Monthly Archives: July 2017


Hey. You wanna see something funky?

Yeah, see.

I know, I know. Funky is something you hear or something you smell. Bear with me. You can’t smell this blog, right? And if you could it would not smell funky.

What, by the way, is a funky smell? Not everyone uses the word for smells anymore. But if you do, you know it. It’s the smell like something wild crawled under your house for a long, long, long nap. It’s what you get if game farm animals take over the game farm. It’s the aroma of Normandy farmhouse cheese, or rutting badgers, or Uncle Phil after he’s been out at his hunting camp for a week. It’s earthy.

It used to be smoky. The verb funk, not really used now, meant – in the 1700s and into the 1800s – ‘blow smoke on someone’. It seems to trace back to Latin fumicare. From that we got a more general noun sense of ‘strong smell, stink’. And so something that’s funky is really… earthy. Unwashed. Down and dirty.

Which is how it got into music. In the early-to-mid 1900s, jazz musicians used funky as a term for a really down-to-earth approach. Not rarefied, delicate, pensive, airy. Nope. Getting into the dirt. Hit that bass and play some heavy lines that get you grooving down. We’re talking syncopation here that sets you grinding. By the time of James Brown in the 1960s, funky music had become funk music, a distinct style, and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye – and lots of others – really made it popular everywhere.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of other apparently unrelated funks. There’s the one that means a state of depression or cowardice, as in blue funk. And there’s one that’s not used anymore, meaning ‘spark’ – its cognate is still there to see in German, and you’ll hear it in Beethoven’s 9th: Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium – ‘Joy, beautiful spark of Gods, daughter from Elysium’.

Well, funky music is not cowardly, nope, though it can in another sense be blue. But it does have a spark. A lot of sparks. And some of them are sparking up the cigarettes and cigars being smoked in the clubs where funk is played. And some of them are coming, with smoke, from the fingers of the musicians.

I heard a lot of funky music on Friday night. Aina and I went for a walk along Queen Street East here in Toronto for the Beaches Jazz Festival. I took my ears. And my camera. And, consequently, quite a few pictures. Now you look and see. They had some funky lighting and I got a little funky with the colours too. By which I mean grooving, sparking, vibrant, and earthy. I don’t know if it captures the feel of the music or not, but man, I tried.

If you want to hear what these bands sound like, I’m telling you the name of each before the pictures so you can go to their sites and have a listen. (And click on any image to see it larger on Flickr.)

The Achromatics

(That second one is the real-life colours, no adjustment.)

Quincy Bullen

Funny Funk

Elise LeGrow

(That last photo is unadjusted real-life colour.)

Hulk smash puny podcast!

A while back, I did an article for The Week on the grammar of the Incredible Hulk. My producer at the week thought it would make a fun podcast, so she trimmed it a bit, I recorded it, she edited it with some other clips, and now you can listen to it:

A linguist’s guide to HULK SMASH


Who does not love a touch of opulence now and then? To lie back on flocculent cushions in a luculent, florulent, aurulent room, eat succulent fruit, and become, glass by glass, gloriously temulent? If only one might not thereby become crapulent (not to say flatulent) and corpulent.

But such is the nature of riches. What seems opulent may be fraudulent. Too much enrichment can turn cinerulent and pulverulent. Who is temulent will become truculent and stridulent, even violent; what was luculent becomes lutulent; the puberulent takes on the aspect of the purulent; in the end the esculent is feculent. U lent your dignity and discretion to time, and may have gotten some interest in return, but at the last it is frustulent.

Well, it doesn’t have to be that way, but do be careful. Exceptional riches – and their manifestations – are by nature an imbalance, even if one we seek to preserve. We use opulent nowadays mostly to speak of ostentation, glamour, shameless diamond-dripping luxury (though ideally not fugxury), but its origin is wealth itself, not the optics thereof. When James Madison, advocating a senate for the United States of America, said “They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” he meant that the senate should exist to check the possibility of rich landowners against having their wealth seized by the much larger number who worked the land – that is to say, who produced what “the man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage,” enjoys.

