Monthly Archives: June 2018

Pronunciation tip: Dvořák

I’ve been listening to classical music on the radio a lot lately. A perennially popular composer – for good reason – is Antonín Dvořák. Because English speakers are the way we are, I’ve been hearing a certain amount of “duh-vor-jack” for his name, which is… nah. So, for those who are wondering about how best to say it, here you go: both the way Czechs say it and the way ordinary non-Czech-speaking English speakers can reasonably say it. Because there’s a sound in the Czech that is deliberately difficult!


Izzat is a word for reputation.

Sometimes your reputation precedes you: “Izzat who I think it is?” Sometimes you create your reputation with your presence: “Hey, who izzat?” And sometimes your reputation is subject to question: “Izzat so?”

This isn’t a word I’ve made up. It’s a real word, in circulation in English for a century and a half so far. The Oxford English Dictionary says it means “honour, reputation, credit, prestige”; Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives two definitions, “personal dignity or respect honor” and “power to command admiration prestige.” And William Shakespeare says it is “an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving.”

Well, OK, that last quote was specifically about reputation, and it was words put in the mouth of the villain Iago from Othello. But Shakespeare liked to put uncomfortable home truths in the mouths of villains and clowns. And every izzat, whether it be “Izzat who I think it is?” (Webster’s first sense) or “Hey, who izzat?” (Webster’s second sense), is – or should be – subject to some “Izzat so?”

After all, we often get reputation by association. Perhaps we know the right people. Perhaps we come from the right place or the right family. Or perhaps we just look or sound the part – tall men tend to get much farther ahead in business and politics than shorter ones; people of any exclusive social set will judge others on the basis of their attire and their choice of vocabulary, grammar, and accent. A person who is near enough can often be pulled in and altered to fit.

Such happens, too, to the reputations and impressions of words. If a word sounds too much like an unpleasant word, it is likely to be avoided or at least altered in pronunciation (some may find this a niggardly harassment, but it undeniably affects usage more broadly than we think); if a word sounds similar to another more common one, there is likely to be some bleeding of sense and form (even though some may find such internecine interaction an outrage).

I won’t say that has happened with izzat. It did start as Arabic ‘izzah, meaning ‘glory’, but it became izzat in Urdu. Still, the crosstalk effect with “is that” is hard to miss (at least for those who like wordplay), even though its pronunciation is actually supposed to be like “is it,” not like a quick “is that.” On further reflection, one may even be tempted to say it means ‘the last word’ and associate it with izzard, a name for the last letter of our alphabet.

Well. I can try to steer it if I want, and if I’m the main press agent for this word for many people who have heard of it at all, I may even have some effect. But your reputation – and other people’s – is never entirely in your hands. Oscar Wilde wrote “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” But if you seek renown, you may, on gaining it, find yourself looking at clippings and quotes and the general evidence of your izzat – and the effects of your spending its credit – and asking yourself, “Izzat what you wanted?”


Toujours je fais le giparon.

As Rimbaud said. Or was it Baudelaire?

Every party, we all know, slides into the kitchen eventually. The dull polite people may stay in the living room; the hungry ones looking for crispier conversation find themselves leaning against the kitchen counters, opening the refrigerators of their personal discontents and desires and serving them like raided snack food to the surprisingly kindred spirits sharing the formica.

But every party also has its satellites. Give a balcony or a darker corner of the gardens or even an open window with a view and there will be one, then two or three, stepping away from the noise to watch it at a distance and reflect its light dimly, coolly, in the damp and petrichorean air seasoned with their night-blossoming thoughts. Those are the moments when you find yourself facing another and knowing you will kiss them or knowing you will never kiss them, retasting the cold leftovers of your shared histories or quickly flicking new ones on the flame.

And, always, there is a person or maybe two wandering ghost-like from room to room, sitting and facing, glimpsing sidelong and listening to three conversations at once. Perhaps they will end up in the kitchen, perhaps they will orbit on the balcony, or perhaps they will sit on a settee and soak in the local emotions, the music of voices. You may see them staring at the bookshelves, assessing the reading habits of the hosts. And at the end of the party, look for them to be there like starfish at low tide, but ready now to talk and to tie the knot and bow on the evening.

Some are satellites in space and some in time, but always there will be those who cannot blend in the thick heat of the social moment but have active valence in the more rarefied spaces. The giparons.

This word giparon has nothing to do with gipsy, be assured of that; nor are its designates peregrines per se, though they may wander as planets do. No, it is their spectatorial nature that seems to have given them the name. The word is a little peculiar; it fits the French form with the –on as in fanfaron, but it matches a Spanish conjugated verb, giparon, ‘they glimpse, they glance, they look at’. These are those who behold, those who like to watch, those whose eyes move in their orbits. But if at last they touch earth, they have had a view as from the moon.

