Monthly Archives: April 2017


There’s good, and then there’s best.

There’s George Best, for one, the Northern Irish footballer counted one of the best ever to play the game. He was known for his wild and dissipated lifestyle as he was for his play, and later in life it caught up with him. “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars,” he once said. “The rest I just squandered.”

Not what you expected? Well, he was best one way at football (soccer), best another way at the rakish life, but Best all around. Something beyond a simply good player. The best is different from just double-plus-good. It’s not just more of the same; it’s something other.

As best is. We know the pattern: fast, faster, fastest; fun, funner, funnest… why not good, gooder, goodest?

It’s what linguists call a suppletive form. Just as the past tense of go is went, which is really borrowed from the verb wend (rarely seen, usually in self-conscious phrases such as “I’ll just wend my way”), our comparatives for good (and bad, but I’ll leave that for another day) come from a different adjective. In Old English, that adjective came through as bat and, with vowel shift, bet; it meant ‘good’, ‘well’, or ‘better’. It traces back to Proto-Indo-Europan *bhAd- ‘good’ (huh! that’s not bad) by way of Proto-Germanic. The comparative form of it is, of course, better, and the superlative bettest got collapsed to best.

So why did it bump gooder and goodest out? In fact, it’s about as fair to say good bumped bet out. It was well in place (oh, yes, better and best also supply the comparative and superlative of well) before English was even a distinct language; German has gut, besser, beste and Dutch has goed, beter, best. Where does good come from? If we go all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, we find *ghedh meaning ‘unite, be associated, suit’… in effect, as an adjective, the origin of good meant ‘suitable’.

Suitable? Well, that’s good. It’s always nice for something to be fitting. If the pattern has been set, sometimes we follow it with others that aren’t quite the same kind but will do as needed. If you can’t be amazing, then play your part well. Perform as expected. Until you’re nudged aside by someone better… maybe the best.

Of course, even the best isn’t best everywhere and for all time. George Best retired from football at age 26, though he did make a couple of less successful comebacks, and he had a liver transplant at age 56 and died before he turned 60. Another Best, Pete Best, was the original drummer for the Beatles. He may have been good, but he was replaced by Ringo, who was better. Pete may have been Best, but Ringo was a Starr.

Anyway, the surname Best doesn’t come from the adjective best. It comes from the same root as beast and referred to one who kept beasts – i.e., a herdsman. Best can just be pretending to be best.

And best is relative. There are some areas where we can set clear measurable standards and establish one thing as the best for that purpose (at least until we find something better). But what’s best for one purpose may be no more than good for another related purpose. And for many things, best is very much a question of personal needs, wants, and tastes. Anything in any aesthetic realm – music, literature, food, painting, etc. – is like that: one person’s best may be another person’s good, or bad, or even worst. Notwithstanding which some things will be more people’s best than others.

All of this is really leading up to a question. I’m not sure what people who read these word tasting notes like best. What you have liked best. Tell me: What of my word tastings have you liked best? Which ones stuck in your mind and spring to mind readily? If any? I’ve been writing them for nearly a decade now, more than 2,000 of them so far. I should probably find out which ones are the best ones.



“This is mines!”

Mines? Can you really dig that?

It’s not standard English, that’s obvious: we’ve all learned that the predicate form of my is mine. Who hasn’t, in younger years, gotten something such as a Valentine card showing insects digging for gold with the text “Bee mine!” It wouldn’t ever be “Bee mines!” – would it? Even the monolexemic seagulls in Finding Nemo say “Mine! Mine!” not “Mines! Mines!”

And yet some people still use mines. And, as we sense instantly, it has an air of… immaturity? Youthful innocence? Something like that? It’s not exactly like the double-plural as seen in, for example, “Nasty hobbitses” – it doesn’t have that creepy tone. But it’s also not flavourless like the double plural in children. (What, didn’t you know that children is a double plural? The singular is child, and one old plural suffix – still seen in German – was –er, and another – also still seen in German, and evident in some old English words – was –en, and they got stacked together on child, with the first e dropped out. I’m tempted to say it’s because whenever there are several kids it always seems like there are twice as many as there actually are.)

Where does that extra –s come from? The Oxford English Dictionary explanation is straightforward and inarguable: it’s added by analogy with ours and yours. But somehow, because we have mine already, that –s can carry a flavour of some other –s suffixes.

