Monthly Archives: October 2017


This is a word picture.

trick. noun. 1. Clever act intended to dupe or mislead others. 2. Feat of skill. 3. Knack. 4. Client of a prostitute. 5. Set of cards won in one hand of a game. 6. Oh, come on, you know this word. It has a lot of meanings. From Old French trique, related to Italian triccare and modern French tricher, and also to English treachery.


Jacquie is standing on the subway platform now, in front of the sign that says the station name. You don’t see ST. PATRICK. You see her face heavily made up, smiling just a little at one corner of the mouth, and her hair dyed black and voluptuously permed, and then TRICK. The ST. PA is behind her. And so is the past.

She’s in a fortune-teller costume. It doesn’t stand out tonight because it’s October 31. She’s on her way home from the company Hallowe’en party. She’s left earlier than most of the people. The trick to not having to deal with the messy end is not to be there for it.

Well, she organized the damn thing and put it all together. They can clean it up. Continue reading


The doll that the doll that the doll that the doll that the doll that the doll that the doll contains contains contains contains contains contains contains another doll.

Mamma mia! That is one mother of a sentence. And this is one little mother of a word. A mommy of a word, in fact, since if you go through all the linguistic layers that’s the translation of it – or, for Brits, a mummy, which is doubly suitable because the other kind of mummy has a body inside a thing inside a thing inside a thing. You see, my mother is a real doll, and your mother may be a real doll too, but this mommy is really a real doll. Or, rather, several real dolls, one inside another.

You’ve seen them, I’m sure, those Russian dolls. They look like a woman in traditional dress, and if you twist the top and bottom apart there’s another smaller one inside, and inside that is another, and so on. There is, at last, a smallest one in the middle that doesn’t open to show another, but that’s just due to practical limitations. Theoretically it could be mommies all the way down, or at least down to the molecular level.

There are many things in the world that resemble this sort of thing. Ownership structures of tax-dodge companies, for instance, and money-laundering schemes, and for that matter the entire banking and credit system too. Onions, and to some extent peonies. Reality itself, in many models, including the one in The Matrix, and, if you’ve seen Inception, some dream structures – your mother was there at your conception, but this matryoshka is there at inception. Sentences, as we have seen. And some words, too. Consider a portmanteau word that is made with another portmanteau word, as for example fugxury.

I’m sure matryoshka would get used more if it were easier for English tongues to get around. It is a bit large and sloshy, but it’s also actually shorter than we want to say it: it’s really three syllables, not four. Well, I don’t expect Anglophones to manage “tryo” as one syllable (/trʲɵ/ in the original Russian), but that’s how it’s made: матрёшка (don’t you like the little crown on the e? That makes it not e but “yaw” or “yuh”) is a diminutive form (the shka шка is a standard diminutive ending [like English -y or -ette], as for instance on babushka, ‘granny’) of Матрёна, which is a Russian woman’s name that comes from Latin matrona, which means ‘matron’ and comes from mater ‘mother’.

So there it is. Once you get down through the layers, you get a little mother at the inception. The word that the word that the word that the word contains contains contains contains another. In the beginning and end is the word.


I had a bit of a party yesterday to celebrate a bit of a birthday. For half a day (I mean 12 hours) I took over the party room on the 33rd floor of the building where I live, and a goodly number of friends joined me to celebrate my attainment of half a century – or, as my brother reminded me, a third of a sesquicentury. (And 50 is one and a half times 33, so there’s that too.)

A 50th anniversary is a golden one, but 50 is the atomic number of tin, not gold. As it happens, my hair used to be gold, or goldish anyway, but is now much more the colour of tin. If you see 50 on a tin in Canada, it may be a can of Labatt’s 50, which is a beer. I suppose I could have been clever and served Labatt’s 50 at my party, but it’s not the sort of beer I buy often. Anyway, I was more focused on the sparkling wine, of which I bought two cases to serve those present (along with two cases of still wine, which may not be sparkling but it’s still wine).

The word fifty is obvious enough in its parts: fif meaning ‘five’ (the v in five was established later – in Old English, [v] was just a possible pronunciation of /f/ between vowels) and -ty a suffix meaning ‘ten’ and coming from a word meaning ‘decade’. But there is another suffix -ty that is related to Latin -itas and makes nouns of quality, such as beautyroyalty, and plenty. If royalty is ‘royalness’, fifty could almost be ‘fiveness’. That might be nifty – but it’s not so.

