Monthly Archives: April 2018

Pronunciation tip: São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro

Learning to pronounce Portuguese – and especially Brazilian Portuguese – is straightforward: Whatever you think it should be, it isn’t, and whenever you try to say something, you’ll make a mistake.

OK, that’s a slight overstatement, but only slight. The odds are good that for a long time you won’t be able to get through a sentence without slipping up. That’s because it looks like Spanish with maybe bits of French or Italian, but it’s not like any of them. I’m not going to try to get you pronouncing it all smoothly, but I can start you with the two Brazilian place names you’re most likely to want to say. Ready?

Walk away from this sentence

A colleague called my attention to the following sentence in the article “Trudeau gives his definition of ‘national interest’: Chris Hall”:

Why is Justin Trudeau investing so much in a single pipeline that his officials met on Friday in Toronto with Kinder Morgan executives, who issued the threat to abandon the project while the prime minister was travelling to a vigil in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, for the hockey players and others killed in that tragic bus accident, and who can still walk away from it on May 31 if they aren’t satisfied?

If you’re left reeling and trying to figure out if it’s saying the hockey players killed in the bus accident can still walk away from it, you’re not alone. And yet the sentence is perfectly grammatical and makes sense – once you take it apart and set the pieces on the table. Which is not to say it should have been published as it was.

Let’s start by making it a fun exercise in field-stripping a sentence. Continue reading


This lexeme is meant to be vexatious.

It is in a class with a nice few others, all invented by Lewis Carroll for his poem “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass. In that poem we learn that a sword can be vorpal, that thought can be uffish, that a wood can be tulgey, that a boy can be beamish, and also that toves can be slithy, borogoves mimsy, and Bandersnatches frumious (but can Cumberbatches be benedict?). And we learn that a foe can be manxome.

And we have precious little other than context and form to guide us on the senses of these odd words, as they are all isoglosses, deliberately so – or, anyway, were at the time they were written: confections all, dropped as hot congealing sweet goo from the sugary mind of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Carroll’s real-life name). For some of them, comments made elsewhere give hints; for instance, brillig (as in “’Twas brillig,” the first two words of the poem) is not an adjective of quality such as bright or brilliant or something like that but merely a reference to the time of the day: around 4 pm, the time to begin broiling things for dinner, as we learn from Humpty Dumpty just after the poem in the book. But manxome? No hints.

There are ideas, of course. Manx appears to the eyes right away, but why the Jabberwock should have anything to do with the Isle of Man is perfectly unclear; no one has found anything to say that Dodgson hated the Manx. Some suggest it could come from manly plus buxom – bearing in mind that until fairly recent times buxom could be applied to anyone or anything and meant ‘pleasing, amiable, compliant’ (from Old English buh ‘bow, submit’ and sum, the source of the same suffix we see on gladsome, noisome, fearsome, etc.). But I do not think any sense of buxom Dodgson might have used could suit a daunting foe.

The Oxford English Dictionary has its thoughts (though, amusingly, Wiktionary does not, nor does Urban Dictionary). It suggests that it traces to manky, which means ‘gross’ or ‘crappy’ or ‘yucky’. Manky might trace to an old word mank meaning ‘maimed’ or ‘mutilated’, or it might trace to French manqué, ‘missing, wanting, defective, unsatisfactory’. Or the mank could just be echoing rank and dank and stank. In any case, the mank crosses swords with some to give us manxome, and in any case, the hero of the poem would be going off into battle against a shoddy, gross, disgusting, generally unpleasant foe, probably a wonky and jabbering one at that.

What we can say we know is that manxome describes some unpleasant characteristic of a foe. And it intentionally defies clear understanding (that’s the point of the poem). It is vexatious and ‘vexatious’, it seems, most clearly defining itself by its own lack of clarity. That is to say: it is not its definition but the nature of its indefinition that defines it.

What, you think that’s impossible? If you can’t believe impossible things, to quote Through the Looking-Glass again, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. …Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Some of them rather manxome, I might add.


“‘I ha’ paid her to keep awa’ fra’ me. These five year I ha’ paid her. I ha’ gotten decent fewtrils about me agen. I ha’ lived hard and sad, but not ashamed and fearfo’ a’ the minnits o’ my life.’”

That’s from Hard Times, by Charles Dickens. And the obvious question is…


Is that some sense of the future details? Or a few things that give nice scents to your nostrils? Is it that he’s managed to get a few thrills, even if cheap ones? Or is it some flowery tendrils? This word has that accordion-file w in the middle of it and I really want to dive my hand into it to find some little thing that will tell me what sense it holds.

