Monthly Archives: December 2017

Brueghel (pronunciation tip)

Time for another pronunciation tip video! I think I’ll do a goodly number of these in the run up to the Winter Olympics, since there are always plenty of words and names that give people trouble. But today’s is on a New Year’s Eve theme, and it’s an artist – one whose name quite a lot of people have trouble with.


You know what discombobulation means, right? It’s a jokey term meaning ‘upset, confuse, put out of order’. It comes from a 19th-century American fad for fake-highfalutin words. Absquatulate (‘leave, get out’) is another such. Discombobulation starts with clear, well-known parts – dis indicating an undoing, com indicating joining or togetherness – and ends with ation, which makes it clearly a noun formed from a verb of doing or making, and if you know your Latin bits well you may also recognize the probably diminutive ul before that. But in the middle is this bob that is just… um a thingamabob. Probably the same bob as in thingamabob, even. The earliest form of discombobulate, seen in 1825, is discomboberate; in 1834 there’s a discombobracate. But by 1839 we were seeing discombobulation for the noun.

Anyway. The general logic of English derivational morphology tells us that if something can be discombobulated, it was probably previously combobulated, and it may by implication in the future be recombobulated (provided the discombobulation isn’t irreversible). Neither of those latter two is in any standard published dictionary, but so what? They’re no less understandable than discombobulated, and I for one am perfectly gruntled by them. Continue reading

Genders of the world

My latest article for The Week is on grammatical gender and how it shows up in different languages – when it does. You’d think it might be a dry topic, but some people seem awfully exercised about it lately.

How the world’s languages handle thorny gender issues

The many names of Christmas: the podcast

A couple of years ago, I did an article for The Week on the names different languages have for Christmas, and how many of them have no “Christ” in them. This year we’ve made a podcast of it, so you can hear me actually say all these different names. It’s not that long…

Almost every language has a word for ‘Christmas.’ Few reference Christ.


Drawing out this word in oration is a sure sign of edumacation. It’s a true verbal decoration, not some dull coloration. It’s hardcore and may elude your readers, so ration it like sweets. Use it sparingly like sugar.

Which also, I suppose, means go nuts with it for a short time each year. Well, if there’s an edulcoration time, it’s…

Hallowe’en, frankly, with all that candy, but if you want to draw it out longer, make it Advent and Christmas. Or, if you prefer, use it quickly at Purim or for longer at Hanukkah. Or you could always go with Diwali, I guess…

Edulcorating your diet is fun, but you can also edulcorate your words. Sweeten them, is what I mean. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, right? Edulcorate comes from e ‘out’ (as in e pluribus unum) and dulcor ‘sweetness’, and originally it meant to bring sweetness out – not to draw it out and remove it, but to bring it to the surface for tasting, just as educate comes from Latin for ‘draw out’. Edulcorate can also mean ‘remove harsh impurities’. Both of these relate nicely to making your words pleasant to eat, always a wise consideration given that you may be the one eating them.

Interestingly, vinegar can be used to edulcorate other things. This is convenient, because it turns out that flies actually love vinegar. But vinegar is not sweet or smooth. Not even pure vinegar. On the other hand, you can sweeten vinegar with sugar and get sweet and sour, which is pretty nice. (Even salt-and-vinegar potato chips have some sweetness added, often using lactose.)

Edulcorate, then, your words, and your times, and your relations… and your palate. Take the festive season and sweeten it to pure pleasantry (perhaps with the aid of a little fun tartness). But go easy; under some influences, edulcoration can get mixed up into a loud reaction that could cloud or curdle your recreation.

glögg (pronunciation tip)

What’s the next level after glühwein? Take it up to Scandinavia and put it on hyperdrive – the beverage, that is, not the word. The Scandinavian word for the drink – glögg or gløgg – is shorter and should be straightforward enough. Except it involves a sound not typically made by sober Anglophones. Here’s my advice on saying it:

Glühwein (pronunciation tip)

There’s so much to eat and drink at Christmas: fruitcake, eggnog, marzipan, panettone, turkey, cranberry sauce, did I mention eggnog? Most of it is easy to pronounce. But one holiday classic that can be uncertain for some people is glühwein. And the reason it’s troublesome is a bit of a window into phonology… So I made a video about it.


Do you see what I see?

Well, how are your eyes?

For that matter, how are mine?

I wear glasses. I need them to see at any distance past book reading. But that’s not the issue. If I take them off, the world may be blurry, but it is still bright and dark in the same measure. I lose only the ability to see the edges clearly. And with my glasses on, I can find my way in the dark, especially if the lights have been off for a time.

You probably know the term a dark-adapted eye. If you have gone out to the countryside at night, away from lights, perhaps to peruse the Perseids or, as last night, enjoy the Geminids (two of the meatier meteor showers), you will find that you can see a Carl-Sagantic quantity of stars, and you can also see more clearly the edges of the trees and fences and hills: earth and heaven, still there and yet nowhere, a silent utopia, a dark paradise. And if someone turns a light on, your eyes will water and you will wince. But to an eye fresh from the lit indoors, the stars are mostly invisible, the trees indistinguishable, the fence a blind hazard, the hills a mere border between black and blacker. Your dark paradise is lost in the afterwash of light; you regain your utopia when you regain your scotopia.