Many things are 50 in number. The states of the USA, for instance – and Hawai‘i, being the fiftieth to join, wears the number. But 50 is not so often a number of completion; more usually, it’s halfway, or an equal share, although it doesn’t always seem so – a 50% grey looks quite dark to most eyes; for a shade to look halfway between white and black, it needs to be closer to 33% grey, i.e., just 1/3 black (so a third of the way, just as my party room is a third of the way to the 100th floor – if there were one – and I’m a third of the way to being a sesquicentenarian). But 50 can also be a standard. In Canada, for instance, 50 kilometres per hour is the speed limit on any street not otherwise specified. And in 35 mm photography – and its digital equivalent, “full-frame” sensors – the standard “normal” lens has a focal length of 50 millimetres. In truth, it’s a slightly narrower angle of view than would best match what your eye sees in the same image area, but the length was established by Leitz for their Leica cameras on the basis of what they could make best at that time.

As it happens, I was using a Leitz 50mm lens during the party – I had it on my Sony camera; I took a picture of nearly every friend and family member who came (I missed a few). After night fell, I swapped to a faster, glowier 50mm lens. So it was 50–50, but it was always 50, though not for the sake of cleverness; I just wanted the look those lenses have. And so here I present what getting to be 50 has meant to me more than anything else: people. My family and friends. Here are 50 pictures of them (among which is one of me). Continue reading


This is a word picture.

commensal. /kəˈmɛn səl/. adjective. 1. Sharing the same table. 2. Living in the same area as a different person, organism, or group without competition or harm. From Latin con ‘with’, ‘together’ + mensa ‘table’.


“There are monsters,” Kalan says as he chews his stew.

His grandfather raises an eyebrow. His grandmother smiles benignly. His father says “Don’t eat and talk at the same time.”

Kalan looks over at his friend Ethan, who is visiting them for supper. Ethan has red-sandy short hair and fine features. He’s sitting in front of the window, which has twelve panes. It looks out onto a front porch with powder blue square balusters and railing, and beyond that a tidy lawn, still green, still bearing the scuffs and rolling indents from the two boys’ play last hour. Kalan has dark hair and all the adults say to each other that he is a very good looking boy. Some say the girls had better watch out for him, and some say he had better watch out for the girls, and the rest don’t say that sort of thing. Behind Kalan on the wall is a framed reproduction of a Renoir restaurant scene, a lively litter of young men and women with tidy straw hats around a messy still life of a table featuring three half-empty wine bottles and plenty of messy white linen.

“That’s so dumb,” Lily says. Lily is four years older than Ethan and is, as her grandmother says, “budding.” In a half dozen years she could be in that painting, which is getting more of her gaze than her brother or his friend.

“I heard Ethan’s parents talking about them when I was over there,” Kalan says. Continue reading


Black earth, rich and moist, a chocolate cake of decayed plant matter and minerals, the “tsar of soils,” the mother of Mother Russia and the womb of grass and grains in the great plains: chernozem. Where chernozem lies there are few trees but much grass and whatever farmers plant. It is a soil found in a wide dark streak from southeastern Europe across the Urals into southern Siberia, and in a smaller curved stroke in the heart of North America, and in just a few other places – though similar soils are found elsewhere; the terra preta (also ‘black earth’) of Brazil, for example, is a rich black soil that traces back to clearing and burning more than a millennium ago by the indigenous peoples.

The black earth belt of chernozem in Ukraine and Russia is also thought to be the birthplace of the Indo-European languages, a family including nearly every language spoken in Europe (excepting Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, Sami, and a few others) as well as several spoken in Asia (including Hindi and Farsi). Language: our Promethean fire, speading a culture’s knowledge and particular way of speaking about the world – the staple crop and food of the mind. So what language does chernozem come from? Russian: чернозём, from чёрная ‘black’ (said like “chornaya”) and земля ‘earth’ (said like “zimlia”). In Russian it’s pronounced more like “chirnazyom” – that ё, so often mistakenly transliterated as e, is really pronounced more like “yaw.” In English we tend to say chernozem like “churn a zem” because we don’t know any better, and it would be quite unexpected in English to say it the Russian way given how we spell it. The black marks on the page may be there to record the words that passed through the air, but once they’re planted the speech roots itself in them.