Other? Sure. There’s the plural, of course, but if you can hear or see not just “These are mines” but also “That’s mines,” it’s clearly not a simple matching plural form. No, there are a couple more. One comes from the genitive used adverbially, which means the –(e)s that became –’s and –s’ but originally was much more widely used. We see it, among other places, in nights as in “She works nights” (contrast that with “She works hours,” which means not ‘she works hourly’ but ‘she works for a time period of multiple hours’), in besides to mean ‘in a by-the-side manner’, in anyways to mean ‘by any way’ (no, that’s not a plural foolishly added to an obviously singular word), and in amidst with an accidental extra t to give a sense that is very similar to amid but may signify something more distributive.

The other –s is what lexicographers call “hypocoristic,” which means it’s a diminutive form for nicknames, pet names, et cetera. You may know that Prince William’s nickname is Wills. There’s also Babs for Barbara, the friendly British term of address ducks (“I’ll ’ave it up right away, ducks”), din-dins for dinner, and so on. It’s related to the –sy suffix as seen in teensy, artsy-fartsy, BanksyBetsy, and Nancy.

Neither the adverbial nor the hypocoristic is thought to have had a role in the addition of the s to mine. But they may influence its reception and use now. After all, few people look words up in etymological dictionaries before using them, but everyone makes conjectures based on other things that sound and feel similar. Saying “That’s mines” may make it feel more ongoing or widespread than “That’s mine,” or may make it feel cuter. Or may just make it feel like it matches “That’s yours” better.

Mainly, though, when you read it, it will make you think of who uses it – who you have heard or seen using it, or who you imagine would. If you’re in Scotland or the north of England, you may hear it from various people, as it is said to have a certain regional currency; it’s attested since the 1600s and isn’t out of use yet. But if you’re in the US or Canada, you’re more likely to associate it with youth who haven’t had it badgered out of them yet.

As I said, mines (in this sense, as opposed to the plural noun) isn’t standard English. You wouldn’t use it in most documents. But precisely because it has a particular tone and association, you can call it up when you need to set the tone or establish something about a character who’s speaking – or be cute or ironic. Even “wrong” words have their uses. Our lexicon is a great, vast mine full of varied gems; indeed, it’s several mines. Not every word is a diamond, but they’re nearly all valuable for one purpose or another. And if you don’t want this word, well, then, it’s mines. I’ll keep it to toss it in at just the right moment.

funner, funnest

Know what I think is fun? Playing with words. A pun is fun. Scrabble is funner. But tweaking priggish prescriptivists is funnest.

Funner? Funnest? If you do a Google search on “not a word,” funner will show up pretty early. There are many people who are determined to make sure that others know that funner is not a word – and funnest isn’t either. To them, funner is unfair and funnest is downright funest.

They’re obviously wrong. I just used those words, as many others have, and you just understood them, as many others have. They’re the comparative and superlative forms of the adjective fun. Is fun an adjective? Of course it is. It’s been used as an adjective for well over a century. Prescriptivist has only been in use about half as long, since the 1950s, but I bet you didn’t say it wasn’t a word!

Of course, that’s part of the problem: fun has been around a long time… as a noun. And a verb. So the adjective form that showed up by the late 1800s seemed like a new upstart, and it has carried that stigma in the minds of people who long for the simplicity of a time when we had no mobile phones, no televisions, no cars, and the infant mortality rate was over 20%. They don’t necessarily want to restore that infant mortality rate… except when it comes to words, where they would like to smother nearly all the neonates. Even among those who have come to (perhaps grudgingly) accept fun as an adjective, there is a frequent reaction against funner and funnest: this upstart doesn’t merit inclusion in the grand old set of single-syllable adjectives that can be modified like that!

I can’t change the fact that some people see language as a means of expressing and enforcing a simple, simplistic, inflexible order – both mental and social. Such people tend to see fun as the opposite of adult. Or they would if they accepted fun as an adjective. The only fun they want is in fundamentals (and somehow those fundamentals have been pulled right out of their own fundaments). Well, real adults know how to have good fun and do fun things. And I guarantee you that playful people have far funner lives than prigs do. And accomplish more useful things too.

People of the priggish bent, being authoritarian, naturally do not wish to admit lexemes to recognized wordhood just on the strength of people actually using them. We can safely say they would sooner make such people non-persons than allow “non-words” to be words. So they will point to dictionaries. Dictionaries are meant to be field guides, documenting the language but always following popular usage, but many people think they are legislation, and a word not in the dictionary is not a word at all.