Scotopia. That oto may as well be your two wide eyes around your nose, scoping for photons. The start of it is from Greek σκότος skotos ‘darkness’ (related, way back in Proto-Indo-European, to shadow). You may recognize topia as in utopia, meaning ‘land, place’, but that’s not this; if you see that, you have the edge wrong. This is the opia in myopia and presbyopia (both of which I have), referring to eyes and vision. If you are in the land of darkness, you need dark-sight or you will go only by feeling. You need scotopia.

Light levels are relative, of course. Our eyes are made to handle a certain range, but they do adjust. If you are always surrounded by bright whiteness, you will be confounded by blackness until you have stepped in and away and adjusted your eyes. If something has always seemed too dim or obscure to be approached, a gradual reduction of the light levels may lead you to adjust and find many things you can discern. If the lights go out abruptly, at first you are lost, but at length perhaps you can find your way thanks to scotopia.

Some people are not so able, though. Turn off the lights and everything is flat and uncontrasting. And no matter how able our receptors, we still have our pupils dilated fully, which reduces sharpness and depth of field. A book I can read quite well in good light may prove too much of a challenge for me in dimness. Even if you are well endowed with sensitivity, lack of focus can lead you to lose definition and fail to see boundaries. You need the edges to see the things.

We are now in a time when scotopia is very useful. It is useful at all times, but the light is at its least in this season. Let your eyes adjust. But be aware: there is still much to resolve, and I don’t recommend going only by feeling.

A macaronic feather in our cap

Originally published in The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association

English is gloriously macaronic.

I don’t mean that it’s like a big bowl of elbow noodles, not exactly. But I also don’t mean that it’s like a macaron – well, maybe I do, but that’s not the word means. Macaronic, linguistically, refers to something that’s a mixture of languages. Macaronic poetry, for instance, may switch from English to Latin – some well-known Christmas carols do this (anything containing the words in excelsis, for starts). More broadly, macaronic refers to something that’s a jumble of things. Macaronic architecture, for instance, is exemplified by the heedless stylistic promiscuity of the McMansion style. English is macaronic: it’s made up of an almost hyperreal mixture of words from different languages. And it’s full of macaronic words, too.

A macaronic word is one that combines parts from multiple languages. The word hyperreal, for instance, uses hyper, which we took from Greek, and real, which comes from Latin (via French). And, fittingly, McMansion mixes Gaelic and Latin sources. This may seem like mixing Lego and Meccano – inadvisable or at least somehow improper. But we do it all the time, and not just with the usual classical parts. In fact, any new term that enters common usage has a pretty good chance of being an assemblage of pieces every bit as cosmopolitan as a modern city. To illustrate, let’s look at a few entries added in 2017 to Merriam-Webster dictionaries:

  • froyo: from frozen, an old Germanic word, and yogurt, taken from Turkish
  • Internet of Things: Internet is Latin inter plus Germanic net, and of and Things are also Germanic
  • ransomware: ransom, by way of French from Latin redemptio, plus ware, an old Germanic word
  • pregame: Latin pre plus Germanic game
  • photobomb: Greek photo ‘light’ plus bomb, which comes from French bombe, which comes from Spanish bomba, which comes from Latin bombus, which refers to a buzzing or booming noise and is also the source of boom
  • airball: air, ultimately from Latin by way of French, plus ball, Germanic
  • EpiPen: the Epi is in this instance short for epinephrine but, either way, is a prefix taken from Greek; Pen traces back to Latin penna, ‘feather’
  • weak sauce: From weak, which is Old Norse in origin, and sauce, which comes from French, tracing ultimately to Latin salsus ‘salted’ (which is also the source of salad)
  • alt-right: from alternate, which comes from Latin, and right, which is Germanic (so much for their “purity”)

Macaroni? The effects are more like the sandwiching of cream between meringues in a macaron. And as with our words, so with our sentences. Nearly every sentence in this article liberally mixes Germanic and Romance (Latin/French) words, plus some Greek (sometimes by way of Latin) and occasionally something else too. I think it’s delicious.


There are words we learn from songs; they rise out of the music and appear in our ears. Sometimes they’re completely new words to us, words we have to figure out from context. Boogaloo in “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” was one such for me. Sometimes they’re words that are so reasonable in form we may not realize we haven’t heard them before. The Beatles were good for that for me: I easily accepted Blackburn, Lancashire in “A Day in the Life” even if I didn’t know its exact location, and hogshead in “For the Benefit of Mister Kite” even if I didn’t have an exact mental image of one.

And sometimes they’re not actually real words at all. There are no naspritus trees in Tripoli; no one is going, now or at any other time, into a Classiomatic. Welcome to the wide world of mondegreens, misheard words that lie in wait in lyrics and seize and drag away your mind as a leopard seizes and drags away a hare.