And thereby hangs the duality of the root of opulent. It traces to Latin ops, ‘power, resources, wealth’, which is an etymological sibling to opus ‘work, labour’. They both trace back to a Proto-Indo-European verb root meaning ‘work, produce in abundance’. Of course if you work hard and produce in abundance and keep the fruits of your labour, your life will be opulent. If, on the other hand, you work hard and keep only a portion of the fruits of your labour, while much of the rest goes to someone who gets a similar share of the work of many others, your opus will produce their ops.

In the real world, it’s not generally so simple as all that, of course. You might take home less than half the value you produce and yet at the same time have investments that earn interest through labour not your own. You probably have a well-furnished lifestyle within your means because of the less-well-compensated work of others in other countries. Opulence is relative, too: what seems like mere middle-classery to one person in one place could be opulent indeed to someone from another background.

And some wealth is not the fruit of labour at all but just the wild abundance of happenstance. For instance, the Latin suffix –ulent, meaning ‘abounding in’ or ‘full of’ (to use the OED’s definitions), appears on an opulent assortment of words, a lexical chocolate box. Among others, there are aurulent ‘gold coloured’, cinerulent ‘ashy, full of ashes’, corpulent ‘of or relating to a physical body, especially in great mass’, crapulent ‘suffering from excessive consumption’, esculent ‘edible’, feculent ‘made of or full of feces’, flatulent ‘windy, gassy’, flocculent ‘like tufts of wool’, florulent ‘abounding in flowers’, fraudulent ‘fake’, frustulent ‘full of small pieces’, luculent ‘bright, full of light’, lutulent ‘muddy’, puberulent ‘slightly downy’, pulverulent ‘dusty’, purulent ‘like or containing pus’, stridulent ‘shrill, grating’, succulent ‘juicy’, temulent ‘drunken’, truculent ‘fierce, ill-tempered’, turbulent ‘causing disturbence, inclined to disorder’… they’re all perfectly cromulent words.

And a certain amount of opulence is prefectly cromulent, too, within reason. Life should have its ups and downs, its restraints and luxuries. Allow yourself the occasional luxury, especially after a magnum opus… just make it special ops.


Rush, rush, rush. So much of modern life is rushes. And what do you find in the rushes? What does all this rushing do to us? Junk us, I’d say.

Seriously. At every juncture you find yourself getting reedier and not readier. You’re hardy, yes, but you’re usually swamped.

Well, that’s what rushes are about, I guess. Rushes are, after all, hardy grasslike plants that grow in a variety of conditions but most often in swampy ones. Yes, yes, you can rush to see rushes of Geoffrey Rush’s latest film if you’re in the movie business, or just buy rush seats if you’re the public, but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about what you find when you were hoping for pussywillows and cattails. I’m talking about juncous plants.

Juncous? That’s the adjective for rushes: if something resembles or pertains to a rush, as in the plant (and no, don’t tell me Plant is Zeppelin while Lee is Rush), it is juncous.

Why? Because Latin for ‘rush’ is juncus. And while rush meaning ‘hurry’ has no etymological connection to rush meaning ‘reedy grassy plant’, juncous may – just possibly – be related to junk. I won’t say it confidently. Here’s the thing: the word junk meaning ‘trash’ (not the one meaning a kind of boat; that has a completely separate origin) began as meaning more specifically ‘nautical refuse’ and originally ‘old or discarded bits of rope’. Usually that earliest sense was in the phrase old junk. Bits of rope, old and worn, probably made of cheap material. What could cheap rope be made from? Rushes, among other things.

But there’s no attestation for that. There’s a gap in the etymological chain. Although the link is plausible, it’s not demonstrated. As the saying goes, etymology by sound is not sound etymology. So while juncous and junk could be related, at the moment it’s just junk linguistics. We don’t want to rush to a conclusion.

But at least we have one thing: in the incessant rushes of daily life, every so often we discover something unexpected that turns out to be big. After all, do you remember who was found in the rushes? The infant Moses, floating in a little boat, saved from the slaughter of the newborns, destined to be raised under the pharaoh’s roof and then to lead Israel to freedom. He started with rushes but then took his time. Juncous, yes, but not junky.


You know the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, right? How a little girl with golden hair wanders through the woods and find a cabin and goes in? And sees three chairs and finds one too big, one too small, one just right, and then breaks the just-right one? And sees three bowls of porridge laid out, tries each, finds one too hot, one too cold, and one just right, and eats the whole bowl of the just-right one? And then finds three beds, one too hard, one too soft, and one just right, and falls asleep in the just-right one? And then the owners, who are three bears (!), come home (how far away could they have been, given that the porridge was sitting out and still hot) and survey the destruction (“Someone’s been sitting in my chair!” “Someone’s been eating my porridge!” “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed!”) and find her? And she runs away?

