Monthly Archives: March 2018

Foreign accent syndrome

We learn a lot about how language works in the brain from cases where the brain doesn’t work quite right. Most of the time, something’s obviously broken, so it’s like dropping a bowl and picking up the pieces. But what if you drop a bowl and you get… a different style of bowl? My latest for The Week:

The curious case of people who can’t stop speaking in foreign accents

I tell Boston about Celtics

Edgar B. Herwick III, of the National Public Radio station WGBH in my erstwhile stomping grounds of Greater Boston, got me on the phone (Skype, actually) to find out why Celtic music is “keltik” but the Boston Celtics are “seltik.” Of course, I told him. You can listen to the radio show, or read the script, or both:

Why We Pronounce ‘Celtic’ Music And Boston ‘Celtics’ Differently


Why be an editor, or an organizer, or even a bricoleur, when you can be a curator?

What does a curator do? Why, curates, of course. Which means – now – select and arrange and present. What things? Texts, precious artifacts, artworks, perhaps even parties by now. (I just checked and yes.) It is a seemingly popular title just at the moment. Curator is a prestige position, one that bespeaks museums and galleries; it is at the upper end of the job ladder that is being held at its bottom rungs by the caretaker.

You just know what I’m about to tell you, don’t you: curator comes from Latin for ‘caretaker’ – the agentive –ator onto cura (noun) and curare (verb) ‘care’, which is the source of all our cure words (our care words, on the other hand, are etymologically related only way back at the Proto-Indo-European). That doesn’t mean that a curator is the same as what we now call a caretaker, of course, but a curator takes care to carefully take things and present them and care for them. It does mean that curate is (like edit, from editor) a backformation – curator came first, and the original related verb was cure, but that has shifted in sense.

But it may still make sense. A curator assembles or receives assorted works, like sick souls into a ward to be cured. And they will be cured, by being concretized together (cement cures into concrete) and by being preserved (you know what cured meats are, don’t you? hams and such like?). They can thus, if properly handled, be solid and tasty. But watch out: although curare ‘care’ is not related to curare the poison – a strychnine used on arrow tips by the Macusi of Guyana, who called it wurali, which was somewhat mutated in the transmission by Europeans – poor or confused curation can have a truly deadening effect, like aesthetic (or anaesthetic) curare.


Now that I have set up shop as a full-time storyteller and story-helper, I have decided to create something to help shop myself around – with the past aid of some bookshops and the present aid of Photoshop. Since I have the camera, computer, and consciousness, I can do it myself on the cheap. Here is the image I have made for my business cards:

This image may not bring to mind a shop, and fair enough – it makes me think more of Mary Poppins, though you see the steeple of St. James Cathedral in Toronto (the view is out my apartment window on a foggy evening). But even though the clock on the church tells you it’s nearly past the shopping hour, there is something of Schopenhauer in it, in the absorption of the representer into the representation. And so it has the ambivalence of shop, which can be a place, or an act you do, or an act you do to something, or an act you do to yourself.

There are no shops in the picture, to be sure, except perhaps on the screen of the laptop, leaning to the darkness, but a shop was at first a lean-to, or shed, or vestibule, the front end of a workshop where shoppers could shop for what had been made. And here we see someone leaning between the works and the world.

Well, we see someone sitting on the edge of his highest kitchen counter, having set the light just so and the put the camera on timer and used a chair to climb to the precipice, and then from the resulting photo cut out and copied over and adjusted in assorted ways to appear in a place he never would in reality. But that’s what storytelling is for, isn’t it? Why have imagination if it is going to stop where the real would? A fall from a balcony would be costly, but a picture is cheap. We now have the means for creation to be as costless and evanescent as any of the endless photons spraying from the screen. All it takes is time.

And it is valid that what is shopped should be cheap. Cheap comes first from a word for any bargaining or bartering, related to modern Dutch koop and German kaufen, ‘buy’. It is also fitting that it be a story, for scop or sceop (said “shop” or just sometimes “skop”) is an Old English word (though unrelated), survived narrowly into the modern age, for a poet or minstrel – a storyteller.

And likewise might it be a creation, for the Old English word for ‘create’, scieppan, became in the past tense gesceop, said like “y’ shey op” – as in Ælfric’s translation of the Bible, the very beginning of it all: On angynne gesceop God heofenan and eorðan. ‘In [the] beginning created God heaven and earth.’

You will hear a kin of gesceop in the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, in the text of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”: “Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?” Which means ‘Do you sense the creator, world?” And the next line is “Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!” ‘Seek him over the canopy of stars!’

But when you hold a million stars in your hand, and you can use it to sit at an edge of the sky you have seen through your window, with the knowledge of years behind you and the years of experience ahead, where is your canopy?

On your shop.

