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.