Monthly Archives: October 2018

Watch out for the theta roles!

Never mind passive voice — it’s all about your cast list

This article was originally published in NINK, the magazine of Novelists, Inc.

Listen to the audio version of this article on

We have all been taught to be leery of the passive voice – sorry, make that we have all learned to be leery of the passive voice – because passive voice focuses on the recipient of the action rather than the actor. But we often get it wrong – for example, when a news story or headline is criticized for using the “passive,” odds are high that it’s actually written in the active voice; it’s just evasive in some other way.

Consider a few real-world examples of active voice misidentified as passive. When Janet Jackson had her famous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, one writer tut-tutted another for using the passive by writing A snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore. But although that sentence doesn’t name Justin Timberlake, it isn’t passive voice either – to be passive, the sentence would need to say a snap was unfastened. Other typical examples of misidentified passives include An accidental discharge of the firearm occurred and Boy dies as troops fire on demonstration. In spite of writers inveighing against other writers for using “the passive,” these sentences have no is or was and no past participle – to be passive, they would have to be written as The firearm was accidentally discharged and Boy is killed as troops fire on demonstration.

So how did we get so far off base in telling the passive voice from the active voice? The answer is that we’re not off base at all; we’re asking the wrong question. It’s not really the passive we should be looking out for. It’s the theta roles.  Continue reading


“To better serve you, we have added the following charges to your account…”

To better serve who? Oh: To better serve you up to our shareholders as a revenue stream. Gotcha.

There’s a word for that. Continue reading


It’s all a matter of how you see it. In what context you see it. From what distance. And how much it contrasts with what’s around it.

This is the word of my life: focal. More than almost any other word.

No, wait. These are the words of my life: focal and focal.

Focal, in English (and French and Spanish and Portuguese), means ‘of or relating to focus’. It comes from Latin focalis.

Focal, in Irish, means ‘word’. Is é focal an focal i gcóir focail. (‘Word is the word for a word.’) It looks like it could come from Latin vocalis (source of English vocal), but it doesn’t – although it is distantly related. It comes from a Proto-Celtic word that traces back to a Proto-Indo-European root for ‘voice’, wṓkʷs. Along with the Latin vox set, that root also led to the Irish word fuaim, ‘sound, noise’, and to many words in many other Indo-European languages, such as German erwähnen ‘mention’ and Dutch gewagen ‘report’. Continue reading


Dublin. Dubh linn.

Dubh, say it to rhyme with “groove,” means ‘dark’ or ‘black’.

Linn, almost rhymes with “sing” but is really like a slice out of “well in your soul,” means ‘pool’.

Linn, said no differently, also means ‘a span of time’. Also means ‘with us’. And so can mean ‘belonging to us’. Continue reading

Lit Espresso Bar


Fiat lux. Et coffee.

Listen to the audio version – trust me, it’s worth a listen – on Patreon. For free.

The east side of Roncesvalles is lit. Continue reading


A cork is an important thing. You don’t taste the cork itself – you don’t want to taste it! – but it keeps what’s in the bottle fresh. You have to get past the stopper and taste what you can pour out.

The word cork, once you open up the etymology, comes from Latin cortex, meaning ‘bark’, a tree’s interface with the outer world, because corks are made from the bark of the cork oak. Cortex is also the word for the skin of your brain, its involuted outer layer, the part that is so important in consciousness and memory, your awareness of your interfaces with the outer world.

Cork, the city in Ireland, is not named after cork bark. Its Irish name is Corcaigh – pronounced like “corky” in most of Ireland but a bit closer to “corkage” in Cork’s own region. It means ‘swamp’ or ‘marsh’ – well, it’s the dative form, so it means ‘to the swamp’. Which sounds like an instruction to go find a wet place. Continue reading


Sometimes memory and experience sanctify small details, even the dark and spiky ones. A little thing can make a big difference, and a gap may be a high point.

After we left Dingle in the late afternoon, we headed to Killarney for our overnight stay. A friend of mine had assured me that if I had time to kill or just wanted to take it slow, Killarney would be the place. Continue reading

bairdeán, barjaun

Tá se ina fhear dhrochbhéasach. Níl ann ach bairdeán.