Oh, and here’s mine:

Pronunciation tip: more Irish

For St. Patrick’s Day I covered just a couple of phrases and their related bits of Irish phonology. I thought it would be good to let you in on a bit more of it. Irish can seem like Scrabble, in that you start with a bunch of letters but you’re very lucky if you can put them all in play. In truth, there’s always a reason for it. Here’s part of why. (I also sing a song. A short one.)


If you like to taste words, I have a hunch this one will give you much to munch on. You may have seen it before, with or without enough context to know its sense. It seems to me that it would be perfect for the act of chewing down a little seed (as of strawberry or sesame) between one’s incisors, but that’s not what it means. It could name a cross between nunchuks and a truncheon, but doesn’t have that punch. I thought at one time that it was a word for luncheon used by the same sorts as give then name Ned to Edward and may call their uncle nunk. But no, not quite.

It is a noontime thing, yes, or mid-afternoon, but not so much a meal as a nonchalant shench to quench. Shench? That’s a disused word now, but it means a drink. A tipple. A little nip. Yes, a nuncheon is day-drinking between meals. More broadly, it can be any sort of refreshing little snack – a nibble to keep you going. But remember where it comes from: a schench at noon – a noneschenche.

Does that look like drunken nonsense? Well, that’s just what you’re going to get if you’re going to get drunk senseless at noon. Your afternoon scribal duties will be sloppy. I have a pet hypothesis that every historic scribe who transcribed this word had been imbibing interprandially. Have a look at all the different spellings of it over the centuries in the Oxford English Dictionary: noensshynches, nonchynche, nonesenches, nonschenche, nonschenches, nonschonches, nonsenche, nonsenches, nonsenchis, nonsynches, noonschench, nounschenches, nunseynches, noneschankis, noneschanks, noneshankis, noneshanks, novnschankis, nownschankis, noynsankys, noynschankis, nunschankis, nwnschankis, noncyens, nonshynges, nonshyns, nonsiens, nooncense, noonchyns, noonnchyns, nunsens, nunchings, nuncions, nuntions, nunchions, nunchens, noonshyns, noneshyne, noonshun, noonchine, noonchin, noonshun, noonchion, nunchin, nuncion, nuntion, onchion, nonchion, nunchion, nunching, nuncian, nuncheon, nunching, nunchin, nunchion, nunchun, nunshon.

Now, I know that much of this is due to the fluidity of English spelling over the centuries, and to various misconjectures and reconjectures, but it’s hard for my modern mind not to imagine other kinds of fluid in play when I see a sentence such as this one from Scotland in 1529: “Haiffand ilk werk day ane half hour afor nyne houris afor none to his disjone, and ane othir half hour afor four houris eftyr none to his nunschankis.” I think if I were to put back a pint or a pair as a nuncheon in place of my mid-afternoon coffee, or – worse yet – some moonshine for noonshine, I would risk producing just such prose.

Pronunciation tip: Sláinte, Céad míle fáilte

St. Patrick’s Day is almost upon us, and that has inspired me to do a quick pronunciation tip video for the two things in Irish you’re most likely to encounter on St. Paddy’s. You will see that I had fun making this video. How much fun? Well, why don’t you watch it – it’s not that long.


Here, listen to a good song while you read this. The one is not an explication of the other. They’re just on the same general subject, and in the same kind of mood.

Our lives are in league with the freeway. I grew up in the wide-open west, and the limited-access twinned highway was the power line of life. Once you have connected to it, you move fast and smooth, and at night you are a streak of light. I love being in motion. For many or even most of us in North America, our cars are extensions of our selves, two-ton metal protective prosthetics that let us be free to go, that give us power and speed. And the freeway is the freest way.

We’ve had the word freeway for a century and a quarter to refer to an unimpeded access way. For three quarters of a century we’ve meant a highway that you are free to use for free, free to drive on freely and free not to stop – but not free to stop, and not free to get on or off except at interchanges. Free to go fast, but not free to go as fast as you want – if you do, and you’re caught, it’s sure not free. Free to use a car, but cars are not provided for free. And you’re not free to go anywhere but where it goes. It is an electric cord of traffic: enter it and exit it only where it connects. And the cities fly by. There is no turning back.

“Freedom is a scary thing,” Laurie Anderson sings. “Not many people really want it.” What we want is freedom not to have to be too free. We don’t want the burden of too many choices, too many people to have to contend with, too many things to have to look out for. Just give us a limited set of options and let us take the express route on one. Freeways are not freedom to choose; they are freedom from having to keep choosing.

But even that much freedom is not free. I don’t just mean that we pay for the freeways with our taxes – for their construction, their maintenance, their policing, their ploughing – I mean that when we all choose them, they are full of all of us. Freeways exist as an extension of society, they are built by our governments, and they get us from people to people, but when we are on them we want to be free from other people, and the drivers on a busy freeway are no longer free from having to deal with strangers. Strangers on a sidewalk have eyes that see and extensions that swing and are somewhat soft, but strangers on a freeway are nothing other than chaotic boxes, hostile, hard, unpredictable, with eyes that beam light at you rather than taking it in from you. You are not free even to move at speed. You have become a mote in a flow of cooling magma.