Music is an especially fertile field for mishearing because it interferes with our usual way of identifying sounds. We recognize vowels and consonants by the resonances they create in our mouths. Every sound that comes from our larynx has not just its base frequency (its pitch, in musical terms) but a number of harmonics above it (resonances that are some multiple of the base frequency), and the ones that come out the strongest are the ones that echo at just the right frequency for the size of the cavity they’re resonating in. Your tongue, as it constricts the air flow to make speech sounds, makes an angle that creates two resonating chambers, one at the back and one towards the lips, and the smaller each chamber is, the higher the resonances that dominate. The one towards the lips is also smaller than the one at the back, so you have two sets of resonances that can be variously closer together or farther apart, and their relation tells us what sound we’re hearing. There are some other, even higher sets of resonance that also come into play, but they mainly help us hear things like the difference between a vowel with a retroflex /r/ and one without it, or a vowel that’s nasalized (representing a following /m/, for instance) and one that’s not. Those sets of resonances are higher and not as strong as the main two sets. You can read and hear lots more about all that if you want.

Anyway, the thing is that singing can interfere with all that at least a little, and distract from it too, and the instruments accompanying the voice can add to the confusion, and the lyrics are very often not the kinds of strings of words we usually heard, and they’re not said with the usual speech rhythms. So I can listen to “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and think I’m hearing “Hit me with those lettuce and beans” when it’s actually “Hit me with those laser beams.” Why “lettuce and beans”? I dunno, man, I assumed it was some Cockney rhyming slang.

And that’s the thing: we do a lot of our language learning by abduction. I don’t mean by kidnapping; I mean by observing an instance (or what we take to be an instance) and inferring a rule on the basis of it. It’s the reverse of deduction, which is where we know the rule and work out the instance. It’s backfill: we make a decision and create assumptions to justify it.

Remember, too, that we don’t hear words as discrete items in our sound stream. We have to work out where the divides are. And we don’t always work them out right. That’s how a norange and a nadder became an orange and an adder, but that’s a whole nother thing.

But today I’m talking about a lepress. And Africa.

You know “Africa,” right? The ’80s hit by Toto? I’ve always liked that song, and I can sing you all the words. It has a few slightly overworked images, true, but the music is so nice. One line that has always seemed just a little pushed for me is “I know that I must do what’s right, sure as Kilimanjaro rises like a lepress above the Serengeti”:

Rises like a lepress? I guess that means it sits like a female leopard, soft, dappled, muscular, ready to take whatever it wants to have. I never spent much time thinking about it.

If I had, I might have thought, “Wait, a lepress isn’t to a leopard as a lioness is to a lion. That’s not quite the right derivation. Leopard comes from leo, a root we all know refers to lions, and pard, which is from a Greek word for panthers. There’s no basis for deleting the last d. That should be leopardess.” Which in fact is true. A female leopard is a leopardess, if you insist on using diœcious terminology that treats the masculine as the default and the feminine as the marked.

But he’s clearly not singing leopardess. I mean, singers can mispronounce things – heck, Tom Cochrane sang Somalian as “soma-lion” in “White Hot” – but there sure ain’t no [d] in there. So what’s a lepress? Could it be formed from leporine? Isn’t that the adjective for leopards?

No, it’s not. It’s the adjective for hares. If lepress were formed from leporine, there would be a great big lady Bugs Bunny rising above the Serengeti. (Bugs Bunny may be called a rabbit but is obviously – by body shape, ear length, etc. – a hare. They’re not the same thing.)

Of course, following the model of seamster and seamstress, or mister and mistress, or matter and mattress, a lepress is a female leper. (OK, lay off, I was only joking about mattress.) And this is true: the dictionary entry for lepress – if your dictionary has one, as the Oxford English Dictionary does – tells you first that no one uses it anymore, and second that when they did it meant a female leper. As in a girl or woman affected with leprosy.

There is exactly no reason for a lepress to be rising above the Serengeti in that song.

I’ve been mishearing and misconstruing it for years. And by “for years,” I mean the whole time between when it came out in September 1982 and today, December 10, 2017. I only found out because I’m not the only one who was hearing lepress, and one of the others commented on Twitter about it:

If you don’t feel like clicking, I’ll tell you: the real words are “sure as Kilimajaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.”

That makes more sense than a lepress, doesn’t it?

Sure, but why would I think Olympus? I mean, it’s just, you know, a byword for a high, noble mountain. But not one in Africa per se, right? Look, we just heard “The wild dogs cry out in the night as they grow restless longing for some solitary company,” so my mind’s on animals. And leopards have a greater affinity in my mind to Kilimanjaro than some Greek mountain does. And it’s not like I see the word Olympus all the time. Well, OK, I literally carry a camera made by Olympus in my pocket every day, but, uh, I didn’t in 1982, or for years after.

It’s those higher resonances. I just wasn’t getting them right. I mean the resonances of the lofty idealized mountain of Greek gods, yeah, but also the ones that would have told me that I was hearing a nasalized vowel before the /p/ and not an /r/ after it. Remember how I mentioned that those higher resonances are more easily drowned out?

What was drowning them out? I dunno, man, the wild dogs crying out in the night, maybe? All I can say is that once something like that gets set into my head, it’s gonna take a lot to take me away from it.