Well. I can flip open my handy Scrabble dictionary (published by Merriam-Wesbter) and find before me funner and funnest. Do you not accept the authority of the Scrabble dictionary? Very well. Open your Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (or visit it online, as I just have) and see “fun adjective” with the note “sometimes fun•ner; sometimes fun•nest” – or go to and see it as an adjective with funner and funnest listed as comparative (and superlative). Happy now?

You’re happy now if you were hoping for that outcome, of course. But if you’re of the priggish authoritarian bent, this is likely where you reveal that you are selective with authorities. These modern dictionaries! They have disgraced themselves! You know better. Which somehow means you accept less into your mind.

But limitation is not a virtue. Being able to do less with language is not a good thing, unless you think self-abusively following needlessly restrictive dogma as a sign of obedience is a good thing. I don’t. In my view, creation is the obvious point of existence: new things, new variations, new arrangements. Not chaos but new connections. And the way to create is to play and discover. To have fun. Not a rock-star room-trashing party (no one really does that with language, not even teens) but a collage, a mobile, a fantastical garden. Indeed, the people who truly understand a subject are, in my experience, the ones who have the most fun with it… and are, consequently, the funnest people. Sometimes the funniest, too.


This word has a special place in the annals of irony, thanks to its entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s pretty much the only dictionary you’ll find it in.

The OED has in the past acquired many words on the strength of one or two ancient citations – sometimes so long obsolete that the sense is opaque – and is loath to discard them, regardless of how gangrenous or gone they are. A word need not be current, prevalent, or valid to be there; it is the grand antiquarian shop of the language.

Which leads us to genge. There is no pronunciation note on it to tell us whether it should be “genj” or “jenj” or “geng” or “jeng” or what. But I think “geng” or “genga” or maybe even “yenga” is most likely on the mark, given that there are no citations later than the Early Middle English period (the 1200s). The OED marks it “Obs.” (obsolete). The definition? “Current, prevalent, valid.”

It is, in short, a word that is exactly not what it says.

It comes with a good pedigree from the foundational days of English. But a language is not a giant Jenga tower; you can remove many pieces from the base and it will ascend babulously into the empyrean nonetheless, growing like an erector-set space station. So genge, however with-it it may have been, however well intended, slips out unnoticed.

Just as well. Plans for language are ever subject to Robert Burns’s maxim: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley.” As in this case – especially, since genge is gang gone agley, so to speak. The verb gang, which means ‘go’ (though it’s used in that sense only in a limited area now, notably Scotland), gained the suffix –e and an a-to­-e umlaut to go with it to make this word genge, which might be thought of as ‘going’. You know, a going concern – which is to say, current, prevalent, and valid.

Genge, going? Hm. Well. Gone.

But not forgotten. At least by the OED. And now you and I can use it sarcastically to mean what it once meant in earnest… but only amongst ourselves. It’s not exactly, um, genge.


“So then because thou are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”

That’s from the Bible, King James Version. But not from the Gospel According to Luke! It’s from the Revelation, chapter 3, verse 16. It sets the tone for lukewarm: unpleasantly tepid. Not a nice cold drink, not a nice hot one. Just for spitting out. I can confirm that it lives up to expectorations – I have sensitive teeth, so the only kind of water I can rinse with after brushing is lukewarm. I spit it out not because it’s unpleasant, but because it’s the only comfortable temperature. While lukewarm isn’t so great for drinking, it’s not bad for some other things. We may find extremes attractive, but you can’t live all of your life that way.

Look: There’s a Dutch word that may be related. The word is leuk (the Dutch eu is said like French eu, not like German eu). There’s a store in Collingwood, Ontario, with that name – although they have affected an inappropriate dieresis, Lëuk – and it sells very comfortable and appealing home furnishings and clothes, at slightly less comfortable prices. Why would you name a store “lukwarm”? Well, in Dutch, leuk means ‘nice, pleasant, enjoyable’ or ‘amusing’ or ‘pretty’ or just generally ‘likeable’. After all, not too hot and not too cold is just right, right? What is lately called the “Goldilocks solution”?