But we can build more freeways, yes? Widen them? Offer freedom to more people? Freedom to tie up so much of your money and time and nervous energy in your car, yes. Freedom to go with thousands of others to an off-ramp that leads somewhere that is no larger than it was before, that can handle no more cars than before. Yes. Try connecting a fire hose to your dishwasher and see how that goes.

I drive freeways. When I have to. I choose the smooth fast flow when I can’t get where I’m going within a reasonable time any other way. And then, at last, I exit. I turn away, to a two-lane highway that weaves through the trees and connects to driveways and sidewalks and stores and people walking. A thousand choices to make and things to think about. And that way I am free.

There is to be no overthinking and no false agreement

A colleague asked me about a grammatical judgement someone had questioned her on: a sentence of the type “There is to be no swinging the legs back, no leaning forward, no pushing down on the feet.” Surely it should be “There are to be…” said the person, because there are three things named. My colleague knew well that it’s is – if you use your native-speaker reflex, that’s the choice you’ll make unless you second-guess yourself – but there’s always the matter of explaining why.

Well, here’s a quick analysis of why. It has to do with no and the number it negates. Have a look at some sentences that most native speakers would find idiomatic (they all work without the to be as well):

“There are to be no flowers.” → negating plural

“There is to be no gardener.” → negating singular countable

“There is to be no water.” → negating mass object, which is treated as singular because it’s not plural (singular is the default in English and plural is the “marked” option)

“There is to be no watering the flowers.” → negating gerund representation of action, which is inflectionally the same as a mass object because it’s not plural

“There is to be no water and no wine.” → negating mass and mass, which is still mass and thus still singular (absence of mass is absence of mass; nothing plus nothing is still nothing)

“There is to be no watering the flowers and no drinking the wine.” → as in the previous one, singular because unmarked (equivalent to mass objects – no specification of plural number)

“There is to be no gardener and no bartender.” → distributively negating non-plural objects; compare “There are to be no gardener and no bartender” or “There are no gardener and no bartender,” which may sound not quite right

“There are to be no flowers and no water.” → may seem weird because it’s conflicting in number

“There is to be no water and no flowers.” → also weird, but possibly more acceptable because we default to the singular on existential predicates (why we often say “There’s flowers on the table” when formally it’s “There are flowers on the table”)

So negation of a mass object is a mass negation, and as such takes the singular, and negation of multiple gerunds is also by default singular because it doesn’t specify plural and because in any case it would get the distributive singular. It only gets plural if it is specified to plural (“There are to be no swingings back of the legs”).

The “There are to be…” thought is clearly an example of overthinking. It’s false agreement, because although there are multiple noun phrases, the agreement is with not the quantity of noun phrases but the quantity signified by them. A native speaker’s ear will normally by reflex give the singular, but we override that reflex if we overthink. It’s like thinking too hard about the muscles used in standing up: swinging the legs back, leaning forward, pushing down on the feet… you may end up stuck in your chair until you stop overanalyzing it.

If you’re interested on more on there is versus there are, by the way, I’ve covered the topic a couple of times, once on this site in “There’s a couple of things about this…” and once for The Week in “There’s a number of reasons the grammar of this headline could infuriate you” (their title!).


This word is nothing to blink at. Or maybe it is – that stack of vertical lines might throw your eyes off for a moment. But how do we open it up?

You might look in the middle first and see blep, which probably sounds like dyspepsia. Add a letter, though, and you have bleph, which you may have seen in a medical term somewhere. Blepharitis? Blepharospasm?

Let’s start at the beginning. You have call, which seems familiar enough. Or perhaps you have callible. Able to be called? But what is able to be called? Um, phary? Would that mean you could call Pharrell Williams? Well, that would make some people happy, though others might throw shade. Perhaps it’s related to phare, which means ‘lighthouse’? So calliblephary would be a lighthouse available on call?

In fact, it does have something to do with shining beacons that can be swung your way. But the real bits are calli, as in callipygian, from Greek κάλλος kallos ‘beautiful’, and blephary, from βλέϕαρον blefaron ‘eyelid’.

So it means ‘beautiful eyelids’? Or ‘the state of having beautiful eyelids’? Not quite. The –ary in this case is an instrumental suffix, as in aquarius ‘water carrier’ (yes, I know that’s from Latin; this is an English word, not a Greek one). So calliblephary – which, by the way, is meant to be said “cal a blef a ree” (/ˌkæləˈblɛfəri/) – means ‘eye makeup’ or, more specifically, ‘eyeshadow’.

I came of age in the ’80s, and I must say I still have a bit of a fondness for a nice striking green or blue (especially mildly iridescent) eyeshadow. One doesn’t get to see that too often these days, but it seems to me at least that it’s on the way back. Perhaps the word will be too. I have hope that occasionally a literate lady or lad will say from the bathroom, “Have you seen my calliblephary applicator?”