Monthly Archives: January 2018


Trees are the nerve endings of the earth, sensing the sky, and they are the nerve endings of the sky, sensing the earth. In full leaf they are also the two-way circulation system, bringing water and energy from the earth to the air and from the air to the earth. Trees, strictly, are not dendritic; dendritic means ‘branching like a tree’ – nerves, blood vessels, watersheds viewed in reverse, suburban subdivision streets, the consciousness of an incessant rabbit-holing researcher, the deflections and equivocations of many a tender critic, the process of publishing and distributing copies of written works to many people in many places.

To those for whom water is not wet (something is wet if it has water on it and can be dried off; water just is water), trees are not dendritic – although you could argue back that every tree is like a tree, any other tree. And like, not identical. Never mind snowflakes, which are built on a tidy hexagonal crystalline structure; no two trees are alike. But, yes, trees covered in snow are doubly unalike.

I am tempted to say that snow on a tree branch is dendruff. But I should say that dandruff is of uncertain and difficult and probably Germanic origin (I mean the word, not the thing, although…), while dendritic and dendrite and dendron (and thus rhododendron and philodendron and so on) come from Greek δένδρον dendron ‘tree’ and δενδρίτης dendrités ‘of or pertaining to a tree’.

People are dendritic too, in our little motile ways. We have limbs, after all, and at the ends of those limbs are smaller branchings, toes and fingers, feeling their way through the earth and air. The fingertips are fed by arterioles and capillaries and the world is sensed through the nerves, the almost infinitely many little ends of the line yearning for contact, taking any wave that comes to them.

I have sat in a library where at a nearby table people were whispering, and I have held my hand in the air, fingertips forward, to feel the waves of susurrant sibilance washing over. And then have turned them back to the books and the words, themselves the end of a dendritic process of publishing and distribution, and the end of several trees, too.

Chinese pronunciation tip 6: si, shi, ci, chi, zi, zhi, Cixi, and mei shir

I’m going to turn my pronunciation tip attention to the Olympics soon, but I wanted to cover one more thing in Chinese first: the I’s. Half the time you say them just as you see them, but the other half the time… you have to keep your eyes steady on this. I mean your I’s.


If by any chance you glance and I’m doing a happy dance, as if without forbearance to prance over some fine romance or good riddance, do not look askance; pardon the inelegance, for I am, in the parlance, going freelance.

Well, that’s not quite true, I’m not going: I’ve done paid freelance work for nearly 20 years now – designing books and magazines and ads, writing articles, and editing various items, and occasionally photographing events – but I’ve spent my days earning salary at the same desk for the same company, and the freelance work has been extras I have fit in on my evenings and weekends. Now I am about to make freelancing my primary source of income. I am getting my hustle on and I have set up my freelance business website, (also accessible at

OK, fine, but what is this word freelance? We talk about people who work on contract from job to job with various companies as freelancers, but what are they lancing? And shouldn’t it be paid-lancing? I mean, figuratively, freelancers are guns for hire.

Guns? Lances, right? Sure, the idea is that your lance is available to whoever paid for it. You know, medieval mercenary soldiery. The term dates back all the way to… um, 1819, when Walter Scott used it in Ivanhoe: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances.” A slightly older term (not by all that much) is free companion (which has altogether different connotations today). Yes, knights for hire did exist, but we don’t have any earlier instance of their being called free lances.

You may also have noticed that free lance started as a noun, referring to the soldier metonymically. I could say I am a free lance (which, come to think of it, sounds like the same sort of thing as a loose cannon). But then from free lance came freelancing, and by implication (and eventual use) all the other forms of the verb freelance, and from that the noun freelancer was formed because freelance had come to be used just as an adjective and the original noun form had passed out of style (no doubt at least in part because of its closing up to freelance).

A freelancer is free, of course, just as in the sense of ‘at liberty’: not in the committed pay of anyone. Not in the fur-lined handcuffs of a salaried desk job. Some people who are supposedly freelancers are really contract workers with one contract, working exactly the same as if they were on salary but without all of the benefits and protections – the same handcuffs but with less fur. But there are many people who truly are guns for hire.