This is a very popular fairy tale, in English-speaking culture at least (and I think generally in Western Europe), and it has given rise to the idea of the “Goldilocks principle”: you want to find a solution that is between extremes, something that is just right. In astrobiology, a Goldilocks planet is one in the “habitable zone” around a star – neither too hot nor too cold, et cetera.

Well. Do you know what that fairy tale is called by bears? “The weird little pale hairless destructive invader.”

Seriously, I can’t have been the only kid who found the behaviour of Goldilocks weird and unsettling. You wander alone in the woods (um, really? look, I grew up next to a forest and I would not wander alone through it as a kid) and happen on a cottage you don’t know, and you just… go in… and you can see it’s inhabited but you don’t stop and say, “Huh, I really don’t belong here.” No, you just take everything as though it’s been put there for you. Break the chair. Eat all the porridge. Sleep in the bed.

Sleep. In a bed. In an inhabited house. Owned by strangers. Who can’t be far away.

And apparently because she’s just a little blonde white kid this is expected behaviour, as opposed to the opening of a horror movie.

I grew up in bear country. Close encounters with bears were known to end with blood spatters.

Now, yeah, I know, kids. They wander through a new place and discover a playground or a garden or a rhubarb patch and they’re sure no one has ever seen this before and look what I discovered! and so on. (Did I ever in my childhood “discover” a rhubarb patch and eat a portion of someone’s crop? No comment.) Kids are natural-born imperialist colonial settlers, treating the entire world that has been the work of so many hands as a thing that was put there just for them to exploit. They’re little narcissists who think only of what they have done and suffered (usually not much), not what others have done and suffered (often much more). But the idea is they’re supposed to grow out of this. Adults are supposed to guide them and help them to grow out of it. Help them to see things from the other side. “What if you came home and found a bear – or even another kid – sleeping in your bed, having eaten your food and broken your chair?”

And some kids, at least, from a very young age recoil at the thought of going into a stranger’s house and eating their food and sleeping in their bed. Even if the door is unlocked. For them a fairy tale like this may just reinforce the sense that the world is a weird, creepy, thoughtless, invasive place. With bears that have better manners than people.

But, now, “Goldilocks solution.” At least we have the fact that of each set of three, one was just right, right?

There will, of course, be the “No, Frankenstein’s monster” set who eagerly point out that it is really a middle-bear’s-chair-porridge-and-bed solution or something like that (perhaps, for short, the “bear middle”). Smile and nod and let them wander off, hopefully to discover the meaning of the word metonymy.

But they’re not altogether off base. You see, the idea of a Goldilocks solution is that it’s just right. But just right for whom? The papa bear’s chair was just right for him. The mama bear’s chair was just right for her. The baby bear’s chair was just right for – erm, can’t remember baby bear’s gender, so I’ll say them. The porridges likewise were of the appropriate temperatures for their respective future diners. (The fact that it was left sitting out and yet retained its temperature suggests to me that it was really congee, which, in my experience, never cools off at all.) And the beds too.: each one was just right… for its rightful occupant.

Why on earth should we care which one was “just right” for someone who had no right to sit in it, eat it, or sleep in it? Who had no ownership? No reason to be there at all? Make the title character some adult male who is definitely not blonde and see how the story plays to general audiences.

Aw, but this was a little fair-skinned blonde kid. Midas turned everything to gold and suffered; Golilocks brings the gold(en hair) and just takes what she wants (until she’s scared off). The Goldilocks solution looks good just like she looks good, right? The world is just there for her taking, right? Well, we’ve made that sort of assumption many times. But it’s time for us to grow up now.

So that’s the thing. To me, “Goldilocks solution” brings to mind “just right for someone who decided they just have the right to it, regardless of their stake in it.” And that taker just has the right “look” – to the “right” people. Nobody asked the bears about what they liked.

I’m not saying that that’s how it’s always used and intended. But I’m sure that’s how it sometimes is.

