinster was even the official legal designation in England for a woman who was still unmarried. That was how her name was to be written: “Elizabeth Harris, of London, Spinster.” And of course every spinster had a distaff – after spinning wheels were brought in, the distaff was mounted on the spinning wheel rather than being held under the arm.

Have a look at the shirt you’re wearing. Presumably it’s made of fabric that is composed of threads woven together. Imagine every one of those threads being spun by hand (and then woven together with a loom, and the resulting fabric cut and sewn together by hand). Until the Industrial Revolution, that’s how it was done. It required a lot of very dull work. Badly paid dull work, if clothing was to be at all affordable. Work for women who had nothing better to do – because they weren’t allowed to do anything better. Like, you know, work on rockets.

That’s an anachronistic ha-ha, but the irony is that they did have rockets back when distaffs were used. Remember that spindle that thread was wound onto from the distaff? It was called a rocket. The space projectiles that came later were so named because of the resemblance of shape. (The distaff was also called a rock – different origin than rock as in rock climber or rock as in rock the cradle.)

Well, now women can work on the newer kind of rocket on the staff of NASA. Or, if they want, they can work on the older kind of rocket and rock. Or whatever else. I’m sure a few women – and maybe some men – spin because they like the craft of it. I’m also sure far more now go to “spinning classes” involving stationary bikes. Women have infinitely more things they can do than carry the distaff’s burden and be known as spinsters.


The fog was where I wanted to be. Halfway down the path you can’t see this house. You’d never know it was here. Or any of the other places down the avenue. I couldn’t see but a few feet ahead. I didn’t meet a soul. Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted – to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself. Out beyond the harbor, where the road runs along the beach, I even lost the feeling of being on land. The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was the ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.
—Edmund, in Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill

When I was a young aspiring actor, that was one of my favourite audition monologues. Edmund is a young man whose life in no way resembled what mine was or is – his family life was dreadful, and he was dying of tuberculosis. But I could understand the desire to be alone, out in the fog, where all is peaceful, colours are soft, sights fade in and fade out, and you can only see so much at once. Such a soft aloneness, a world that coalesces and evanesces like anticipations and memories. And the smell, the rich cool humidity. For a boy who grew up in dry Alberta, humid air is a treat. For a person who has a low noise limit – sonic, visual, social – the fog is where I want to be, when it’s there. To be at the glowing light as trees and shadows loom in the mist, where a tapestry of light and shadow is woven by a loom of mystery. So little there, and none of it sharp, just like this ancient northern word, fog, bequeathed to us by Scandinavians.

And yet. Fog is not your friend either. When you are out where you can’t see what’s land and what’s sea, the fog will make a ghost of you. When you are driving in fog… well, don’t drive in fog. Not being able to see is peaceful if you have nowhere you need to go and nothing you need to avoid. If plans and memories are of no great matter, you can dissolve them in fog-get-fulness. But you will not find meaning in fog. Fog gives the impression of light spreading in the dark – such a glow – but all you see is the glow, not what the light would otherwise show.

The Fog Index is a simple measure of how much a text is obnubilated by obfuscatory sesquipedalian paraloquies. Long words and long sentences may have their beauty when well handled, but the clear sense is hard to hear in them. Too many pulses of sound dissipate the energy. This is why foghorns are low: the low notes push through. Make a lower note with the same energy input and there is more energy per sound wave, just as that two-hundred-pound panther looming just out of view in the fog will hit you so much harder than twenty ten-pound house cats, which will hit harder than two hundred one-pound kittens.

But two hundred one-pound kittens would be delightful. All those small padded feet with their innocuous claws.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
—Carl Sandburg

This is what the fog is, and more: a near-infinity of tiny feline water nymphs, lightly brushing you, delighting and de-lighting. Every droplet deflects the light so you see it rather than seeing through it. The means of vision hides life from vision. But it purrs coolly as it wraps you. So soft, so glad to forget in, such a welcoming suffocation. A relaxing cocktail, an opiate.

An opiate. That is what Edmund’s mother has turned to. As the one long day in four acts of Long Day’s Journey into Night rolls into its night, she embraces the fog of morphine, and truth becomes lies and she can see neither future nor present; she is lost once more in a mist of the far-back past.

We all have our ways of forgetting and our things we want to forget. The fog makes a lovely invisibility while it lasts. Just us and a phantasy of ghosts of things.

The things will still be there when it lifts. They are still there even in the fog. And we may encounter them if we go wandering.


A peccary is not a pessary. (And neither has anything to do with a cassowary.) I suppose a peccary would eat pecorino and piccalilli and pickles, but only if you picked it and packed and left it out. Otherwise a peccary eats what’s available, but will prefer a prickly pear. I won’t say its diet is precarious, though its habitat is occupied.

Well. They live in a lot of places, some of them well forested still. And they can be expected in packs of up to 100. But they’re not big space hogs or food hogs. They’re not big hogs at all. They’re not big: they’re about a metre long, and they weigh 20 to 40 kilograms (much of which appears to be the head and not too much of which appears to be the prancing, spindly legs). And they’re not hogs. But, boy, do they look like them.

Here are some peccaries.

Don’t they look just like pigs? Well, they do until you inspect the dentition. Pigs have curved tusks. Peccaries have straight ones and they’re shorter. Also, they snap them together to make a sound indicating irritation at any particular peccadillo. Also, peccaries are not closely related to pigs.

They’re not! Oh, they are related. They belong to the same suborder, Suina. But they belong to a different family, Tayassuidæ (the Old World pigs are Suidæ). They came over to the New World a long, long time ago. So they’re New World pigs. They’re also called javelina in Spanish. (The name peccary comes from a Carib word.) They’re also called skunk pigs. Because they smell. They have scent glands, which they use to mark their territory and each other.

But smell notwithstanding, people still eat them. I presume they taste porky. I’m sure they’d make good paprikash or pörkölt.