Or should I say pens for hire. Or, hmm, really keyboards now. Writing and editing are the most common freelance careers, followed by designing and programming. (Somewhere in there, I’m sure, are also musicians.) About 7 in 10 freelancers are women. I can tell you that 9 in 10 freelance editors I know are women.

Freelance work has changed over the years. For one thing, medieval mercenaries got to pillage. Freelancers these days will be lucky even to get a free coffee as a perquisite. But, on the other hand, no one’s trying to hurt or kill you.

…Um, right?

Chinese pronunciation tip 5: Lucy Liu’s feng shui

Today’s pronunciation tip is on iu and ui. If Lucy Liu and Liu Xiaobo had talked about feng shui, how would you talk about that? Now you know…


I mean, yes, there are things that occur, maybe I should say excur – because, you know, they go too far, and you kind of run out of options so you run out, sometimes literally – but they come around and so you go around, and no, that’s no excuse (this is like the time I actually cursed in front of my mother, or that other time, there may even have been three, but you know, sometimes life can be very frustrating and even excruciating), but between ingress and egress, between congress and regress, sometimes you digress, you go on an excursion, maybe literal – life’s little epicycles, day trips or vacations or mere detours on the transit or the highway, like the time not so long ago we found the road closed due to blowing snow so we had to go 20 minutes west and then down that road and back east on another, not as thrilling as, say, a trip to Italy – or maybe figurative, a digression in a sentence or in the career of a life or the life of a career (I will spare you an excursus, but I must wonder: if one works a job for 18 years and then moves on, was the job an excursion, a long dream, or is the move an excursion, or is it all an excursion, the inexorable epicycle from earth to earth that we cruise on this earth), and then in the end you come back to the end.

But I excurse.

Excurse? Excur? Excursus? They all come from Latin ex ‘out’ + currere ‘run’. To excurse is to make an excursion, a digression, either in discourse or in some other course. To excur is to go beyond or outside of the ordinary course. An excursus is a digression so great it can’t decently be fit into a footnote (do you hear that, Immanuel Kant? there is such a thing!) and so it goes into an appendix. Excursus looks to me like a horse-race of a word. Excur looks like a decent counterpart to occur and I rather think it could be used more. But excurse carries images of excuse and curse and so bears a contrariety to it that can really get you thinking about other things before coming back to the sense. If you ever do.

Chinese pronunciation tip 4: Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, -ang, -eng, -ing, and -ong

Back to the Pinyin! Today is the fourth tip on pronouncing Mandarin Chinese, and this time I’m starting with vowels. Chinese vowels vary a lot depending on what’s before and after them. Let’s start by looking a set that most English speakers miss the mark on most of the time.


This word seems to communicate a blush-cheeked bareness, a rubbing of the ribs and a bald exposition. It has several ways it can be said: “ribbled,” “rib-bold,” “rib-alled,” “wry-balled.” They all boost its burlesque sense. It is the opposite of genteel, the opposite of lofty; it is a laugh from the gut that lands in the gutter.

Social class is essential to this word. Although people of great learning and high social stature may enjoy off-colour humour, they do so with a sense of a deliberate breach of the rules of their status, or with the understanding that their stature is such that they can enjoy such things without being counted among the…

…well, among the ribalds. This is what ribald first meant in English: a lowlife, a rascal, a vagabond, a guttersnipe. This can include a pillaging camp-follower in the retinue of an army, a person of loose morals, a louche jester, or just someone who absolutely will not stop telling dirty jokes and making lewd and irreverent remarks. It traces via Old French back to the Proto-Indo-European root *werp-, *werb-, making it a cousin of warped, rub, and wrap. Just gonna leave that there.

Anyway, the adjective followed on the noun and is now pretty much the only way it’s used. It usually modifies joke(s), humour, tales, laughter, remarks… you get the idea. It’s, what do we say, earthy. Like the people who work the earth or are covered with it, is the idea, I guess. Who are nothing like those with their eyes to the heavens, their thoughts in the empyrean.

Thing is, though, I’ve known lots of farmers and ranchers, and honestly, they’re not the people I would turn to first if I wanted to hear ribald humour. Actually they’re more often the people I would turn to if I wanted to avoid ribald humour or see repercussions meted out for it. I would go to them if I wanted to turn my eyes to the sky in reverent prayer. I mean, I’m sure that’s just an effect of the set of farmers and ranchers I know, but I grew up in rural Alberta, and I think they’re pretty representative. No, if I want rude jokes, I’ll do better to head to a university. Linguists aren’t bad for them. Theatre people are pretty good. But I think poets can really push the boundaries.