But Dutch for ‘lukewarm’ is not leuk. It’s lauw. Which is definitely related to lukewarm. The etymology of lukewarm, it turns out, has some cross-currents. Let’s start with the obvious fact that it’s luke + warm. What is this luke? It’s an old word, now disused except in this compound; it means (meant) ‘tepid’… which is to say ‘lukewarm’. The historical citations suggest that saying luke-warm or luke warm was saying “warm, but not warm warm, just luke warm.” Middling. But anyway, where does luke come from?

Where it does not come from is the name Luke, which we get from the Bible (New Testament). No, this lower-case luke comes from Old English hléow, which also became the modern word lew, which is also unrelated to the name Lew (short for Lewis), and also means ‘lukewarm’ but also means ‘sheltered from the wind’, which is to say, in the lee, which is unrelated to the name Lee but is related to hléow and thus to lew and luke. (The name Lee comes from the same root as lea as in Avonlea. If that helps.)

So wait: how did hléow become luke? Where did that k come from? Well, it may have come from cross-influence from wlæc, which means ‘lukewarm; tepid’. Now, it seems that wlæc does not come from the same root as hléow. But somehow the two words mixed and produced something of an average. Sort of like your hot and cold taps running together.

Anyway, that hléow is also evidently related to Dutch lauw. Now, the Oxford English Dictionary says “Notwithstanding the resemblance in form and meaning, it seems impossible to connect the word [luke] etymologically with modern Dutch leuk.” But if you go to Wiktionary, it cites Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands to assert say that leuk is “probably” related to lauw, which traces to Proto-Germanic hléwaz, which is the ancestor of hléow. So the trail of evidence is not hot hot, but it’s not cold either. Well, I can be comfortable with it. The OED may update its etymological note in the fullness of time.

But how about that name Luke? That’s after the author of the Gospel According to Luke. He was not one of the original twelve apostles but was an early prominent figure, very enthusiastic (not just lukewarm) about this Jesus guy. He was Greek, a teacher and physician, born in Antioch; his name in Greek is Λουκᾶς, Loukas, which is the same as Latin Lucas (from which Italian Luca, French Luc, German Lukas, and so on). A common derivation of the name is as meaning ‘person from Lucania’, which was a region of southern Italy – once occupied by Greeks – just north of the Calabrian peninsula, and thus of a climate somewhat more warm than luke. But Lucas is at least as likely to come from Latin Lucius, meaning ‘bright’ or ‘born at dawn’ (related to lux ‘light’). So. Fiat lux?Fiat Lukes. And fiat leuk.


Here’s an excruciating question: Can you talk about the crux of a book? A book’s crux? Or a movie’s? Can you say that the crux of The Crying Game is Dill’s disrobing?

What, in fact, do we even mean when we talk of the crux of something? Does it seem sometimes that we are at cross-purposes with it?

If you know Latin you know what crux is: ‘cross’. Not cross as in intersection, or as in deletion; cross as in crucifying, as in excruciating. An instrument of physical torture (and execution) used metaphorically for mental torture. An analogous case is travail and travel, which trace back to trepalium, a three-staked torture device. (If you’ve flown to, or in, the US lately, the link between travel and torture may make sense.)

Crux in this non-literal use showed up in English in the early 1700s to mean ‘something that is torturous to figure out or explain’; it may have been taken from Latin crux interpretum and/or crux philosophorum. By the late 1800s this had evolved to be the ‘central problem or point of interest’ – the crux of the matter or crux of the case. Meanwhile, by the late 1800s, it had also come to be used by mountaineers and rock climbers to refer to the toughest part of a route: the crux pitch or crux move or crux of the ascent. Again, a most difficult problem to solve. Not murderous in creation and resolution like a horcrux, but still something you would not want to double-cross.

So. Can we have a central problem of a book or movie? A central point of interest, sure. But let’s look at the words that crux of the usually goes with: according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the top ones are matter, problem, issue, case, argument, debate… and story. So in general, things that require resolution have cruxes; the crux is, in a way, the central knot. Stories aren’t problems in the same way as arguments are, but they have a structure, and that structure normally entails a problem and resolution.

And a novel is a story, right? Except it’s mentally schematized differently. How do we know? We know because we don’t use the same words and phrases to talk about it. And a book, and a film. A book is a container; it may contain a narrative conflict, but that is in the book. A novel is an elaborated presentation of a story or stories. It’s not that no one speaks of the crux of a novel, book, or movie; it’s just that almost no one does, and anyway somewhat fewer than speak of the crux of a story – let alone of an argument or problem.

