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.