Humans have been growing things in chernozem for longer than we have been writing things down. Notwithstanding that, chernozem has lately been threatened with loss in some places – in Russia, for instance, thanks to heavy mechanized agriculture that leaves the soil exposed, heavy planting that uses up the nutrients, and loss of windbreaks that would help keep the soil in place. Revised land management policies and replanting of windbreaks are helping to reverse this. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, although the land can’t legally be sold, the earth is being sold: in what could be used as a metaphor for the spread of Indo-European languages, the black soil is being loaded onto trucks to be taken elsewhere for planting.

It’s not that you can’t grow in other soil. But good earth is good earth. This is why the early Indo-European speakers lived there, it would seem: it was good for growing. Only… was it there because they were there? Remember the terra preta I mentioned above? Studies in the past 20 years have found that central European chernozem contains burned biomass dating to several millennia ago: grass and brush fires and perhaps forest fires. The fires could have been set by lightning or by humans (or, of course, both).

We don’t know whether the early humans chose to grow crops where there were chernozems, or whether there are chernozems there because that’s where they chose to grow crops, as is the case in the Amazon basin. But the Promethean gift of fire, for good and for bad, fostered the culture that spread across Europe and into India and took its tongue with it, ultimately acquiring from Afro-Asiatic languages the gift of letters, and so giving these black marks I am writing and you are reading, displayed by means of glass and enslaved lightning. From chernozem, ultimately, comes this: chernozem.

aucupate, aucupation

Business, we generally assume, is all about busyness. But sometimes the best occupation is aucupation. They also serve who stand and wait, and sometimes the best angle is to go angling. Bide your time. Watch while you wait willingly. Don’t just do something, sit there. Aucupate: go bird-catching.

The verb aucupate and its noun derivative aucupation trace back to Latin avis ‘bird’ and capere ‘take’. Remember that v in Latin was really u, classically said as a vowel /ʊ/ or consonant /w/ (u is a more recent way of writing it, and v has come to represent a version of the consonant that, in Latin, developed later). When avis joined capere to make aviceps ‘bird-catcher’ it was originally said like “owie keps,” which is how it came to be cooked down to auceps – which is a more immediate source of aucupate.

We know how you catch a squirrel: Climb up a tree and act like a nut. But how do you catch a bird? Not while it’s flying, that’s for sure. And not when it could fly away from you either, which it surely would if it saw you coming to catch it. No, unless you’re planning to blast it with birdshot or bullets (which the Romans didn’t have anyway), you’ll want to be crafty: set a trap for it and wait. A net, perhaps, or a snare.

Ah, that reminds me of a song I learned in Sunday school: “My soul has escaped as a bird, out of the snare of the fowler…” Oh, hey, that’s the occupational name for aucupation: if you aucupate, you are a fowler. You catch fowl. But I bet many of you reading this know Fowler as the name of the author of a much-revered guide: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by Henry Watson Fowler. Subsequent editions have involved other hands; I have a copy of The New Fowler’s by R.W. Burchfield. It is a thick, detailed manual of all the snares and other traps awaiting the casual peregrinator in English. The grammarian’s occupation may seem indeed to be aucupation.

Not the editor’s, though. We go through and release all those traps, render them inert, disable them. Our jobs do not focus on sitting and waiting, either: once we have the text, it won’t move until we touch it. No, it is writing that is more the aucupation: to snare the birds of the mind and the world, or to catch them in flight. It is best done as a solitary, quiet craft. Group brainstorming sessions often make such a show of busyness that their noise and distraction scare the more delicate birds away, bringing only the buzzards. Let the writer do the fowling carefully, craftily, quietly. And then pass the results to the editor, who will clean and dress them, perhaps with the aid of a Fowler.

loury, lowery

This is another word picture.

loury also spelled lowery. /laʊ(ə)ri/. adjective. Frowning, scowling, threatening, dull, gloomy; especially used of weather. From lour, lower, noun and verb, meaning ‘frown, scowl’.


It’s such a beautiful scene, such a fine picture: the sea-swell of the field, still early-summer green, smudged with sunlight, cut off at the top in an unsteady line to meet the blue and white and filthy grey of the sky. At the bottom it is fringed by ruffs of cattails and tickling prairie grass, and then a gravel road. Wind is coming, and everything tingles waiting to bend in it. Rain is coming, and all this will shine five shades darker.