But why? Schematization: the mental entailments we have for a concept. All the threads and connectors it has. Also collocations – the other words a word tends to travel with – which come from and reinforce the schematization. Words are known by the company they keep. And we learn them by hearing and habit – much less so by looking them up or applying logic to them (both of which can produce some of the most egregiously deadhanded dyslocutions). Just consider how many people speak of the problem’s crux or the matter’s crux (hint: no one, really). If you can talk of the problem’s resolution rather than the resolution of the problem, why can’t we talk of the problem’s crux?

For that matter, why not the exercise’s point rather than the point of the exercise, or the day’s soup rather than soup of the day? They should mean the same and be interchangeable, but they’re not. The longer version has two the’s because it has two noun phrases, each of which can have a determiner, whereas the shorter one is one noun phrase with a possessive noun modifier and as such can only have one explicit determiner (the determiner attaches to the possessive noun, but the possessive noun itself functions as a determiner for the other noun). But that’s not a problem for such things as the problem’s resolution. In the cases in question, the prosody seems to be important – when the modifying noun is dangling off in a prepositional phrase (of the problem), it is less central, more clearly a peripheral modifier that can be dropped off.

We might also consider some influence of the sources – soupe du jour and crux interpretum. Of course we don’t have that in mind when we say the crux of the matter. But we do have the gravity of tradition and habit. And that is the crux of this word tasting note.

If I may say that.


Thanks to colleagues on the email list of Editors Canada for discussing crux and inspiring this word tasting.


A pilgrim is someone who undertakes a life-changing journey. A peregrine is a wanderer, someone venturing far from home. A bird away from the nest. A stranger in a strange land.

Both words come from peregrinus, which in Latin meant someone from a foreign land; it appears to have been assembled from per ‘by’ and ager ‘field, territory, land, country’ (also descended to acre and agriculture). Pilgrim arrived in English first, and in fact has been in English as long as there has been an English to be in; peregrine came later, but by a more direct route (first seen in Chaucer, referring to the bird I name below).

In Rome, a peregrinus was a non-citizen resident. At one time, nearly 90% of the residents of the empire were peregrini, “foreigners,” even if they were in the land they had been born in. This meant they had fewer rights, less recourse, lower social status. A citizen would get the benefit of the doubt and had a right of appeal; a peregrinus was entitled to neither. At death their property was taken by the Roman state. Rome relied on their labour but scorned them. Pilgrims may be honoured, but peregrines – “foreigners” – are not.

On the other hand, a peregrine well known in our times is a predator: the peregrine falcon, the world’s most widespread raptor. It is also the fastest animal: it can pass 320 km/h (200 mph) when it plummets from on high to the abrupt undoing of a lesser bird. It is the lickety-split grim reaper, not a scythe but a flying sickle – Latin for ‘sickle’ is falx, believed to be the origin of falco, ‘falcon’, as in Falco peregrinus.

There are many people named Peregrine, including three saints, one of whom is the patron saint of cancer and several other diseases (he rarely sat, and this may have led to his developing a “cancer” on his leg, which was miraculously healed just before the leg was to have been amputated). He is said to have been a wise and caring person, dedicated not to destruction but to healing.

If the name has a familiar ring, however, it may be because it was also the name of a familiar of the ring-bearer – a companion of Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings: Peregrin (no e) Took, casually known as Pippin. He went with Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring and joined in battle against the orcs and the dark forces of Mordor; he was also the only one who looked into the palantír and spoke directly with Sauron. After Sauron’s defeat, he returned to the Shire, helped defeat Saruman, and became Thain of the Shire. So he wandered and returned; he had his battles and his victories.

Peregrinus makes me think of one particular battle, the battle on the ice of Lake Peipus, a large lake now on the border of Estonia (coincidentally, the country my wife’s father emigrated from) and Russia. Alexander Nevsky fought the knights of the Teutonic Order there. Sergei Prokofiev scored the movie Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein, and in the battle scene the text of the music is “Peregrinus expectavi pedes meos in cymbalis”:

What does that mean? It’s difficult to translate – the Latin seems battle-weary and far from home. It’s really four things: ‘a stranger’; ‘I waited’; ‘my feet’; ‘on cymbals’. Various theories have been advanced about this text, a seeming musical lorem ipsum, but the most persuasive research finds that it is snippets from four psalms that were used in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (read the whole analysis by Morag Kerr). Prokofiev and Stravinsky weren’t getting along well, and this was likely in part a shot from P at S. The words’ place in the score is as largely meaningless text expressing the mindless hypocritical religion of the Teutonic Knights.