I don’t have to, though. I can just look in that little (no, large) shop of lexical geegaws in which I found it: the Oxford English Dictionary. Or I can pick up my massive Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, which also has it. Webster tells me it’s ‘odds and ends’ or ‘trifles’. But I like Oxford’s definition better, which comes from a 1763 quote: ‘little things’. (Or, yes, ‘trifles’; Oxford allows that too.)

Life is a sort of packing exercise. First you get the big things in, home, food, you know. Big pieces of furniture. Essentials, the anchor tenants of your life. Then you add the medium-sized things: more chairs, some kitchen appliances, various necessaries. What lets you live a functioning existence without having to run out or go wanting. But you are not comfortable until you have the little things.

Take a big box and put in big rocks. OK, you have a box of rocks, but will you rest on it? Not for the sake of your back. Add some middle-sized rocks. Fill in the space with pebbles. Better now? Now you can sit on it if you must. But wait: pour in sand, those millions of little grains. Now you can lie back, perhaps.

But in the structures of our lives, we don’t need millions of little things. We just need a few. A few thrills. Just a little bit of an eye to the future details. A few pleasant passing scents to make passable sense to our nostrils. A few flowers to take root in our hearts. Fewtrils.

No one’s quote sure where fewtrils comes from. Oxford hints that there may be a connection to fattrels, ‘ribbon-ends’, from French fatraille ‘trash, trumpery, things of no value’.

But those little things of no value… how often we value them the most! Everyone deserves a few thrills and some fewtrils. Not too many – just a few – but they are the trills in the songs of our lives.

Pronunciation tip: Celebes

I was wondering what to do my next pronunciation tip on, so I went and got a coffee. And the answer was right in front of me.


It is mid-April. April is supposed to breed lilacs out of the dead land. It is supposed to be, at least nascently, lush.

What it actually is, in Toronto today, is slush.

Such a difference one little sound makes! It’s the difference between flush and blush, which mean opposite but related things, or between plush and lush, which seem quite well matched. Flush and slush sound so similar and are both watery; blush and plush differ only in the voicing at the beginning, but at least both belong in a boudoir. But in all of them is lush, which has one less sound but conveys the most richness. It is, as words go, luscious.

Well, the adjective lush is, anyway. The noun lush is another thing. It showed up in the late 1700s to refer to alcoholic drink, and by a century later was referring to alcoholic drinkers, the habitually and excessively intoxicated. But at least a lush is usually thought of as somehow luxurious, not quite like a sot or any ordinary drunk. The sound surely has something to do with that.

Lush, the adjective, was one of the first words I tasted when I started this exercise in 2008. Words are intoxicating, and this blog has been a bibliographic binge, a lexical bender, for a decade so far. It is lucky that there is no harm in being a word lush, soused with lush words.

What there is in it is a book. More than one, but so far one. Eliot says April mixes memory and desire, and in that respect this book is fitting. For a few years I regularly wrote fictional vignettes that played out interpersonal foibles focused on a particular word; I had always meant to collect them into a volume, and now I have. I’ve left out a few that do not look so good to me now, but there are still 89 to pour out and pore over. It’s available as ebook and paperback. The cover is at the bottom of this post; it features a painting by the 17th-century Dutch master Jan Steen.

I’ve tasted well over a thousand words since beginning this blog. I want to put together at least one more book assembling the best of the non-narrative ones. But I don’t think I should just trust my own judgement. So I ask all of you who have read them over the years: which ones do you remember most fondly? Help this word lush pick the tallest poppies from his lush garden and make a proper opiate of them.



The world can be awful, and words can be awful.

Wait! Things change!

The meanings of words, for one thing. Take awful for example. It’s a word bequeathed to us from Old English, made of the parts that have become our words awe and full.

So wouldn’t that mean that something that is awful is full of awe? So that if something inspires awe in you you’ll be awful?

Well, yeah, there are many people who use being awestruck to excuse awful behaviour. But the earliest sense of the word, by centuries, is ‘awe-inspiring’ – and by ‘awe’ we can also mean ‘dread’ or ‘fear’. It’s as though awe is a thing that its possessor imbues its beholders with, like radiation.