And I, I am always a giparon. In fact, I am the first – the first to be called such. You see, this is a new old word. It came into being by random letter drawing just this evening. Please keep it.

Reading: languor, languid, languish

I’m audio-recording every one of my blog posts now… but just for subscribers at the $2 per month level. Would you rather listen to five minutes of lush words instead of just seeing them on the screen? Stop by and sign up at the Word Lush level. Over the course of each month, for the cost of a coffee, you get an hour’s worth of listening. Here’s a free sample.

languor, languid, languish

The long, languorous days of summer are here. Depending on your disposition – and your reserves – you may move at a lush, delicious languid pace, or you may languish in torpid inactivity. Lolling about in otiose inaction is a luxury for those who have the means to thrive in spite of it; for those without all-access passes to the pleasure boat, a lack of activity is the anguish of languishing. It all comes down to who is peeling the grapes for whom.

And to the languid sense-shifts of our language.

It starts with classical Latin languere, which the Oxford English Dictionary translates as “to be faint, feeble, to be unwell, sick, to be languid, drowsy, to droop, wilt, to be dim or faint, to be weak or feeble, to be idle or inert.” It may be related, way back, to lax and slack. In our language, it gave us languish, which meant to enter or exist in a state of weakness and ill health. It has, over the centuries, gained figurative senses, such as wasting away out of love and longing. It is now often used to refer to resting neglected; the Corpus of Contemporary American English tells us that words it is often seen with include left, let, while, jail, continue, children, allowed, foster, and prison. It is a word of long anguish.

With that verb languish also came the noun languor, a word so slothful it can’t even be bothered to get the to go after the where you expect it. Languor first – back in the 1300s – referred to “pining, longing, sorrow, grief,” as Oxford says. Three centuries later it had come to mean physical or mental weariness, tiredness, or lethargy. It persists in a sense of summery torpor, but it also connects to languorous, which is now “characterized by pleasurable relaxation,” to quote Oxford one more time. When we look at what words are near languor, we find such as delicious, summer, loose-limbed, dreamy, exquisite, and tropical. It has become an Eva Longoria of the language.

But then there is that other adjective, languid, which partakes of the idiom of the id. Although it first – when we gained it, in the 1500s – spoke of weakness, fatigue, and inertia, it soon enough shifted to a sense of laconic slowness, the sin of sloth (itself such a word of economy of effort that it dropped the from slowth). But by the 1700s, and increasingly in the 1800s, idleness and leisure ad libitum became supportable and sustainable enough to be desirable. And now, near languid, we see words such as long, lady, pace, hand, grace, slow, air, days, body, pose, summer, ease, movement, and voice.

But in times of inactivity we also fantasize about activity. Andrew Lang wrote this poem in the later 1800s:

As one that for a weary space has lain
Lull’d by the song of Circe and her wine
In gardens near the pale of Proserpine,
Where that Æean isle forgets the main,
And only the low lutes of love complain,
And only shadows of wan lovers pine—
As such an one were glad to know the brine
Salt on his lips, and the large air again,—
So gladly, from the songs of modern speech
Men turn, and see the stars, and feel the free
Shrill wind beyond the close of heavy flowers,
And through the music of the languid hours
They hear like Ocean on the western beach
The surge and thunder of the Odyssey.

A century earlier, William Blake wrote this stanza in “Song: My silks and fine array”:

My silks and fine array,
My smiles and languished air,
By love are driven away;
And mournful lean Despair
Brings me yew to deck my grave:
Such end true lovers have.

“Smiles and languished air.” There is a sun-bleached something about it, isn’t there? And really, that’s the heart of it. As delightful as languors may seem, as much as it may be fun to lie on the beach and sun ourselves, to drink wine and take water in wafting warmth, there is no great energy to it. At the first breath of coolth, the first free shrill wind, our vigour is reignited. Algernon Charles Swinburne captured it in “Dolores”:

Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you?
Men touch them, and change in a trice
The lilies and languors of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice;
Those lie where thy foot on the floor is,
These crown and caress thee and chain,
O splendid and sterile Dolores,
Our Lady of Pain.

Many a moment in hammock-hung days, on white sofas in shady verandahs and around the corner from patio lunch prosciutto and mimosas, and draped on lawn or beach, have taught us all that there may be vice in languour. But rapture? We’ll get to that… in a few months. Relax.


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Is text-speak replacing speech?

Every so often, some get-off-my-lawner launches another jeremiad about the demise of English and points the knobbly finger at that interweb text thing the youth do. Are we losing the ability to communicate in basic, decent English? Is this text-speak taking over from talk? Well… no (hell no) and yes (sorta). We’re not losing anything; we’re just adding another variety of English, which I’ve taken the liberty of calling live internet vernacular English. I explain in my latest article for the BBC:

Will we stop talking and just text?