That’s quite a far journey from the effervescence of the other end of peregrinus: a mineral water transported in glass bottles across the ocean… San Pellegrino, named for Saint Peregrine. Of course, mineral water is “good for your health,” and mainly it’s refreshing. Whether it needs to be bubbled from the earth in Italy and transported across the Atlantic to be guzzled in, say, Toronto and returned thereafter (mutatis mutandis) to the water cycle is a question to ponder at leisure; necessary or not, it happens.

And necessary or not though our wanderings and estrangements may be, they happen. We are all, in our ways, strangers in strange lands, on loan to this world and peregrinating through it before returning, dust to dust, water to water, gas to gas, spirit to spirit. Here are two of the songs I like best about this wandering and return.

To this perpetual peregrination I welcome my great-nephew, newly born to tread the earth. His name is Peregrine Toms.


Listen, pilgrim.

That’s John Wayne talking to Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

What is the valence of liberty? As your periphery enlarges, as you wander farther from your home base, do you become freer? Fuller? More interactive? The Tao Te Ching tells us that without going outside, we may see the world, without looking out the window we may know the ways of heaven, and the farther we go the less we know. But is that because our valences expand and we have more room for the little sparks of knowledge – the more we know, the more we don’t know, and the more room there is to know?

Or do we just become unstuck?

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

That line is from the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Its protagonist is a Pilgrim, and an involuntary pilgrim of sorts. He wanders far from his origin. He sees things. He learns things. He watches people die. He sees life out of order.

Well, life is out of order, really. One thing we like to try to do is put it in order. Or at least put ourselves in order, our own lives. Give them a purpose. Give them a trip. A narrative. A Destination. A pilgrimage. The geographical journey is a longstanding analogue and metaphor for the spiritual journey. John Bunyan’s allegory Pilgrim’s Progress dates to 1678, but real pilgrimages date to well before that. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was about a company of pilgrims to Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. They went in company, had a good time along the way, paid their respects, and returned home.

Not every pilgrim returns home. The Britons who arrived at Plymouth, now in Massachusetts, in 1630 styled themselves as pilgrims. So did the ones who arrived at the Canterbury Peninsula on New Zealand’s South Island in 1850. Easterners who went west in the USA were sometimes called pilgrims – that’s why John Wayne’s character keeps calling Jimmy Stewart’s character that. They went to make new lives in a new place, most of them never to return to their origins. Did they change themselves? Or did they just change the place they went to? Were the changes for the better? Sometimes change is a grim pill. Sometimes liberty’s valence is violence.

But millions of people are pilgrims every year, making sacred journeys, going farther from home to find things deeper within themselves. The pilgrimage to Mecca is something every Muslim is supposed to make at least once in a lifetime if possible. Many Christians walk hundreds of kilometres to Santiago de Compostela; others go to Medjugorje. Young westerners voyage to India and other places in the East to see light in the darkness and make some sense of it.

It serves what Jung called a transcendent function.

And there are secular pilgrimages, now, too – just look at the baseball devotees arriving in Cooperstown and the Elvis fans converging on Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Somehow even these can be transformative experiences. I live near a “shrine” that I can see from my window: The Hockey Hall of Fame, at Yonge and Front in Toronto. The Stanley Cup is the Great Canadian Fetish. Not too many people come specifically to Toronto just to see it, but quite a lot of them make side trips. (My mother, on the other hand, made sure to make her side trip five blocks farther west, to the CBC headquarters.)

Do pilgrims seek liberty in increasing their valences? Some do. Others seek growth. Others seek confirmation of what they always wanted to believe. Others are just adding to their libraries of experience. But all movement is change. In deed, in thought, in word.

In the beginning was the word. At the end is a word, too. But it’s a different word. No, it’s not – it’s the same word, but different. The word that has ended up where we are is pilgrim. It came to us, by way of old German languages, from Medieval Latin pelegrinus. Which was in turn a changed version of Classical Latin peregrinus. Which has also, on a separate, more direct path, come to us as peregrine.