It’s not as though there’s no other way to put it. I like the term “minimax equation” from math – often a set of inputs will produce a curve that has one or more peaks rather than increasing/decreasing infinitely. There’s also “optimality,” from linguistics (and probably other fields). And when you talk about optimality, you usually have to ask (pretty soon) “Optimal for whom? And in what context?”

But we can do that with “Goldilocks” too. Every time we hear of a “Goldilocks solution,” we can picture it being a solution that is “just right” for someone who hasn’t even considered the possibility that they might not be the only user or recipient – and indeed might not even be the intended one. And we will be reminded that each of those options in the story was “just right” for its intended user.

Bears remembering, as they say.


The act of communication is a tying together, wouldn’t you agree? Like the ligature between the o and e as œ, a joining of two entities into one common sound? After all, communication traces back to Latin communis, meaning ‘common’ as in ‘have in common’ – that’s self-evident, right?

If someone asks you a rhetorical question that presumes your answer, do you feel included? Does it give you a sense of mutuality? If a salesperson says “Who could ask for anything more?” or a friend caps a peroration with “Do you see what I mean,” do you feel that something common has been formed between you? Is there mutuality? Or do you feel, on the contrary, that there is a one-way passage between you, with corridors preventing freedom of movement on your part? How could that be mutual, really?

Now, if I came up with the Greek equivalent for communication, you would expect it to express mutuality, yes? If I give you a word made from ἀνά ana ‘back’ and κοινοῦν koinoun ‘make common’, would you expect it to signify anything other than mutuality or reciprocality? And if that word, ἀνακοίνωσις, passed through Latin into English as anacœnosis, what would you expect of it?

Well, we can agree you wouldn’t say it like the Greek, yes? With the English pronunciation shifts, you wouldn’t expect anything other than “ana-see-no-sis,” would you? But since we already have a word communication, would you wonder whether it came in to serve some at least slightly different function? Given the ligature and the length of this lexical anaconda, wouldn’t something more technical and showier be more suitable? And yet wouldn’t it be ironic if that sense were an artificial mutuality, an undermining of real commonality in communication?

Now, you’re familiar with rhetoric, aren’t you? Do you know how there are fancy terms for things people do all the time without knowing the fancy term for them? Do you want to know what the term is for asking a question that expects no real answer but forces the other person into agreement or leads to a forced response? Can’t you guess by now what it is?


I learned today from Bryan Gividen on Twitter (@BryanGivi) that ginormous has been used for the first time in a US federal judge’s written opinion, and for the first time in any US judicial opinion not quoting a party. The passage, from J Thompson (CA1): “But by the early to mid-2000s, competition with ginormous retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Toys ‘R’ Us caused Old K’s financial distress.”

I’m sure that has a few people dumbfounded. It will undoubtedly give many others something to snark about over brunch – and prompt a few emoticons on the internet. Is it bodacious? Or craptacular? A trial is not a sitcom, after all, and while the opinion in question was on a commercial case, you can sense an impending dread that it will be used in sentencing someone for, say, a carjacking – or even condemning someone to electrocution (“The murder was a ginormous shock to the family, but not as ginormous as the shock you will receive to end your days”).

The word clearly has something undignified about it, more fitting to a motel room than some workaholic’s office. But I am not with those who see it as so much lexical smog. It’s been with us for at least 65 years – and don’t say that means it’s ready for retirement! Its usage has been increasing steeply since the 1980s, and it can be seen in fitting occasions in fiction and in magazine articles – and now in the law.

It’s not a small thing to have a word enter the formal records of the law. Legal English, stiff and verbose as it can be, sets a standard, and always has. The formal standard for English was first set centuries ago by law clerks in England. After all, if there’s one place you need things not only written down but written down in an exact and careful form, it’s legal matters!

Why does ginormous seem unseemly, undignified, to so many of us? There is a certain adolescent something to overemphasis of magnitudes – you can almost hear the carbuncular voice shouting “Ginooooormous!” In mannered formal speech we might say large or quite large or even of considerable magnitude before we get to huge, let alone enormous. Giant is not quite as undignified, somehow – but jam it together with enormous and you have wordmash that is almost bionic in its artificiality and strength. And yet now, it seems, it is as likely to earn a peruke as a rebuke in a court of law. It has made its way into polite company. That’s a ginormous step for a word.