That means “He’s a rude man. He’s just a barjaun.” (Or, more literally, “He’s in his rude man. Nothing’s in him but a barjaun.” Irish uses prepositions a lot more than English does.)

You don’t know what a barjaun is? You may be one! Most Canadians and Americans probably strike the average Irish person as a barjaun. In my experience, Irish drivers are far more polite on average than North American ones, and Irish people on sidewalks are also more considerate in general. This may be because the width of the roads and sidewalks forces it, but I’ll tell you this: When I was driving there, when someone had an opportunity to jam in ahead of me or cut me off, they rarely took it. Compare that to around here, where you just expect it. Most people around here drive like barjauns. (And don’t say “Well, that’s Toronto.” I’ve driven all over Canada and the US. And I’ve walked on sidewalks all over Canada and the US too. On average people are barjauns almost everywhere in these two countries.)

So, yeah, that’s what a barjaun is: someone who is disposed to, well, barge on. Or barge in. Grab a spot. Cut in ahead of you. Cut you off. Show no consideration for another person in the traffic flow. It’s so common in much of North America that you’re surprised when someone doesn’t do it. But it’s not usual in Ireland. Not from what I’ve seen, anyway. So we don’t find ourselves using a word for the kind of person who does it because they’re the default. But the Irish can use a word for it.

Barjaun is of course just an English respelling of bairdeán, which is pronounced the same way. That –án ending is a diminutive substantive suffix that is sometimes negatively toned. You’ll recognize it in leprechaun (Irish leipreachán). Another word that has made it into English is omadhaun, from Irish amadán; it means ‘fool’. (If you’re thinking, “Hey, Mike Oldfield made an album called Ommadawn, is there any relation?” the answer is yes! Oldfield asked the singer Clodagh Simonds to give him some nonsense syllables, and Clodagh gave him what is actually Irish. In the vocal section, you can hear something like “Taw may on ommadawn eg kyol,” which is really the sentence Tá me an amadán ag ceol, which means “I’m the fool making music.”)

Some –án words have transparent morphology – for example, beagán ‘little bit’ is just beag ‘small’ plus –án. Others trace farther back through time. Leipreachán has another form luprachán that is thought (though not by everyone) to come from Old Irish lú ‘small’ plus corp from Latin corpus plus –án to make lúchorpán, which swapped some sounds around over time. Amadán comes from an Old Irish word for ‘fool’ or ‘simpleton’ plus that suffix just to drive the point home.

And bairdeán? It might be related to bairdéar, ‘prison guard’ – a direct borrowing from English warder (in some contexts the becomes bh and is pronounced /w/ so bhairdéar sounds more like it). There’s no trail of evidence for that, though. Frankly, it could equally be back-formed from English barge on.

Frankly, it is. I just made it up. All the other information about Irish, including the other etymologies, is entirely true. But this word doesn’t exist outside of this little article… yet. It’s a new old word. And I think we could use it. A lot.

Dingle, Daingean

I make an audio version of each one of my blog posts for my $2-a-month subscribers on Patreon. I’m giving everyone this audio version for free so you can hear how the Irish words sound – and to entice you into subscribing. Listen to it (and subscribe) at

You know you’re in Ireland. You’re on a shoulderless one-lane road pasted to the side of the greenest cliff you’ve ever seen and somehow you’re still driving on the left. And the signs (such as the one telling large vehicles “TURN BACK NOW”) are in Irish first (“Cas Siar Anois” – for the curious, you say that like “cuss sheer a nish”), and you know you’re in the Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking region) because some of the signs are in Irish only. Which can be a bit of an uphill struggle for some people, especially when it’s the only way to get by. Continue reading

Black Rock Coffee


Lots of black, anyway, not sure about rock

Listen to this, complete with ambient sound, on Patreon.

Most coffice spaces have windows on the street where you can watch people go by from one thing to another. All coffice spaces have the little windows of people’s screens showing the infinite depth and infinite flatness of their work and online amusement. But some coffice spaces also have other windows. Black Rock Coffee has a window on people building up their lives through climbing. Continue reading