That sense, and that sense alone, was what the word held until the late 1500s, when it finally gained the sense of ‘filled with awe’. Both those senses were current in Shakespeare’s time: In Henry VI, part 2, we get “Thy hand is made to grasp a palmer’s staff, And not to grace an aweful princely sceptre”; in Richard II, speaking of kneeling before a king, “how dare thy joints forget To pay their awful duty to our presence?”

Not until the early 1800s did the negative sense emerge, and even then it still conveyed dread at first – awful was used conversationally (especially in New England) to mean ‘dreadful’ in a sense initially literal but soon somewhat bleached… like dreadful, and terrible, and other things such as lousy (rarely used to mean ‘lice-infested’ now). The path of awfully has been similar: first ‘causing reverence or fear’; only in the early 1800s used as a general intensifier.

Such is the way of words. Senses change over time, and there is no use in fighting it; as in the world, so with the words: we are the speakers of the language, and so we make the trouble, and the enemy is us. We would do better to make light of it. Look, for instance, at old poems with the earlier sense intended. See Kiping in 1899 rhyme off this:

Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine

That dominion does seem awful to us now. See Walter Scott in 1820 call the Bible “that awful volume,” a sentiment that has remained popular with the shifting sense of awful (but never forget that it is the book that tells us that peacemakers and gentle people are blessed). And consider a more sesquiotic reading of this bellicose verse from 1785 by William Cowper:

Should England prosper, when such things, as smooth
And tender as a girl, all essenc’d o’er
With odors, and as profligate as sweet,
Who sell their laurel for a myrtle wreath,
And love when they should fight; when such as these
Presume to lay their hand upon the ark
Of her magnificent and awful cause?

Many things we used to think were awful have turned out to be, yes, awful. There can be much that is awful in the world and in the words.

But never forget: there can be much that is awfully good too.

Do you want to use a Germanic feature, or do you prefer using a Celtic one?

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

Learning other languages is fun. And to learn another language is to learn more about your own language – especially when it takes on the aspect of learning more about your family tree.

You’ve probably had the experience of meeting new relatives or learning about ancestors and thinking, “Oh, that explains something.” Well, consider this: English was brought to Britain by invaders from what is now northern Germany and was learned by the resident Celts; then Scandinavians invaded and had a significant influence on the language; then the French invaded and had a major influence; then the English started invading other places and stealing their words. So discovering these other languages is discovering English – to get to know them is to get to know our own weird tongue. Such as why we can use either a gerund – learning, discovering – or an infinitive – to learn, to discover – as the subject or object of a sentence.

In French, you learn that this function is served by the infinitive. If you want to say “Seeing is believing,” you say Voir c’est croire, using the infinitives: “To see is to believe.” German has it the same way – Sehen heisst glauben – and so does Norwegian: Å se er å tro. These languages also have in common that they don’t use a present progressive tense as we do: “I am walking” translates to Je marche, Ich laufe, Jeg går – “I walk.”

On the other hand, when you learn Irish or Scots Gaelic you find they have a thing called a verbal noun. “I am walking” in Irish is Táim ag siúl, “I am at walking.” Irish uses the present progressive much as English does, and it uses its verbal nouns where English would use gerunds. (Irish happens to have its own idiomatic phrase for “Seeing is believing”: Is é a chreidiúint, “It’s believing.”) The Celtic inhabitants of southeastern Britain when the Angles and Saxons arrived from Germany weren’t Irish, of course; the language displaced by English was the ancestor of modern Breton, which is still spoken by descendants of Britons who fled to northern France (Brittany). It has the same verbal noun feature, worn down a bit by the centuries and the influence of French.

English, given a choice of two influences, chose to keep both of them. Typical.

English isn’t the only Germanic language that normally uses a present progressive, by the way, as you will discover if you learn Icelandic. Icelandic’s version uses the preposition plus the infinitive, but in the same way as Irish uses its verbal nouns: “I am walking” is Ég er að ganga. Oh, and it just happens that early Icelanders brought over a lot of Irish and Scottish people to, um, help around the house. Nearly two-thirds of the maternal gene pool and about a quarter of the paternal gene pool in Iceland is of Irish or Scottish descent.

So there you have it. In languages as in families, to learn is to discover, and seeing is believing.


I have been invited to blurb a book.

This does not mean I need to burble bumf or blur the work into a verbal suburb. It’s a perfectly honourable assignment, a trade between promotional text for the author and a free copy of the manuscript for me, plus something to point to that says I must be a worthy blurber. I am no publishing landlubber; I am see-worthy, as in “See what James Harbeck says?”