Will this man walking along the edge of the road be in it when it comes? Continue reading

Writing “smart” versus smart writing

An impression of intelligence is readily achievable, even in the absence of significant information value, through the expedient of adhering to the expected usages of a genre associated with intellectual output.

Let me put that another way: You can sound smart without saying much by just following the rules of the “intelligent writing” game.

We all know this, of course. You can use ten-dollar words instead of two-bit ones, and the mental effort associated with their retrieval and decoding will stand in for the mental effort associated with working out information-rich content. More than that, though, words are known by the company they keep; words seen in “smart” content will cue your mind that what you’re reading is smart. It’s just like going to a restaurant with expensive décor and smartly dressed waiters: they could serve you frozen dinners and cheap wine and you’d still assume, at least at first, that the food and bev were of high quality.

But wait. There’s more. Continue reading


There are some words that we pull out of our linguistic spice cupboard like an old yellowed tin we’ve seen in the bottom drawer so long we can’t remember the occasion of its acquisition but by golly we gotta use it sometime to add flavour to a text. OK, we’re not quite sure how it should be used, but give it here, let’s have a go. I like to think of them as turmeric words, though turmeric is not really such a word. I will explain.

When my age was in the lower double digits, I enjoyed familiarizing myself with the couple dozen herbs and spices jammed into a drawer in my mother’s kitchen in their squared Empress tins and round faceted McCormick’s jars. I enjoyed finding uses for them, sometimes in food and sometimes for other things (we shall not speak of my raids on them to make sneezing powder or itching powder). Turmeric in particular caught my attention.

Why did it catch my attention? Probably because it had an odd name I was not familiar with, and I really wasn’t sure what it was used for. I tasted it. I decided it could be good in a sandwich. I made ham and cheese sandwiches for my lunch and added some turmeric. I found they didn’t taste quite right. I adjusted the ingredients of the sandwich. Still not quite right. Finally my mother suggested to me that the reason the sandwich was tasting not quite right might be the turmeric. She was, of course, quite right.

And so it is with some words that writers see here and there and fancy might be apt, and when the prose doesn’t quite work they can’t quite see the reason it has turned not meritorious but meretricious. It’s like an article of clothing you buy that you really want to work somehow but never quite does with anything else you have, and when you insist on wearing it you always look a bit… off.

Turmeric actually does work well with other things, mind you, if you know how to use it. It’s an important ingredient in curry. But it’s less used, flavour-wise, as a stand-alone. When it is used as a stand-alone, it imparts excellent colour. Indeed, a simple solution of it, poured on a formica countertop, will leave a yellow stain that will still be there the day the house is demolished or burns flat. Take my word on this. Turmeric was used to colour clothing and other things even before it was used to flavour food. Like many other old herbs, turmeric has also been used for health effects, to treat an assortment of different conditions.

Turmeric, the spice, is made from a root, or more precisely a rhizome; the plant is related to ginger. Turmeric, the word, comes from some kind of root or roots too, but it has not been handled very gingerly. In fact, as with many uncommon words from unfamiliar sources, it has been modified to taste on the basis of conjecture and what we think it should be, as we see in citations in the Oxford English Dictionary since the 1500s: it appears as tarmaret, turmirick, tormarith, turn-merick, turmerocke, tamarnick, tamarluk, and at last – by the late 1700s – turmeric.

It probably came to have the –ic ending by analogy with arsenic and other such old linguistic lace. The evidence is that tarmaret and tormerith are likely closer to the source, which is believed to be Latin terra merita, which one might translate to ‘earth of merit’ or ‘earth of deserving’ (turmeric is not much used in desserts, so it seems to be just deserts). The Latin name for the actual plant is curcuma, which comes from Persian-Arabic kurkum, ‘saffron’ (because of the colour, not the flavour), but no one has come up with a plausible chain of transformation from curcuma to turmeric.

So be it. We’ve taken it, we have it, we use it – occasionally. We don’t always know how to use it. But we feel like we should, anyway, just because it’s there. It merits a turn.

Prayers and thoughts and inefficacious speech acts

My latest article for The Week is actually one I wrote a few months ago. We decided to keep it in reserve until another mass shooting brought the topic into the news again. Sadly, we knew that it would happen. And it did. Here’s a piece on that thing that people say as a substitute for doing anything effective:

How ‘thoughts and prayers’ became the stock phrase of tragedies