It’s not as though such formations are inevitably undignifed, low-grade, and adolescent, anyway. Ginormous is what is called a portmanteau word (a coinage by Lewis Carroll) or a blend (a plainer way of saying it for linguists): take part of one word and part of another and glue them together without regard for the parts they were originally made from. Thus, for instance, workaholic comes from work plus alcoholic even though alcoholic is absolutely not formed from alc plus oholic.

The origins of ginormous are not intrinsically a bar to formal use. While portmanteau words may seem sloppy or unrestrained or otherwise ill-conceived, there are quite a few of them in regular use, and not all of them are looked at askance. Examples you may be familiar with include dumbfounded (dumb + confounded), snark (snide + remark), brunch (breakfast + lunch), emoticon (emotion + icon), internet (international + network), bodacious (bold + audacious), craptacular (crap + spectacular), sitcom (situation + comedy), carjacking (car + hijacking), electrocution (electronic + execution), motel (motor + hotel), smog (smoke + fog), and bionic (biological + electronic). An exhaustive list of them would be ginormous.

Toronto, part 2

Some of you have said that you like my photos of Toronto. Most of the photos I included in my Toronto post were of the place more than of the people. But of course what makes Toronto Toronto is the people. I’ve gone through my last several years of photos from Toronto and pulled out a bunch more, including many of people (and a few more of places). And all of them were taken in Toronto. This time they’re all just in more or less the order I took them. There are many more on my Flickr site. Or you can get the book.


On July 10, 1997, I arrived in Toronto with a truck full of personal effects to take up residence. I had never lived in Toronto before, but I had visited, and it seemed like a good place to go. Just a month later, I met Aina Arro, to whom I have been married since 2000. Nearly every interesting, enjoyable, and profitable thing that has happened to me in the intervening 20 years has resulted directly or indirectly from decisions and connections I made in my first year in Toronto – in fact, to some extent, it was all in place by the end of that summer, though I didn’t know it yet. I sure wouldn’t be who I am now if I didn’t live in Toronto.

Toronto is like that kid in school who’s so popular nobody likes her. And then you happen to get to know her and you find out that she’s really interesting. And ridiculously insecure. Continue reading

peony, paean

I wish to sing a paean to a peony. It is such an auspicious floof-ball of a flower, like eggshells and ice cream wrapped in shreds of loose tissue paper. It is the infinite millefeuille of an old-fashioned dress, tipped skyward. Its crumpling, exploding, cheek-soft petals cannot be brought to heel… but they can be brought to heal. It is medicinal, you see. Hence its name.

The peony gets its name from Paion (Latin Pæon), later Paian (Pæan). He was a god. Or another name for a god. Or another name for another god. He was perhaps a student of Asclepius, the god of healing, transmuted to a flower to escape the jealousy of his teacher. Or he was Asclepius by another name. Or he was the father of Asclepuis: Apollo. Anyway, the peony has healing powers, and is associated with whichever Græco-Roman god you wish to call Pæon.

And when the name became Pæan and was attached to Apollo himself, it was applied also to a song glorifying Apollo – a song of supplication or a song of praise. Now a paean is a solemn song of praise and thanksgiving, especially for victory or deliverance. So peony is the floral pair to paean, and paean the musical pair of peony. So many soft layers.

I must admit, the peony seems not so Apollonian to me, healing powers notwithstanding; I find it downright Dionysian. Delicious, too. You can use the leaves in salads. Confucius insisted on having peony sauce on everything he ate. Oh, yes, peonies are also common in China; in fact, the peony is one of the floral symbols of the country and a common motif in art. Its name is 牡丹 (mǔdān) but it is also called 富貴花 (fùguìhuā) ‘flower of riches and honour’ and 花王 (huāwáng) ‘king of flowers’.

All hail the glorious floof-ball! And its glorious aroma! A flower that smells about as much like a flower as a flower can smell. A flower that bursts out like popcorn but is no crunchier than a lover’s soft skin.

Which seems a good cue for this poem from a century ago:

The Lover Sings of a Garden
by Helen Hoyt

Oh, beautiful are the flowers of your garden,
The flowers of your garden are fair:
Blue flowers of your eyes
And dusk flower of your hair;
Dew flower of your mouth
And peony-budded breasts,
And the flower of the curve of your hand
Where my hand rests.