Which I will get to next.


What is it about us that we think we are immune if immured? The world is big and full of variety, and help comes from others, but so does danger, and many of us, faced with the temptation of an overbuilt cocoon, cave in and encave in an enclave, urban (and suburban) troglodytes warming ourselves at the blue flicker of giant flat screens – the new silhouettes in our Platonic caves. It is so craven to cave in so, to crave encavement. In the yard perhaps is a sign signifying cave canem (‘beware of the dog’), the pooch positioned to protect us – forgetting as we do that in Goethe’s Faust the devil appears as a poodle – but our motto may as well be cave diem (‘beware the day’).

Do I overstate the case? Go into the newest neighbourhoods and see: vestigial yards fronting overinflated balloons of boards, bricks, and vinyl siding, a mere metre gap between one and the next, as if on compact archival shelving for house models. No life outdoors; even when you evacuate you encave: hop in your moving imperial shell to get to shopping or work, joining others to make a metal-and-glass bubble-wrap unrolled along the “free”way.

So we are encaved. It is a simple enough word: en ‘in’ and cave ‘cave’ (obviously) from Latin cavus ‘hollow’ as in concave and cavity. But look in two dictionaries and see two slightly different senses. In Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, it is, succinctly, “to hide in or as if in a cave.” In the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “To enclose or shut up in, or as in, a cave.” Both are shown as transitive: you do not encave, you encave yourself or someone else. Both allow an “as (if) in,” so I can say we are encaved and not add figuratively. But there is the difference between “hide” and “enclose or shut up.” You may be enclosed or shut up but not hidden (a glass cave?) and hidden but not enclosed or shut up (duck behind a rock?). The difference is in perspective and who is restrained. Is it that others are kept from seeing us, and we are free from their gaze? Or is it that we are kept from leaving, and others are free from our presence?

And can we easily tell which is which? And when one becomes the other?

The hardest language

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

What language is the hardest to learn?

The hardest for whom to learn?

The world has many languages of many different kinds, but one thing they all have in common is that kids grow up speaking them fluently and think of them as the natural way to say things. Some languages have many inflections – up to two dozen forms of the same word – and yet their speakers have no trouble with them. Other languages rely on strict word order: move a word and the meaning changes. Kids learn them fine. Some assemble very long words from little bits; others use short words that can have many meanings depending on context. Children learn them all.

Adults, on the other hand, have a hard time learning what they’re not used to. A language that’s very different from what they grew up speaking will be a much greater challenge no matter whether we might think it simpler. But there are several factors that can affect just how hard the language is to learn.

Grammar is an obvious one. When speakers of one language have to learn a different language, they tend to learn the core denotative parts but not so much the grammatical connectives. That should make a relatively uninflected language such as modern English easier to learn (in fact, influences of foreign learners are the main reason it’s so simple – Old English was heavily inflected), but for people who are used to substantially different word orders, or to seeing grammatical relations marked on words, it could be a problem.

Pronunciation can also make a language harder. If it has sounds you aren’t used to making and distinctions of sound you aren’t used to paying attention to, that’s going to be trouble. English defeats a lot of people with our “th” sounds and subtle vowel differences (such as bit versus beat); Mandarin’s palatal consonants and its tones stymie many English speakers. Hindi has consonant differences most Anglophones can’t even hear.

One thing that makes a language particularly hard to learn is inconsistency: irregular verbs, idiomatic phrases, wildly inconsistent spelling. The same historical contacts that helped simplify English grammar helped nightmarify its spelling so even native speakers can’t get it all right. We’re not the only language with troublesome spelling: languages as different as French, Gaelic, and Tibetan are larded with silent letters. But they’re still mostly internally consistent. English doesn’t quite require a person to learn each word form, as Chinese does, but it’s much more challenging than most.

All of the above, however, is at least in the textbooks. The truth is that what really makes a language hard is culture: what words or ways of saying things you must or must not use with certain people or in certain places. Unspoken rules of politeness and social hierarchy, along with the habits of different genres (formal versus informal, or newspaper versus novel), are the real landmines, especially for someone from a very different culture. As odd as English spelling is, the fact that “Would you mind shutting the window,” “Could you shut the window,” and “Please shut the window” can mean the same thing in decreasing order of politeness, patience, and deference is likely to be even more vexing… and is less likely to be explicitly taught.