The function of a blurb is similar to that of a wine review. You are considering buying some source of pleasure that takes time to consume, but you would like someone to vouch for its bona fides. Just a few words from the right person can make the book stand out like the proverbial purple cow (which, for a time, everyone in business seemed to want to have, which tells you about their limited view: there’s no relation between cow colour and milk quality or quantity; you can sell a purple cow once, and then you have to find a new thing to push).

The big question in all this, of course, is “What’s up with this word blurb?”

It does look a bit like a word someone just plain made up because it sounded good, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It has the phonaesthematic air of well-known pieces being grabbed from the mental pantry and assembled ad libitum, just for the sake of making a name, and that’s what it is. And we know who assembled it, and when.

The thing we call a blurb existed before the word for it, which is the normal sequence of events. The first blurb – albeit not written to be one – was a nice line from a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” which Whitman had stamped in gold letters on the spine of the second edition of Leaves of Grass in 1856.

It took until 1907 for the word blurb, meaning a glowing testimonial on a book jacket, to hit the world, and when it did, it was presented as an eponym, the name of one Belinda Blurb, supposed author of the encomium on the dust cover bearing her image:

The word was created by the humorist Gelett Burgess, and it came in the company of another lexical invention of his: bromide. OK, yes, that word already existed – it’s a chemical compound, medicinally used as a sedative – but Burgess was the one who used it to mean a sedatingly dull person or the sedatives such a person utters.

Which seems suitable, inasmuch as blurbs are often basically bromides on cocaine: low on content, high on stimulation – verbal purple cows: eye-catching, but what then? I say “often,” but of course not always – a good blurb imparts useful information. A blurb will never be bad, but you do well to take note of which things it highlights and which ones it doesn’t mention.

Oh, and does the name Gelett Burgess ring a bell? You may know him for some of his other work. One of his most popular was one of his briefest, a nonsense quatrain that runs as follows:

I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!

And now, if you don’t mind, I’ll leave you with the purple cow. I have a book to read.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb chork means “To make the noise which the feet do when the shoes are full of water.”

There are four things I’d like to address about this:

a) This is a perfect word for that sense, and that’s a perfect sense for this word.

b) No, I’m not pulling your leg. It’s not April Fool’s anymore. My Dark Tongue of Mordor pronunciation tip was my nod to that day of silliness.

c) Does that definition seem somehow… just a little less dictionary-ish than the usual?

d) Oxford says it’s now Scottish English.

To address those one by one:

a) I don’t really mean the written form of the word, though have a look at it, there’s something possibly boot-like in its near-symmetry with the high stems, and something squelchish in the contrast of the ch at the front with the k at the back. No, though, it’s the sound: the affricated onset “ch” that already suggests friction or fluid motion of some sort, and the curling messy undignified wet-rubbery “or” stopping at hard “k” as the foot stops up against the boot. The word as a whole sloshes from the tip of the tongue back through the mouth to the velum. It has echoes of other words, but none of them would complete the sound impression: cork, chuck, chore, soak, choke, lurk, chug… This is a word both phonaesthematic and onomatopoeic.

b) Seriously, I just stumbled on this word today, like forty minutes ago as I was surfing the OED for something to taste. It’s for realz. But if I were pulling your leg, I would be pulling it into a wet rubber boot. And I mean wet on the inside. Which, given that it’s early April, is a likely thing, at least around where I live.

c) I think there are a few things that make it more like a thing an ordinary person says and less like the usual dictionary register. For one, “make the noise” is rather more peevish in tone than “make a sound.” For another, why “which the feet do” and not “which the feet make” or just “of the feet” (or “of a foot in a shoe full of water”)? For a third, yes, “when the shoes are full of water,” because not “if” but “when” AW COME ON DO YOU HAVE TO RUB IT IN yes it’s inevitable, when.

d) You can still use it. Honestly, see (a): it’s perfect. Context will tell. If someone accuses you of making it up, you can tell them it’s been around for more than 500 years – probably a lot more, because shoes full of water have existed for at least as long as the English people have had shoes, but the first sighting was in the 1400s. And now it is April and now it is chorking time again. So if you want to use it but you are getting cold feet, THAT’S WHY TO USE IT, BECAUSE YOUR FEET ARE COLD BECAUSE THEY’RE CHORKING AND IT’S APRIL THE THIRD AND IT’S BUCKETING DOWN THE FULL NOAH AND YOUR SHOES HAVE CHUCKED IT IN. Chork chork chork.