Pronunciation tip: Riesling and Gewürztraminer

Summer is here, and the time is right for drinking white wines with German names. I’m not going to bother with Sylvaner or Müller-Thurgau because anyone who actually says those is usually close enough. But not everyone is sure how to say Riesling or Gewürztraminer. So I’ll give you the standard German way and the usual English way of pronouncing them.

What’s with the password protection? This

Some readers may have been surprised at the need for a password to view some posts. That’s my fault – I buried the announcement of my premium subscriptions at the end of my post on subscribe. Here’s the tl;dr: I’ve added premium subscriptions, which you can buy on Patreon for as little as $1 a month, and some posts will be subscriber-only as a perk and incentive.

Why? I’ve upgraded the hosting plan for Sesquiotica to get rid of ads and to add extra features (including a shorter URL!), but that costs money. I’m also doing more videos and audio recordings, which take time I could be using on freelance projects that pay. You don’t have to subscribe if you don’t want – you won’t get any less if you don’t, but you’ll get more if you do.

To subscribe, visit and choose the level of subscription you want from the right column.



I am searching for a scotagon. I pull a book off my shelf. It’s in good condition for one dated 1907. The cover has gilt and relief: PEER GYNT and HENRIK IBSEN. I flip a bit, looking for something. Finally I find it, starting page 79:

(Peer Gynt höres at hugge og slå omkring sig med en stor gren).

Peer Gynt: Giv svar! Hvem er du?

En stemme i mörket: Mig selv.

Peer Gynt: Af vejen!

Stemmen: Gå udenom, Peer!

Is it not clear what that says? It may not be; when we struggle to understand a language we don’t know – which we all do at least once, as children, and many of us do again and again later in life – we are doing as Peer is doing, thrashing in the dark, wrestling to determine its shape. Hit something and see where the corners are, the angles we can grab onto. Peer is swinging and slashing with the branch of a tree. I’ll circumvent the learning process and give you a translation: Continue reading


I hope this word tasting doesn’t seem underwritten. No, wait, I hope it does.

Subscribe, as you may know, comes from Latin sub ‘under’ and scribere ‘write’. It meant, originally, writing your name at the bottom of a document, under the rest of the text – you know, adding your signature – to signify agreement. Could be agreement with what it says; we still have that sense figuratively: “I don’t subscribe to that theory.” Could be agreement to do what it specifies – in particular, pay for something; we have that sense too, as in “subscribe to a stock option.” A few hundred years ago, if someone wanted to start a periodical publication, since the internet was not widely available at the time, they generally couldn’t use Kickstarter or Patreon, so they would issue print appeals for people to underwrite them: give me so much money and in return you’ll get so many issues. Nowadays when you subscribe to a magazine, that’s still technically what you’re doing – but you can also subscribe to some things for free, in which case you’re not underwriting them but you still get their writing under your door (or probably in your email inbox).

So subscribe runs the gamut from ‘have no issues with’ to ‘get issues from’. And it can mean ‘underwrite’ or just ‘read over’.

English being the lexical overstuffed pillow that it is, it has two words where nearby languages have one each. We have both underwrite and subscribe; other Western European languages have a word that means one, the other, or both, but always literally means ‘write under’. German has unterschreiben, which means ‘sign’ or ‘endorse’ (endorse, by the way, comes from Old French and Latin meaning ‘on the back’, as in write on the back of, as in what you do with a cheque, or check for Americans). Dutch has ondertekenen, which means ‘write your signature at the bottom of’ but can also mean ‘sign up for’. Italian has sottoscrivere, which means about the same as English subscribe. French has souscrire, which is understood like underwrite but they also use it as we use subscribe (though they have another word for that too, s’abonner) because they have not lost the connection. Spanish has suscribir, likewise.

Along with the Romance/Germanic doublet, though, English has one more thing that the others don’t: anagrams. Well, nearly. Subscribe needs just an extra to anagram to issue bribe. As in bribe someone to get issues of a publication, or bribe someone with issues of a publication to get their actual money.

I’m tasting this word today as a… well, let’s say an inducement. I’ve switched my blog to a paid plan so it no longer has ads (and I will also, in the fullness of time, add a feature to buy signed copies of my books directly). I’m not going to make people pay for the stuff that’s always been free – my word tasting notes, my occasional articles on linguistics and editing, and my pronunciation tip videos. But as an incentive to get people to underwrite my site, I’m going to add a subscription-only section. All of my “new old word” entries (following on soray) will be for subscribers who put as little as $1 a month on the table – and I’m going to record myself reading my blog posts, for those who prefer to listen (for $2 a month). And there’s more!

Visit to find out more, or watch this video. (Oh, and if you don’t want to subscribe, that’s fine! I’m not expecting most people to. It’s just an extra perk for those who wish to underwrite my writing.)