Poets? Sure. Poetry at its best exposes the raw nerves of life. A poet lives in the dirt and in the stars and finds they are made of the same thing. Ribald – and its French source ribaud, ribauld ‘scoundrel’ – makes me think of Arthur Rimbaud, a French poet who embodied much of the spirit of which I speak. Here is a thing he wrote to his friend Paul Demeny:

Le Poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens. Toutes les formes d’amour, de souffrance, de folie ; il cherche lui-même, il épuise en lui tous les poisons, pour n’en garder que les quintessences.

That means

The poet makes himself a seer through a prolonged, massive, and systematic disorder of all the senses. All the forms of love, of suffering, of madness: he seeks himself, he wrings out in himself all the poisons, to keep of them nothing but the quintessences.

The hour draws on now, but let me turn before bed to Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose name has nothing in common with ribald but who like Rimbaud knew her star was a blazing ball of dirt. You likely know her best for “Figs from Thistles: First Fig”:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

She lived a lively, ecstatic, exalted, ribald life, and it took its tolls – see “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

But you may find no truer embrace of the ribald life, finally, than in “The Penitent”:

I had a little Sorrow,
Born of a little Sin,
I found a room all damp with gloom
And shut us all within;
And, “Little Sorrow, weep,” said I,
“And, Little Sin, pray God to die,
And I upon the floor will lie
And think how bad I’ve been!”

Alas for pious planning—
It mattered not a whit!
As far as gloom went in that room,
The lamp might have been lit!
My Little Sorrow would not weep,
My Little Sin would go to sleep—
To save my soul I could not keep
My graceless mind on it!

So up I got in anger,
And took a book I had,
And put a ribbon on my hair
To please a passing lad.
And, “One thing there’s no getting by—
I’ve been a wicked girl,” said I;
“But if I can’t be sorry, why,
I might as well be glad!”


Chinese pronunciation tip 3: Mao Zedong, Cao Xueqin, Z, C

I’ve added another pronunciation tip on Chinese, and you can expect a few more. Then I’ll move on… there are lots of other languages that people wonder about. Expect Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish, and lots more. But today, it’s time for Chairman Mao… and a closing quotation that is not from his little red book but may have to do with politics.


If it’s a sluggish, slushy day and you’re feeling beleaguered in the glare of the age, why not enlarge your lexicon with a garnish and regale your darling (or the lads or gals over lagers)? It is time to eslargish yourself and your tongue!

Eslargish? This must be one of those obsolete trouvailles picked like a meaty chicken bone from the lexical dumpster that is the Oxford English Dictionary, yes? Yes. The citations are from the 1400s, but why should that stop us? We’re not here to communicate with people right now. That’s the work of the daytime. Evenings are for merriment, amusement, fantasy, expansion, and regulated incoherence. Slosh a skosh of Scotch in a glass and declare tonight the night of the expanding mind. Knock back a Cognac and toast the ancient French, who lent the root eslargiss– to the English, then (like everyone else eventually) died and handed the language down and their descendants made it élargissement, verb élargir. But that all came from Latin ex plus largus, changed in its turn by time and mortality. Nothing stays the same. One may hope for eslargishment.

What does eslargish mean? What is it used for? It may look like an adjective, but it is a verb; when it was used, it meant ‘extend the range or scope of’ or ‘free [oneself]’ – i.e., be at large. If you eslargish yourself, you cast off your fetters. If you eslargish your vocabulary, you add words and forms to it.

They don’t all have to be words you use during the day, you know. My grandfather, a minister, had an extensive vocabulary replete with words unknown to his congregants; he reserved those for his prayers, because they were good words and God would understand them. If you do not pray, at least you can say eslargish to yourself as encouragement, perhaps while gargling in the morning.

Chinese pronunciation tip 2: Q, X, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang

It’s time for another pronunciation tip on the Pinyin Romanization of Mandarin Chinese. Last time I told you about a letter you should say just as it looks. This time I’m telling you about two letters where there’s no question of doing that!